For your kind perusal: India owes its use of outdated English to sarkari babus

We still have a 'quasi-feudal' mindset which considers it appropriate to flatter the readers of our letters.

 |  5-minute read |   12-01-2016
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“Dear Honor,

Sub: Notice under section 142(1) of Income Tax Act, 1961 for the assessment year...

The above-mentioned case is fixed for hearing before your good self today. In this regard, we submit that we are in the process of preparing the details as desired by your good self. We, therefore, request your good self to allow us two weeks’ time so that necessary compliance can be made. We shall be highly obliged and would be very grateful for this act of kindness. Thanking you and sincerely apologizing for the inconvenience caused.

Yours truly,”

I received this letter in my initial days in the tax department. I was flummoxed by its tone and tenor. Did the writer (the taxpayer), suspecting that I would not be amenable to the request, think that an element of flattery would put me in the right frame of mind to agree? Did he really think that honeyed words would ensure that I accede to his request?

My seniors put my doubts at rest. Such letters were normal and were received by all the officers across the length and breadth of the department, they assured me. The intentions were honourable and this was the standard language, never mind the obsequious phraseology in which the correspondence was couched.

Nevertheless, I, as did several colleagues, used to wince at this sycophantic language for many years. However, with the passage of time I accepted it as an immutable attribute of public office.

Two weeks later, I did receive the details as promised, under the following covering letter:

“As required by your good self, attached herewith please find the details for your kind perusal.”

Again, an example of slavish language.

Why do Indians persist in writing "good self", "esteemed company", "your kind attention" and such archaic fawning expressions, which have their provenance in Victorian Britain? While the UK has got rid of this anachronism, why is it still perpetuated in India?

Two hundred years ago, in the UK, it was considered appropriate to flatter the reader, often by demeaning oneself. This gave rise to phrases like: "I remain your obedient servant"; "kindly revert to the undersigned"; "submitted for your kind perusal and consideration".

When English was introduced in India, this phraseology was also imported and soon became entrenched – and remains so till today. In spite of the command over English, the Indian psyche feels diffident in claiming ownership of the language, such that Indians consider themselves unqualified to change what has been in use for over two centuries.

Moreover, 21st century notwithstanding, we still have a “quasi-feudal” mindset which considers it appropriate to demean ourselves and flatter the readers of our letters, especially those more powerful than us. Many feel that the Indian mentality is typified by politeness, courtesy and deference and that our communication should reflect these qualities.

Things are changing, albeit slowly.

The Courtroom Procedure of the Income Tax Settlement Commission states that the Court should be addressed as either "Your Honour" or "The Court" or "The Commission" or "Sir".

A petition was filed in the Supreme Court against addressing judges as "My Lord" or "Your Lordship" in courts on the grounds that it was a relic of colonial era and a sign of slavery.

The Supreme Court held that 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".

"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. “To address the court what do we want - only a respectable way of addressing. You call (judges) ‘Sir’, it is accepted. You call ‘Your Honour’, it is accepted. You call ‘Your Lordship’ it is accepted. These are some of the appropriate ways of expression which are accepted," it said while refusing to entertain the petition.

Then there is the issue of baroque language rampant in business communication, such as – "please find attached herewith a copy of the report for your kind attention and necessary action". Surely the attachment is not lost that the reader is being asked to find it. "Attached herewith" is unnecessary repetition. If the item is there with the covering letter, then, of course, it is attached. "For your necessary action" is also redundant. It fails to tell the reader what he has to do. If you are sure that the reader knows what to do with the enclosure, then there is no need to write it in the first place. Similarly, words such as "herewith", "hereby", "hereinafter", "heretofore", "good offices", are antiquated and have no place in modern English.

The legal field is replete with this usage.

An invariable header that every self-respecting Indian contract has is this: "Now this memorandum witnessed and it is hereby agreed by and between the parties hereto as follows."

This bombastic phrase means and could have been written as "The Parties agree as follows".

Another expression of a similar nature is "unless repugnant to the context" which is a picturesque alternative to "unless the context otherwise requires".

The Indian legal system is loath to surrender such expressions. It is held that these florid words are protective of the litigants, and that judges who do not see these affectations in the documents will not be amused by the aberration. To argue that its usage has no legal effect hasn’t had any impact on the status quo. To attempt to take away the right to use these kinds of incantations is perceived as an assault upon the legal profession. Moving forward, globalisation of the Indian legal profession will necessitate a concession to modernity and adoption of plain English. Forsaking the antediluvian approach will one day become inevitable.

Meanwhile in my case, the boot is on my other foot now. In spite of vociferous protestations by my tax head, a typical letter to the tax department now reads as follows:

Dear sir,

Sub: Notice under section 142(1) of Income Tax Act, 1961 for the assessment year...

The above-mentioned case is fixed for hearing today. We are in the process of preparing the required details. You are requested to grant two weeks’ time so that necessary compliance can be made.

Yours faithfully,

Concise, clear, non-grovelling, and I suspect, much welcomed amongst the freshly minted tax officers who shun verbosity and eschew the feudal mindset!


Ajay Mankotia Ajay Mankotia @ajaymankotia

The writer is an author, former revenue official and a music aficionado.

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