Why is it easy for people to get away with hate speech in India?

Screengrab of a conclave at Haridwar, Uttarakhand in December 2021 where hate speeches against Muslim community was made by extremist Hindu seers.

India has enough laws in place to check hate speech but it requires the executive to enforce them.

TCN Staff Correspondent 

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NEW DELHI — Days after United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres criticised India over its human rights record and growing hate speeches during a three-day visit, the Supreme Court, on October 21, directed police chiefs of at least three states – Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand –to take “immediate” action against the offenders by lodging criminal cases without waiting for formal complaints.

A bench comprising Justices KM Joseph and Hrishikesh observed that the trend of making hate speeches “very disturbing” and wondered “what have we reduced religion to”, directing police chiefs that “hesitation” to comply with the direction would attract proceedings for contempt of the apex court against the erring officers”. The comment is seen in the backdrop of several state governments in recent times failing to put a lid on hate speeches.

The top court categorically directed the aforementioned states to file a report before the Court regarding the actions taken on the hate speech crimes which happened within their jurisdiction, reported LiveLaw. It said the state of affairs in India was “shocking for a country that is supposed to be religion-neutral”.

“The Constitution of India envisages a secular nation and fraternity among citizens assuring the dignity of the individual…The unity and integrity of the nation is one of the guiding principles enshrined in the preamble,” the judges said.

Petitioner Shaheen Abdullah had asked the SC to direct the Centre and state governments to initiate probes into the incidents of hate crimes and hate speeches. Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the petitioner, presented a recent “Hindu Sabha” as an example where BJP MP from West Delhi, Parvesh Verma, called for the “total boycott” of these people” in a hard-to-miss reference to Muslims.

This is the second time in a week that the top court invoked the constitutional mandate of fraternity and secularism to ensure that constitutional principles govern the basic ethos of societal values.”

Before the recent order, the top court on October 21 observed that hate speeches against minorities sullied the “entire atmosphere” of the country and needed to be curbed. Significantly, in a separate order on the same day, the apex court sought responses from the Uttarakhand and Delhi governments on what action police have taken against those who made hate speeches at a religious conclave (Dharam Sansads) held in the state and the national capital in December last year.

Hate speech has been a problem in India for decades. But the scale of the problem has accelerated in recent years, with Indian minorities being regularly targeted with hateful speech and polarising content.

It would earlier usually rise in the run-up to elections. But now, with our changing media landscape, politicians have realised that something offensive said in one state could be magnified for direct political benefit in another state immediately.

With social media and TV channels amplifying remarks and tweets even by minor politicians — many of whom find it the easiest way to make headlines — the hateful rhetoric seems pervasive and non-stop.

Commenting on the significance of the October 21 order, noted lawyer M.R. Shamshad in an article for The Indian Express wrote: “An important aspect of this direction is that the court can be approached to initiate contempt action against responsible officials for non-action on hate speech.”

However, a slew of orders in the past by the Supreme Court has brought little change on the ground as hate speeches continue unabated.

Last month, the top court took a very dim view of the functioning of mainstream television news channels in the country, stating that they often give space for hate speech and then escape without any sanctions.

In relation to hate speech, the critics and the opposition parties have kept flagging concerns over the Narendra Modi government’s alleged failure to deal with the situation, underscoring that the politicians and leaders of religious right-wing groups – mostly enjoy support from the current dispensation – get away with hate speeches. Notably, even ministers in the BJP government at the Centre and in many states have been stoking violence over the past several years in public rallies and meetings.

India has enough laws in place to check hate speech, experts told the BBC but added that they require the executive to enforce them.

Anjana Prakash, a senior advocate who had filed a plea in the Supreme Court seeking action against some Hindu religious leaders who called for violence against Muslims at a December event in Uttarakhand state, told the news outlet that the executive most of the time “don’t want to act.”

The NDTV’s ‘VIP’ hate speech tracker in early this year showed that during 2009-14, there were 19 instances of hostile rhetoric towards minorities by high-ranking politicians. But from 2014, when Modi became PM, to the start of 2022, there have been 348 such instances – a surge of 1,130 percent.

Hate speech has not so far been legally defined in India. However, several provisions across laws prohibit certain forms of speech, writing and actions as exceptions to free speech. This includes the criminalisation of acts that could promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. 

The states are unfortunately unlikely to respond. The police are not deaf and dumb. They simply seem to be uninterested since their bosses sitting on top play dog whistle politics. Not only the police, but all the agencies have also become fragile. 

In the majoritarian set-up of Indian policy, it is absurd to expect political representatives to act. For this, a massive overhaul is required.