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Delhi High Court's order on Archaic Urdu words in Police Language – A Critical Analysis

The Delhi High Court in the case of Vishalakshi Goel v. Union of India and Anr. on 11 December, 2019 made the following observations in Para 9 of the said order (Gist):

"We want to make it clear that we are not opposed to using Urdu words in general. Every language deserves respect, and we recognize the richness of Urdu. However, we believe that an FIR, by its very nature, should be written in a way that is easily understood by everyone. An FIR is the first step in a criminal investigation, and using old-fashioned words that most people don't use can seriously hinder the efficiency of the criminal justice system. Therefore, while using common Urdu words like 'kitaab,' 'ilzaam,' and 'hawaalat' is acceptable, obscure and archaic expressions have no place in an FIR."

In this order the court directed the Delhi Police not to use 383 words of Urdu/Persian origin, considering them as 'archaic' just on the basis of a PIL filed without reportedly verifying whether the persons who had filed the PIL knew Urdu or whether they had consulted any expert of Urdu language while compiling the list of these 383 words. It was clear from the order that some of the Urdu words were written incorrectly (as for example, word number 377). These words were reportedly being used by Delhi Police and Delhi Court for more than 100 years.

The question is whether the use of 'archaic' English words or words of any other language too can be directed not be used in FIR and that who will decide as to which word is simple and which 'archaic'. For a non-Urdu knowing man even a simple Urdu word may sound 'archaic' and for a person good in English even a difficult word (including Latin words) used in English may appear simple.

By extending this logic, can we ban the use of 'archaic' English words from use in courts or police stations. It is also doubtful whether any expert of Urdu language was consulted to decide as to which words are archaic and what could be the best words to use as alternative for the so-called archaic words. Can people who don't know a language decide which words are archaic and which simple.

Attempting to eliminate or shun 'archaic' any language that have been a traditional part of the legal language in Indian courts for over a century without following proper procedure can have profound and far-reaching implications. These implications can be categorized into various aspects:
  1. Legal Confusion: Removing 'archaic' Urdu words from legal proceedings can result in significant confusion, particularly in older documents and records that include Urdu terminology. Lawyers, people involved in lawsuits, and interpreters who are accustomed to the historical use of old-fashioned Urdu words may find it challenging to interpret and understand these documents accurately. This can lead to misinterpretations and errors in legal proceedings, potentially affecting the outcome of cases.
  2. Historical Legal Interpretation: Over the years, legal interpretations and precedents may have been established that involve the use of 'archaic' Urdu words in legal documents and judgments. Removing these words could disrupt the continuity and consistency of legal practices and decision-making. It may necessitate a re-evaluation of past legal decisions, which could have wide-ranging implications for jurisprudence.
  3. Access to Historical Records: 'Archaic' Urdu terms are present in documents, contracts, judgments, and manuscripts. If we eliminate these terms, it could pose challenges for scholars, historians, and researchers to accurately interpret the legal records. This may hinder their comprehension of how the laws developed in our nation. We run the risk of losing insights and contextual understanding.
  4. Cultural and Linguistic Heritage: Urdu is more than just a language; it embodies India's rich cultural and historical heritage. Neglecting the so-called 'archaic' Urdu words in legal proceedings may be perceived as disregarding the country's linguistic diversity and cultural influences, potentially resulting in a loss of heritage and erosion of Urdu's historical significance in India.
  5. Access to Justice: People who speak Urdu and are not proficient in the languages recognized by the court may face difficulties in understanding and participating in court processes. This can lead to inequalities in the legal system, as these individuals may struggle to present their cases, potentially resulting in unfair outcomes or unequal access to justice.
  6. Practical Challenges: The process of removing 'archaic' Urdu words from old records and documents can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. It may require extensive translation, transcription, and archival efforts. These efforts can lead to an additional burden on the legal system. This extra administrative work may also cause legal delays.
  7. Resistance and Controversy: 'Archaic' Urdu words, especially those with historical and cultural significance, may cause debates, legal disputes, and public backlash.
  8. Impact on Multilingual India: India is known for its diverse languages, with many languages spoken in different regions across the country. The removal of so many 'archaic' Urdu words may establish a standard for similar actions regarding other languages, triggering concerns regarding language preservation and diversity of cultures. It could lead to considerations of the role of languages in various key factors of society.
The careful consideration of replacing outdated Urdu legal terms, deeply rooted in Delhi's legal system for over a century, involves various interconnected factors such as legal precedent, historical significance, cultural identity, language preservation, and practical accessibility. While recognizing the importance of clarity and accessibility, any modifications must be approached with utmost respect for the historical and cultural weight carried by these terms.

Language experts should be entrusted with the task of identifying truly obsolete words and proposing suitable alternatives, ensuring that the language's richness and subtleties are preserved. Judges should collaborate with these experts to find appropriate substitutes for archaic terms, guaranteeing that legal proceedings remain accessible to all, particularly those who may not be familiar with the judiciary's more contemporary language.

Merely abolishing these terms without offering clear and accessible alternatives would create a barrier to understanding for local communities who may not share the judges' unfamiliarity with the archaic words, ultimately impeding the core principles of justice and equal access to the legal system.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab
, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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