There are three major hurdles in the fight against hate speech in India. The first — and often the most important — is administrative vacillation. The second, and associated problem, is the absence of political will in checking hate speech by leaders, given how faith and community-based polarisation often bring electoral dividends. The third is legal, birthed by no concrete definition of hate speech.
On Friday, the Supreme Court took a big stride in removing the first hurdle, ordering the immediate registration of first information reports (FIRs) in cases involving hate speeches. In October, against the backdrop of cases where alleged hate speeches were made, the top court asked the police chiefs of Delhi, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh to file suo motu cases. This week, the court extended the decision across India, and reiterated that any violation of its directive will be treated as contempt of court.
The court’s directive is welcome. The only deterrent for elements who attempt to drive a wedge between communities is rigorous and persistent police action. Unfortunately, as seen in recent cases, police and local administrations are slow in booking bad actors, especially if they are politically connected. The reasons for this are obvious, as is the fact that infirmities in the legal proceedings often render them effectively inconsequential. The court’s insistence that the administration not wait for complaints to file cases holds the potential to change this depressing status quo, but may require steady monitoring.
But for sustained change to germinate, attention needs to be paid to the other hurdles — the political and the legal. Unfortunately, polarised political equations and a near-breakdown of communication between not just the government and the Opposition, but also the Centre and some prominent states, means the kind of compact needed to build a political consensus against hate speech eludes India today. Moreover, no political party appears willing to rein in leaders from making sectarian remarks, or make it clear that disparaging comments will not get them a platform. Indeed, the reverse is often true
Finally, while India has a bouquet of laws, some with vague provisions prone to misuse, usually used to rein in extremist speech, what it needs are clear guidelines. 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. It is precisely because of these reasons that the court’s October directions saw no great outpouring of cases against bad actors, or a flurry of prosecutions against them.
This is not to say that Friday’s order is not significant. It is, and it represents the first real step taken in India against hate speech. The court is right to observe that hate speech is dangerous because it can pierce the secular fabric of the nation. But to nurture democracy, the nation will have to move towards political and legal solutions to the problem, in addition to administrative fixes.