Language used in courts – The Core IAS

Language used in courts


  • The Supreme Court observed that although there are at least 22 official languages in the country, Hindi is “the national language.

What is this case about?

  • The top court was dealing with a transfer petition filed in a motor accident case that occurred in Siliguri, West Bengal.
  • The plea to transfer the case from the MACT in UP to the one in Darjeeling was filed under Section 166 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, which allows an “application for compensation” to be made by the persons sustaining the injury in the accident, the owner of the property, and the deceased’s legal representatives or agents, in cases where the accident has resulted in death.
  • Pointing to Section 166 (2) of the 1988 Act, the court said that the provision allows claimants in such cases to approach the MACT within the local limits of their jurisdiction or where they live or carry on their business. Since the claimants had opted for the MACT in Farrukhabad, UP, and the same was permitted by law, the court rejected the transfer plea.
  • “It is urged that since all the witnesses of the petitioner are from Siliguri, language could be a barrier. The contention has been urged only to be rejected,” the court said.
  • “In a country as diverse as India, it is no doubt true that people speak different languages. There are at least 22 (twenty-two) official languages. However, Hindi being the national language, it is expected of the witnesses who would be produced by the petitioner before the MACT, Fatehgarh, U.P. to communicate and convey their version in Hindi. If the contention of the petitioner is to be accepted, it is the claimants who would be seriously prejudiced not being in a position to communicate and convey their version in Bengali,” the order said.

Is Hindi India’s “national language”?

  • More than 100 languages and 270 mother tongues are spoken across the country. However, the Constitution does not list any one language as India’s “national language”.
  • Clause 1 of Article 343 (“Official language of the Union”) says “The official language of the Union shall be Hindi in Devanagari script”, and “The form of numerals to be used for the official purposes of the Union shall be the international form of Indian numerals.”
  • Article 351 (“Directive for development of the Hindi language”) says “It shall be the duty of the Union to promote the spread of the Hindi language, to develop it so that it may serve as a medium of expression for all the elements of the composite culture of India”.
  • However, the provision says, this must be done “without interfering with its genius, the forms, style and expressions used in Hindustani and in the other languages of India specified in the Eighth Schedule”.

What is the Eighth Schedule?

  • There are 22 languages listed under the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. These include Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Sanskrit, Assamese, Marathi, Nepali, Oriya, and Urdu, among others.
  • There were only 14 languages in this Schedule initially; others including Bodo, Dogri, Maithili, and Santhali were added in 2004. 
  • There are demands to include another 38 languages in the Eighth Schedule, such as Bhojpuri, Garhwali (Pahari), and Rajasthani. The Ministry of Home Affairs has said that “the evolution of dialects and languages is dynamic and influenced by socio-eco-political developments”, which makes it difficult to fix any criterion for languages, “whether to distinguish them from dialects, or for inclusion in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution of India”.
  • Notably, English is absent from the list of 22 in the Eighth Schedule. It is one of the 99 non-scheduled languages of India.

What is the status of English, then?

  • English, alongside Hindi, is one of the two official languages of the central government.
  • Article 343(2) says that “for a period of fifteen years from the commencement of this Constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement”. The Constitution of India commenced, or came into force, on January 26, 1950.
  • Under Article 343(3), “Parliament may by law provide for the use, after the said period of fifteen years, of— (a) the English language, or (b) the Devanagari form of numerals, for such purposes as may be specified in the law.”
  • On January 26, 1965, Section 3 of the Official Languages Act, 1963 came into effect, which provided for the “continuation of English Language for official purposes of the Union and for use in Parliament” even after the expiration of the 15-year period after the commencement of the Constitution.

What is the language to be used in court?

  • Clause 1 of Article 348 (“Language to be used in the Supreme Court and in the High Courts and for Acts, Bills, etc.”) says that “until Parliament by law otherwise provides”, “all proceedings in the Supreme Court and in every High Court”, and all Bills, Acts, ordinances, rules, and orders etc. at the Union and state levels, “shall be in the English language”.
  • However, Article 348 (2) permits “the use of the Hindi language, or any other language used for any official purposes of the State, in proceedings in the High Court having its principal seat in that State” after authorisation by the Governor and “with the previous consent of the President”.
  • But again, while the proceedings could be in any official language, Article 348 (2) mandates that “any judgment, decree or order passed or made by such High Court” must be in English.
  • On April 7, 2022, then Law Minister Kiren Rijiju told Rajya Sabha in a written reply that Rajasthan High Court in 1950 allowed Hindi to be used during court proceedings, citing Article 348 (2).
  • Section 7 of the Official Languages Act dealt with “Optional use of Hindi or other Official language in judgements etc. of High Courts”. It said that from the day he/she is appointed, the Governor of a state can, with the President’s consent, “authorise the use of Hindi or the official language of the State, in addition to the English language, for the purposes of any judgment, decree or order passed or made by the High Court for that State”, adding that it shall be accompanied by an English translation issued under the High Court’s authority.

How did this situation change over the decades?

  • On May 21, 1965, the Cabinet Committee decided that the Chief Justice of India’s consent must be taken on any proposal concerning the use of any language besides English in the High Courts. Thereafter, the use of Hindi was authorised in the High Courts of Uttar Pradesh (1969), Madhya Pradesh (1971), and Bihar (1972) in consultation with the CJI, Rijiju told Parliament in his reply of April 7, 2022.
  • Subsequently, several states, including Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have approached both the central government and the CJI seeking the use of their respective regional languages in the High Courts in their states. However, in all cases, the Full Court of the Supreme Court has, after deliberations, decided to not accept the proposals.
  • In May 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the need to “encourage the use of local languages in courts” since a large section of the country’s population “finds it difficult to understand the judicial process and rulings of the court”. In subsequent remarks, (then) CJI N V Ramana said while this could not be done “suddenly”, it might happen “over a period of time”. Rijiju too has batted for the use of regional languages in the curricular activities of courts.

What is the situation in courts subordinate to the High Court?

  • While Hindi and English are permitted by the High Courts and the Supreme Court, usage of other regional languages is not. However, the situation for courts subordinate to the High Court is different.
  • Section 272 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, states: “The State Government may determine what shall be, for purposes of this Code, the language of each Court within the State other than the High Court.”
  • In the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, sub-section 1 of Section 137 (“Language of subordinate courts”) states: “The language which, on the commencement of this Code, is the language of any Court subordinate to a High Court shall continue to be the language of such subordinate Court until the State Government otherwise directs.”
  • However, under Section 137(2), “The State Government may declare what shall be the language of any such Court and in what character applications to and proceedings in such Courts shall be written.”
  • Section 137(3): “Where this Court requires or allows anything other that the recording of evidence to be done in writing in any such Court, such writing may be in English; but if any party or his pleader is unacquainted with English a translation into the language of the Court shall, at his request, be supplied to him…”.
  • Rajasthan has since carried out a state amendment to this section, replacing the words “such writing may be in English” with the words “such writing shall be in Hindi in Devnagri Script with the international form of Indian numerals”.