Reflections on hate speech in light of recent Supreme Court orders

Hate speech sends a clear signal to the masses that now violence is okay. State inaction and lack of punishment makes hooligans bold enough to engage in large-scale violence. This is why the Supreme Court has offered hope through its recent interventions on the subject.


IN his book Making Human: World Order and the Global Governance of Human Dignity, American political scientist Matthew S. Weinert argues that certain words dehumanise. Words such as ‘parasites’, ‘bloodsuckers’, ‘cockroaches’, ‘niggers’, ‘gringos’, ‘savages’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘viruses’ (in our context: ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘urban-naxals’.) Words are weapons through which marginalisation and exclusion are practised. Social deployment of difference based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, nationality, physical ability and political affiliation basically jettisons the scientific dictum that all Homo sapiens are human. This way, we can justify colonialism, enslavement, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The world watched this happen in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when radio broadcasts declared that ‘Tutsi cockroaches’ should be squashed.

Once you imagine humans to be cockroaches, killing them becomes easy.

Taking a human life is not easy. Watching the pain, the blood, the last shuddering breaths. Soldiers physically train and mentally prepare for it for years.

Killing someone is achieved by killing one’s own humanity.

Also read: The Rwandan genocide case and its eerie parallels in today’s India

Historical precedent

In Rwanda, over five lakh Tutsi men, women and children were slaughtered over 100 days. The violence included brutal gang rapes, breaking bones and cutting off limbs. Hate speech broadcasted by the popular radio station had a direct impact: it increased participation in killings by both Hutu militia groups and ordinary citizens. A research paper titled ‘Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide’ by Swedish academic David Yanagizawa-Drott, attributes 51,000 perpetrators and 10 per cent overall violence to this hate propaganda.

Words such as ‘parasites’, ‘bloodsuckers’, ‘cockroaches’, ‘niggers’, ‘gringos’, ‘savages’, ‘uncivilised’, ‘viruses’ (In our context: ‘terrorists’, ‘anti-nationals’, ‘urban-naxals’) are weapons through which marginalisation and exclusion are practiced.

At home, we watched policemen read the Shiv Sena’s Marathi language newspaper Saamana during the 1993 Bombay riots. Then they picked up guns to fire at Muslims trying to put out fires on their homes. Speeches and writing that called upon ‘real Hindus to do their duty’ were consumed voraciously by rampaging mobs.

Later, the Justice B. N. Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry, constituted by the Maharashtra government, indicted the Mumbai police and state of Maharashtra, but it could only be a pyrrhic victory, in absence of any punitive action against the guilty.

Recent interventions by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s recent orders on the matter of hate speech have once again brought forth these reminiscences and reflections. Since last year, the court has been seized of a petition by one Shaheen Abdulla to take cognisance of the growing phenomenon of hate speech against Muslims in the country, and the inadequacies of the present legal framework to meaningfully prevent it.

On September 21 last year, the court had asked the Union government for its stand as to whether it had contemplated any legislation in terms of the recommendation of the Law Commission of India to add new provisions to the Indian Penal Code to address the menace of hate speech.

On October 21, it directed the Delhi Police Commissioner, and the Director Generals of Police (DGPs) of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to take suo motu action against those indulging in hate speech. It also warned the erring officers of contempt of court proceedings against them if they fail to act against the offenders.

Also read: ‘India must pass a law that specifically outlaws genocide, and provide for ways to implement that law’, says founder of Genocide Watch, Gregory H. Stanton

On January 13 this year, it issued the above directions to the DGPs of Maharashtra, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, and affirmed that “the secular character of Bharat as is envisaged by the Preamble, [be] preserved and protected.

On February 3, the Supreme Court directed the Maharashtra government to make arrests, if needed, to prevent hate speeches at a rally by an entity called the ‘Sakal Hindu Samaj’ held on February 5 in Mumbai. It also directed the police inspector of the area to video-record the meeting in question and make the same available to the court on the next date of hearing.

How hate speech operates

Hindutva ideologue, politician and writer V. D. Savarkar in his book, Six Golden Epochs of India History (Saha soneri pane in Marathi) stresses upon the need to rape Muslim women today as a revenge for past dishonours by Muslim rulers. Savarkar insisted that the popular Maratha king Shivaji I suffered a case of ‘sadguna vikruti’, that is, perversion of virtues, when he sent the daughter-in-law of an enemy back with honour, rather than making her a mistress.

In his article ‘Surat, Savarkar and Draupadi: Legitimising Rape as a Political Weapon’, writer and academic Purushottam Agrawal finds a direct connection between the sexual violence in Gujarat riots and this incitement of rape of Muslim women.

Also read: Savarkar: the original divider-in-chief of India

How does hate speech actually work? Do people listen to a leader and follow blindly? Do they not apply their own agency or conscience? Hate speech carries the power to slowly change the conscience of a social group, to veer it towards hating a community, an identity. In Austrian-born German politician Adolf Hitler’s Germany, disdain and wrath towards Jewish community was fuelled by pre-existing notions and a propaganda machine. As American public intellectual Noam Chomsky tells us, ‘manufacturing consent’ is quite easy by deployment of media and bombarding of imagery.

Hate speech also sends a clear signal to the masses that now violence is okay. Some hooligans then try out some rampaging. State inaction and lack of punishment makes them bold enough to engage in large-scale violence. In the past few years, several types of targeted violence — from incidents at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia to lynching on the suspicion of possessing beef — have gone unpunished. We learn to tolerate a new level of rabidness of speech and cruelty of action every year, against Muslims, Dalits and women.

Hate speech carries the power to slowly change the conscience of a social group, to veer it towards hating a community, an identity.

Those living at the bottom of the social ladder battle hate speech every day. ‘Dalit Women Speak Out: Violence against Dalit Women in India’ is a 2006 report of violence against Dalit women in four states of India. A total of 500 women narrate how verbal violence — being called a Mala bitch or a Madiga whore — can be worse than a physical slap or a kick. The threats by upper caste men such as “we will rape you in front of your children” or “[we will] parade you naked in the village”, makes the threat of sexual violence palpable in the woman’s imagination. Even if it is never done in reality, the woman experiences fear and humiliation. Words hurled like stones can cause wounds and pain. Though unseen then, hate speech causes real, personal and social injury.

The Supreme Court has managed something that is rather rare these days. To all of us jaded hearts and cynical minds, it has offered hope.

The Leaflet