Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, Maut aati hai par nahin aati (One dies longing for death but death, despite being around, is elusive).
Justice Markandey Katju quoted these famous lines by the 18th century poet Mirza Ghalib while delivering judgment in the Aruna Shanbaug mercy killing case. Shanbaug, a nurse at Mumbai’s King Edward Memorial Hospital who was sexually assaulted in 1973 by a hospital staff, had been in a vegetative state for 37 years. A difficult case to handle, the judgment was remarkable in many ways. Perhaps, to convey a sense of pain and agony Shanbaug went through all these years, Justice Katju aptly quoted Ghalib in his judgment.
There are a lot of instances when judges have quoted texts in the form of Urdu couplets, works of Shakespeare, George Eliot and even lyrics by Bob Dylan while delivering judgments.
In the most recent judgment passed by the Kerala High Court on February 7, a divorced woman and mother of a five-year-old child had filed a petition in court as a last resort after her child was taken away by her in-laws in her absence. On concluding the matter, Justice Chitambaresh opened the judgment with the lyrics of a song from a Tamil movie ‘Mannan’ “Amma endrazhaikatha uyir illaiye Ammavai vanangatha uyir illaiye (There is no life form which does not call for its mother, there is no life form which does not respect its mother).”
Speaking to indianexpress.com, former Chief Justice of India, Justice T.S. Thakur said, “It is not so much about the law as such. It is about how effectively one can put across a point through the medium of a couplet. That may be from Ghalib or Shakespeare. The question is you can put across a point if you have an appropriate couplet from any poem or ghazal.”
Judges tend to have a fascination for the Urdu language and it is usually witnessed in courtrooms in verbal or written form. It is interesting to note that Urdu is not solely found in between judgments, but there are moments when a courtroom proceeding is sparked with a Urdu shayari in an exchange between judges and lawyers.
Lawyer and managing partner of a law firm, Amicus Juris, Saif Mahmood spoke to indianexpress.com and gave an instance of an exchange in the courtroom of Justice T.S. Thakur, the then judge of the Delhi High Court, and Najim Waziri, then a lawyer. After the conclusion of the matter, Justice Thakur had given the longest date and was rising for lunch. However, Waziri needed a shorter date in the matter. Justice Thakur had almost left the courtroom when Waziri recited a line of Ghalib – ‘Kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hone tak (I’m not going to wait that long for you to respond)’.
“Thakur Sir was leaving and he came back to his seat and sat down, he said, “pehla misra parhiye zara (Read the first line of couplet please). And he recited ‘Aah Ko Chaahiye Ik Umr Asar Hone Tak (It takes a long time for the wishes of a lover to be acknowledged by the beloved)’. Justice Thakur was so impressed that he gave him a date in the next week,” said Mahmood.
Among the judges, Justice Katju is famous for making it a point to either open a judgment with an Urdu couplet or state one in between the lines of his judgments. Delivering a judgment on a petition filed by a brother of one Gopal Dass, who was illegally detained by Pakistan in the Lahore Central jail, Justice Katju started the ruling with a couplet by Faiz Ahmed Faiz – Qafas udaas hai yaaron sabaa se kuch to kaho, Kaheen toh beher-e-khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale.
“Law is such a dry subject. More often than not, even the public conceives judges and lawyers and the entire system as done and dusted people who are just sitting on top of a pedestal. If you are not present in court and if you just read a judgment, you will feel this person is so cold and doesn’t have emotions. So in some cases to bring you closer to humanity, to create that sense of compassion, it might be a good idea to not just quote a couplet but to quote whatever you fancy,” said Mahmood.
Justice Thakur believes Urdu should only be used if it is appropriate to the situation, otherwise it might create unnecessary confusions in the mind of people. “Couplets can be interpreted differently by different people. Ghalib ka ek sher hai, Na tha kuch toh Khuda tha, kuch na hota toh Khuda hota; Duboya mujhko hone ne, na hota main toh kya hota? This is a philosophical kind of a couplet. Philosophical as in it could be interpreted in different ways. People will understand the couplet from a different perspective. I was sitting with Katju for a long time, even though I know poetry, I have never used in my judgments,” said Justice Thakur.
Former Supreme Court judge Justice Aftab Alam, however, is not in favour of including couplets of any kind in judgments. “If the lawyers used to argue meaninglessly, I used to doodle Urdu couplets on paper,” he said.
Apart from Urdu couplets, judges incorporate works of prolific writers in their judgments. In 2003, hearing an appeal of a lawyer over alleged professional misconduct with his client, the judges added a light humour in the ruling, citing a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI – “The first thing we should do is let us kill all the lawyers.”
Similarly, lyrics from a Bob Dylan song featured during the Kerala High Court proceedings when Justice Dama Seshadri Naidu quoted “The times they are a-changing.”
“I have always said that if poetry is being used for expressing some idea or some thought, it must invariably be followed with some English translation,” said Tahir Mahmood, a veteran law professor and former member of the Law Commission.
Justice Thakur favours the inclusion of the language in judgments, however he wants the meaning conveyed clearly to the people. “I’ve not seen many people doing it because you have to be absolutely sure in what you want to say and how you want to connect it with the proposition that is being directed. Khushwant Singh used a lot of Urdu. Article mein likhna shayari ek baat hai but judgment mein shayari likhne se responsibility badh jaati hai. (It’s one thing to write Urdu in an article, but writing Urdu couplets in a judgment raises a responsibility for the judges).”
Today, terms like ‘Vakalatnama’ (authority given by a litigant to his lawyer in writing), ‘Dafa’ (Section), ‘Halafnama’ (Affidavit) and ‘Banam’ (versus) are still in use in courts.