Hate speech a 'winner' in LS polls?

BY Geeta Seshu| IN Media Practice | 12/05/2014
Almost every party indulged in the use of vitriol, which may not have directly exhorted violence but definitely lowered the tone and tenor of the debate.
GEETA SESHU examines the misuse of freedom of expression this election season. PIX: Samajwadi Party~s Azam Khan

With the end of the last phase of voting on May 12, the ‘winner’ in this highly divisive and contentious 16th Lok Sabha poll campaign is already evident and it is neither the purveyors of development nor those who speak of governance, but the pedlars of hate speech. 

The break out of violence in Assam apart from the number of places where skirmishes have taken place in the wake of election campaigning these last few months, is alarming, to say the least. Election speeches by the BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi against ‘infiltrators’ and calls for more control at the border increased the tension in these areas. At least 31 Muslims were killed when riots broke out in Assam barely a couple of weeks later. 

The atmosphere has been vitiated by calls for revenge or lessons to be taught to those who don’t vote for this party or that (as Amit Shah put it: the election “is one of honour, it is an opportunity to take revenge and to teach a lesson to people who have committed injustice”) or action to be taken against purported outsiders and infiltrators – there didn’t seem to be any end to the depth this kind of hate-mongering could sink to. 

Even on the day before the last round of polling Azamgarh saw a “blood will flow today” speech made by the sitting MP and BJP candidate Ramakant Yadav.  

This election campaign demonstrated the willingness of politicians of the major political parties to use the language of hate with impunity. The roll call of contestants, party functionaries and supporters who were charged with hate speech is just one indication – from Imran Masood of the Congress party, Amit Shah and Giriraj Singh of the BJP, Azam Khan of Samajwadi Party, Ramdas Kadam of the Shiv Sena, Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to yoga teacher Baba Ramdev. 

The Election Commission, which banned some of these leaders from campaigning, was also constrained to issue a show cause notice to Congress (I) leader Rahul Gandhi for his remarks that 22,000 people will be killed if the BJP comes to power! The Commission said he had violated the model code of conduct that restrained candidates from indulging in any activity that could aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred. 

Clearly, almost every party indulged in the use of vitriol, which may not have directly exhorted violence but definitely lowered the tone and tenor of the debate. Abusive attacks became more and more desperate towards the end of the campaign. Here too, the roll call included almost every leader from the main political parties - Sonia Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Beni Prasad Verma Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee, Karnataka Chief Minister K Siddharamaiah and Samajwadi Party leaders Nahid Hasan and Abu Azmi. 

That the politics of hate will not abate after the Lok Sabha elections is also a given and the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Nirman Sena (MNS) in Maharashtra are already gearing up for the state assembly elections with calls for action, this time against Mumbai-based Gujaratis who voted for Modi!  

Action against hate speech?  

But now, with the heat and dust of election campaigning at an end, it is time to examine the action these hate speeches can invite. The Supreme Court, which maintained (in response to a writ seeking directives to tackle hate speech earlier this year) that the country has sufficient laws to deal with hate speech, has asked the Law Commission to come out with guidelines on dealing with this pernicious malaise. 

During the course of the elections, the Election Commission’s powers are limited to censuring candidates but it can, and did, ban campaigning by candidates like Amit Shah and Azam Khan with limited success this time. It can also monitor campaigning more closely and directed its poll officers to do so. It can direct that FIRs are lodged against candidates and leaders who indulge in hate speech. 

In this election, a number of FIRs have been lodged – against Baba Ramdev, Pravin Togadia, Azam Khan, Giriraj Singh, Amit Shah, Ramdas Kadam and Imran Masood. But these need to be monitored closely. Closer scrutiny on the investigations and evidence collected to actually frame a case of hate speech that stands up in a court of law is a real challenge. The laws do exist and the Indian Penal Code has explicit sections to deal with different kinds of speech and acts for a range of offences that are against religions, race, language or ethnicity: Section 124A, Section 153A or Section 295A while anti-casteist comments come under the purview of the Scheduled Tribes (SC and ST Act 1989 and Protection of Human Rights Act 1976). 

Not all the comments made by these politicians come under the rubric of ‘hate’ speech, even though they may be scurrilous or abusive, and even defamatory, attacks. The EC directives did take this into account, issuing its show cause notices or admonishing candidates and political leaders on occasion. But speeches that used violent language of direct physical attacks, that exhorted people along communal lines, that threatened revenge and retribution, that evoked fear of the ‘other’ – all of these are clearly actionable under the law. 

Investigations are crucial and cannot be conducted in a cavalier fashion or allowed to fail due to some technical reason. The experience of the cases against Varun Gandhi, charged with and subsequently acquitted for hate speech in Pilibhit in the 2009 elections, is still fresh – despite video evidence, the cases collapsed when over 50 witnesses turned hostile. While it is another matter that Gandhi is reported to have mellowed in campaigning for the Sultanpur seat this time round, the fact is political parties and their candidates are confident of getting away with the worst kind of hate mongering.

If hate politics is allowed to emerge a winner, there will be no greater blow for freedom of expression in this country.

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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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