Updated: April 15, 2022 9:05:50 am
What is to be done when the Indian republic, committed to working within the framework of constitutional democracy and the rule of law, starts to accommodate elements that are stridently anti-constitutional and anti-secular? What once belonged to the fringes of Indian society now has increasingly become mainstream, their disruptive actions being registered in the public sphere more frequently and viciously. Hate speech is at the root of many forms of violence that are being perpetrated and has become one of the biggest challenges to the rule of law and to our democratic conscience.
One of the most visible consequences of hate speech is increased electoral mobilisation along communal lines which is also paying some electoral dividends.
Hate speech must be unambiguously condemned and the law must take its course, although not merely because it can lead to events of violence in the future. Hate speech, in itself, must be understood and treated as a violent act and urgently so, for it has become an indispensable resource for the ruling powers. No wonder, during the elections, it becomes louder.
Several instances of hate speech and religious polarisation have been reported in Yogi Adityanath’s poll campaign in the recently concluded UP elections, for instance. In 2019, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Election Commission, calling it “toothless” for not taking action against candidates engaging in hate speech during the election campaigns in UP. The Commission responded by saying that it had limited powers to take action in this matter. So far, the Supreme Court does not appear to have acted decisively in response to allegations of hate speech in electoral campaigns, indicating that the EC must assume more responsibility and the EC has argued that in matters of hate speech, it is largely “powerless”. In any case, the EC’s role is confined to the election period. So who is responsible for the non-election times?
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Is the state powerless? Not at all. There are a whole bunch of laws meant to curb hate speech. The Indian Penal Code, as per Sections 153A, 295A and 298, criminalises the promotion of enmity between different groups of people on grounds of religion and language, alongside acts that are prejudicial to maintaining communal harmony. Section 125 of the Representation of People Act deems that any person, in connection with the election, promoting feelings of enmity and hatred on grounds of religion and caste is punishable with imprisonment up to three years and fine or both. Section 505 criminalises multiple kinds of speech, including statements made with the intention of inducing, or which are likely to induce, fear or alarm to the public, instigating them towards public disorder; statements made with the intention of inciting, or which are likely to incite, class or community violence; and discriminatory statements that have the effect or the intention of promoting inter-community hatred. It covers incitement of violence against the state or another community, as well as promotion of class hatred.
While examining the scope of hate speech laws in India, the Law Commission in its 267th report published in March 2017, recommended introduction of new provisions within the penal code that specifically punish incitement to violence in addition to the existing ones. In my view, any recommendation for more laws is a red herring and provides an excuse for inaction. It’s the lack of political will, blatant inefficiency and bias of the administration and shocking apathy of the judiciary that is killing the secular spirit of the Constitution.
Another watchdog should have been the media. In recent years, hate speech in all its varieties has acquired a systemic presence in the media and the internet, from electoral campaigns to everyday life. Abusive speech directed against minority communities, particularly Muslims, and disinformation campaigns on media networks have made trolling and fake news significant aspects of public discourse. By desensitising the citizenry with a constant barrage of anti-minority sentiments, the ethical and moral bonds of our democracy are taking a hit.
This epidemic of “mediatised” hate speech is, in fact, a global phenomenon. According to the Washington Post, 2018 can be considered as “the year of online hate”. Facebook, in its Transparency Report, disclosed that it ended up taking down 3 million hateful posts from its platform while YouTube removed 25,000 posts in one month alone.
On April 2, amidst unconcerned police officials and cheering crowds, Mahant Bajrang Muni Udasin, the chief priest of the Badi Sangat Ashram in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district, publicly threatened sexual violence against Muslim women and against Muslims in general — “you and your pigsty will cease to exist”. Although this particular video went viral recently, and he has now been arrested by the Sitapur police, Udasin has had a long history of spewing hate and stoking communal polarisation with apparent impunity. In the past, Udasin celebrated Dara Singh, a Bajrang Dal member who is currently serving a life sentence for leading a mob on January 23, 1999 in Orissa and setting fire to the wagon in which the Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were burnt to death. Likening Dara Singh to a godman, Udasin appealed to Hindu monks to declare him a Shankaracharya. With this, Udasin joins the ranks of a multitude of “holy” men and women, most prominent among them being Yati Narsinghanand, Pooja Shakun Pandey and Jitendra Tyagi, who have been at the forefront of the politics of fear and hatred.
With elected members currently sitting in the legislative assemblies and Parliament giving political sanction to these self-styled mahants, and ordinary citizens mobilised into mob violence and complicit public officials, hate speech is becoming the dominant mode of public political participation. Two people died in the Ram Navami violence recently while many were arrested across states. Shocking images also surfaced from JNU of students injured during a face-off between two groups on Ram Navami on campus.
This should prick the conscience of the nation. Enough damage has been done. We cannot wait another day to address this growing challenge.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 15, 2022 under the title ‘Calling out hate’. The writer is former Chief Election Comissioner
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