The Haryana government in May notified an amendment to its Official Language Act, brought in to compulsorily mandate the use of Hindi in subordinate courts and tribunals across the state. The move, as per the chief minister’s statement to the Assembly, was to ensure that people get justice in their own language, thereby making the judicial system more litigant friendly. Although there was never a bar on the use of Hindi in Haryana’s courts, English had been the preferred choice in many courts and districts.
Our legal system is an institutional inheritance from the time of the British Raj — the English language, thus, is part of an inextricable foundation. Such was the familiarity with English for official work that post-Independence, the Constituent Assembly chose to retain it, in addition to Hindi, as the Official Language of the Union. Further, Article 348 of the Constitution was categorically drafted to stipulate that proceedings in the high courts and the Supreme Court would be conducted in English, and that the authoritative text of all acts, orders, rules and regulations would be in English subject to Parliament enacting a law otherwise. It was asserted that English had become critical to the interpretation and application of laws, which too were originally drafted in English. Hindi, or other Indian languages, could only be used for such a purpose once it developed the same kind of capacity, knowledge and analytical accuracy as required for legal interpretation. Consequently, and in the absence of any sustained effort to develop and enrich Hindi for such a purpose, English continued to be the language of choice for the legal system.
There is no gainsaying the fact that more people in Haryana understand Hindi better than they do English, but conflating colloquial convenience with the technical exactitude required for the application of law — most of which is in English — may lead to counterproductive results. It is important to note that Haryana’s own State Judicial Examination continues to be conducted in English, with Hindi only being a separate paper. Moreover, the Bar Council of India’s Rules of Legal Education prescribe English as the default medium of instruction for all law courses, and even those institutions which seek to allow instruction in another language are required to conduct a compulsory examination for English proficiency. Such a systemic and institutionalised predominance of the language, including within Haryana itself, is also coupled with the fact that major laws, judicial precedents, commentaries and other legal resources are all primarily available in English only.
While the Amendment does envisage six months for building infrastructure and for training staff, it is unlikely to be adequate time for lawyers and judges to effectively re-equip themselves without compromising on the quality of justice itself. Notably, a similar amendment was brought in by Punjab in 2008, but if actual progress made on the ground there is any indication of its success, the Haryana government might want to reconsider.
Interestingly, in 2007, when the law commission had solicited the views of various legal luminaries on the introduction of Hindi in the SC and the high courts, Justice B N Srikrishna had fairly remarked that unless two generations of lawyers were trained in Hindi, such a move would not be feasible. It would indeed be ideal for our justice delivery system to function in the common tongue. But an issue as important as this needs to be approached from a practical standpoint despite its moral and emotive charm.
What is required is not an abrupt imposition of governmental choice, but the gradual creation of an atmosphere for all stakeholders to move towards adopting the language in their own interest, and in the interest of a fairer system of justice — the SC’s move to make its judgments available in regional languages is a case in point. Of course, changes in attitudes, systems and institutions take time, but these will also offer a far more sustainable, just and efficient manner of giving shape to the Haryana government’s stated intention.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 17, 2020, under the title “Language Of Justice”. The writers are alumni of National Law School, Bengaluru, and are currently practising advocates based out of Chandigarh