JUS­TICE DE­NIED

English as the lin­gua franca of the supreme court makes it in­ac­ces­si­ble to the masses. It’s high time the ju­di­ciary went ver­nac­u­lar

Governance Now - - FRONT PAGE - Ajay Singh

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.’

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