Language barriers Magazine

Lost in interpretation

Arjun Kunjam, Bar President of Dantewada Sessions Court.  

Kawasi Hidme speaks Hindi today. It is possibly the only thing she can thank her jail stay, now into its seventh year, for. Had she spoken Hindi in January 2008, when she was picked up on charges of being part of a Maoist party that had attacked security personnel, Hidme may have had some chance of avoiding arrest. Unable to question the personnel who detained her or even comprehend what was being shouted at her, she suffered, not just grievous physical assault, but also a linguistic disadvantage that has played a vital role in pushing her to the unfortunate spot she presently finds herself in today.

Her case is emblematic of the misfortune non-Hindi speaking tribals in Chhattisgarh are faced with when pitted against law-enforcing authorities, few of whom speak Gondi or Halbi, the two most widely spoken tribal languages in the south of the state. They also live with this linguistic discrimination later at the state’s courts, where justice speaks the same foreign language. While it is evident Adivasis have to grapple with several barriers in our policing and judicial system that arise because of their poor economic and educational status, not knowing Hindi has woven in another layer of discrimination that is ignored but continues to be significantly consequential.

The language problem, as in Hidme’s case, emerges right from the start when a tribal is detained. This is more acute when faced with paramilitary personnel from outside the state, who have no knowledge of Chhattisgarh’s local languages and have little language support. A hostile attitude at police stations and FIR legalese in Hindi set the stage to put the tribal at a severe disadvantage. Advocate Hari Degal at the Dantewada Sessions Court — where cases related to Maoism from Dantewada, Bijapur and Sukma are initially heard — says half of his clients have no idea why they have been arrested. “There needs to be a third party and unbiased interpreter at police stations to give tribals the support they need at that critical stage,” he adds. “This way he can oppose charges against him more effectively and the police will be more careful.”

Incapable of defending themselves effectively at their first brush with the law, the court in Dantewada is where a very significant number of tribals, accused of being foot-soldiers for “India’s biggest internal security threat”, first show up as undertrials. For a court of such strategic relevance, its premises are deceptively calm. The almost oppressive quiet is broken only by the sudden whoosh and accompanying murmurs of an accused’s entourage. The court is a two-floored square structure, built around a large courtyard and with corridors scrubbed to a squeak. Portly lawyers spend their languid afternoons rocking their plastic chairs under the shade of a big mango tree in the courtyard.

That many innocents show up in Dantewada is evident from the unusually high acquittal rate at the court. Shalini Gera, a lawyer with the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group (JagLAG), points out that between 2005-2012 the average rate of complete acquittals (of all the accused and of all charges) at Dantewada Sessions Court has been a stunning 95.8 percent.

The plight of tribal undertrials is something the Supreme Court expressed concern for in August last year when it asked the Centre to put an end to it. The apex court was reacting to a PIL filed by Noida-based advocate K.R. Chitra that identified the language barrier as one of the many factors that marginalise tribals in our judicial system. “Adivasi undertrials are unable to communicate directly with the officers of the court or present the real facts and circumstances to the judicial officers,” her plea reads.

It may seem like nit-picking but ask yourself this simple question: Will you feel at ease with a court where proceedings against you are conducted in a language you don't understand at all? Not fair, right? And what if you had to depend on an interpreter whose credentials, both linguistic and legal, was not up to scratch? Miscarriage of justice, you’d even argue.

A common illustration of this discrimination — one that exploits the tribals’ problem with Hindi — is the double negative questioning that lawyers strategically deploy. Instead of simply asking the accused if he/she was present at the scene when the crime was committed, they burst into “ Yeh kehna galat hoga ki ghatna ke waqt aap waha nahin they (It is wrong to say you were not present there at the time of the incident).” Many tribals are known to fall for this tortuous trap.

Bikram Soni — well-known Halbi writer and an interpreter at the Jagdalpur District Court — explains why. He says tribal languages are simple in their syntax and have no double negation. “So when a naive tribal, already intimidated being in the court and more so because of his poor Hindi knowledge, hears, ‘It is wrong to say...’, he thinks he ought to reconsider his testimony,” Soni adds. Any shuffling of position that ensues is often used to discard his entire testimony.

