‘Can I have some laws in Hindi?’

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

It’s 1:00 p.m. and I am sitting in the office of The Gazette of India. Everyone has taken out their lunch boxes and is eating. My stomach rumbles a bit.

I’ve been here since morning, looking for a set of environmental laws in Hindi that will be a part of the resources for a training session on environmental law for district-level lawyers. There are approximately 200 Indian laws related to environmental protection. All these acts and rules are available online, including on the new digitised The Gazette of India website that allows you to comfortably search for any law. But only in English.

I’ve ended up here, behind the Delhi Vidhan Sabha, searching for official Hindi translations of the laws. Words are a tricky game and in law you can make them dance about to mean different things. Legend has it that there are judgments that say “shall” will mean “ought” and others that say “ought” will mean “shall”. The suspension of disbelief in a courtroom extends to the meaning of actual words and sometimes even the incredible creation of new ones. Language is important and, therefore, translations are important. The Hindi translations that lawyers need are the ones used, authorised, and published by the government.

The Gazette office is like most government offices. Cream walls, steel desks and stacks of crumbling dusty files. The office is stunned by the request for these Acts in Hindi. “We don’t get many Hindi requests, you know. All the important laws are published in both languages because people keep asking for them, but the others....”

A kind official named Santosh begins to help me. There are separate stacks of files containing copies of entries into The Gazette that are numbered according to the year in which they were published. Bilingual entries seem to be considerably less than the others. After about 20 minutes of searching, the official is sweating and dusty; his hands have turned a greyish black.

“How can we not have all the laws in Hindi in the official The Gazette of India,” I ask.

“I don’t know; they just don’t come out you know. They send us Hindi versions, sometimes years later.”

Santosh is staggering, carrying massive files. I offer to help but he smiles and says no. He wanders back into the steel shelves. “So you get one copy of every gazette or gazette entry,” I ask. We are going through a file that contains a copy of the 1991 Gazette. The edges are crumbling and the top page, which has chunks missing, looks like it was nibbled on by determined termites. “Yes,” he says, “We get just one copy, and then we give you attested copies.”

Santosh returns from the shelves with a look of triumph. “I’ve got the rules!” he grins. I think we would have high-fived if we had known each other a bit longer. “Ok, great! Let’s get copies,” I say. “But what about the laws?”

He looks sad again, like I’ve hit a kitten. I’m sad too because he had looked so relieved before.

“I can’t find any laws.”

“Don’t you think this is really weird?”

He laughs.

“So that means I have to know English to be a lawyer,” I say. He laughs again. “Everybody is learning English these days, nobody wants the laws in Hindi,” he replies. The entire office gets involved now. People start suggesting which stacks to look in. We flip papers in one of the files and reach the year 1831. Santosh and I give up. And that’s when people around us begin to open lunch boxes. The man sitting near Santosh tells me that my only hope is the National Archives. Someone offers to make me a bill for the Rules that we found.

I am beginning to worry and suspect that the major environmental laws have never been translated or published. Breakfast was so long ago, I fear I’m becoming light-headed due to lack of food and the smell of sabzi so close. Conspiracy theories fill my head like nervous little mice running across government office floors. Maybe they haven’t published these laws in Hindi because they don’t want non-English speaking people to have access to these laws and they also don’t want people and lawyers living in areas with forests and mineral wealth to be able to demand their rights.

Santosh makes a receipt for me. They tell me politely but firmly to come back after lunch. I feel like I’m being booted out of the club of my new friends. When I return, the lights are dim and the room has a distinct after-lunch-snooze feel to it. Santosh is now gently Sellotaping one of the more crumbly Acts. The phone rings. There is someone at the other end who wants to speak to “the one who sleeps at his desk”. We look at each other and laugh. The one who sleeps at his desk has gone to answer the phone. Santosh takes over the attestation of the copies. I am charmed by the zealousness with which he stamps on them.

Section 5 (2) of the Official Languages Act of 1963 says: “As from the appointed day, the authoritative text in the English language of all Bills to be introduced or amendments thereto to be moved in either House of Parliament shall be accompanied by a translation of the same in Hindi authorised in such manner as may be prescribed by rules made under this Act.”

So, laws are introduced in both English and Hindi. It seems sloppy and lackadaisical then to not publish the laws as passed by Parliament in both languages in The Gazette of India. The lack of easy access to laws in regional languages is a denial of access to justice; it is clearly unfair and exclusionary.

The Gazette officials have told me to go search the National Archives. I might have some luck there.

Praavita Kashyap is a researcher and works with an advocate in the Supreme Court. She also works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 9:45:52 AM |

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