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Why is justice delivered only in English?


By Harshmeet Singh

In July this year, while answering a PIL, the Gujarat High Court asserted that only English can be used in the proceedings of the High Court. Furthermore, it also said that the litigant of the PIL must submit all the concerned documents in English and speak in English; automatically making anyone without the knowledge of English ineligible to file a PIL in the court! In order to represent yourself in your vernacular language, it said, you need to gain a ‘no objection’ from the other party, implying that before fighting a case against your opponents, you need to take their permission just to present your case. If this doesn’t highlight our affinity towards our colonial past, nothing does.

When the Modi government came to power last year, it pushed for making Hindi the official language in a number of central ministries. So when a lawyer named Shiv Sagar Tiwari filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, urging it to put an ‘end to British legacy’, everyone expected the government to take his cause further. But much to the surprise of everyone, the Government blew away the idea of making Hindi the official language in country’s higher judiciary.

To defend its position, the government cited a 2008 report from the Law commission which said that “no language should be thrust on any section of the people against their will since it is likely to become counterproductive”. However, what remains unexplained is how English serves the purpose of being the language of justice.

The present system means that for a law aspirant to reach the highest stage of his career, he must not only be proficient in his law related subjects, but also be equally proficient in English. All the non-English speakers are thus at a disadvantage even before they enter the legal profession. Not only the lawyers, but the common man too is affected by this rule.

A non-English speaker will never comprehend what his lawyers are stating on his behalf in the court. Imagine a person fighting to save your life, by putting forward the arguments that you can’t even comprehend! This doesn’t seem to fit into the idea of justice.

According to the clause (2) of the Article 348 of the Indian constitution, the Governor of a state, after acquiring the President’s consent, may authorize Hindi to be used in the proceedings of the concerned state’s high court. Thus far, only the Governors of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have made such a provision. Over the years, a number of language activists have demanded the use of vernacular languages in state’s official work, including the judiciary.

The constitution doesn’t prescribe any language for the lower courts in the country. Though a number of district courts hear cases in the local language, they face trouble of a different kind. All the documents related to the case need to be later translated into English since they need to be sent to the High Court, which only admits documents written in English. To avoid this humungous workload, a number of district courts now prefer to take up cases in English.

While any change in the court’s language doesn’t seem to be an imminent agenda for the government, one just hopes that justice isn’t ‘lost in translation’.

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Across Asia’s Borders, Survivors Of Human Trafficking, Dial in for Justice

The trial has been ongoing since 2013

Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India.
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India. VOA

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women

and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

Students Combat Human Trafficking
Students Combat Human Trafficking, flickr


Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

Silencing Victims
Silencing Victims, pixabay

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

Also read: Imagining Panun Kashmir: Dissent And Detente in South Asia

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.” (VOA)