Hate speech is a threat, and the responsibility lies with the Centre: SC

The Supreme Court has stated that the “buck ultimately stops with the government” when it comes to cracking down on hate speech and hate crimes, as they are societal offences.

What is ‘Hate Speech’?

  • There is no legal definition of hate speech.
  • “Hate speech generally is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and the like,” the Law Commission of India states in its 267th Report.
  • Thus, hate speech is defined as “any word written or spoken, signs, or visible representations within a person’s hearing or sight with the intent to cause fear or alarm, or incite violence.”
  • Hate speech is generally regarded as a restriction on free speech that seeks to prevent or prohibit speech that exposes a person, group, or section of society to hatred, violence, ridicule, or indignity.

Attributes of Hate Speech

Hate Speech has three important attributes:

  • Hate speech can take many forms, including images, cartoons, memes, objects, gestures, and symbols, and it can be spread both offline and online.
  • Hate speech is “discriminatory” (biassed, bigoted, or intolerant of an individual or group) or “pejorative” (prejudiced, contemptuous, or demeaning).
  • Hate speech targets an individual’s or a group’s real or perceived “identity factors,” such as “religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender,” but also characteristics such as language, economic or social origin, disability, health status, or sexual orientation, among many others.

How does it stand up in Indian law?

  • Provisions in law criminalise speeches, writings, actions, signs and representations that foment violence and spread disharmony between communities and groups and these are understood to refer to ‘hate speech’.
  • Sections 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code are generally taken to be the main penal provisions that deal with inflammatory speeches and expressions that seek to punish ‘hate speech’.

[I] Section 153A:

  • Promotion of enmity between different groups on the basis of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony’ is a three-year prison sentence.

[II] Section 505:

  • 505(1): Statements that encourage public mischief- The statement, publication, report, or rumour punishable under Section 505(1) must promote mutiny in the armed forces or cause such fear or alarm that people are induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquillity. This is punishable by up to three years in prison.
  • 505(2): Making statements that create or promote enmity, hatred, or ill-will between classes is a crime.
  • 505(3): The same offence can result in a five-year prison sentence if it occurs in a place of worship or any assembly engaged in religious worship or religious ceremonies.

Why should hate speech be prohibited?

  • It causes a social divide: Individuals believe in stereotypes that are ingrained in their minds, which lead them to believe that a class or group of people are inferior to them and, as such, cannot have the same rights as them.
  • Peaceful coexistence is threatened by: The determination to adhere to a particular ideology without regard for the right to coexist peacefully adds fuel to the fire of hate speech.

Problems with regulating hate speech

  • State Powers: Almost every speech regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, increases the state’s power.
  • Hate speech is a political issue: The issue is fundamentally political, and we should not pretend that fine legal distinctions will solve it.
  • Complications in the legal system: Over-reliance on legal instruments to address fundamental social and political issues frequently backfires.

Way ahead

  • Hate speech became a complex issue to deal with in a country like India, which is very diverse, because it was difficult to distinguish between free and hate speech.
  • Many factors should be considered when restricting speeches, such as strong opinions, offensive remarks directed at specific communities, and the impact on values such as dignity, liberty, and equality.
  • For our country to be a healthy place to live, we must all work together and communicate effectively.
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