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Editorial Plus

23 September, 2020

5 Min Read

GS-II :
Making the language of the law comprehensible

Making the language of the law comprehensible

Context:

  • A plea was filed by the 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.
  • They demanded that the draft be published in 22 Indian Languages.
  • This issue has brought much-needed attention to the issue of official languages used by the central government in its functioning.

Central Government’s Response:

  • Two High Courts have asked the government to publish the notification in all 22 languages mentioned in Schedule VIII to the Constitution.
  • However, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Authoritative Texts (Central Laws) Act, 1973:

  • There exists a central law called the Authoritative Texts (Central Laws) Act, 1973 that creates a legal mechanism to recognise authoritative translations of all central laws into languages mentioned in 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.

Translations as legal right:

  • In many of the cases 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 Harla v. State of Rajasthan, 1951 has ruled that citizens are not bound by laws that have not been published and publicised.

Language Politics:

  • 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 demanding the creation of a State for the Telugu-speaking people of the Madras Presidency.
  • Ever since then, language has played a key role in shaping Indian politics.
  • The rise and success of several regional political parties have been associated with linguistic pride, which sometimes can boil into language chauvinism against other linguistic minorities.

Issues:

  • 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.

European Union example:

  • EU has a policy in place to respect the linguistic diversity of its member nations.
  • In the European Union (EU) – multi-linguistic jurisdictions, all EU-level official documents are made available in all 24 official languages of member States.
  • 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.

 

 

Way forward:

  • Central government offices, such as the passport office, should give citizens the option to engage with the government in a language of their choice.
  • 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.
  • 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 in Schedule VIII.
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