Hate speech and the law: Narsinghanand and Akbaruddin are not the exception but the rule
In the days when social media captured everything live and relayed it almost as it happened, a government could protect a troublemaker by claiming that they had no proof of their wrongdoing. It happened in Mumbai in 1984, when an anti-Muslim speech by Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray led to widespread rioting.
Then CM Vasantdada Patil, considered a strongman in the Regional Congress, ignored demands for legal action against Thackeray saying he could not get the speech recorded. It didn’t matter to the CM that hundreds of Mumbaikars heard Chief Sena’s vitriol at his organized rally in the heart of the city on Chowpatty Beach and that his most sensational passages were reported on the front page.
The 1984 riots claimed 258 lives in Mumbai, Kalyan, Thane and Bhiwandi. Of course, Thackeray was never prosecuted for the speech.
Almost three decades later, in the age of social media, another agitator actually spent 40 days in jail after his hate speeches went viral. But that turned out to be the sum total of his punishment. Although both of his December 2012 speeches are available on YouTube, police only produced truncated versions in court. Thus, although the Central Forensic Science Laboratory certified that the voice was indeed that of Akbaruddin Owaisi, the AIMIM MP from Chandrayangutta (Hyderabad) was acquitted for lack of evidence.
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Even in acquitting him, Special Court Judge K Jaya Kumar advised him not to deliver such “provocative” speeches in the future, keeping “national integrity in mind”. Couldn’t have been clearer
indicator of the court’s findings as to his guilt. But what could the court do given the quality of the recordings presented by the police?
Testifying before the Srikrishna Commission investigating the 1992-93 Mumbai riots, senior police inspectors would unabashedly justify not arresting the Hindu assailants named by the Muslim victims by saying they did not could not find them, even though their own records showed that the former had attended the “peace committee” meetings held at the police station. One inspector even said he did not know which sections of the IPC to apply to Shiv Sena leaders who waved inflammatory slogans at a “victory” rally celebrating the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Where there is a will, there is a way, is a saying made for our police. When they want, they can scour all of a defendant’s computer data to identify particular emails, as Gujarat police did after charging 124 Muslims in Surat in December 2001 under the ‘UAPA for aiding terrorist activities. All were acquitted last year; the emails were deemed to have no probative value.
But finding a full recording of two speeches that have been viewed thousands of times on YouTube in the space of a month proved too much for Telangana police in the Akbaruddin Owaisi case.
Besides their own (un)willingness to produce the required evidence, the other factor that would have forced them to do so may also have been missing: specific instructions from the government. Why would Telangana CM K Chandrashekar Rao want to spoil his “friendly” relationship with AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi?
In fact, it was just such a breakdown in relations between the Owaisis and the Congress government in (then undivided) Andhra Pradesh in 2012 that led to the prosecution of Akbaruddin Owaisi. Until then, the leader of the AIMIM floor in the Assembly had three cases under Article 153 A (promoting community enmity), and one each under Articles 295 and 295 A (defiling a place of worship and willfully outrage religious feelings), recorded against him, with no progress made in any of them.
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Today, technology allows us to watch poisonous explosions against entire communities without being present and spread them across the world in seconds. Yet technology cannot help us ensure that those who commit these offenses are prosecuted under the law. For this, we remain dependent on governments, which alone can sanction prosecutions for hate speech. Recall the lingering outrage on social media before the Uttarakhand government arrested habitual hate propagandist Yati Narsinghanand, chief organizer of the Haridwar Dharm Sansad held in December. Released on bail, he spat even more poison at Muslims.
Is it any surprise then that Akbaruddin Owaisi can boast of the very speech for which he was imprisoned? In his December 2012 Nirmal speech, he issued the now infamous challenge: “If the police were withdrawn for 15 minutes, we could finish 100 crore Hindus.” In 2019, when he was still accused, he boasted that the RSS had not yet recovered from his “15 minute speech”. Three years later, he was acquitted.
(Jyoti Punwani is a journalist)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.
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