On an overcast, chilly day in February in a distant past, the author, then a law student, found herself close to dozing off as she sat before a towering pile of dusty court files, trying to find the courage to dive into the murky waters of a decade-long property dispute. All of a sudden, her eye was drawn to words from a language she usually associated with poetry and romance, never the insipid insides of a suit for partition. Such lyrical words and phrases as “girdavari”, jamabandi, intekaal, mukhtiarnama, aks shajra, raqba leapt out at her, leaving her ensconced in a happy daze.
The above incident is by no means particular to me. Like most people entering the legal field or finding themselves embroiled in a legal dispute at some point in their lives, I quickly learned that law and literature have a deep and abiding relationship. And in India, which saw the birth of a new literary tradition of Hindavi or Rekhta, the language takes center-stage in such areas as law, which have the closest concern with its people. This coming together can be traced back to the Mughal Rule, which brought with it not only the Persian language out of which was born the language we know today as Urdu, but also the remnants of the judicial systems of Persia with its rich store of legal expressions filtering into the local psyche over the centuries. With the British came the beginnings of English law and language, but in a bid to appease the populace, the foreign rulers encouraged the adoption of certain turns of phrase specific to the Persian. It is not surprising then that words like “Tazeerat-e-Hind” (the Indian Penal Code) or “Qaid-e-Ba-Mushaqat” (penal servitude) have found their way into common usage, not least, through some of the most iconic courtroom dramas of our times. What is more surprising, however, is the ubiquitous influence of Urdu on the legal landscape of regions like Bombay or Tamil Nadu, with “vakalatnama” being used more commonly than its English or regional equivalent no matter where you find yourself in the country.
If legal parlance owes its richness to the assimilation of Urdu in it, it is in no small measure indebted to ‘Dipty’ Nazeer Ahmed, the celebrated Urdu novelist, who is almost single-handedly responsible for translating important laws like the Indian Penal Code and Income Tax laws from English to Urdu. His work was later continued by several other Urdu scholars, attaining a fitting culmination in the recent publishing in 2013 of the first Urdu Legal Dictionary in the country, the “Qanoon Lugat” encompassing more than 50,000 terms.
The most interesting interplay of law and Urdu literature, however, is to be seen in the Indian courtrooms, where Urdu shayari has found a lasting following in the Bar and Bench. A large part of the credit for the lyrical flowering of legal metaphor in Urdu poetry and vice versa, goes to the consummate Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, who had to run from court to court for the release of his pension after the decline of Mughal rule and used his experiences to write some of his most unforgettable lines:
“Phir khula hai dar-e-adalat-e-naz
Garam bazaar-e-faujdari hai
Ho raha hai jahan mein andher
Zulf ki phir sarishtadari hai.”
Amusing anecdotes of judges and advocates bandying their favourite shers in the middle of intense courtroom hearings are abundant and form a part of the great store of stories exchanged in the Bar Rooms. The most famous of these is an exchange between Justice T.S. Thakur, then a judge of the Delhi High Court and Justice Najmi Waziri, then a lawyer at the same court. During a hearing which was adjourned by the court, J. Waziri requested for a short date, which J. Thakur was not inclined to grant. J. Waziri, seeing J. Thakur rise to leave, quoted Ghalib, “Kaun jeeta hai teri zulf ke sar hone tak.” J. Thakur returned to his seat and said “Pehla misra padhiye zara.” To which J. Waziri promptly replied, “Aah ko chahiye ik umr asar hone tak”, walking away with a date for the next week.
Another former judge of the Honourable Supreme Court known for his deep affection for Urdu poetry is Justice Markandey Katju. While appealing to the Government of Pakistan to release an Indian citizen, Gopal Dass, undergoing a life sentence in a Lahore Central Jail for espionage, he wrote:
“Qafas udas hai yaaron, saba se kuch to kaho
Kahin to beher-e-khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale”
The usage of this couplet from Faiz Ahmed Faiz had such a profound impact that the Pakistan Government released the detainee and allowed him to return to India.
Other landmark judgements that have made use of Urdu poetry to either emphasise the tragedy of the matter at hand or lend weight to the opinion of the Court, include the judgement of the Supreme Court legalising passive euthanasia in Aruna Ramachandra Shanbaug v. Union of India & Ors., which starts with another couplet by Ghalib:
"Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki
Maut aati hai par nahin aati”
In June 2019, months after the horrific gang rape of a young child in Kathua, the Special Court at Pathankot, while holding five accused guilty, opened the judgement with the following heart-wrenching lines by Ghalib:
“Pinha tha daam-e-sakht qareeb ashiyaan ke,
Udhne na paye the ki giraftaar hum huye”
Not only has Urdu poetry been the favoured language of lawyers and judges, but also those protesting against the unjustness of such laws. The recent Anti-CAA NRC protests stand testimony to the power of Urdu poetry in bringing together people in a common cause and fanning the “aatish” of injustice into the glowing fires of revolution. While the entire country resounded with chants of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum dekhenge, laazim hai hum bhi dekhenge” and “Bol ke labh aazaad hain tere”, the poetry of Rahat Indori found its way on placards held high in protest against the current dispensation, becoming the rallying call against communal laws.
Whilst these are encouraging signs for the continuing relevance of Urdu and its inextricable links with the Indian social and legal fabric, the argument for such use rendering the law inaccessible for a vast section of the Indian population continues to gain ground, raising fears that legal Urdu may soon be relegated to obscure corners of Ahlmad rooms and court archives. In a recent decision by the Delhi High Court, police stations across the city have been directed to record FIRs in simple language, doing away with the use of archaic Urdu words. While the intention was to make justice more accessible to the common man, it remains to be seen if the directions are implemented in their true spirit.
As I write these last lines, Habib Jalib’s passionate verses, written in protest against the 1962 Constitution of Pakistan, play in the background:
“Deep jiska mahallat hi mein jaley
Chand logon ki khushiyon ko lekar chaley
Wo jo saaye mein har maslahat ke paley
Aise dastoor ko, subh-e-be-noor ko
Main nahi manta, main nahi jaanta”
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