Hate speech is a growing problem in India that needs to be tackled seriously at the administrative, political and legal levels. This was underlined again last week by the Supreme Court (SC), which said it was worried about a “climate of hate” in a “religion neutral country” and passed orders to ensure that the police chiefs of three states – Delhi, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh – file suo motu (on their own) cases against hate speeches made by people of any religion. The court correctly observed that the Constitution assures the dignity of the individual and unity and the integrity of the country, and that there can be no fraternity unless members of the community drawn from different religions and castes are able to live in harmony.
The court’s direction to the law and order establishment to register cases against incidents of hate speech is welcome. Strong and consistent police action against the perpetrators of hate speeches can act as a deterrent for elements that continue to try and drive a wedge between communities and use rhetoric for their narrow sectarian and political ends. Unfortunately, all too often, they either escape scrutiny due to political considerations or patronage, or legal proceedings are so long drawn out that they are effectively rendered inconsequential. If repeated inquiries by the apex court can change this reality, it will augur well for the country and its multicultural social fabric.
Hate speech is detrimental to the health of a democracy because it can precipitate violent action against some communities and undermines any government’s efforts to achieve inclusive growth. By creating rifts between groups who otherwise share their daily lives, it creates discord and unrest that not only hurts the social cohesion, integrity and character of a country, but also its economic progress and global image. Unfortunately, India’s tools to tackle hate speech need sharpening and updating because it is currently dealt with in an ad hoc manner. The SC and the government should consider a clear statutory definition of hate speech, as recommended by a Law Commission report, to steer away from current practices where prosecution is usually under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, which is essentially an anti-blasphemy law or Sections 153A and B, which are not equipped to deal with the whole gamut of hate speech as they are largely focused on maintaining social order. But, most of all, it will need decisive administrative and political will to send out the message that hate speech of any shade, against any group, will not be tolerated.
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