Protecting Kannada: ‘signs’ of trouble

The BBMP, at the behest of the Kannada Development Authority, has issued an ultimatum to shop owners to make sure that their signboards are prominently in Kannada. The BBMP is citing the Karnataka Shops and Establishments Act, 1961, as the law that stipulates this language requirement.

This is, firstly, incorrect — the document is actually the Karnataka Shops and Establishment Rules, passed under the Act. This is not (merely) the pedantic grumbling of a lawyer but is actually quite critical as it formed part of the argument used by the Karnataka High Court to declare the provision in question, Rule 24-A, as unconstitutional.

It is baffling why this judgment striking down Rule 24-A is being ignored and, if anything, it is the BBMP’s actions that are violative of the law, not the shop-owners.

The exact ways in which laws are created and function are often misunderstood, even by the officials tasked with implementing them. There are many stages after a law is passed by the legislature that determine its exact contours. One is when the executive branch drafts details (the Rules) that the legislature didn’t have the time or expertise to incorporate into the parent law (the Act). Another stage is when the law is interpreted by courts. It is often the case that a high court or the Supreme Court expands or limits the meaning of certain provisions in a law or strikes them down entirely.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, we don’t live in courts and it is often the case that these judicial interpretations do not find their way to reality (as evidenced by the application of the Supreme Court’s interpretation of sedition as only being a call to violence).

This seems to be the case with Kannada signboards — in 2009, the Karnataka High Court in Vodafone Essar South Ltd. v. State of Karnataka ruled that Rule 24-A was unconstitutional for a variety of reasons.

The court used multiple grounds for striking down Rule 24-A, the first of which is quite technical. A law is always passed for a specific purpose, like restricting environmental damage or improving public order. This purpose is reflected both implicitly in the law’s provisions as well as expressly in its Statement of Objects and Reasons.

As has already been explained, the government gets to fill in gaps in a law by passing a companion set of ‘Rules’. But this is not a carte blanche, these rules must be in furtherance of the purpose of the parent law.

Unconstitutional rule

The Karnataka High Court examined the Karnataka Shops and Establishments Act in detail and found that its purpose was to protect employee welfare. As such, Rule 24-A which regulated the nature of trade, was outside the scope of the Act and therefore unconstitutional.

After determining this issue, the court then examined the various provisions of the Constitution that enable the state to prescribe language use. It found that firstly, the state may only do so by enacting a law specifically for that purpose (a count on which the Shops and Establishment Act fails). It also found that all these provisions only allow the state to regulate languages for official purposes as can be seen in the relevant statute for Karnataka — The Karnataka Official Languages Act, 1963.

It found that language restrictions like Rule 24-A were unconstitutional as “there is no scope for the state to restrict the marketing of any produce by making it mandatory to use Kannada language”.

So even if the state government attempted amending the Karnataka Shops and Establishments Act to change its purpose to legitimise Rule 24-A, it would still be unconstitutional.    

The government attempted appealing the HC’s decision but their appeal was dismissed. As such, the current legal position is that the BBMP’s actions are unconstitutional and without legal sanction. Unfortunately, the sad reality is that the actual legal position is quite irrelevant. The likelihood of an establishment displaying a Kannada name board is governed more by political realities like the number of glass panes that can be damaged, and this scenario is unlikely to change.

To those who wish to ‘protect’ Kannada through laws like Rule 24-A, there is only this to add: language is a beautiful, dynamic and volatile creature that, like the societies from which it springs, is not easily susceptible to diktats.

The only way to ensure a language’s continued survival is to sustain a culture which says things of value in that language. To protect a language through law dooms it to mediocrity and relegates its use to the mundane and banal.

(The writer is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)

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Protecting Kannada: ‘signs’ of trouble

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