LANGUAGES are a touchy business in India, with 22 recognised in the constitution. Hindi and English get prime status in the central government, but nearly every state has its own distinct policy. If providing adequate language services in courtrooms is hard in America, where English is spoken well by a large majority, then it’s Herculean in India, where not even Hindi is natively spoken by a majority.
The constitution is clear about which language to use in India's senior courts. In the Supreme Court and High Courts, English is used in all official documents. This makes sense. The language of the law in India is English. At the appellate level, only lawyers, who are mostly competent in English, present to the court. (The trial courts, which hear directly from witnesses and litigants, can use a state’s other official languages.) Lawmakers can allow another language in a High Court, but so far only four High Courts—in the states of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh—have done so, in each case with Hindi.
The unique allowance made for Hindi in some High Courts smarts for the country’s Tamil-speakers, who have long resented Hindi encroachment from the north. On Sunday, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu called upon national lawmakers to allow Tamil to be introduced as an official language in the Madras High Court. She argued that “If we are to take the administration of justice genuinely closer to people, then it is absolutely imperative that the local language is used in the High Court, as is already being done by the state government and legislature."
Tamil, India’s fifth most-spoken language, is a Dravidian language with few links to Hindi, an Indo-European language. Unlike other Dravidian languages, Tamil has largely resisted borrowings from Sanskrit, the ancestor of modern north Indian languages. This makes Tamil particularly different from India’s other major languages. These differences are a source of pride. In some ways, the country’s north-south divide is sharpest in Tamil Nadu. Between 1937 and 1986, Tamil-speakers repeatedly protested against the broad adoption of Hindi in India’s central government. Indian states were largely reorganised in 1956 to take account of language. National leaders had planned to keep Hindi and phase out English soon after independence. But pro-Tamil protests catalysed the adoption of the Official Languages (Amendment) Act of 1967, which ensured the survival of the central government’s official bilingualism, a practical recognition that English remained the only workable lingua franca for central government.  
This hardly put an end to the squabbling, especially at the state level. Internal immigration since then has led to a sharp rise in Hindi use in major cities, such as traditionally Kannada-speaking Bangalore, and to resistance by speakers of the regional languages. Of course, some of this tension is manufactured. Though there is genuine popular resentment against Hindi in some quarters, regional parties (many of which rose to prominence in the wake of these protests) have sometimes waved the flag of language nationalism to distract from more pressing matters.
Given this history, it’s apparent why Tamil Nadu lawmakers would want Tamil in the Madras High Court. It’s less clear that it is “absolutely imperative”. (Why is Hindi necessary in those four High Courts, either?) High Courts do sometimes hear trial-level cases, but these are rare. Language exceptions for such cases might make sense. But why extend the services to appeals, which make up most of High Courts' dockets? Only lawyers participate in appellate proceedings. Indian lawyers—even Tamil-speaking ones—learn the law in English. In trial courts, interpretation and translation are indeed vital. In appeals-courts which mostly host exchanges only between English-educated judges and lawyers, Tamil doesn't seem so necessary. Are cultural preservation arguments persuasive enough to justify the expenditure? If Tamil and Hindi, why not all other languages? Is there a genuine and unique need for Tamil (or, in fairness, Hindi) in a higher court? Indian readers and appellate lawyers are particularly welcome to jump in here with their thoughts.