On 4 May, actress Kangana Ranaut’s Twitter account was permanently suspended for putting out a controversial tweet on post-poll violence that unfolded in West Bengal. She faced criticism for a tweet calling on Modi to show his 'virat roop' from the early 2000s.
According to ANI, a Twitter spokesperson confirmed, "We have taken action on tweets that were in violation of Twitter rules in line with our range of enforcement options."
Then there is Tejasvi Surya, BJP’s MP from South Bengaluru constituency. Surya’s repertoire of “objectionable comments” include “if Tamil has to survive, Hindutva has to win”, “95% Arab women have never had an orgasm in the last few hundred years”, “Bengaluru is the epicentre of terror”, “Owaisi speaks the language of rabid Islamism, separatism, and extremism, which Mohammed Ali Jinnah also spoke”, and many more.
Ranaut and Surya’s inflammatory speeches can’t be just seen as mere ‘objectionable comments’, and allowed to proliferate under ‘freedom of speech’. Under Indian law, their words contain all the ingredients to make the offence of hate speech.
The Law on Hate Speech
While hate speech has not been defined by any law in India, there are provisions under the Indian Penal Code that prohibit certain forms of speech as an exception to freedom of speech.
- Section 153A: Penalises ‘promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc, and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’
- Section 153B: Penalises ‘imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integrity’
- Section 295A: Penalises ‘deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’
- Section 505(1) and (2): Penalises publication or circulation of any statement, rumour or report causing public mischief and enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes
The courts have explained the contours of hate speech in various judgments. One of the underlining grounds for invoking the offence of hate speech is the intention to incite violence or cause enmity between groups.
On 28 April 2021, the Telangana High Court directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to consider a representation seeking registration of FIRs against those spreading “Islamophobia” or “hate messages” on Twitter.
In Balwant Singh’s case, where a group of people were arrested for chanting slogans on the day of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Supreme Court had said that “intention to cause disorder or incite people to commit violence” is essential for invoking section 153A of IPC. The court concluded that no offence under section 153A was made out in the present case.
In Amish Devgan’s case, a TV news anchor who made controversial remarks on Sufi saints, the Supreme Court had clearly said that “persons of influence have to be more responsible in their speech”.
Speech That Engenders Hate
Both Ranaut and Surya have a history of using social media for rumour-mongering and publishing defamatory posts with complete impunity. However, the specific posts highlighted in the story are not just “controversial”, they also cross the threshold of hate speech by all standards.
Ranaut did not mince words while urging the Central government to indulge in “gundai” (hooliganism) and retributive violence. She also asked Prime Minister Modi to act the way he did in “early 2000s”, clearly referring to the 2002 Gujarat riots, which occurred when Modi was the Chief Minister of the state.
Ranaut’s call for state-sponsored violence was made when the situation on the ground was still very sensitive and wide open to further escalation. The tweet, which was shared multiple times before the account was deleted, played an instrumental role in communalising the Bengal violence.
Therefore, Ranaut’s “speech” was “openly inciting violence”, “instrumental in furthering disharmony among religious groups”, “and furthering the circulation of rumours causing hatred or ill-will” — making it, prima facie, a classic case of hate speech.
Then there is Surya and his communal commentary. What makes Surya’s commentary qualify as hate speech is the context in which such statements are made and their direct consequences on the ground.
Surya’s ‘Tamil won’t survive’ remark was during an election rally in Tamil Nadu. Similarly, his ‘rabid Islamisim, language of Jinnah’ remark was made during an election rally in Hyderabad. Using politically charged mass gatherings to spew communal venom is a clear indication of Surya’s intent to engender religious disharmony and incite public disorder.
On 4 May, Surya had accused some officials of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) of running ‘a massive racket’ in hospital bed allotment. The very next day, his “bed scam” claim took a communal turn.
Sarfaraz Khan, Joint Commissioner of the municipal body, alleged that some “anti-social elements” were inciting communal tension and “spreading poison” through WhatsApp. These WhatsApp messages that Khan was referring to had named 16 presumably Muslim employees of BBMP. This happened just a day after Surya had questioned the appointment of the same 16 employees in a clip that went “viral”.
Activists and academics in Bengaluru have released a joint statement “condemning a blatant attempt to communalise the pandemic by some BJP leaders, including Tejasvi Surya”. The statement claimed that despite the fact that the control room had more than 200 people from various communities, Surya cherry-picked and singled out a list of 17 Muslim workers, accusing them of being responsible for the alleged scam.
“These antics by Tejasvi Surya and other BJP legislators can only dishearten volunteers from various communities, whose selfless work has been the backbone of the state’s response to the pandemic. It is also a signal to other communal groups that the pandemic can again be communalised by such vigilante actions, much like in the first wave when Tablighi Jamaat members and Muslim communities were targeted.”Ethical Media Campaign
Surya’s remarks, and the communal campaign that ensued, not only attacked Muslims but also put them under threat of a possible escalation of communal disharmony in the area. However, Surya is yet to face any action for his hate speech.
Making Hate Speech With Impunity
Ranaut and Surya are also perfect examples of how the law on hate speech is selectively enforced and politically exploited.
in 2020, Dr Kafeel Khan was booked and had to spend hundreds of days behind bars for allegedly making “hate speeches”. Khan’s only “offence” was to highlight the problem of oxygen crisis in Uttar Pradesh. While releasing him from prison, the Allahabad High Court noted that Khan’s speech did not promote hatred or violence, but, on the contrary, gave a call for national integrity and unity among citizens.
While Khan’s plea seeking quashing of a criminal case against him is still pending before the Allahabad High Court, “famous personalities”, like Ranaut and Surya, are putting out statements that squarely fit into the definition of hate speech. Moreover, they are making such statements with complete impunity.
In January 2021, the makers of Amazon-Prime show Tandav faced similar harassment in courts across the country for allegedly “creating religious disharmony”. While the Allahabad High Court refused to grant interim protection to Aparna Purohit, India head of Amazon Prime, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s order within five minutes of hearing the appeal.
The freehand given to Ranaut and Surya raises serious questions on who is issuing them the “bull of indulgences” to run a crusade against public and religious harmony.
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