The English language arrived in India with the British colonists of the 17th century, giving rise to unique genres and variants, including some that characterize formal communications on the subcontinent to this day. Among these, the derogatory term “Babu English” was originally used by the British to describe the overwrought officialese of “babus” or Indian bureaucrats—a style described at the British Library as “aspiring to poetic heights in vocabulary and learning, despite being full of errors.”
“Babu English is the much caricatured flowery language of… moderately educated clerks and others who are less proficient in formal English than they realise,” wrote Rajend Mesthrie in English in Language Shift (1993). His examples include the clerk who asked his employers for leave because ‘the hand that rocked the cradle has kicked the bucket’; the job applicant “bubbling with zeal and enthusiasm to serve as a research assistant”; and a baroque acknowledgement from a PhD thesis: “I consider it to be my primordial obligation to humbly offer my deepest sense of gratitude to my most revered Garuji and untiring and illustrious guide professor . . . for the magnitude of his benevolence and eternal guidance.”
The modern form of Babu English turns up most frequently in the language of India’s legal system.
Take for example the 2008 case of 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar, who was killed, together with a housekeeper, Hemraj, in the Talwar family home in Delhi; the murder rocked the nation. In 2013, a trial court ruled that the victims had been murdered by the girl’s parents:
“The cynosure of judicial determination is the fluctuating fortunes of the dentist couple who have been arraigned for committing and secreting as also deracinating the evidence of commission of the murder of their own adolescent daughter—a beaut damsel and sole heiress Ms Aarushi and hapless domestic aide Hemraj who had migrated to India from neighbouring Nepal to eke out living and attended routinely to the chores of domestic drudgery at the house of their masters.”
Had the judge accidentally inhaled a thesaurus? With its tormented syntax and glut of polysyllabic words, the judgment is a clear descendant and example of today’s Babu prose. In May 2016, a landmark judgment on criminal defamation written by a future Chief Justice pushed into new stylistic directions with phrases such as “proponements in oppugnation” and “made paraplegic on the mercurial stance.”
“It seems that some judges have unrealised literary dreams,” one former judge told me. “Maybe it’s a colonial hangover, or the feeling that obfuscation is a sign of merit… It can then become a 300-page judgment, just pontificating.”
Judges also retain a tendency to also quote scripture, allude to legends and myths, and throw in a dash of Plato, Shakespeare or Dickens. Some trace the legacy of flowery judgments to Justice Krishna Iyer, a pioneering and influential Supreme Court judge who served a seven-year term in the seventies. (“You had to perhaps sit with a dictionary to understand some [of his] judgments,” one lawyer remarked.)
But the former judge pointed out that this isn’t just a problem bedevilling judgments written in English. Even lower court judgments written in Hindi, he said, often deploy “words that were in vogue in Mughal times… It’s a problem of formalism.”
The particular impenetrability of Indian legalese was doubtless shaped by the ornate, ostentatiously learned prose styles common in England in Victorian times. Yet syntactic and grammatical errors are common, and Latin words and archaic formulations abound, at the expense of meaning.
Here’s a single sentence from an order from the Himachal Pradesh state high court issued in 2016:
“However, the learned counsel appearing for the tenant/JD/petitioner herein cannot derive the fullest succour from the aforesaid acquiescence occurring in the testification of the GPA of the decree holder/landlord, given its sinew suffering partial dissipation from an imminent display occurring in the impugned pronouncement hereat wherewithin unravelments are held qua the rendition recorded by the learned Rent Controller in Rent Petition No. 1-2/1996 standing assailed before the learned Appellate Authority by the tenant/JD by the latter preferring an appeal therebefore whereat he under an application constituted under Section 5 of the Limitation Act sought extension of time for depositing his statutory liability qua the arrears of rent determined by the learned Rent Controller in a pronouncement made by the latter on 6.11.1999, wherefrom an inference spurs of the JD acquiescing qua his not making the relevant deposit qua his liability towards arrears of rent within the statutorily prescribed period, application whereof suffered the ill fate of its dismissal by the learned appellate Authority under the latter’s order recorded on 16.12 2000.”
