Three new bills have been introduced in parliament recently. This article is not about content of these invoices (Disputes will unfold over that) But their names: Indian Penal Code has now been replaced by Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Criminal Procedure Code by Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, Indian Evidence Code by Bharatiya Sakshya Bill. Unfamiliar and unpronounceable by more than half the country’s citizens and the overwhelming majority of its legal practitioners, these bills fail the first test of acceptance. Furthermore, Article 348 of the Constitution provides that the official texts of all laws passed by Parliament or state legislatures shall be in English. The text of the new bills is in English, but the title of the bills in Hindi contradicts the prohibition imposed by the article.
Language and legal system
The issue of language was highly contested and debated in the Constituent Assembly and led to the adoption of various provisions in the Constitution as well as the Official Languages Act. The applicable legal system states that English must remain an official language until decisions to discontinue English as an official language are adopted by state legislatures and parliament. This is a bleak prospect when we aim to become a powerful player in a globalized world.
In a linguistically diverse country where language has been a flashpoint for many popular protests and movements, the emotions and feelings that people associate with their language must be respected. The fact that India is divided into states on the basis of language differences is sufficient to prove the extent to which language is intertwined with the identity of states and their populations. Is it necessary to remember the protests that erupted, and with them the lives of people, in the states of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab and Karnataka, when Hindi was demanded to be made the sole official language in the 1960s? The case remains highly emotional. Language is an integral part of culture, and the attempt to use Hindi in the names of bills introduced by the Union Government would be seen as imposing the culture of the linguistic majority on the linguistic minorities.
This is the majority
The anxiety of non-Hindi speakers finds its roots in the events happening around us right now. Statements by people in positions of authority that Hindi should soon be accepted as the ‘national language’, and frequent reference to the issuance of Hindi-only forms in public institutions such as Indian railways and banks. The original draft of the 2020 National Education Policy included provisions that sparked protests, as it was seen as an attempt to “force Hindi”. Over the past few years, the Union Home Minister has made several statements linking the Hindi language to the nation and the idea of India. He stated in 2019 that “only an Indian can work towards uniting the country”. He makes a similar statement in every Indian Diwas, and this only serves to keep the issue burning.
There is a perception that there is an attempt to distinguish the regional language most spoken in India over other regional languages and place it above other languages as essential to one’s identity as an Indian. The issue is not only about language, but about culture, inclusivity, diversity and respect. The only argument for preferring Hindi over other languages of India like Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Odia is that more people speak Hindi. Saying “we are more numerous, so other communities should assimilate into our culture and speak our language” is simply majority rule and contradicts the constitution. The country’s legal position is that English will remain an official language until non-Hindi speaking countries want it. Thus the right to make Hindi the sole official language rests not with those who live in the heart of the Indian region, but rather on its periphery. The constitutional position is also that the text of laws submitted to Parliament must be in English. Clearly naming these bills, aside from lighting an ancient bonfire, is unconstitutional.
The plain fact is also that English is the language of the law and the courts, especially the supreme courts, i.e. the Supreme Courts and Supreme Court of India. Judges are transported across the country. The laws are read in English. We follow the common law system with due regard for precedent, and it is written and stored in the English language. The law requires utmost precision and clarity in pleadings, arguments and judgments, and Indian lawyers and judges have risen to the occasion handsomely with the English language. Should we now subject them to slang terms or high-level Hindi names familiar only to connoisseurs of Hindi-Sanskrit? This is unnecessary interference and nothing short of provocation. The first task of the parliamentary committee to which the bill is referred should be to change the names. How are these bills referred to the Standing Committee for Internal Affairs and not to the Law and Justice Committee?
Sriram Pancho is the Chief Advocate of the Madras High Court. Abramia Manthena is an Advocate in the Madras High Court. Vikas Muraleedharan is a legal academic and lecturer at Sai University