On March 12, after a decade that saw the rising and shining of liberal judicial activism in India, the Delhi High Court held that the use of cuss words by jawans to “communicate” with each other could not be grounds for dismissal. And then, as is the wont with courts in India these days who insist on annotating their revealed truths, the bench went on to graphically explain why.
“The experience of life resolves more than the logic of the law. Our experience guides us that the jawans do speak street language while communicating with each other and liberally spice queries with abuses. Queries with abuses are in the form of words ‘madarc**d’ [mother-lover], behanc**d [sister-lover]. Quizzing a jawan as to where was he going, it is not uncommon to hear him say, ‘behanc**d kahan ja raha hai’ [where’re you going, sister-lover?], or when a jawan returns, the other saying ‘behanc**d aa gaya’ [here comes the sister-lover].”
The court then ordered the not-even-close-to-military-spec CISF, which is a 130,000-personnel paramilitary force mandated to provide security to nuclear installations, space establishments, airports, seaports, power plants, sensitive government buildings and some heritage monuments, to reinstate the constable with full back-pay. While the judgement doesn’t quite set a precedent for dissing the commandant to his face without fear of reprisal, it does allow the lowly paramilitary foot-soldier the latitude to cuss the epaulettes and braids off mid-level officers, who are as untrained as he is in full-military etiquette and the haughty considerations of hierarchy. In point of fact, India’s paramilitary forces have the world’s highest rate of officers being fragged by soldiers in retaliation for insults both perceived and intended.
All this martial posturing has forever had its occasion and place all over the world, and no court has ever proscribed any military from creating, and semi-officially using, remarkably creative, angry acronyms to describe the various kinds of screw-ups that militaries hate but that seem to doggedly ruin their best laid plans: FUBBED up (F**ked Up Beyond Belief); FUBAR (F**ked Up Beyond All Recognition); FUNDY (F**ked Up, Not Dead Yet); NFW (No F**king Way); and, of course, the legendary SNAFU (Situation Normal, All F**ked Up). Many of these are in use in the Indian military but surprisingly – because their brevity and colourfulness has such appeal – they haven’t percolated down to civilian life. And I haven’t found evidence of an officer complaining about another officer’s use of the F-word, either in anger or in love.
I wonder, though, if a US National Guardsman, for instance, could walk away without at least a job-threatening reprimand if he so much as joshed his senior as a “motherf**ker” to his face, or if a court would stand up for his soldierly, macho rights of verbal halitosis under the First Amendment. What I couldn’t find an example of, in any judicial domain in the world, was judges actually speaking the bluest of swearwords out loud in court in order to declare them not only legally uncontroversial but also so normative as to prohibit disciplinary action. (The polar opposite of this is the one-strike-straight-to-the-gallows blasphemy laws in Pakistan, in which even repeating the blasphemous words of someone accused of blasphemy in order to establish the fact of his blasphemy constitutes blasphemy punishable by death. What a tangled web the laws of the world weave.)
But I did find a great deal on words that couldn’t be broadcast – as in on radio or TV – in a case in 1978 involving the US Supreme Court versus satirist George Carlin (FCC v. PACIFICA FOUNDATION, 438 U.S. 726 (1978) after Carlin went on an ad-lib rant – the immortalised “Filthy Words Monologue” – using what are till today known in the US judicial system as “the seven dirty words”: shit, piss, f**k, c**t, c**ksucker, motherf**ker and tits. In this landmark case, the US Supreme Court, however, was demure to the point of negation in its detailing of these words: it kept referring to them, sideways and with considerable embarrassment, as “obscene, indecent, or profane”. Sticking to America’s original Puritan ethic, the court didn’t verbalise Carlin’s infractions.
(As usual, the US Supreme Court erred on the side of caution. “Motherf**ker”, despite its Oedipal overlay, is not only not a nauseating Freudian ailment, it was born of a desire to give wrongdoers the opposite of an honorific: African slaves in America coined the compound word to speak amongst themselves of white slave-owners who had raped the mothers of slaves.) It’s all cultural, of course: The mother-imprecations that have such cachet in the Christian, Arab and subcontinental nations provoke merely puzzlement in Finland. Why insult mothers? It’s a peculiarly Finnish thing, but it’s not rooted in priggishness: among Finnish soldiers, the act of sex and religion make better targets.
The Carlin case, though, was a civilian one. American servicepersons, like soldiers everywhere in the world, cuss like to the manner born. It makes one wonder whether profanation is a predominantly male thing or whether the Amazons, female apparently slaughterers beyond compare, had their own list of imprecations to display camaraderie and rage and every other emotion deemed necessary to the warriors’ creed. We’ll never know.
But it’s interesting that the judges of the Delhi High Court employed as examples two expletives that have a pan-subcontinental presence – they are used in almost every state with minor variations in pronunciation – and are often brandished not just as weaponry but even as Hallmark endearments between friends. In Bihar, the use of “madarc**d” or “behanc**d” is reason enough for the drawing of knives and pipe-guns. In Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, it’s how long-lost friends greet one another; the more sustained the swearing, the deeper the friendship. Stepping on eggshells, the high court took care not to reference abuses that are used only in conflictive situations, in anger or contempt, words that seek to describe the transgender status of close female relatives but are common military currency.
So the Delhi High Court judges might just have set two global precedents through a single judgement: they have not only declared as understandable and acceptable gross anti-female sexual banter in the military – which will, I suspect, shortly have many Indian feminists up in arms – but have also articulated very naughty, very politically incorrect words in the prim, upstanding and resolutely archaic halls of the judiciary. You can now say, standing in the dock and under oath, “The law is an arse”, and probably contest the inevitable punishment with the court’s own precedent to back you up. The judges cleared it, and did it, too: so why can’t we?
Here’s why: It’s an amazing thing, really, the court stepping down from the Olympian heights of admonitory gaveldom to embrace subaltern garbage-language that has always had an extralegal existence. But something tells me that the high court won’t have the last word on this: the Supreme Court of India, still the apotheosis of primness, can’t afford to have prisoners in the dock who know pornogothic words the honourable justices can’t even conceive of. And that’ll be the end of India’s first global legal precedent.