Why are we excited about carrying colonial baggage? We stand on false prestige all the time. We like people to be meek and submissive when they approach us. We like lazing out on a Bombay Fornicator talking about untouchability while a thirsty Dalit cannot use our steel tumbler. But best of all, we like honorifics. We like to be called so many things – Sir, Madam, Sire, Babuji, Mai-baap, Huzoor, Acharyaji, My Lord, My Lordship, Hukum, Sahib, Nawabsaab. The list is endless.
It is as if India’s independence is a matter of minor importance that should not take away from us our love for colonial salutations. We are not free. The British left us, the Raaj left us, the Rajputana left us, the Zamindari left us, but we have not left them. They live and thrive in us.
Because, it gives us a feeling of power. We like to be powerful notwithstanding we never stand up for anyone or anything. Most of us never come close to a seat of power. But within their own, restricted, small worlds, they feel powerful when they are addressed by their favourite honorifics.Chief Justice of India SA Bobde found his way into this discourse because of his utterances in court on February 23, 2021. He did not like a law student appearing before him addressing him as “Your Honour”. Why? That is an honorific for lower courts, not the highest court in the land.
Livelaw.in tells us how the brief conversation went after the law student committed the “sin”:
“When you call us Your Honour, you either have the Supreme Court of United States or the Magistrate in mind. We are neither’, CJI SA Bobde told the petitioner.
The petitioner was quick to apologize and said that he will use “My Lords”.
“Whatever. We are not particular what you call us. But don’t use incorrect terms”, the CJI replied.The Bar Council of India came out with a clarification defending the CJI’s stand that very evening.
The judiciary is in the news daily these days. The highest judiciary more so. The opinion among the general public is divided on how the judiciary fares as the upholder of the Constitution and the law. Judicial actions are subject to tight scrutiny, comment and criticism. The Judiciary, in a sense, is in a spot of bother. The honorifics row adds to it.
Here is a collage of news reports stitched together for us to understand how the judiciary has dealt with this issue in the recent past: (Mind you, “His Lordship” Bobde has featured twice in the newspapers batting for “appropriate terms of address” which, ironically, he himself, when he was a justice and not the CJI that he is today, scorned!)
The Hindustan Times, February 23, 2021
Judges of the Supreme Court are not to be addressed as “Your Honour”, said Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde on Tuesday, explaining that such salutation befits judges of the Supreme Court of the United States or the magistrate courts in our country.
The remark came while the CJI, heading a three-judge bench, was hearing a public interest petition filed by law student Shrikant Prasad. As soon as the petitioner, who sought filling up of vacancies in subordinate judiciary, addressed the bench as “Your Honour”, the CJI stopped him, and said, “You either have the US Supreme Court or the magistrate court here in your mind when you call us ‘Your Honour’. We do not want you to address us as ‘Your Honour’. This is the second instance when CJI Bobde has spoken out against the use of “Your Honour”. He expressed the sentiment in August, 2020 when addressed as “Your Honour”.
The Telegraph Online, February 23, 2021
The BCI would like to clarify that as far as back on 28th September 2019 on the request made by Office-Bearers of Bar Association of some High Courts with regard to the Advocates addressing the court, it was resolved that as per mostly preferred and prevalent practice, lawyers of the country be requested to address the Hon’ble Judges of various High Courts and Supreme Court as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordships’ or ‘Hon’ble Court’ while Lawyers of Subordinate Courts, Tribunals and other Forums may address the Court as ‘Your Honour’ or ‘Sir’ or the equivalent word in respective regional languages, the statement said. It said the resolution was passed to maintain graciousness and to uphold the majesty of the courts of the country.
The Times of India, January 6, 2014
Judges should be addressed in courts in a respectful and dignified manner and it is not compulsory to call them “my lord”, “your lordship”, or “your honour”, the Supreme Court today said.
“When did we say it is compulsory/ You can only call us in a dignified manner,” a bench comprising justices HL Dattu and SA Bobde observed during the hearing of a petition which said addressing judges as “my lord or your lordship” in courts is a relic of colonial era and a sign of slavery.
