On February 24, northeast Delhi witnessed violent clashes between those who are pro-CAA-National Population Register (NPR) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) and those who are anti-CAA, NPR, NRC. It is alleged that this happened shortly after Kapil Mishra of BJP demanded that, the roads blocked by those protesting against CAA be cleared by police immediately, and if his demands were not met, he would forcefully end the protests.
Such was the alacrity of his followers in acting upon his demands that, if allegations are to be believed, it actually incited the magnitude of the riots we have witnessed in northeast Delhi, in which as per reports 38 lives were lost and more than 200 are injured.
The tragedy is hate speech or lack of restraint in expressing opinions and voices while being in public life can be fatal to social order and harmony. However, hate speech is nowhere defined under the Indian law but it is best put under the European Union law as "public incitement to violence or hatred directed to groups or individuals on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent and national or ethnic origin".
In Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan versus Union of India (AIR 2014 SC 1591), the Supreme Court directed the Law Commission of India to define hate speech and recommend laws to curb the menace of hate speech in the context of speeches by politicians. Subsequently, in March 2017, the Law Commission submitted Report No. 267 titled, 'Hate Speech' which says, hate speech means "an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like". The report further states, "Any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence."
The commission in its report additionally recommended the addition of two more provisions in the IPC, which sought to criminalise hate speech. However, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2018 which was passed does not make any changes relating to hate speech.
But hate speech is admittedly an exception to the freedom of speech guaranteed under the Constitution and can be restricted under Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution only when the speech reaches the threshold of incitement. However, speech which is merely offensive or unpopular is not to be restricted.
And accordingly provisions in law are pre-existing to contain such menace of hate speech. The provisions of the Indian Penal Code which criminalise hate speech are Section 153A which says that, ‘a person who uses words (written/spoken) which promote or attempt to promote disharmony/enmity/hatred/ill-will between different groups or castes or communities on grounds including religion, language or caste is liable to be punished, and further Sections 295A and 298 criminalise other forms of hate speech (These provisions criminalise acts intended to outrage the religious feelings of any individual or class.)
Historically, the problem of hate speech is mostly associated with irresponsible tendency present in political personalities to exploit social issues for political and personal gains. Let it be the Sikh riots of 1984 or demolition of Babri Masjid, it has always been associated with irresponsible statements made by political leadership, which has a role in inciting violence among their followers.
The problem of hate speech is further compounded when propagated by members of the Press and users of social media platforms. This is because unlike the situation where the person making a hate speech is a politician, media is expected to be neutral while reporting events and when media shows its bias, the ramifications of such hate speech becomes manifold and makes it further difficult for enforcement agencies to contain the situation.
It has been observed that, when prominent journalists hold unsubstantiated personal opinions during prime time shows, which has the potential to spread hatred and animosity in society, the effect of it penetrates each household, in short, causes a momentum of disharmony in the most obscure corners of the society. It often begins with fierce discussions in beetle shops and offices to riot like situations.
Apart from this, social media platforms are being widely used and exploited by various vested interest groups and political personalities and parties to spread social disharmony and animosity to gain cheap political dividends. The shocking part of the story is most of the youth and younger generations fall prey to such misinformation campaigns and act as agents of those, to whose loop they have unwittingly fallen prey to. But the price that the nation and society pay for the misadventures of such opportunist groups is quite hefty to be replenished.
It is not quite often that, the hate speeches are an inadvertent and passionate arousal of those who are making it, but if one keenly observes, it can easily be understood that it is part of a well planned and understood strategy to achieve which is otherwise difficult to achieve by political fair-play. Therefore, it is quite expedient to bring in a stringent legal regime to contain the malice of hate speeches both in public life and media platforms which includes print, electronic and social media and instil a sense of responsibility in the younger generations to understand the motive of the statements that often become viral in social media, that which could potentially do more harm than benefit to the interest of the nation and society.
(The writer is a lawyer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)