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Opinion: Tamil in Courts - reinforcing language barriers

Iyer & Thomas - Karthik Seshadri
Iyer & Thomas - Karthik Seshadri
As lawyers in Tamil Nadu continue their fight to make Tamil the official court language through hunger strikes and the latest public interest litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, Madras High Court advocate and Iyer and Thomas partner H Karthik Seshadri (pictured) highlights the dangers of a regional language-based divide.

According to biblical accounts, the enormous Tower of Babel was built in the city of Babylon by a united humanity speaking a single language that had migrated from the east following the Great Flood.

However, the tower was not built for the worship and praise of Yahweh, but was instead dedicated to the glory of man: "And they said, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth," (Genesis 11:4).

The Book of Genesis then relates how Yahweh, displeased with the builders' intent, came down and confused their languages and scattered the people throughout the earth (Genesis 11:5-8).

Call it the wrath of Yahweh or otherwise, as per a study the total number of languages and dialects that are spoken in India is next only to the African Continent. The census lists 114 languages (22 of which are spoken by one million or more persons) that are further categorised into 216 dialects or 'mother tongues' spoken by 10,000 or more speakers. An estimated 850 languages are in daily use and the Indian Government claims there are more than 1,600 dialects.

During the course of drafting the Constitution, the Constituent Assembly witnessed fierce debates on the language issue. The adoption of a "national language" - the language in which the constitution was to be written and in which the proceedings of the assembly were to be conducted - were the main linguistic questions debated by the framers of the Constitution.  

On one side were the members from the Hindi speaking provinces like Algu Rai Sastri, R V Dhulekar, Balkrishna Sharma, Purushottam Das Tandon (all from United Provinces), Babunath Gupta (Bihar), Hari Vinayak Pataskar (Bombay) and Seth Govind Das (Central Provinces and Berar). They moved a large number of pro-Hindi amendments and argued for adopting Hindi as the sole National Language.

The adoption of Hindi as the national language was opposed by members from South India like T T Krishnamachari, G Durgabai, T A Ramalingam Chettiar, N G Ranga, N Gopalaswamy Ayyangar (all belonging to Madras) and S V Krishnamurthy Rao (Mysore). This anti-Hindi block favoured retaining English as the official language. Their views were reflected in the following pronouncement of Krishnamachari:

"We disliked the English language in the past. I disliked it because I was forced to learn Shakespeare and Milton, for which I had no taste at all. If we are going to be compelled to learn Hindi, I would perhaps not be able to learn it because of my age, and perhaps I would not be willing to do it because of the amount of constraint you put on me. This kind of intolerance makes us fear that the strong Centre which we need, a strong Centre which is necessary will also mean the enslavement of people who do not speak the language at the centre. I would, Sir, convey a warning on behalf of people of the South for the reason that there are already elements in South India who want separation..., and my honourable friends in U.P. do not help us in any way by flogging their idea of 'Hindi Imperialism' to the maximum extent possible. So, it is up to my friends in Uttar Pradesh to have a whole India; it is up to them to have a Hindi-India. The choice is theirs."

After three years of debate, the assembly arrived at a compromise called the Munshi-Ayyangar formula (after K M Munshi and Gopalaswamy Ayyangar) in 1949 which struck a balance between the demands of all groups. Part XVII of the Indian Constitution was drafted according to this compromise. It did not have any mention of a "national language". Instead, it defined only the "official languages" of the Union.

For fifteen years, English would also be used for all official purposes (Article 343). A language commission could be convened after five years to recommend ways to promote Hindi as the sole official language and to phase out the use of English (Article 344). Official communication between states and between states and the Union would be in the official language of the union (Article 345). English would be used for all legal purposes - in court proceedings, bills, laws, rules and other regulations (Article 348). The Union was duty bound to promote the spread and usage of Hindi (Article 351).

As the deadline for the 15 years approached, Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu started raising this issue and started their protests. They demanded that Hindi never be imposed on the people of Tamil Nadu. Students joined in the agitation. The Centre conceded to their demand, "Hindi never, English ever". The then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri made the following concessions:

  1. Every state will have complete and unfettered freedom to continue to transact its own business in the language of its own choice, which may be the regional language or English.
  2. Communications between states will either be in English or will be accompanied by authentic English translation.
  3. The non-Hindi states will be free to correspond with the Central Government in English and no change will be made in this arrangement without the consent of the non-Hindi States.
  4. In the transaction of business at the Central level, English will continue to be used.
  5. The All India Civil Services Examination will be conducted in English rather than in Hindi alone.
The agitations subsided but the Congress Party lost power forever in 1967 in the State of Tamil Nadu and ever since the state has been governed only by one Dravidian party or other.

The last 42 years in Tamil Nadu has witnessed a concerted policy by the Government to patronise and encourage Tamil alone. The medium of education has been Tamil in the public schools of the state and English though shown as a second language has been neglected. The standard of teaching in English has plummeted to abysmal levels.

As a result only a miniscule percentage of the city-bred middle class and the rich could have access to English as a medium of instructions. This obviously meant that those who did not have access to English as a medium of instructions were unable to reach out into the world. They felt like aliens in their own country if they left Tamil Nadu. At the same time neither the country nor the world was going to wait for any of them.

India has witnessed large scale globalisation since 1992. As a nation, we realised that it would not be possible to stay cocooned but the way forward for India was to compete on the world stage. A country which had to pledge its gold with the IMF exploded on to the world scene. It has witnessed unprecedented growth only next to China. The world could not ignore India any more.

While there have been fears of recession and depression the world over, India has been witnessing a growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent year-on-year. How did this happen? Could all this have happened had we stayed cocooned in our little shell? We must realise that nearly 18 per cent of the world population use the English language and that is probably the only way for an Indian to communicate with the outside world.

I submit that the very fabric of the legal system would get seriously affected if the use of regional languages is permitted in the administration of justice.

As of today, any advocate can appear before any high court and argue a case. The high courts and the Supreme Court get the assistance of judgments written by them in English. The Supreme Court judges are usually appointed from the high courts. The judges cannot also be expected to suddenly switch over to writing judgments in a different language. Renowned author H M Seervai in his magnum opus, the Constitutional Law of India argues that the introduction of regional languages into the court will lead to serious impairment of the judicial administration, if not its destruction.

The Bar Council of India has recently proposed changes by introduction of an entry level examination for lawyers to practice in the courts. Such a proposal has come about with a view to raising the standards of the legal profession and to enable lawyers to compete at the global stage, especially with the numerous cross border issues that arise on account of globalisation.

The bar exam is already planned to be conducted in nine languages. Next, can the Bar Council of India be called upon to conduct this examination in 22 regional languages? Introduction of a regional language as a high court language will certainly only lead to impairment in the quality of lawyering.

Yahweh, knew the power of communication among his children. Yahweh understood that his children had immense potential and when they worked with each other could come up with the tower. Hence he divided them using language. The political parties of today also understand this very well.

Let us learn from the mistakes of the past. Let us not get fooled.

H. Karthik Seshadri is an advocate of Madras High Court and a partner at Tamil Nadu law firm Iyer & Thomas
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