The Bench said: “To address the court what do we want. Only a respectable way of addressing. You call (judges) Sir, it is accepted. You call it your honour, it is accepted. You call lordship it is accepted. These are some of the appropriate way of expression which are accepted,” the bench said. “Don’t address us as lordship. We don’t say anything. We only say address us respectfully.” It must be noted, however, that the bench refused the plea for banning the use of such times!
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Financial Express, July 16, 2019
The Rajasthan High Court has asked the lawyers and litigants to do away with the colonial era practice of addressing judges as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordship’. The resolution to abandon the practice was passed during the first full High Court meeting chaired by new Chief Justice S Ravindra Bhatt on Sunday.
In a notification issued on Monday, the High Court Registrar said that judges have made a request to the lawyers and litigants to address them simply as ‘sir’ or ‘srimanji’.
“To honour the mandate of equality enshrined in the Constitution of India, the Full Court in its meeting dated 14.07.2019 has unanimously resolved to request the counsels and those who appear before the Court to desist from addressing the Hon’ble Judges as ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship’,” the notification reads.
Notably, the Bar Council of India (BCI) rules also bar lawyers when it comes to addressing the bench members as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lordship’. According to the Chapter III A of Part VI of the BCI Rules, the lawyers can address the members of the bench in the High Courts and Supreme Court as ‘Your Honour’ or ‘Honourable Court’. When it comes to addressing the members of the bench in the subordinate courts or tribunals, the rules say that lawyers can address the judges directly as ‘sir’ or any equivalent word in respective regional languages.
The Hindu, October 9, 2012
Colonial era words like ‘His Excellency’ used for addressing state dignitaries will soon be passe!
President Pranab Mukherjee has approved a new set of protocol to be used in greetings and meetings dignitaries inside and outside the country. Besides, Mr. Mukherjee has also directed authorities to organise government functions for him within the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises in order to reduce the burden on police and the inconvenience caused to people.
“Use of the words His Excellency will be discontinued while organising functions within the country and during interaction between Indian dignitaries and the President.
“In Hindi, Rashtrapati Mahoday should be used in place of Mahamahin during such occasions,” a Rashtrapati Bhavan spokesman said in a statement on Tuesday.
The Deccan Herald, July 19, 2019
The usage of titles and bowing before judges while addressing them, as instituted by the British within the courts, were to distinguish the jurors from the lawyers and those standing in their respective boxes. However, this later developed into a symbol of prestige. As the distinguished jurist Fali S Nariman said, the reason to call judges with elective honorifics is simply because they love it.
Nariman narrates an interesting anecdote in his autobiography, Before Memory Fades: “…a city court judge and a district judge must be addressed as ‘Your Honour’, and (most important of all) a high court judge must always be addressed as ‘Your Lordship’. Years ago, I appeared before a judge who had just been ‘elevated’ from the city civil court to the high court and was particular about how he should henceforth be addressed.
My opponent, who had appeared before him in the adjoining building, the city civil and sessions court, imagined he was still addressing a city court judge and went on calling him ‘Your Honour’. The judge grimaced at this indignity. My opponent had a good case. But he lost! Judges are human,” he concluded, making a succinct point.
‘My Lord’ is a special case because it is an expression of submission: when you call someone ‘My Lord’, you are saying that they are your master, that they have dominion over you, that you owe them service and obedience. A judge who is ruling in a case that involves you may have a measure of power over you, but he is not your master, nor do you owe him service.
You use the expressions Your Lordship, His Lordship, or Their Lordships when you are addressing or referring to a judge, bishop, or male member of the nobility.
Are these honorifics, these salutations, these pompous addresses, are they needed in this day? The English language is full of sensible, simple forms of addresses. “Sir”/ “Madam” is one. But it needs humility to bring about a change in attitudes. It needs maturity. It needs for us to move away from patriarchal mannerisms, from upper caste biases. We need to realise that to stay on a high pedestal we need to first come to ground zero. It is what we do that matters, not how we are addressed as.
The author is a journalist-academic, contrarian and commentator on contemporary politics, society, democracy and civic sense. The views expressed are the author’s own.