NEW DELHI: Observing that hate speech is like a poison that is damaging the social fabric of India and political parties are making capital out of it at the cost of social harmony, the Supreme Court on Wednesday said strict action must be taken against the guilty. It asked the Centre whether it is contemplating framing a law to tackle the menace as recommended by the Law Commission because the existing system is inadequate to prevent such incidents in a meaningful way.
A bench of Justices K M Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy said the Centre should not be a “mute witness” and instead take a lead in handling the problem. The government should also not treat this as a “trivial matter”, the bench said, hinting it would fill up the legal vacuum by passing orders and framing guidelines on the lines of what the apex court did earlier in the Vishaka case for dealing with sexual exploitation at workplace.
The bench was particularly miffed with television channels and their anchors for allowing others to spread hate during their programmes, and said those indulging in such acts should be dealt with sternly and taken off air in order to send a stern message to others not to use hate for TRP.
It said people must understand that no religion preaches hatred, everybody belongs to the country and there is no place of hatred.
Under the existing laws, neither hate speech has been defined, nor is there any specific provision to curb it. Police take recourse to Sections 153(A) and 295, which deal with incitement and spreading of disaffection among communities, to tackle it. Though the clamour for a specific anti-hate speech provision in law has steadily grown, defining what constitutes “hate speech” may be tricky, with the risk of an expansive law being used by the authorities to curb free expression.
At the outset of the hearing, the court asked the petitioners who the ultimate beneficiary of hate speeches is. They admitted it is the politician. “It is an honest answer,” the court said.
“The political parties are making capital out of it. The role of the anchor (in news channels) is very important. Hate speech either takes place in mainstream television or in social media. Social media is largely unregulated… As far as mainstream television channels are concerned… it’s the duty of the anchor to stop hate speech by not allowing a person to say anything further,” the SC said.
People should always remember that those who are targeted and being run down are also citizens of this country and the institutions like the press should foster the constitutional principles of fraternity that will not be there if people fight among themselves, the court said. “Political parties will come and go but the nation will endure the institution including press… Without a totally independent press, no country can go forward. It is absolutely important but the government should put in place a mechanism which would be abided by all. Why are you taking it as a trivial matter,” the SC asked the Centre after it contended that it was collating information from states.
Advocate Sanjay Tyagi, appearing for the Centre, said it had got information from 14 states, and the Centre would file response after getting information from other states.
The Law Commission had recommended inserting Section 153 C in the Indian Penal Code, which would say whoever on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe uses gravely threatening words — either spoken or written — or advocates hatred shall be punishable with imprisonment of up to two years and fine of up to Rs 5,000. The SC was hearing a batch of petitions seeking the court’s intervention to stop hate speeches and hate-mongering as such incidents are on rise and are a threat to peace and harmony of the country.
BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Upadhyay contended the Law Commission had in a comprehensive report in 2017 recommended to bring a separate provision within IPC to deal with the crime of hate speech, but it had not been implemented so far.
Holding that states and UTs are duty-bound to take preventive, remedial and punitive measures to stop hate speeches as per its 2018 verdict, the court during the last hearing directed them to file report on actions taken by them in the past four years. The apex court, in a 2018 verdict, said lynching and mob violence were creeping threats to society, instigated by intolerance and misinformation through circulation of fake news and false stories.
Regarding preventive measures, the apex court has directed that a SP-rank officer be appointed as nodal officer in each district for taking measures to prevent incidents of mob violence.