The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a plea seeking an independent probe into the hate speech made at ‘Dharam Sansad’ held in Haridwar from December 16-19. The series of anti-Muslim rants made by prominent seers at the three-day event had shaken the entire nation. Following the event, there were nationwide protests and demands to take action against all the Hindu-extremist speakers present at the event. Following the incident, an FIR was launched against Jitendra Narayan Tyagi and others in connection to incite violence against the minorities.
A few weeks back, seventy-six lawyers wrote to Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana, requesting him to take suo motu cognisance of hate speeches allegedly made at separate events organised in Delhi and Haridwar. The letter alleged that the speeches delivered during the events were not mere hate speeches but amounted to an open call for the murder of an entire community.
After video clips of the event went viral, opposition parties, too, have demanded exemplary punishment for the guilty. The ‘sansad' was reportedly organised by Narsinghanand Saraswati, head priest of a temple in Ghaziabad.
Following the viral videos, floodgates around the discussion of hate speech once more opened on social media. However, what constitutes hate speech and what are the laws in India around that?
What is hate speech?
In its 267th Report, the Law Commission of India says, “It is difficult to define hate speech as any ambiguity in a definition may allow intrusion into freedom of speech and expression.” However, a somewhat-definition of hate speech would involve any expression which is abusive, insulting, intimidating, harassing or which incites violence, hatred or discrimination against groups identified by characteristics such as one’s race, religion, place of birth, residence, region, language, caste or community, sexual orientation or personal convictions.
However, the ambit of what defines hate speech has travelled beyond mere offensive remarks. A series of recent examples very well highlight that hate speech is often targeted at certain communities over and over again.
Nonetheless, in order to determine whether a particular speech can be categorised as ‘hate speech’ or not, it is important to consider the context of the speech. That plays an important role.
What are the Indian laws around hate speech?
Most legal provisions that deal with provocative and derogatory speech are investigated under Section 153A, 153B and 295A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).
Section 153(A) and 153(B) deal with the punishment of acts that involve, writing, speech or visual representations that promote enmity between groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground and causes public disharmony.
Whereas, Section 295(A) deals with punishing acts that deliberately or with malicious intention outrage the religious feelings of a class of persons.
In addition to this, making "statements conducive to public mischief" is punishable under Section 505. Under the sub-sections of 505, it can lead to three to five years of imprisonment.
Besides, under the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, a person convicted for the illegal use of freedom of speech is barred from contesting elections.
However, the Law Commission proposes to bring in further sections to IPC that will criminalise hate speech.
The Vishwanathan Committee (2019) proposes inserting Section 153C and Section 505 A.
According to the draft bill of Section 153 C: "Whoever, on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe - (a) uses gravely threatening words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause, fear or alarm; or (b) advocates hatred by words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations, that causes incitement to violence," will be punishable with imprisonment of up to two years, and fine of up to Rs 5000, or with both.
The draft of Section 505 A reads: "Whoever in public intentionally on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe - uses words, or displays any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is gravely threatening, or derogatory; (i) within the hearing or sight of a person, causing fear or alarm, or; (ii) with the intent to provoke the use of unlawful violence, against that person or another", will be punished with imprisonment of up to one year or fine up to Rs 5000, or both.