With hate speeches seeking to cause bad blood between communities becoming an everyday occurrence, the government has done well to justify before the Supreme Court the need for a law to punish wrong-doing in this regard.
It has even supported the prosecution of BJP member Subramanian Swamy for alleged hate speech ‘against a community’ in his book Terrorism in India . Mr Swamy had defended himself by saying the provisions relating to hate speech were too widely worded, the implication being that it is difficult to fathom what kind of speech is proscribed and what is not.
But the truth is that, starting from the days of British rule, there have been laws to prevent hate speeches and incitement to violence. The Constitution does provide for freedom of speech and expression but imposes limits to such freedoms.
If any person has been convicted of hate speech, he or she loses the right to contest elections under the Representation of the People Act. Books have been pulled off the shelves for causing hurt to communities, and films prevented from being screened because they were found to be historically inaccurate and hence injurious to a group’s sentiments.
All these were done under some law or the other. In that case, why can’t bans on offensive speeches be enforced?
Unfortunately, successive governments have failed to move much in this regard. Ironically, on the same day Mr Swamy’s case was reported, there was news of former Madhya Pradesh minister Kailash Vijayvargiya, who is a senior BJP functionary, tweeting that actor Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘soul is in Pakistan’ and a BJP worker in Karnataka threatening to ‘behead’ chief minister Siddaramaiah if he ate beef.
On Wednesday, even as the BJP distanced itself from Mr Vijayvargiya’s comments, party MP Yogi Adityanath exacerbated matters by drawing parallels between Mr Khan’s comments and those of Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed.
The official line against hate speech should be clear: No less a figure than Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently spoke out against the intolerance from which hate speech springs, saying that “the mantra of unity” should be the medium of our thinking and behaviour.
The Law Commission is reportedly working on the definition of hate speech. From that the government can move a step ahead and push for an omnibus law dealing with hate speeches and how to stop them, as it did in the case of an overarching law protecting the environment. But in the end what will matter is a consistently strong political will to act — often against its own.