Justice Misra’s prose

Print edition : August 05, 2016

IT is very much part of a judge’s duty not only to try cases but also to pronounce judgments. This necessarily implies, writing intelligibly. The ruling must be intelligible not only to the Bar but also to the judges of lower courts, to magistrates and, indeed, to the citizen. This is particularly true of judgments like the one in the defamation case, which affect media and citizens’ rights.

It is a notorious fact that judgments by judges of the Supreme Court have become inordinately long. Judges of the Supreme Courts of the United Kingdom and the United States consume less ink and paper.

In the initial years of the Supreme Court, judges wrote shorter judgments and in simple prose. With Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar, they became prolix. He wrote for posterity. Justice M. Hidayatullah wrote to impress. His Latin quotes won him fame. His mastery of English and the law compensated, though.

The years since have seen a different school of judges. One lost count of those who found this quote fascinating—a word is the skin of a living thought. Fortunately, they got tired of it. Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a lovable human being with a deep concern for the underprivileged, expressed his passion in language that defies description. Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar attacked him on that score in veiled language.

It would be well worthwhile of any scholar to study and write on the quaintness and length of the judgments. If one thought that the former trait reached its acme with Justice Krishna Iyer, Justice Dipak Misra, most likely to be the next Chief Justice of India, dispelled the fear. One can only hope his prose will ever remain unexcelled and unemulatable. His judgment in the defamation case is not an exercise for emulation.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary informs us that the word “oppugn” means “dispute the truth or validity of”. But this is preferred with the caution “V. (very) archaic”. One assumes that the caution extends to its derivations “oppugmancy”. One suspects it applies also to the word “oppugnation”, which Justice Misra uses under this heading, “Proponents in Oppugnation”, before summing up counsel’s arguments. One is impelled to ask why? Language is a medium for communication. One wonders how many of his brethren on the bench or learned counsel at the Bar ever heard of the word. Why then did the judge resort to an archaism at all? It is not fair for a judge to drive his reader to a dictionary.

This is not a solitary instance of its kind. “Asserveration” means “a solemn or emphatic declaration or statement”. It is not given to the Bar to make one however strongly a submission is made. Use of the word is as unprecedented and inapt as is use of the word “concavity” in the same context and also “necessitous”, which means “poor, needy”. It is, alas, not a synonym for necessary (“necessitous for the growth of genuine advancement”).

“Garrotte” or “garotte”, another unusual word, means “kill by strangulation, especially with an iron rod collar or a length of wire or cord”. It is doubtful if it can be properly used in this context: “Right to say what may displease or annoy others cannot be throttled or garroted.”

Here, I must let the reader pursue the journey of discovery for himself. He will not be disappointed.

A.G. Noorani

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