Known to be a single nation despite diversity in almost all spheres, India’s spirit of ‘unity in diversity’ is under threat because of the hate culture that has grown to gargantuan proportion over the years and spread across the country. Expressed in many forms and forums, words of hate, generally called hate speech, have not only spread hatred and incited violence across the length and breadth of India, but also are severely endangering the very fabric and ethos of Indian society.
In a more dangerous trend, hatred is aggressively conquering the civic space of the country, restricting free speech and the fundamental rights granted by the Constitution to every citizen of India.
Hate speech and hate crime – definitions
Under European Union (EU) law, hate speech and hate crimes are considered forms of offenses involving certain manifestations of racism and xenophobia. It defines hate speech as ‘public incitement to violence or hatred directed to groups or individuals on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent and national or ethnic origin.’ In regard to hate crime, ‘In all cases, racist or xenophobic motivation shall be considered to be an aggravating circumstance or, alternatively, the courts must be empowered to take such motivation into consideration when determining the penalties to be applied,’ the EU law explains.
In India, hate speech has not been defined in any law, according to the Law Commission reports. ‘However, legal provisions in certain legislations prohibit select forms of speech as an exception to freedom of speech,’ the Commission says in its March 2017 report on Hate Speech.
Taking into consideration definitions available in different countries and regions of the globe, the Law Commission of India report defines hate speech as ‘an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like.’
Any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence is a form of hate speech, the report clarifies while passing an alert that ‘hate speech poses complex challenges to freedom of speech and expression.’
Intended for polarisation of voters or to make political gain in other forms, many incidents of hate speech in India generally involve politicians.
Hate speech by Yogi Adityanath on 27 January 2007, who was then Parliamentarian of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from Gorakhpur constituency of Uttar Pradesh, targeting a minority community incited several incidents of violence in Gorakhpur.
According to the Indian Express, ‘Following his speech, communal riots broke out. Several trains, buses, mosques, and homes were burnt down. At least 10 people had lost their lives in the incident as well.’
In September 2014, in order to polarise the Hindu population against a minority community, he ascribed the rise in riots in Western UP to the population growth of the later. As quoted in several reports, he said, ‘In places where there are 10 to 20percent minorities, stray communal incidents take place. Where there are 20 to 35percent of them, serious communal riots take place and where they are more than 35 percent, there is no place for non-Muslims.’ In November 2015, he compared a noted film personality of India, who was from a minority community, as equal to a terrorist based in Pakistan.
BJP rose to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 assembly polls and, maybe, as dividend for the hate speech he made as a Parliamentarian to fetch political benefits for his party, Yogi Adityanath was appointed to lead the BJP Government in the State as the Chief Minister.
Another BJP Parliamentarian, Anant Kumar Hegde, from the State of Karnataka publicly said in March 2016, ‘As long as we have Islam in the world, there will be no end to terrorism. If we are unable to end Islam, we won’t be able to end terrorism.’ After making seven such hate speeches since 2014, he was promoted to Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship in September 2017.
Other than the BJP leaders, Akbaruddin Owaisi, a leader from a minority community, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen issued, in December 2012, a violent threat against Hindus. During a speech he said, ‘Remove the police for 15 minutes, we will finish off 100 crore Hindus.’ He was then a member of Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly.
‘The premise of the exercise was simple: it seems not a day, or a week goes by without some senior politician – a Member of Parliament (MP), Minister, Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) or even Chief Minister – making a hateful comment, be it in the language of bigotry or calling for violence,’ the NDTV report said, ‘The rise in use of social media by politicians has only amplified this disturbing trend.’
Based on the findings of analysis, from May 2014 to April 2018, there were 124 instances of VIP hate speech by 45 politicians, compared to 21 instances under UPA 2, an increase of 490 percent. ‘90 percent of all hateful comments made during the NDA’s current term are by BJP politicians,’ the report said.
With total of 58 current MPs and MLAs with declared cases related to hate speech against them, 27 are from the Bharatiya Janata Party, said an Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) report released in April 2018.
Since BJP came to power in 2014, the number of hate crimes reported by media increased steadily year by year, making 2018 the year with the highest number of incidents, data shows.
The number of hate crimes, as reported by English language media operating in the country, was 8 in 2010, it came down to 1 each in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, as India was moving towards the general polls in 2014, the number surged to 9 and steadily went upward to 18 in 2014, 30 in 2015, 41 in 2016, 74 in 2017, and touched the record number of 93 in 2018. The rise of numbers in 2013 and the steady increase over the years till 2018 can largely be attributed to BJP’s manoeuvre to come to power by polarising Hindus, the country’s majority religious community, and destabilising the very fabric of the society, to ensure its continuation in power in India by winning the 2019 general elections.
Most of the hate crimes being related to religion and cows, considered sacred animal in Hindu religion, the number of hate-crime cases involving cow vigilantes have increased manifold during the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government.
