English as the lingua franca of the supreme court makes it inaccessible to the masses. It’s high time the judiciary went vernacular
iheard this interesting anecdote from a dear colleague in Lucknow, late Tahir abbas. His father had attended a meeting addressed by Muhammad ali Jinnah in Lucknow before Partition and returned quite dismayed at the great leader’s anglophile conduct. But the maulvis who attended the conference were quite impressed and heard saying, “Mian, Angrez bhi aisi angrezi nahi bol paate (even englishmen could not match his skill of speaking english)”. True or not, there is little doubt that Jinnah’s linguistic skills, though largely incomprehensible for his target audience, ultimately endeared him to the Muslim clergy and masses that led to the division of the country. The moral of the story: in the Indian subcontinent the influence of English is far more pervasive and overweening than one believes. given this setting, chief justice of india ranjan gogoi’s rap on the knuckles on an
additional district and session judge for his inability to speak in english did not come as a surprise. The details of the incident that took place in october are less relevant if we look at the larger picture, the language of justice.
It was of course not the first time the choice of language in conducting the business of the apex court made news. There have been umpteen occasions when some subaltern raises the issue. The maverick politician, raj narain, wanted to intervene in a case relating to socialist leader Madhu Limye, but the judges of the supreme court objected to his language, and his intervention was cancelled.
Of course, English is the official language of the supreme court. This stems from the constitution. article 348 (“Language to be used in the supreme court and in the High courts and for acts, Bills, etc.”) states that “all proceedings in the supreme court and in every High court … shall be in the English language.” This reflected the challenges, at the time of the constituent assembly debates, of building a nation in a multilingual setting. The constitution, however, has been amended several times over, and indeed for high courts a number of states have officially switched to the regional language after seeking assent of the president.
also, article 348 also mandates the use of english language for “the authoritative texts”, all bills/ acts of the central and state legislatures, as well as ordinances. But legislatures have moved on, and not only conduct the business in a variety of tongues, but the bills and acts of parliament are published in english as well as Hindi.
However, even after seven decades of independence, india’s apex court has not only steadfastly retained certain colonial features but also successfully thwarted the process of democratisation within.
if parliament or state legislatures had retained those features and insisted on the primacy of english and put premium on the clipped accent of the speakers, india’s transition from nehru to Lal Bahadur shastri would have been impossible. no doubt, the legacy of the British raj was so overpowering for decades that it was difficult for the institutions of the state to throw it off in a jiffy. Yet the democratisation of the polity ensured that the indian legislature and the bureaucracy would gradually transform into multilingual entities in consonance with the features of indian society. But the highest judiciary assiduously insulated itself from the process.
The apex court’s splendid isolation from the rest of the institutions of the state is often justified on assumption that the knowledge of law and its complexities flows from one’s ability to understand or speak english in the court. This and other such assumptions form the basis of the 216th report of the Law commission, in 2008, whose very title is: ‘Non-feasibility of introduction of Hindi as compulsory language in the supreme court of india.’