Can Supreme Court’s Order Against Hate Speech Be Implemented on the Ground?

For representation purposes only. Photo courtesy: The Indian Express.

M N Khan 

NEW DELHI—Hindu priest Yati Narsinghanand of Ghaziabad’s Dasna Devi temple has reiterated that he will “organize Dharma Sansad at any cost.”

The temple priest made the declaration despite the Uttar Pradesh police issuing him a notice last week in which the police asked him not to organize the ‘Dharma Sansad.’

The Dharma Sansad is scheduled to start on December 17 at Haridwar. It was the same day last year a call for Muslim genocide was issued from the Haridwar Dharma Sansad.

This reminds us of the Supreme Court order against hate speech and its implementation a few weeks ago. The earlier Dharma Sansad at Haridwar is still fresh in the minds of the people and the SC’s order is seen as a ray of hope in curbing the hate atmosphere in the country.         

The Supreme Court, while hearing a petition on hate speech on October 21, ordered state governments and police authorities to take “suo motu action” against hate speechmakers without waiting for the filing of a complaint. In that order, the governments of Delhi, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh were asked to provide status reports on the response of police to hate speeches that have occurred within their territorial jurisdictions.

“Suo moto action will be taken to register cases even if no complaint is forthcoming against the offenders in accordance with the law. We make it clear that any hesitation to act in accordance with this direction will be viewed as contempt of this Court and appropriate action will be taken against the erring officers. We further make it clear that such action will be taken irrespective of the religion that the maker of the speech or the person who commits such an act belongs to, so that the secular character of Bharat as is envisaged by the Preamble, is preserved, and protected,” the court observed in its order.

According to Praveen Rai, Political Analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, (CSDS), “The Supreme Court’s (SC) interim directions on religious hate speeches is tactical as it provides specifics to the state machinery to stop the communal fires from spreading across the country. However, it may not succeed in assuaging the heightened religion-based hate environment due to two reasons.

One, since the police do not have operational independence, they will not be able to enforce the SC direction of “immediate” suo motu action against the offenders by lodging criminal cases. Hence, its hesitation and delay to act in accordance with this direction will invite contempt of court and appropriate action against the erring officers.

Two, it flagged that TV channels are the chief medium of hate speech, and it may lay down guidelines if the government continues to trivialize it and be a mute witness. It does not include social media platforms, which amplify hate speeches of petty and nondescript political and religious leaders to create communal polarization and breach the secular fabric of society.

“The history of leaders spewing religious venom for localized election-winning dates to the 1990s, but it has now become a universal tool for the political class to sustain the mobilization momentum of its religious constituency for repeated electoral gains. Hence, SC directive to high courts to take suo motu action against the offenders would have been more effective as political appointments of police chiefs acts as impediments in fair policing in India,” added Rai.

“The judiciary’s willingness to handle an issue that has largely gone unresolved for the previous few years may be seen in the Supreme Court’s recent ruling forcing the regulatory mechanism to take action in response to hate speech. This is the second time in the past week that the Supreme Court has invoked the constitutional provisions requiring “fraternity” and “secularism” to ensure that constitutional principles govern the fundamental ethos of societal norms, according to M R Shamsahd, senior attorney and advocate with the Supreme Court on record.

“The failure of police to initiate criminal proceedings has cost the constitutional courts a significant amount of time. Despite the CrPC’s mandatory requirement, the police authorities’ inaction led to the current hate speech order. In other instances, FIRs were filed against the protestors, who were then detained, when a mob objected to the police’s inactivity against hate speech. The initial offence in these cases went unpunished. In other instances, similar hate speech offences committed by someone belonging to a different class are quickly discovered and dealt with. The entire process is therefore arbitrary and unfair,” according to Mr Shamshad.

John Dayal, a noted social and human rights activist, said, “Who will teach the errant police officers, and which courageous police officer would like to intervene in response to the hate speech coming from the mouths of high-ranking government officials, prominent politicians, and revered godmen and godwomen? Most importantly, who will make sure the perpetrator of hate is punished rather than the victim, the Dalit, or other minorities? The primary targets of hate speech, particularly when it calls for targeted violence, are anxiously waiting. Would it lower temperatures before elections? Or would this have two edges, potentially threatening both civil rights and religious freedom, including the freedom of expression?

“The conduct of everyone will be scrutinized, not only the police. Political parties have complained that the current political administration has utilised divisive slogans and speeches to polarise the population, but the Election Commission has been completely deaf to their objections. Politicians have become more daring and will go to great lengths to excite their supporters because of the Commission’s laxity. Religious groups, Dalits, and other marginalised groups, as well as social activists, will be watching to see if the police adhere to the court’s orders in letter and spirit rather than caving to political pressure and focusing on the already persecuted segments of society,” said Dayal.


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