Three new Bills were tabled in Parliament recently. This article is not about the content of these Bills (the controversies on that will play out) but their names: the Indian Penal Code is now replaced by Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, the Code of Criminal Procedure by Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and the Indian Evidence Act by the Bharatiya Sakshya Bill. That these are names unfamiliar to, and unpronounceable by, more than half the country’s citizens and an overwhelming majority of its legal practitioners, makes these Bills fail the first test of acceptability. Moreover, Article 348 of the Constitution states that the authoritative texts of all Acts passed by Parliament or State legislatures shall be in the English Language. The body of these new Bills is in the English language, but the title of the Bills being in Hindi goes against the embargo placed by the Article.
Language and the legal regime
The issue of language was hotly 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 legal regime in place provides that English shall remain an official language until resolutions for the discontinuance of English as an official language are adopted by State Legislatures and by Parliament. That is a dim prospect when we aim to be a strong player in a globalised world.
In a linguistically diverse country where language has been the flashpoint for several protests and people’s movements, the emotions and sentiments that people attach to their language must be respected. The fact that India was divided into States based on linguistic differences is sufficient to demonstrate how deeply intertwined language is with the identity of States and their residents. Is it necessary to be reminded of the protests that raged, taking lives with it, through the States of Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Punjab, and Karnataka when Hindi was sought to be made the sole official language in the 1960s? The issue continues to be highly emotive. Language is an integral part of culture, and the attempt to use Hindi in the names of the Bills introduced by the Union Government will be seen as the imposition of the culture of the linguistic majority on linguistic minorities.
This is majoritarianism
The anxiety of non-Hindi speakers finds its roots in events that are taking place around us now. Statements by persons in positions of power that Hindi must be accepted as the ‘national language’ soon, and issuance of Hindi-only forms in public undertakings such as the Indian Railways and banks have been flagged repeatedly. The original draft of the National Education Policy 2020 contained provisions which drew protests, being seen as an attempt to “impose Hindi”. Over the past few years, the Union Home Minister has made several statements linking the language of Hindi to nationhood and the idea of India. He stated in 2019 that “only Hindi can work to unite the country”. He makes a similar statement every Hindi Diwas, and that can only keep the issue burning.
The perception is that there is an attempt to privilege India’s most spoken regional language over other regional languages and to place it above the other languages as essential to a person’s identity as an Indian. The issue is not just about language but about culture, inclusivity, diversity, and respect. The only argument to privilege Hindi over other languages of India such as Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Odia is that Hindi is spoken by more people. To say “we are more in number, so other communities must assimilate into our culture and speak our language” is simply majoritarianism and is antithetical to the Constitution. The legal position of the country is that English shall continue to remain an official language until the non-Hindi speaking States desire so. The prerogative to have Hindi as the sole official language, therefore, does not lie with those in the Hindi heartland, but with those on its margins. The Constitutional position is also that the text of laws introduced in Parliament shall be in English. The naming of these Bills, apart from stoking an old fire, is plainly unconstitutional.
Change the names
The plain fact also is that English is the language of the law and of the courts, especially the superior courts, viz., the High Courts and Supreme Court of India. Judges are transferred across the country. Statutes are read in English. We follow the common law system giving importance to precedents, and these are written and stored in English. The law requires utmost precision and clarity in pleadings, arguments and judgments, and Indian lawyers and judges have risen magnificently to the occasion with English. Are we now to subject them to colloquial terms or high flown Hindi names familiar only to pandits in Sanskritised Hindi? This is needless meddling and nothing short of provocation. The first task of the Parliamentary Committee to which the Bill has been referred must be to change the names. And how is it that these Bills are referred to the Standing Committee for Home Affairs, and not to the Committee for Law and Justice?
Sriram Panchu is Senior Advocate, Madras High Court. Aprameya Manthena is Advocate, Madras High Court. Vikas Muralidharan is a legal academician and lecturer, Sai University