The only safeguard our judicial process has against such linguistic discrimination is the practice of appointing interpreters. In theory, it seems as if tribals, therefore, never have to go out on a limb. But in practice, the use of interpreters, more selective than sincere, and their deficient understanding of both Hindi and law never fully realises the legal support these personnel are intended to provide to hapless tribals stumbling through our labyrinthine judicial system.

Currently, interpreters are summoned as a necessity only when an accused needs to be spoken to during a trial. Never are they a constant companion to provide him a faithful word-by-word account of the judicial process, which should be his right. Instead, abbreviated translations that omit vital facts are the norm. Parijata Bhardwaj, another lawyer with JagLAG, recalls an inquiry session where a translator failed to capture many important points put forth by a villager in his account of Salwa Judum’s violence. “It even prompted other villagers to point it out but it never got translated,” she says. In another instance, an interpreter, stepping in for a tribal who had been asked when a particular event had occurred, ignored ‘Bijnella’ (the pre-monsoon period when sowing happens) as a legitimate response to say the tribal was clueless.

The unfulfilled role of a reliable interpreter in our courts has reduced a non-Hindi-speaking accused to being a bystander instead of enabling him to become an active participant in his trial. How can he when he never has a court-sanctioned interpreter handy to allow an understanding of the allegations levelled at him by a prosecution witness? Asked if it wouldn’t be in the interest of justice to allow this, Narendra Singh Thakur, a Gondi and Halbi interpreter at the Dantewada Sessions Court, says, “It will definitely help an accused as he can oppose the testimony more effectively. But we don’t do this as of now.”

Devoid of the services of an interpreter, the accused has to depend on his lawyer to understand a testimony against him. This sounds perfectly fine but the linguistic barrier remerges from the fact that there are not many lawyers who speak tribal languages. Only 12 of the 66 registered advocates at the Dantewada Sessions Court speak a tribal language. The figure is not very different in other courts. Getting one to argue for you is, therefore, a privilege not many have. Ask Bheema Mudia, who has been making the rounds of the court in Dantewada for a year now to defend a relative and doesn’t even know the Hindi word for interpreter ( anuvadak). “It would help greatly if our lawyer spoke Gondi. We can’t explain the facts clearly to him,” he says. This relationship can get worse if the lawyer’s attitude towards his tribal client is condescending.

It also happens at times that a tribal who speaks rudimentary Hindi is passed off as someone who can negotiate his way through both legalese and officialese in the language. Not surprisingly, it is often part of a strategy. “A prosecution lawyer’s trick is to hold on to Hindi so that he doesn’t lose the power to intimidate,” says Gera. Few of the accused are legally suave enough to see through this and draw on their right to an interpreter to get a better hold of the proceedings.

This gullible and poor background of the accused is also used as a license to frame questions that are more accusatory than interrogatory in tone. Instead of asking a person honestly and simply if he was physically close enough to a certain happening to give him a good view, the question is worded as, “ Dekho, ghatna bahut dur pe tha aur tum theek se nahin dekh paye (The incident occurred far from you and you did not see it properly).” Arjun Nag, a tribal lawyer at Jagdalpur, says simple-minded tribals being cross-examined will hardly question a remark like this and accede, “ Haw saheb (Yes, Sir).”

Beyond the way in which interpreters are used (or not), their poor grasp of Hindi and law is another concern. Nearly all interpreters are not educated enough to have a full grasp on legal intricacies or mastery over Hindi. Bichem Pondi, a tribal lawyer in Dantewada, says these interpreters are usually “5th or 8th pass”. “There are those who have failed to clear Std. X too,” he adds. And it is only recently — in fact, it has been a few months — that all the seven functioning courts at Dantewada have full-time interpreters. “Prior to this we had serving court employees who knew tribal languages step in as interpreters,” says Arjun Kunjam, the Dantewada Bar President. “The interpreters now need to be trained in law. While there is no administrative push, we will argue for it,” he adds. If justice is meant to be equitable, can there be an argument against institutionalising efficient and sincere interpreting services at our courts?

The writer is a National Foundation for India Media Fellow, exploring linguistic aspects of the Maoist conflict.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 9:35:57 PM |

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