Respected sir, it's high time you are stripped of your knighthood

Boban Mattumantha
The letter sent to Boban Mattumantha (right) from the sub-collector's office, Ottapalam.

Boban Mattumantha set out to prevent the demolition of 'more than a century old' colonial structure but ended up fighting to destroy a colonial remnant far older: the bureaucracy's tendency to word its public communication in such a way that it signals a master-slave bond.

Mattumantha has not yet succeeded, but he has made a beginning. The Official Languages Department, on the basis of his complaint, has told the Kerala bureaucracy to mind its language.

For the moment, the department has only asked the bureaucrats to try. In a letter to the sub-collector's office in Ottapalam on August 9, the department said: “We would like you to use friendly terms as much as possible in letters that communicate with the public”.

Mattumantha knows such pious advice would be ignored with a smirk. He wants the “language of authority” abolished by law.

Fall of Tipu, rise of the Company

Mattumantha's fight against imperious bureaucratic language was the unintended result of his passion for history.

The Palakkad district administration had plans to dismantle the old Civil Court Complex in Ottapalam, Palakkad, and replace it with a modern seven-storied structure. The Palakkad History Club, of which Mattumantha was the president, opposed it for historical and archaeological reasons.

The court complex came into being right after the 1792 Srirangapatanam Treaty, which saw Tipu Sultan's withdrawal from Malabar. Except for Wayanad, all of Malabar province spread over present day Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram and Palakkad came under the East India Company.

"It is not Ottapalam's or Palakkad's history this monument says but the legal history of the whole of Malabar," Mattumantha said.

The Civil Court Complex, Ottapalam
The Civil Court Complex, Ottapalam

Malabar's legal history

The then Bombay governor Robert Abercromby, who was put in charge of the new areas by the Company, appointed two commissioners to look after the Malabar administration. One of their first decisions was to set up civil courts in Thalassery and Cherpulassery, the more important towns in the area, to settle land and property disputes in the area.

After a railway line was laid through it a century later, Ottapalam's fortunes vastly improved. Consequently, the court complex in Cherpulassery was shifted to Ottappalam in 1904.

Archaeologically, therefore, the building is more than a century old. The Archaeological Survey of India, after its technical team conducted an assessment this year, had concluded that the building was a heritage structure.

The court complex was also witness to momentous events in history. In 1942, during the Quit India movement, a lawyer had raised high-pitched slogans inside the court in protest against the arrest of prominent Congress leaders. The single-man protest was so relentless that the judge was forced to step down from the dais and retire to his room. The lawyer was sentenced to one month imprisonment.

This was also the court where leaders of various anti-British struggles, including Khilafat, were tried.

Sub-collector's auto-reply

These arguments against the dismantling of the court complex were sent as a letter to the Palakkad Collector. Within a week, the Ottapalam sub-collector, under the Collector's orders, wrote back calling Mattumantha for a meeting.

For any ordinary person championing a cause, a sub-collector's invite for a meeting would have instilled a sense of hope. Mattumantha found the invite repulsive. The letter, in Malayalam, said: “It has been decided to meet you directly on June 25, 2021, at 11 am. You are expected to be present at the office without fail, at the appointed time.”

Imperial vocabulary

He wrote back to the Collector saying that the words in the letter smacked of authority. “By asking me to be present at the office without fail ('krithyamayaum'), I am actually being told that my presence at the office is mandatory,” he said. “I am also asked to be there in person. What if I don't appear? Is that an illegal act? It also gives the impression that it was the complainant's legal obligation to appear before the official. Therefore, I want you to re-evaluate the language used in the letter,” he said.

Mattumantha said he was surprised that such a language would be used against a person who was only trying to protect a historical monument. “I am not an accused or a criminal. I am just a social worker who provides necessary information for the protection of the land's culture,” he said. “At the least, they could have asked for my convenience. If it was urgent, they could have asked me to send my submissions through email and then fix a time convenient to both of us,” he added.

He also knows that the official was not acting with vengeance. “I am sure the sub-collector has nothing against me. It is just the force of habit. Such behaviour is fed into the system, and the sub-collector's response to our letter is kind of auto-reply,” he said.

Mild rebuke

When the Collector did not reply, he forwarded the letter to the Official Languages Department, which on August 9 wrote to the Ottapalam sub-collector to try using “friendly terms” while communicating with the public.

Next day, on August 10, the department wrote to Mattumantha saying it had given the Ottapalam sub-collector necessary directions and also promising that it would include new models of communication in its handbook that was last revised way back in 1983.

Encouraged, he has now written to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan asking him to ban the use of 'sir' or 'madam' while addressing officials. He said 'sir' and 'madam' were colonial-era usages.

Request to 'sirs' and 'madams'

“Under the British, the people were merely subjects with no powers to influence governance. There were no rights then, only favours. So to seek favours, the subjects were forced to use the language of subservience. 'Sir', 'madam', 'with utmost humility', 'respected', 'yours sincerely', 'yours faithfully', 'thou'.. all such words and phrases were part of the vocabulary of serfs,” Mattumantha said.

“We are no more slaves and still, even after 75 years of Independence, the bureaucracy is behaving like brown sahebs and ordinary citizens like colonial subjects. It is high time we realised that whatever we ask for – revenue documents, caste or income certificates or financial assistance – is our right and our language should reflect this sense of entitlement,” he said.

Mattumantha has already initiated a campaign in all panchayats in Palakkad district to replace the term “apeksha form”, which makes it sound as if the person is pleading for a favour, with 'avakasha pathrika' (Rights Form).

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