24 years later, govt set to okay tax waiver for Raj Thackeray’s Michael Jackson concert

The Shiv Sena-led government in Maharashtra is set to reinstate a tax waiver granted in 1996 to a musical concert held in Mumbai, featuring Michael Jackson, which was conceptualised by then Shiv Udyog Sena (SUS) chief and current Maharashtra Navnirman Sena head Raj Thackeray.

While the earlier Shiv Sena-led government in Maharashtra had exempted the concert from paying entertainment duty in 1996 itself, a division bench of the Bombay High Court had set aside the old order for “non-application of mind” while remanding the matter back to the government.

Now, over 24 years later, with Sena back at the helm, the state government has decided to revalidate the waiver. Sources said that a proposal to this effect will be taken up during Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Once the Cabinet approves the proposal, the concert’s event managers, Wizcraft International, will be able to take back Rs 3.36 crore in ticket sales, which were deposited by it with the court’s treasury as per HC orders.

The concert was one of the biggest musical concerts of its time. It was also Raj Thackeray’s first major public event.

Branding the concert as a “classical” show, the then Shiv Sena-led government had rolled out the red carpet and granted it a duty waiver on grounds that the proceeds of the show will be used for charity by the SUS.

Back then, the event had served as fodder for Sena’s opponents, who had questioned how a party that claims to be the torchbearer of regional pride could organise a concert featuring a pop star, who represented western values. But the legal battle was a bigger blow to the party.

On April 13, 2011, after a prolonged legal battle, a division bench of the HC had slammed the then government for “non-application of mind” while setting aside the order regarding the exemption. The Mumbai Grahak Panchayat had challenged the waiver in court.

But while striking it down, the court had remanded the matter back to the state government, asking it to reconsider Wizcraft’s application for “grant of exemption from payment of the entertainment duty in accordance with law” while hearing Mumbai Grahak Panchayat as well.

The proceedings in the matter were delayed, with the state contending that “important case papers had gone missing” in the 2012 Mantralaya fire. Eventually, in 2018, when the BJP-Shiv Sena government was still in power, the state revenue department carried out hearings in this regard.

Now controlled by the Congress, the department has ruled that the previous Shiv Sena government’s exemption order of 1996 was in accordance with laws and granted under special powers that the state enjoyed.

The Mumbai Grahak Panchayat had argued that pop music did not qualify for a waiver under provisions of the Entertainment Duty Act (1923). It had further contended that the SUS was not registered as a charity organisation with the Charity Commissioner. But siding with Wizcraft’s viewpoint, the department has ruled that “pop music was a form of beat music” and that “beat music qualified for a waiver” under then prevalent norms. Ruling that the exemption was passed under special powers enjoyed by the state, it had said that “there was no need to delve into whether the charity purpose for the show was met”.

Incidentally, the proposal for revalidation was initiated by the previous BJP-Shiv Sena regime, which had considered a similar exemption for a 2016 show featuring British rock band Coldplay.