Making the language of the law comprehensible

The demand for greater availability of laws and public records in the 22 languages in the Schedule VIII is not a big ask

September 23, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

The recent litigation over the language in which the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020 should be published has brought much needed attention to the issue of official languages used by the central government in its functioning. The trigger for this debate has been litigation by citizens, who protested against the publication of the draft EIA notification in only English and Hindi, on the grounds that such a policy excludes a large number of Indians who do not speak Hindi or English from participating in the public consultation process.

While two High Courts have asked the government to publish the notification in all 22 languages mentioned in Schedule VIII to the Constitution, the central government is pushing back against this order, arguing that it is not required by the law to publish these notifications in the 22 languages mentioned in Schedule VIII.

Also read | Consider including more languages in governance: CJI S.A. Bobde

One of the other reasons offered by the central government to resist the translation of the notification into 22 languages is that translations may result “in the meaning of the words being obfuscated and often even lost”, thereby leading to greater legal uncertainty. It is incredible for the government of the world’s largest democracy to make such a claim because there exists a central law called the Authoritative Texts (Central Laws) Act, 1973 , which creates a legal mechanism to recognise authoritative translations of all central laws into languages mentioned in the Schedule VIII to the Constitution of India. This law extends to rules and delegated legislation issued under central laws. The Legislative Department of the Law Ministry hosts these translations on its website.

Separate from the question of accuracy of translations is the larger policy question regarding the languages used by the central government for communicating with the public. The Official Languages Act, 1963 requires the publication of the law in only English and Hindi. As a result, the central government, de facto, ends up excluding non-English and non-Hindi speaking citizens from the law-making process only because of their linguistic identity.

Language politics

Surprisingly, this issue is yet to garner the political attention it deserves despite the fact that since Independence, language has been one of the main markers of political identity in India. The reorganisation of Indian States on linguistic lines in 1956 took place because of the agitations that followed the death of Potti Sreeramulu in 1952 after his 56-day long fast demanding the creation of a State for the Telugu-speaking people of the Madras Presidency. Ever since, language has played a key role in shaping Indian politics. The rise and success of several regional political parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Telugu Desam Party and the Shiv Sena have been associated with linguistic pride, which sometimes can boil into language chauvinism against other linguistic minorities. Language, therefore, is a powerful marker of political identity in India.

Despite the importance of language to Indian politics, the key political parties which owe their existence to their politics around language, appear to be weak and inadequate in convincing Parliament or the central government in ensuring that all 22 languages recognised in the Schedule VIII to the Constitution are used by all institutions of the central government while communicating or interfacing with the public.

At the very least, an inclusive language policy must be integral to the law-making and enforcement process. This should include mandatorily publishing all parliamentary debates and associated records such as reports of parliamentary committees, the entire record of the Gazette of India , all legislation and delegated legislation of the central government in all 22 languages that are incorporated in the Schedule VIII. Similarly, central government offices such as the passport office, dealing with citizens across the country should give citizens the option to engage with the government in a language of their choosing. So far, only the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) which runs the Aadhaar digital identity programme has an inclusive language policy allowing citizens to get identity cards in languages other than English and Hindi.

Translations as legal right

In many of the cases outlined above, especially with regard to legislative enactments, it is reasonable to argue that citizens are not bound by laws that are not made available to them in their local language. The Supreme Court of India in the past ( Harla v. State of Rajasthan , 1951) has ruled that citizens are not bound by laws which have not been published and publicised. The Court stated in pertinent part: “Natural justice requires that before a law can become operative it must be promulgated or published. It must be broadcast in some recognisable way so that all men may know what it is; or, at the very least, there must be some special rule or regulation or customary channel by or through which such knowledge can be acquired with the exercise of due and reasonable diligence.”

It does not take much to extend this reasoning to argue that Indians are not bound by central laws unless Parliament makes its laws available in languages understood by all Indians.

In the European Union

The demand for greater availability of laws and public records of the central government in the 22 languages in the Schedule VIII is not a big ask. In other multi-linguistic jurisdictions such as the European Union (EU), all EU-level official documents are made available in all 24 official languages of member States because the EU has a policy in place to respect the linguistic diversity of its member nations. This policy allows all EU nationals to communicate with EU institutions in any of the 24 official languages and these institutions are required to respond in the same language.

It is appalling that the Government of India does not have a similar policy in place. It is not too late to put in place such a policy but this is unlikely to happen unless political parties such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam make it a national issue like they did in 1965 when the Official Languages Act was amended to make Hindi the sole official language of the central government.

Prashant Reddy T. is a lawyer

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