'Grow A Spine Or Resign': Civil Society Organisations Urge EC To Act Against Hate Speech And Misconduct

After a four-day-late action by the Election Commission of India, a show cause notice was sent for hate speech but not to the Prime Minister, whose speech was under public scrutiny.

Civil society members send postcard to the ECI as part of 'Grow A Spine Or Resign' campaign in Bengaluru.

‘Grow a spine or resign’

This was the clarion call given by civil society organisations in Bengaluru against the Election Commission of India for alleged “inaction” by the body over violations of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and laws during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

The world’s biggest democratic election exercise kicked off in India on April 19. So far, polling has concluded in 283 seats out of 543, in the backdrop of shrill, divisive rhetoric being employed by political parties. While campaigning in Rajasthan’s Bhanswara last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned “mothers and sisters” of the Congress party’s alleged intentions of taking away their “mangalsutra” to give it to the Muslims.

"The leaders who have left Congress are saying one thing: It is not the Congress of before, it is now trapped in the clutches of the Leftists and urban Naxals...look at their manifesto, what Congress has said in its manifesto is serious and worrying. They have said that if they form a government then a survey of property belonging to every person will be conducted," Modi said.

The speech, which was widely televised and shared on social media, came under heavy scrutiny from opposition parties and activists for “demonising Muslims”. However, the Election Commission of India waited for four days to issue a show cause notice but not to the Prime Minister by name; instead, it sent a notice to the BJP president, JP Nadda.

Alleging that the poll body was being indifferent to hate speech during election campaigns, a group of civil society organisations including People’s Union for Civil Liberties, National Alliance for People’s Movements, Bahutva Karnataka, All India Lawyers Association for Justice, Shramik Mukti Dal, Young Leaders of Active Citizenship, among others began a postcard campaign on Saturday. Hundreds of postcards with an image of a spine were sent from not just Bengaluru, but from across cities, to the ECI in Delhi, thereby urging it to ‘Grow A Spine or Resign’.

“Modi has made several speeches which pit communities against one another and promote hatred between communities on religious lines. This amounts to a violation of the Model Code of Conduct, amounts to a corrupt practice under the Representation of People’s Act and is a violation of the ECI advisory to political parties. So far Mr. Modi, who is a star campaigner, has not even been served a notice,” they wrote in a letter to the poll body. 

They alleged that the ECI was only acting against the MCC violations by opposition parties but allowing the ruling party “off the hook”. For example, in Karnataka, the state unit of BJP posted an animated video on X, that appeared to underline the BJP's claim of Muslim appeasement by the Congress. The video depicted Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) as "eggs" in a basket representing reservation. 

An animated character of Rahul Gandhi was then shown planting another "egg" representing the Muslim community into the same basket. The video then showed the "Muslim" hatchling growing bigger and kicking the three others out, as Rahul Gandhi and Siddaramaiah were laughing. The Karnataka unit of Congress filed a complaint, following which an FIR was registered against BJP president JP Nadda, its IT cell chief Amit Malviya and its Karnataka state chief BY Vijayendra, accusing them of acting with intentions of ‘provocating rioting and promoting enmity’ between religious groups. The complaint also alleged that the video ‘was prejudicial to maintenance of harmony apart from intimidating members of SC/ST community not to vote for a particular candidate and causing enmity against members of SC/ST community’.

However, activists say that despite an FIR being filed against the saffron party for the same, the content was not taken down until after polling concluded in the state on April 26. “We are concerned that the ECI ordered X to pull down the post, but no action was taken against BJP Karnataka to either take down the post immediately or to ban any future posting by them,” they said in the letter.

Apart from hate speech, the group also alleged that the ECI this year has refused to share the data about votes polled and instead, has only shared the percentage of votes polled, which they believe is leading to fears of vote counts being manipulated. They demanded the ECI to take action against surrogate ads and address issues like the withdrawal of candidates and threats to certain candidates amidst the ongoing election. 

Outside the office of the Chief Electoral Office in Bengaluru, concerned citizens held up their postcards, just before shipping them off, along with posters of the preamble of the constitution. Behind the postcard, was a message by Former Chief Election Commissioner of India TN Seeshan, ​​who was known for cracking down on money and muscle power during elections. The message reads:

"I am not the Chief Election Commissioner of Government of India but I am the Chief Election Commissioner of India. That's a very minor change in emphasis but it is a major difference that I am not part of the Government. Who are you answerable to? Certainly I am answerable to the President, certainly I am answerable to the people, certainly I am answerable to Parliament in the larger sense. I am answerable to the courts for any wrong that I may do."

Next to this, a concerned citizen wrote to the current ECI members: “You are on the wrong side of history!”