From Dylan to Shakespeare, literature often finds its way into the Indian courtroom

Figures from the literary canon find themselves often used, in varied and unusual ways, by judges across the country.
From Dylan to Shakespeare, literature often finds its way into the Indian courtroom
From Dylan to Shakespeare, literature often finds its way into the Indian courtroom
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“[A]nd don’t speak too soon 
For the wheel’s still in spin 
And there’s no telling 
who that it’s naming 
For the loser now 
will be later to win 
Cause the times they are a-changing”...

That’s Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin, warning writers and critics, “who prophesise with their pen”, not to jump the gun too soon. 

But these lines found a quite different reading in the Kerala High Court, in the hearing of a petition against the state’s liquor policy. The judgement pronounced on January 6, pertained to a petition by Perumbavoor native MS Anoop, challenging the state policy, claiming that it was a violation of one's fundamental rights. 

Dismissing the petition, the division bench comprising of Justice PR Ramachandra Menon and Justice Dama Seshadri Naidu maintained that, "common good takes lead and subordinates individual's inclinations. 

However, the judges ended the 46-page judgement, with a ray of hope, courtesy Bob Dylan. Quoting the renowned musician’s lines, they emphasised that, "what is today morally reprehensible and socially unacceptable may not be so tomorrow." 

While the Kerala HC’s reference to Dylan is unusual in referencing a modern songwriter, Indian justices have often turned to literary sources when plain legal language has been considered insufficient to the task.

In 2011, for instance, then Supreme Court judge Justice Markandey Katju turned to Mirza Ghalib to convey the court’s dilemma in dismissing a petition to allow euthanasia filed by Pinki Virani on behalf of nurse Aruna Shanbaug. Katju began the 141-page judgement by quoting the 18th-century poet, and wrote, ““Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, Maut aati hai par nahin aati (One dies longing for death/but death, despite being around, is elusive).”

In 2007, citing the freedom of the artist, the Rajasthan High Court set aside an order by the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate No. 1, Kota, against actor Shah Rukh Khan. The case pertained to a dialogue in a court room scene in the film Ram Jaane, in which Shah Rukh’s character accuses his lawyers of trying to protect him, despite knowing that he had  broken the law, solely for monetary gain. Justice R Chauhan refused to side with several lawyers offended by the dialogue, and substantiated his judgement by quoting from John Milton's famous address Aeropagitica from 1644, arguing for the liberty of unlicensed printing. 

While judges might reach far and wide within the literary canon for quotable quotes, of course, the perennial favourite to this day remains William Shakespeare.

In Pebam Ningol Mikoi Devi vs State Of Manipur And Ors, 2010, Supreme Court judges HL Dattu and DK Jain borrowed from Shakespearean wisdom to make a point about liberty. 

Individual liberty is a cherished right, one of the most valuable Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizens of this Country, wrote Justice HL Dattu and proceeded to quote Shakespeare: “On ‘liberty’, William Shakespeare, the great play writer, has observed that ‘a man is master of his liberty’.”  

While Justice Dattu might have straightforwardly quoted the famous playwright, the Calcutta High Court took a more interesting turn in 2000, comparing the construction of a Judicial Magistrate’s order in relation to a petition for maintenance to that of the Shakespearean play Merchant of Venice

The order, authored by Justice A Talukdar, said: 

"While rummaging through the order... I am reminded of the Shakespearian drama of 'Merchant of Venice.' William Shakespeare in that celebrated play had divided the entire drame sequence into three phases, (a) ring episode (b) casket episode and (c) court scene. It seems the learned Magistrate has taken a leaf from the Shakespearian drama and divided the pathetic sequence of the real life drama of the Petitioner into: (a) first episode – after marriage when the Parties resided at G.I.P. Colony in the house of Pritambar Pradhan where she came to learn that the Opposite Party had illicit relationship with one Dipti Sarkar. (b) Second episode – began when they shifted to Kasba where she was kept confined in the flat and was assaulted and (c) the last and final episode – started on 06.8.95 the date on which the Opposite Party handed over the Petitioner to some unknown person who claimed himself to be a doctor of mental patient."

In 2005, the Delhi High Court borrowed a leaf from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to settle a case where the petitioner was aggrieved by the products sold by the defendants under a name identical to that of the plaintiff's brand. 

The opening lines of the judgement by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul read: 

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would also smell as sweet", said William Shakespeare. 

There is but still a tendency to copy the names because a rose is a rose. An amalgam of colour combinations, names and logos may create a total identification with a product and the allegation of copying the same has given rise to the present litigation.

Sometimes, the courts have relied on the bard to deliver incisive judgement on members of the legal community as well. In a 2003 case before the Bombay High Court, where the petitioner was a legal practitioner impugned for professional misconduct, the judgement by Justice RJ Kochar quoted Shakespeare's satirical advice about lawyers: 

“We are reminded by what the great English author William Shakespeare had said about lawyers: ‘The first thing we should do is let us kill all the lawyers.” 

And lest one think that the courts use literary references only as rhetorical flourishes in their judgements, one Delhi High Court judge relied on Shakespeare as an ad-hoc test in his courtroom.

In August 2016, the judge was faced with two students arraigned for defacing public property with campus election posters, one of whom claimed to be a student of literature well-versed in the works of William Shakespeare. He proceeded to ask the student to name 10 of the bard’s works and had the student eating his own words as he struggled to comply.  

(Edited by Rakesh Mehar) 

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