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Delhi HC to hear plea seeking official recognition for sign language in India

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Disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra says he filed the PIL as the government has failed to take any action.

New Delhi: The Delhi High Court Wednesday issued a notice listing a PIL filed by disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra seeking official recognition of Indian Sign Language (ISL).

The move brings India’s hearing-impaired community one step closer to having their only method of real-time correspondence recognised by the Indian state.

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Speaking to ThePrint, Malhotra said he filed the PIL two weeks ago because the government has failed to take any action independently.

“2.2% of India’s population falls within the disability category and 38% of that is India’s deaf community. World Disability Day comes and goes, there are protests, the 2016 Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act was also passed, and yet, successive governments have done nothing,” said Malhotra.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016, assures a person with disabilities of autonomy, non-discrimination, participation and inclusion in society, equality of opportunity and accessibility, among others.

“For the deaf community this would be both a legal and symbolic victory, because it is an invisible disability – you can’t tell first off that a person might be deaf. The court order, if passed, would make the community’s only form of correspondence legally recognised,” he said.

Malhotra claimed the National Association of the Deaf and Dr Alim Chandani, associate vice-president at Centum Learning Ltd and born deaf himself, are interested in joining the fight as co-petitioners.

Legal recognition

The Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution consists of 22 official languages, 14 of which were originally listed, while the rest were added through amendments in 1992 and 2004.

The Government of India will promote and develop the language in an official capacity if it gets listed as an official language under the Eighth Schedule. The language can then also be used to conduct UPSC examinations, among others, and qualify for printing on currency notes.

Hany Babu, associate professor of English at Delhi University with a specialisation in linguistics, told ThePrint that the official status means that “the government can spend money on it — its promotion, development, research about and in the language”.

However, Babu said official recognition doesn’t mean much substantively even though it helps the public realise that “ISL is a natural and full language on its own.”

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“Linguistically there is no difference between ISL and other languages, but people tend to assume that it’s just a series of derivative gestures,” added Babu.

If accepted, ISL will become the country’s 23rd recognised language and India will join nations like Ireland, New Zealand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, among others, to grant it a legal status.

The next hearing is scheduled for 10 December.

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