According to facts checked by IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, there have been 124 incidents of cow related violence or hate crimes in India between 2012 till date. At least 296 people were victim of these violent crimes in which 46 deaths were recorded. Of the total victims, 56 percent were from the Muslim minority community, 10 percent belonged to the Dalit communities.
Over 98 percent of cow-related hate crimes, recorded over nine years since 2010, took place after 2014, when the BJP Government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge at the centre.
Instead of curbing the perpetrators, in many of the lynching cases, members of either the Hindu nationalist BJP or its right-wing affiliates incited or organised the mobs. The killers were praised for their act, many a times.
Of the incidents that occurred in 2018, 60 percent involved Muslim victims and 14 percent Christians. A Sikh was the victim in one incident. This means that minorities were victims in 75 percent of all incidents in 2018.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Harsh Mander, Director of New Delhi based Centre for Equity Studies, said that the perpetrators film these lynchings and post online to communicate a threatening message to the victims, who are often minorities or from lower-caste communities.
However, ‘These are just the tip of the iceberg, what we have encountered on the ground are a much larger number of cases–many reported in the local papers–many not reported at all. But no doubt there has been an extraordinary rise in the number hate crimes across the country in recent years,’ Mander told IndiaSpend in an interview.
‘There seems to be a kind of permissive environment for people to engage in hate speech and to act out on hate,’ Mander said, ‘This plays out in terms of lynching, individual hate attacks, attacks on places of worship–especially Christian places of worship on priests and nuns–and attacks on Dalits (which has been going on for much longer). Particularly, against Muslims, we see a marked rise in the number of attacks and their viciousness.’
Attacks based on race, religion, caste or ethnicity in India often occur when the attackers believe they have political cover to safeguard them from State retribution, noted Indiaspend based upon views of experts in criminal law and human rights.
In a string of incidents, BJP members have been accused of supporting or even inciting violence against Muslims, leaving many in the country’s Muslim community of 172 million — the third largest in the world — fearful, The Washington Post observed.
The political dispensation under which these crimes take place must be held accountable, criminal law and human rights experts urged.
Media – the hate speech carrier
Here comes the role of media to highlight the hate speech issue, pressurise the Government to deal with it strongly to stop the spread of hatred and curb hate crimes. Media also play a role in holding the ruling political dispensation accountable.
But, ironically, media as a whole, mainstream as well as a number of social media platforms, has rather become the vehicle of hate speech and hatred.
According to Devika Agarwal, a researcher at National Law University, Delhi, ‘Common discourse on social media, its impact on mainstream media and the way people communicate with one another and disseminate information has come under a lot of analysis recently, especially due to the lack of discretion.’
Talking about hate speech and how media rubble-rousing proved counter-productive to free speech, Agarwal pointed out in her article, how a popular TV news anchor created a stir when he named the activists and lawyers in connection with the Bhima Koregaon raids ‘Urban Naxals’ and ‘Maoists’ on his prime time show.
[A village with historical significance in Pune district of Maharashtra, Bhima Koregaon became the rallying point for Dalit activists on January 1, 2018, that marked 200 years to a battle fought during the British days. Violence broke out during the commemorative event after some groups carrying saffron flags entered the scene. Opposition political parties and Left-wing activists blamed the Hindutva outfits and the ruling BJP for the violence that killed one person and left many injured. A probe was launched by Maharashtra police that conducted multiple raids in connection with the violence and arrested five persons on August 28, 2018. Those arrested were writer-poet P Varavara Rao, lawyers Sudha Bhardwaj, Arun Farreira and Vernon Gonzalves, and Gautam Navalakha.]
While human rights activists had proposed that the channel should be sued for hate speech on grounds of instigating communities and threatening national security, a filmmaker hinted that it was the use of the term, Naxalite, for Sudha Bharadwaj (one of the five activists arrested for the Bhima Koregaon violence) by the same anchor, which led to her arrest.
‘When prominent journalists start branding human rights activists as Maoists and anti-nationals, it becomes hate speech because of its potential to incite members of the public to commit acts of violence/hatred against the activists based on the views held by them. This appears to be true in case of the attacks on Umar Khalid and perhaps, even in case of the activists arrested in relation to the Bhima Koregaon incident,’ she viewed.
In the context of attack on Umar Khalid, a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in August 2018, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah condemned the attack as a hate campaign using social and mainstream media. According to an article published in The Indian Express, Khalid was termed ‘more dangerous to this country than Maoist terrorists’ and ‘anti-national’ on news channel Times Now by its anchor.
‘The media has a greater responsibility to not indulge in hate speech merely because of the views held by an individual. Hate speech can amount to trial by media which results in further harassment of those individuals and has a chilling effect on free speech,’ Agarwal noted.
