The Cambridge Dictionary defines hate speech as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex or sexual orientation”. In its mildest form, hate speech seeks to cause discomfiture and unease; while its ugliest form seeks to incite violence by instigating others and allowing them the space to turn rhetoric into action.
Individuals who indulge in hate speech often counter objections to their words by raising the provision of free speech, which, by definition, allows them “the right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint or legal penalty”. The argument then, that hate speech cannot be penalised is therefore a common one. In certain liberal democracies, such as the United States of America, this argument does hold up legally. Hate speech is not a punishable offence, and is protected under the First Amendment. The Indian Penal Code, however, treats hateful messaging differently. While the Indian Constitution provides every individual freedom of expression, Article 19 stipulates that is subject to “reasonable restrictions” for preserving inter alia “public order, decency or morality”.
In addition, Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code says, inter alia:
“Whoever (a) by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, or (b) commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquillity, ... shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.”
However, what we are seeing lately is that despite these laws and safeguards, there have been many recent instances of hateful messaging, many of which have been made by political aspirants who seek to indulge in divisive politics. The peril of hate speech is that they are not “just words,” as argued by those who seek to legitimise discourse that fuels animosity between communities who have religious differences. When a minister raised the slogan “Desh ke gaddaro ko goli maaro s***** ko,” in an election rally in New Delhi on January 27, it was followed very literally by a teenaged youth less than a week later, who opened fire on a group of protesters at Jamia Milia Islamia, injuring one student. The fact that the politician was allowed to raise the slogan in the first place leads one to wonder if there was no threat perceived by the authorities appointed to police hateful messaging in permitting political aspirants to encourage fellow citizens to shoot at those they consider “traitors”.
That the close and dangerous link between hate speech and violence is well understood and documented is made evident by the fact that not only the Constitution and the Indian Penal Code have made provisions to keep it under check, but also so has the Code of Criminal Procedure. In recent times, however, the courts have provided contradictory views regarding the violation that hate speech is. In 2013, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the Central government directing them to frame guidelines that would ensure the control of hate speech delivered by politicians. This notice was also issued to the Election Commission of India. However, in 2014, when a PIL was filed asking the Supreme Court to direct the Election Commission to curb hateful speeches made by politicians, this was dismissed on the grounds that the fundamental right of people to express themselves cannot be curbed.
In contrast, the social media has taken up a slightly more responsive role in the censoring of hate speech. Despite an enormous room for improvement, there are policies in place. Hate propaganda reported by users on Facebook is reviewed, and if found to be inflammatory, taken down within 24 hours. Twitter takes down hateful content and issues warnings to accounts that violate their “Hateful Conduct Policy”, suspending accounts that are repeat offenders. Following the horrifying lynchings that took place in India a couple of years ago, wherein innocents were killed on suspicion of being child kidnappers, WhatsApp placed a restriction on the number of times a piece of content can be forwarded. Although there is still a long way to go, there does appear to be an attempt to reduce the visibility of hateful content on these platforms.
As an ordinary citizen, you may recognise your limitations in controlling hate speech itself, but you might seize the opportunity of counter speech as a direct response to hate speech. This is a powerful tool which can be used in a multitude of ways.
If it’s on the social media, you might choose to engage with the speaker and battle his/her hateful messaging by putting forward a contrary message. The #iamhere campaign, a counter narrative to hateful messaging, which was started in Sweden, spread quickly to other parts of the world because of its simplicity of function. Admins of the group routinely post articles that contain hate propaganda onto their page, encouraging members to counter speak with the hashtag #Jagärhär (which means “I am here”). This drives up the counter posts, effectively drowning out the hateful content. A few weeks ago, at New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh protest site, a young man fired into the air in an attempt to register his dissent towards the protesters. The next day, a group of young citizens decided to counter speak by launching a campaign called GoliNahiPhool (Flowers, not Bullets) and showered the protesting women with flower petals in a demonstration of peace and solidarity.
Another method young Indian counter-speakers have embraced is through the creation of art — whether music, poetry, paintings or street art. From Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram to Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s beautiful yet defiant poem Hum Dekhenge, strong resistance art has been known to possess the power to move people and to unite them — the ultimate goal of any counter speech.
Lastly, you might choose to reclaim words that are used as slurs against communities, minorities or any other group. An example of this is the way the Slutwalk campaign, a global campaign calling for the end of rape culture and slut shaming chose to reclaim the offensive word and rebrand it, rejecting the idea that women should experience shame over their sexualities, sexual preferences and choice of clothing.
A democracy always needs to tread the thin line between freedom and oppression. The freedoms enjoyed by one cannot be translated into oppression suffered by another. This is the very principle that cements the line between freedom of speech and hate speech. In times of turmoil, then, it falls upon us, ordinary men and women, to self-police and counter speak when faced with an objectionable idea or piece of content. Because when it is the best of times, and the worst of times, it is always the ordinary citizen who takes up the torch and leads the way.