In a batch of hate speech cases taken all the way up to India’s Supreme Court, the apex court in January called on the country’s Central and State governments to take such instances most seriously. It labeled hate speech a ‘menace’ that could become a Frankenstein’s monster if unleashed.
The common denominator in all these cases has been inaction by authorities in numerous instances of hate speech against minorities, specifically Muslims and Christians.
With nationwide Indian elections coming up in 2024, and with smears and the transfer of blame for its failures as the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) secret sauce for garnering votes, these instances of hate speech are likely to multiply. Unfortunately, the listeners riled up by politicians often vent their anger on these defenceless minorities leading to injuries and deaths — not just a few — and destruction of property.
The court suo moto (i.e. of its own accord without a plea or request) ordered the States to register complaints on hate speech. It was a reiteration of an order given last October on the same case.
The court was also critical of the media, particularly TV, where it observed the balance between free speech and responsibility is being misused by some commentators. The impact on the nation by implication is not to its betterment.
The court questioned the behavior of news anchors ‘not acting in a fair manner’ and wondered how many times such an anchor had been taken off the air. Clearly never, as there was no response from the government’s lawyer.
The advocate for the plaintiffs pointed out to the bench that despite its October order to register suo moto complaints, there had been no change in behavior. Thus a speech by a certain Suresh Chavhanke, a TV editor, at an event organized by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti in Maharashtra on December 12, 2022, spewed hate against Muslims and Christians.
The advocate applied to the bench to seek responses from the state governments of Maharashtra and three other states, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and Haryana where instances of hate speech and incitement of violence were reported earlier this year.
An earlier case against Mr. Chavhanke dating back more than a year to December 19, 2021, was finally registered in May 2022 prompting the then judge to wonder why it took five months to register a case. In fairness, there may be a reason for this. A policeman escorting a prisoner was stabbed to death in broad daylight and in front of a crowd of onlookers clearly not interested in law and order.
All of this seems eons away from a newly independent India in the hands of Jawaharlal Nehru, a patrician, highly educated (Harrow, Trinity, Lincolns Inn) and moving briskly ahead with his dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, socialist India that would remove hunger (India currently tops the world hunger list), industrialize and join eventually the developed countries of the world. At the time, the independence movement’s spiritual leader was Mahatma Gandhi. He was to be assassinated, less than a year after independence, by a former RSS man for being too soft on Muslims. Nehru later banned the RSS, then a marginal group — sadly no longer.