Fake news spreading hatred
In a roundtable organised by the Centre for Internet and Society on identifying and limiting hate speech and harassment online, it was highlighted that social media platforms, with their increasing popularity, are being considered the most open and easiest mediums to post and share rumours and twisted information.
Sundeep Khanna of the LiveMint observes, ‘(…) the rapidity of transmission and the ease of seeding on these platforms make any volatile messages, particularly videos and pictures, lethal in consequence.’ An academic study titled Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime by Karsten Muller and Carlo Schwarz of the University of Warwick in the UK concludes that there is a direct correlation between social media posts and the hate crimes, which happen as consequence of the former.
According to BBC research, widespread sharing of false rumours or fake information on social media platforms like WhatsApp has led to a wave of violence in India. The research found that facts were less important to some than the emotional desire to bolster national identity.
‘Social media analysis suggested that right-wing networks are much more organised than on the left, pushing nationalistic fake stories further,’ the research found.
People are ‘gullible enough’ to believe anything that sounds ‘close to the truth,’ says a Press Trust of India (PTI) report quoting views of Mumbai-based psychologist Dr Harish Shetty.
But who are the people who start such rumours? And why do they do so? ‘Perhaps, to hurt someone’s reputation,’ Sevanti Ninan, founder of the media watchdog portal The Hoot, said in the report. However, Pratik Sinha of Alt News — a website that more often exposes fake news — said that such rumours are mostly driven by political propaganda, where unrelated videos are given a ‘local twist’ to incite hatred or violence.
In the view of Shetty, people who cook up such misleading texts or videos are often fuelled by a desire to experience a certain ‘thrill.’ They want to cause trouble, stand there, watch, and have fun. With the deeper penetration of technology, particularly with mobile data getting cheaper, all it takes to start a rumour is a message on social media.
‘There are no direct provisions against people spreading fake news under the IT Act,’ said Pavan Duggal, cyber law expert and Supreme Court lawyer, ‘It is time India wakes up to regulating fake news in a priority manner. Fake news doesn’t come under the Press Council of India. A national ombudsman can be a one point contact for all these instances.’
‘The credibility of the media is at rock bottom today. It is a good enough reason for journalists to come together to do something about fake news,’ said Ammu Joseph, independent journalist, author and a core member of the Network of Women In Media. In a report, she also opined that organisations should even use it to leverage themselves as being ones who do not share fake, false or misleading news.
As per observations of Anoo Bhuyan of The Wire, ‘Today the situation is such that external watchdogs have to keep the media accountable. But this accountability can only be extended to – and demanded of – formal news organisations. None of these rules apply to the explosion of dispersed sources of news and information that we now have through social media.’
‘Journalists should not drop their basic hygiene practices,’ Aayush Soni, a Delhi based social media consultant, suggested while speaking to The Wire, ‘Rumour has basically attained a social media platform. Take what you get on social media, just as you would with any other tip off, lead or leak. But even if this might be the source of one’s story, it doesn’t mean the information doesn’t need to be verified as would be the case with any non-social media tip off as well.’
Fear of a hateful future
‘Hate crimes are hurting India’s children,’ observed Amiti Varma and Arijit Sen in their article, In the face of violence: Children and hate crimes in India,‘it’s time to protect future generations and break the cycle of violence.’
To explain how children of this country are exposed to hate culture, hatred and hate crimes, the authors narrated the story of Junaid who was stabbed to death while on his way to shop for the Eid festivals.
On 22 June 2017, 15-year-old Junaid, a Muslim boy, boarded a train at the Sadar Bazar railway station in North Delhi. Junaid, his brother Hashim, and two others had gone to Delhi to shop for the Eid festival and were returning home to Haryana, just a few stops away. This would be his last journey. He was stabbed to death on the train by a mob when an alleged argument over a seat turned into an attack based on religious identity. Religious slurs were hurled at Junaid and his companions, they were derided for eating beef, their skullcaps thrown away, their beards pulled, and they were slapped and kicked. Junaid, Hashim and their brother Sakir, who boarded the train to rescue his brothers, were repeatedly stabbed. Junaid’s body and his two injured brothers were then thrown on to the railway station platform.
Asked about possible reasons for the death of his son, Jalaluddin, Junaid’s father, said that ‘deep-rooted communal hatred against the community’ was behind the murder.
Children being the future of the country, it is highly concerning to come across the fact that children or minors are getting exposed to the growing hate culture and are also the victims of hate crimes. As pointed out by Varma and Sen, ‘In incidents across India, children from marginalised communities have been targeted because of their Dalit, Adivasi or Muslim identity.’
So, as children are being forced to grow up in a culture of hate, where is India heading? It certainly rings an alarm for immediate action from the Government and all quarters of society.
Basudev Mahapatra is a freelance journalist and writer based in Bhubaneswar (Odisha), India. He can be contacted by email: [email protected], or his twitter handle: @BasudevNews.