It is now possible that a Hindutva leader, who only attracted international attention three months ago with his call for genocide against Muslims, may again call for a public meeting to take up arms against Muslims.
This happened while he was out on bail, not in some outback but in the capital of India, the largest (and, dare we say, secular) democracy in the world. That such calls for violence and genocide are becoming a regular occurrence shows how far the Republic has traveled in recent years.
Hate speech is now rampant in India, fueled in large part by government and societal silence. But often hate speech is only considered harmful when it is directly related to violence, and hate speech is tolerated when the intent was to “win the election,” as in a recent Supreme Court observation, or when allegations are made That this is the case does not lead to actual social discrimination.
As such, there is serious confusion about what hate speech is doing to our body. The contribution of hate speech, or its subset known as dangerous speech (particularly that circulating like a whirlwind through social media), to violence against minorities is very evident in recent times, be it the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar or the anti-Muslim ones Riots in Sri Lanka, anti-Hindu riots in Bangladesh or the violence in Delhi in 2020. It’s easy to spot.
But there is non-physical violence, the violence that hate speech inflicts on our understanding and psyche. This is not so easy and so obviously visible.
And this violence has long-term, multiple effects, including preparing actual physical violence, as well as actual social discrimination (think of laws that have serious implications for religious minorities, like the Citizenship Act (Amendment Act) – National Register of Citizens / Love Jihad, ban on Muslim traders at temple fairs, the BJP is the only ruling party in the history of India that does not have a Muslim Lok Sabha MP, and hatred of daily prime-time TV news programs, etc.). That is why philosopher Jeremy Waldron calls hate speech “an environmental threat to social peace, a kind of slow-acting poison that accumulates word for word here and there.”
Verbal violence against vulnerable or powerless minorities, hate speech experts point out, violates victims’ dignity, causes fear and emotional distress, impairs psychological well-being and makes them even more silent and second-class citizens. This verbal violence, even if it does not lead to direct violence, is itself discriminatory.
But there is another fundamental sense in which I would argue that hate speech, for example in relation to the religious majority in India, is harmful. This undermines our basic categories of political understanding. Hate speech is not only poison that verbally terrorizes the minority, it also establishes and affirms daily that the key economic, social and political conflict is between the religious minority and the majority, when in fact it is not.
Here, Hindus, Muslims and other minorities are reduced only to their religious identity, stripped of their deep divisions of class, caste and gender. People are not called to be slum dwellers, domestic servants, factory workers, smallholders or farm laborers, but merely religious subjects. As research shows, the rise of the militant Hindutva and the everyday vigilance against minorities on the Karnataka coast that has been in the news recently has prompted a response in the form of a radical Islamist mobilization that is playing on Muslim fears.
In this way, hate speech distracts attention from the most pressing societal problems and keeps genuine public debates about them in a state of suspended animation. Instead we are under the spell of Hijab, the temples and Muslim traders, the prohibition of meat during Navratri, azan and so on, one after the other as an endless cycle. This is the true catastrophe of hate speech.
So when Yogi Adityanath claims (before and during the recent election campaign) that “before 2017 those who called their father Abba Jaan would take over the monopoly [food rations]’, that the election campaign will be between ‘80% vs. 20%’, or that ‘India will be governed according to the Constitution and not Sharia’, dog whistles or coded hate speech can create not only hatred against Muslims but also a sense of ( false) victimhood among Hindus. His speech implies that Muslims are collectively taking away resources rightfully destined for Hindus, that they are “appeased” or that there is indeed a possibility that India will one day be governed by Islamic law.
A distinction must always be made between hate speech made by ordinary people and that spread by those in positions – particularly elected constitutional positions – with authority. The latter has an extremely serious impact on many, including the supposedly educated classes, who uncritically reproduce the beliefs inherent in these hate messages. The problem, then, is not only that hate speech can incite violence, but that hate speech by high-level officials (which is very high in India) has the power to change public discourse.
The problem is not only that, as scholars argue, hate speech undermines democratic debates by forcing victims to respond in highly emotional rather than rational tones, but unpunished hate speech continually pushes the boundaries of what can be said in public thereby normalizing hate speech.
That’s why you even see the (allegedly secular) opposition condoning hate speech because the discourse conditions have been significantly changed by religious majority politics with the support of state power. As such, it becomes weak when it comes to building robust ideological defenses of secularism or democracy.
Equally critical is the state’s institutional apathy in the dissemination of hate speech. Although hate speech is a crime under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and a corrupt electoral practice in particular, the Indian Electoral Commission, under the onslaught of the executive branch, has been selective and frugal in applying the laws to the prime minister and often senior ministers and prime ministers, while they (ineffective) Take action against some MLAs and MPs for hate speech. This has raised question marks with the Supreme Court, which wondered if he admitted to being “toothless and impotent against hate speech”. Courts have also been inconsistent in dealing with hate speech, expecting other institutions, particularly Parliament, to intervene.
A perennial dilemma for free speech activists is to ban all speech, especially since freedom of speech and expression are the lynchpins of a democracy. This is especially true when misapplied bans on hate speech or censorship may target legitimate political speech articulating the grievances of discriminated communities (or speech legitimately criticizing religion, etc.). So there can be no simple contextless equivalence between victims demanding justice and oppressors wanting to exercise their dominance when it comes to analyzing messages and speech for hate content. There is also the major disadvantage of relying on the state, particularly a majority state, to decide what constitutes hate speech.
Despite these real dilemmas, almost all liberal democracies around the world criminalize hate speech because its harm outweighs the argument of free speech. The only exception is the United States of America, where freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. However, it must be remembered that US-headquartered Twitter had to make the startling and unprecedented decision to ban the world’s most powerful person, incumbent US President Donald Trump, from its platform, emphasizing the dangers of unbridled hate speech. especially by those who hold the highest constitutional offices under the umbrella of free speech.
Hate speech, therefore, cannot simply be tolerated as harmless, and legal bans on hate speech become inescapable. There is also the question of power relations. What does freedom of expression mean when hate speech dominates public discourse? And when, as in the Indian case, it is reinforced by an army of social media users tied to the ruling dispensation with unmatched financial resources, and when social media giants like Facebook, whistleblowers show, become active accomplices in spreading the majority, hate and fake information in india will have serious consequences?
Therefore, legal prohibitions offer the only protection, even with the pitfalls mentioned. The Law Commission, in its 267th report, makes a welcome recommendation to create new sections in the IPC to specifically criminalize hate speech, rather than relying on existing laws. But the legal and judicial methods of dealing with hate speech, while highly critical, are simply not sufficient.
If there is no awareness and education about hate speech, and a larger political and cultural mobilization against hate speech, it will continue to wreak havoc. This is of course easier to demand than to achieve. But the first step against the normalization of hate speech would be to make the discussion about hate speech the focus of public discourse.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is from Dalhousie University, Canada and tweets @nmannathukkaren.