When the matter came up in appeal before the Supreme Court, the baffled judge sent it back to the high court, observing, “We will have to set it aside because one cannot understand this.”
Of course there are many Indian judges whose sharp, distilled prose stands out. Bombay High Court Justice Gautam Patel, for example, is famous for his witty and insightful writing, for example the thwacking he delivered to the Kolhapur, Maharashtra police when they arrested a man for drinking tea in an allegedly suspicious manner.
“We were unaware that the law required anyone to give an explanation for having tea,” Judge Patel observed dryly, “whether in the morning, noon or night. One might take tea in a variety of ways, not all of them always elegant or delicate, some of them perhaps even noisy. But we know of no way to drink tea ‘suspiciously’.”
Even Judge Patel’s instructions for legal interns make for marvelous reading, glowing with benevolence, fairness and fun. In the section on “Time Off,” he warns, “If you need time off, make sure it’s for something that appeals to me: rescuing stray animals (go for it), street children, women’s rights, undertrials, wildlife protection, but also make sure that any pending work is cleared.”
The Plain Language movement, which has sought to simplify legal and governmental language and to purge it of jargon, really began taking hold in the west in 1963 with the publication of David Mellinkoff’s The Language of the Law. In the decades since, policymakers and political leaders in the U.S. and the EU have taken up this challenge.
In India the movement made little headway until recently; four years ago, the Vidhi Centre for Law and Policy produced a manual outlining “plain language” drafting practices and suggesting ways to be clear, concise and accessible without sacrificing meaning. “Certain aspects of the law touch all aspects of society,” said Ritwika Sharma, co-author of the manual. “Legal writing has to be couched in terms accessible to the public.”
And in October, lawyer Subhash Vijayran filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, which is in the process of hearing his petition requesting that legal writing be simplified. “The writing of most lawyers is: (1) wordy, (2) unclear, (3) pompous and (4) dull,” his petition states. “We use eight words to say what can be said in two. We use arcane phrases to express commonplace ideas.” Vijayran declined to comment for this story, saying the matter was sub judice (under judicial consideration, and therefore prohibited from public discussion).
Vijayran’s petition is as timely as ever. In March, yet another high court judgment so perplexed the Supreme Court that it was returned on the grounds that no one could make sense of it; a 2019 Bombay high court judgment met with a similar censure.
Since many colonial laws are still in force, perhaps it’s not surprising that their style is too; judgments stand or fall on their legal merits, not for sterling turns of phrase. Judges, moreover, are critiqued with restraint, lest the dignity of the court be undermined. Two people hesitated to speak to me on the record for this story. In a country where deference is valued, even in casual conversation people unironically refer to “learned judges” and “honourable courts.”
The writer Aditya Sudarshan, who trained and briefly worked as a lawyer, expressed despondency on the subject of impenetrable legalese. “This problem is so deep-rooted and intractable, it feels futile to me to talk about it,” he wrote in an email. “You need minds which are educated to be original. Which shun plagiaristic or formulaic modes of writing.”
“As a lawyer you are taught how to draft arguments, but not stylistically,” said Bharat Chugh, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court who was also a judge. “In the judicial academies this is changing now, and trainees are being taught to write more simply and plainly, but it will take some time to see those effects trickle down.”
This essay would be incomplete without a nod to George Orwell, whose ‘Politics and the English Language’ remains the gold standard on clarity in English writing, and the gravity the subject warrants. Language is political, Orwell argues, and therefore does not just reflect the world, but remakes it. And poor use of language leaves society staler, less dynamic and less original: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
“The truth is that all our reality is constituted in language,”Amitava Kumar, the novelist and professor, told me by email. “From that standpoint, you see that the language used by our judges is stilted, unnecessarily verbose, and fundamentally out of touch with a modern, democratic ethos.” The courts, he said, like so many other places, are “sites for the reproduction of the dominant ideology,” and “also sites of contestation”.
“[The courts] are expected to be enlightened,” he said. “It is shocking and disappointing when they turn out to be not just mediocre but actually worse.”