In a recent legal development, the Supreme Court of India offered practical advice to retailers challenging the compulsory Marathi signboard rule in Mumbai. The bench, composed of Justices BV Nagarathna and Ujjal Bhuyan, suggested that the retailers consider investing in simple Marathi signboards instead of allocating resources to challenge the rule through legal means.

The essence of the rule revolves around ensuring that signboards in Mumbai are displayed in Marathi, making them easily understandable to Marathi-speaking individuals. Justice Nagarathna underlined the pragmatic nature of the rule, emphasizing that its primary goal is to make signboards accessible to Marathi speakers in the capital city of Maharashtra. She discouraged any portrayal of the issue as one rooted in jingoism or xenophobia.

During the hearing, Justice Nagarathna remarked, 

What is the difficulty in putting up a new board? What is the grave Constitutional question? How does it prejudice your right to conduct business? Install a wooden board and have it painted. There should be no need for litigation. You are operating a business in the state. Signboards should be comprehensible to individuals who do not speak Marathi. Mumbai is located in Maharashtra; it is the capital. This appears to be more about ego, with individuals wanting to invoke jingoism or xenophobia. Instead of spending money on legal representation, consider simply putting up a signboard.”

The Supreme Court was examining two petitions related to this matter. The principal petition was filed by the Federation of Retail Traders Welfare Association, challenging a decision by the Bombay High Court that upheld an amendment mandating “name boards in Marathi” as part of Rule 35 in the Maharashtra Shops and Establishments (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Rules.

The High Court had clarified that the amendment did not prohibit the use of languages other than Marathi on display boards and emphasized that the rule was designed to facilitate the convenience of the local public.

The Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Maharashtra government in this case in July of the previous year. In November 2022, the court ordered that no coercive action be taken against members of the retailers’ association for non-compliance with the rule.

The Court is also currently hearing another related plea on the same issue, for which notice was issued in January of the current year.

The pleas submitted to the Supreme Court contend that the government exceeded its powers by introducing the rule mandating Marathi signboards. While the Maharashtra Shops and Establishments Rules are intended to regulate work and service conditions, the appellants argue that the Marathi signboard rule lacks a rational connection with the objectives of these Rules and places a significant financial burden on shopkeepers.

Advocate Mohini Priya, representing the petitioners, highlighted the cosmopolitan nature of Mumbai, where residents are often proficient in multiple languages. She further stressed that the Marathi signboard rule was applied even to shops with fewer than ten employees.

Justice Nagarathna further remarked, “You can express yourselves in Hindi, English, and Marathi. Marathi is one of the languages included in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. What is the difficulty in installing a new signboard? Some of these signboards are quite unsightly, with various colors and irregular sizes. Some are very tall, while others are overly wide. One board is enormous, another has twelve different colors, while another has just two. Lawyers’ signboards are typically black and white, but others have a wide variety.”

Justice Bhuyan inquired about the impact of the rule on shopkeepers’ businesses. Advocate Priya responded by pointing out that a shortage of signboards had caused their prices to skyrocket.

Initially, the bench appeared inclined to transfer the plea regarding the validity of the Rules enabling the State government’s action to the Bombay High Court. However, the bench ultimately granted the petitioners three weeks to file their rejoinder to the State government’s affidavit in support of the compulsory Marathi signboard rule.

This latest development underscores the importance of achieving a balance between linguistic inclusivity, practicality, and regulatory compliance. As the case continues to unfold, it raises broader questions about linguistic diversity, cultural preservation, and the role of government regulations in a diverse and cosmopolitan society like Mumbai.

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