Concerns about increasing hate speech and judicial inaction
In the aftermath of the 2019 general election, the country was hit with a tirade of hate speech. From the Tablighi Jamaat incident to the communalization of civil services to the Sulli Accords and Bulli bai applications, there hasn’t been a month since 2020 where communal forces haven’t raked in a new issue. A look at the trend reveals that the majority of this hate speech is directed against the Muslim community. Behind the message of hate hides the idea of the demonization of Muslims in India.
The right-wing brigade has described Indian Muslims as the mother of all evil and enemy number one. This phenomenon is evident when, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Tablighi Jamaat were blamed for the spread of the pandemic in India. Worse still, the media played a disturbing role in adding fuel to the fire by labeling the incident as Corona Jihad and Corona Bomb. In another case, a news television channel (Sudarshan News TV) aired a program titled UPSC Jihad, alleging Muslim conspiracy to sabotage civil services.
In recent times, the situation has escalated frighteningly with open derogatory remarks and calls for genocide. Recently, a fringe group of right-wing conclaves organized as “Dharam Sansad” in Delhi and Haridwar have issued open calls for violence against Muslims similar to those perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The self-proclaimed gurus urged people to boycott Muslims and teach them a lesson. In another incident, online hate became more serious with the launch of apps such as Sulli deals and Bulli bai, where prominent Muslim women were the targets of attacks on their dignity. What is more regrettable is that apart from a few arrests, the administration’s response has been lethargic. This is more due to the state patronage enjoyed by these anti-social and communal elements. In most of these cases, state authorities were found to be either complicit or conniving with communal elements, rendering the common legal complaint and investigation process unnecessary.
In such situations, the duty to curb hate speech and ensure justice rests largely with the higher judiciary. However, the reaction of the courts to this challenge has been mixed. For example, following the social media campaign to demonize Tablighi Jamaat members in particular and Muslims in general, petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court asking for its intervention in the case. However, the court brushed aside the case pointing out its insufficiency to stop communal hashtags. But the question that begs the answer is: can’t the court order social media companies to closely monitor and filter out hateful content?
Similarly, in the Sudarshan News TV case, the court intervened to stop airing a grossly communal program only after some of its episodes have aired. In the 2020 Delhi riots hate speech case, following the midnight transfer of Judge Murlidharthe Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court gave the Union Government “four weeks” to answer, when the court could have at least ordered the filing of FIR against the defendant. Although recently the Supreme Court has request the High Court to decide the case within three months, while most cases have been dragging through the courts for months now.
In a more recent case, on August 15 last year, a group of Hindutva brandished provocative slogans against the minority community. This was followed by the filing of a petition for enforcing police “duty of care” to prevent hate crimes. However, the court simply tagged the petition with other similar petitions. Emboldened by this act, calls for genocide were made at a religious conclave in Haridwar. Only after the Supreme Court intervened in the case that arrests were made. Similarly, arrests were made in the Bulli bai app case after petitions were filed in court.
Overall, however, it appears the court has shirked its duty to protect individual rights rather than operating proactively. It cannot be denied that a tribunal never operates in isolation. He influences and is influenced by the climate of his time. But it is only in difficult times that our courts are supposed to be brave and make bold judgments/orders.
In Amish Devgan, the Court rightly observed that “in a political system committed to pluralism, hate speech can in no way legitimately contribute to democracy and, in fact, negates the right to equality”. Hate speech is the antithesis of an individual’s dignity. It seriously affects the unity, brotherhood and integrity of a nation and violates many rights established in our constitution, especially Articles 14, 19 and 21. Hate speech is a precursor to violence and often precedes disturbances and riots. If left unchecked, it can spread like wildfire and have disastrous effects on our society.
(Mohd Sikandar is LLM (2020-21), NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. Opinions expressed are personal)