Thursday, April 20, 2006

Our Colonial & Cultural Insecurities

There is a tendency among some in Pakistan to pay undue, at times quite daft, reverence to outmoded British norms.

A decade ago the British High Commissioner in Islamabad received a knighthood for years of industrious service to his masters at Whitehall; these knighthoods are standard handouts for senior civil servants on eve of retirement. In Pakistan the newly elevated Sir Nicholas Barrington was awarded celebrity status, some even began addressing him, quite misguidedly, as ‘My Lord’ (when he was simply plain old Sir Nicholas, soon to join the ranks of hundreds of other similarly knighted retirees twiddling their thumbs in the restful surroundings of the Home Counties).

Pakistan is probably one of the few places still left in the world where people still insist on addressing ambassadors, high commissioners and suchlike as ‘your excellencies’ at social (as opposed to official) gatherings. The rest of the world simply call them ‘Ambassador’ or ‘High Commissioner’ to their faces (and I suppose lots of others things behind their backs).

I once wondered why we obsess about such inconsequential matters until I realised that we, the Pakistanis, for some reason possess a deep-seated passion for titles.

Since Partition a large number of people have awarded themselves new-fangled titles – there are so many more princes, nawabs, sardars, pirs, syeds, mians, chaudhries, khans and maliks then can be historically accounted for. And there are of course a plethora of maulanas, mullahs, qazis, hafizes, professors, and yes, doctors. In our country anyone with an educational certificate in a quasi-medical subject, such as physiotherapy, feels perfectly entitled to call himself a doctor and does so.

While not quite a title, my all time favourite was an elderly gentleman from the rural areas who, much to my mystification, referred to himself as ‘BA plucked’. Later I was to discover that in the 1940s and 1950s this type of nomenclature was often used by those who had attempted a Bachelors degree and failed. Another quaint practice belonging to this period was the inclusion of the words ‘London Returned’ on one’s calling card. Peculiar as these practices may sound in the 21st century, these were simply ‘Native’ insecurities carried over from the days of the Raj.

Tolerant I may or may not be but one seriously stupid leftover from the Raj still manages to get my goat. And that is the practice of addressing judges in Pakistani courts as ‘My Lord’ and ‘Your Lordship’. This is a strictly British legal custom, something that was never followed by the other ‘white’ members of the Commonwealth; in Australia and New Zealand senior judges are addressed in courts as ‘Your Honour’ and simply as ‘Judge’ outside the courtroom.

Now for nearly sixty years we have continued with this bizarre practice of addressing our judiciary as if they were members of the British House of Lords – a place where senior judges in Britain are still routinely elevated to. And if addressing judges as British nobility is not enough, our unfortunate lawyers have to wear ties and black coats in a country where courts can be stiflingly hot - a case of idiocy multiplied by stupidity.

So it was with much satisfaction that I now learn that India, after nearly sixty years of following similar inanities, has suddenly seen the light.

This is what BBC reported today:

Indian judges 'no longer lords'

Judges in India will no longer have to be addressed in court as "my lord" or "my lordship" - terms dating back to the days of British rule over India.

The Bar Council of India said "your honour" or "honourable court" can be used in the courtroom instead. Lawyers can also address the court as "sir" or its regional equivalent.

Lawyers welcomed the move, with a top lawyer telling the BBC it was time to get rid of a "colonial hangover". India won freedom from British rule in 1947.

"Maybe [such words] should have been given up earlier," lawyer Subhash Kashyap said.

"It is perhaps psychological, like removing statues of former British governors and Viceroys in the country." Mr Kashyap added that it was also high time to meet a long-standing demand to change the dress code for lawyers.

Indian lawyers have to wear a tie and black coat, even in lower courts that often have no air-conditioning to counter the heat.

Knowing the Pakistan state of mind it will probably take us another few decades before we sensibly follow suit.



Dunia's Stranger said...

One thing I can say for sure is that Pakistanis who immigrate to the West carry those the title obsession along.

From neighborhood in New York alone, I've met many Pakistanis who say they are chaudhries, khans or maliks, and claimed to be 'zamidars' back home, even if they are cabbies.

Nitin said...


Nice post. I was struck by the titles attached to Pakistani names when I first began to read Pakistani newspapers (online). You have Nawabs, Jams, Sardars, Barristers and Chaudhurys (not to mention Generals).

To me it seemed like Pakistan decided to retain the pre-Independence practice. If you recall, our independence heroes were Mahatmas, Pandits, Sardars, Maulanas, Lalas, Loknayaks, Babus etc. With one exception. It was always "Mister" Jinnah. One more of Jinnah's lost legacies. Was he given the title Quaid-e-Azam even when he was alive?

Except in the arcane legal system, it is unusual to see title-holding types in modern India. Even erstwhile royals have dropped their titles (MAK Pataudi, MR Scindia etc). Can't see how a politician with a title win an election in India! They even discard the modern clothes they wore all their lives when they enter politics, choosing instead a khadi kurta set.

rabfish said...

"BA plucked"--that's great. That cracks me up.

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