The prime minister was forced to break his silence on the hate speech made by his minister, Niranjan Jyoti, by the strong protests of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha. He had to come on record against such speeches. He was present in the Lok Sabha the day before, when the demand for her resignation had been raised. He refused to say a word. The difference in his approach in the two Houses is not difficult to fathom. In the Lok Sabha, his party has the numbers. It can steamroll everything through. In the Rajya Sabha, if the opposition unites, as they rightly did on such a sensitive issue, the prime minister is forced to respond.
Just as the minister’s expression of regret, for whatever it was worth, was forced by the outrage inside and outside Parliament, so was the prime minister’s criticism of the “language used” by her. It is strange that the prime minister advises “grace” in accepting her apology. The national interest demands that he send a strong message by asking her to resign, gracefully or otherwise. If it is the prerogative of the prime minister to choose his ministers, it is also his responsibility to ensure the first principle of good governance, namely, accountability.
If the prime minister’s statement was not taken at face value and the Rajya Sabha did not function even after his statement, it is also because hate speech is not an aberration or an exception.
It was made in the context of the campaign by Niranjan Jyoti’s party for the Delhi elections. In the last two months, the capital has seen the flaring up of two communal incidents in Trilokpuri and Bawana. In both cases, the involvement of BJP leaders has been reported. In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections in UP, similar tactics of creating communal polarisation were successfully utilised by the BJP, following the “riots for votes” mantra. At that time, it was Amit Shah who led the campaign. The Election Commission had banned him from addressing rallies in UP during the elections after he made a series of highly provocative speeches, which further intensified, as they were designed to, the polarisation that had reportedly been engineered under his guidance in Muzaffarnagar. The ban was lifted only after he gave a written undertaking that he would not use “abusive or derogatory language”.
What happened to him? He was promoted as BJP president. After he became chief, did he warn his party against committing the same crime he was banned for?
On the contrary, as president, he deputed five-term BJP MP Adityanath as chief campaigner in the UP by-elections. Adityanath, with his known history of making inflammatory speeches against Muslims, was not sent there to preach universal brotherhood. He did what he was sent there to do by Shah. He made a series of communal speeches that bring shame to any democratic country. The Election Commission reprimanded and cautioned him. It asked the UP government to proceed against him under the relevant sections of the IPC.
Yet, it was precisely this MP who was chosen as the first BJP speaker in the Lok Sabha debate on communalism in the last session of Parliament. There too, he made highly provocative statements on the floor of the House. He was loudly applauded by his BJP colleagues. The prime minister did not say a word.
The prime minister chooses his ministerial colleagues. He has included men like Sanjeev Baliyan, riot accused from Muzaffarnagar, and Giriraj Singh, charged with crimes under Section 153A in his ministry. In fact, Giriraj Singh had also been banned by the Election Commission from campaigning in Bihar and Jharkhand after his provocative statements. The same Section 153A also applies to Niranjan Jyoti. The relevant portion states that any advocacy “that promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion… disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious [groups]” will invite punishment of up to three years imprisonment or fine or both.
Venkaiah Naidu, the minister for parliamentary affairs, called Niranjan Jyoti a “village woman”, implying that she couldn’t understand the niceties of language. Apart from being highly insulting to “village women”, he has read his colleague absolutely incorrectly.
She knows exactly what she said. She also knows what her party line is. She correctly interpreted the prime minister’s silence when Adityanath was speaking as tacit support for what he said. She cannot be faulted if she read the promotion of chargesheeted ministers as a reward for their efforts at communal polarisation. She knows who her party president is. She knows what he wants and she delivered that in her speech in the Delhi campaign.
Hate speech is a weapon to ridicule, to humiliate, to terrorise and to polarise. Yet, the laws against it are weak and ineffectual. The enforcement of the legal framework is so weak that, in spite of so many examples of communally charged speeches in election after election, there has not been a single case in India where a candidate has been disqualified for making a hate speech. In fact, candidates should be held responsible even when their supporters make hate speeches — such as those made by Niranjan Jyoti. The only time a leader felt the heat was when the late Shiv Sena supremo, Bal Thackeray, was debarred from exercising his franchise after the Supreme Court in 1999 upheld the indictment made against him for hate speeches.
During the term of the UPA government, there was a draft legislation before Parliament against communal violence, which included an important clause against hate speech. But it was iced because the then government was too arrogant to engage in a dialogue on the legitimate objections raised about some other clauses by several state governments.
Yet, India desperately needs such a law. In March this year, in response to a petition filed by the Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan against hate speech, the Supreme Court directed the Law Commission to draft guidelines to define such infractions. The Law Commission should make its report public. The bill against communal violence should be brought back on the agenda of Parliament. Niranjan Jyoti should be removed from the ministry. The RSS pracharak in the prime minister should not overshadow his duty to uphold the Constitution of India.
The writer is a member of the CPM politburo and patron, AIDWA