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Mainstream, VOL LII No 19; May 3, 2014

Freedom of Speech versus Hate Speech

Monday 5 May 2014

by Imtiaz Ahmad Ansari

“I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
— Voltaire

While writing this article I am little bit apprehensive. This apprehension arises out of the way the notion of freedom of speech has been understood and implemented in India. Freedom of speech and expression is one of the fundamental principles on which any free society is based. Most of the democratic nations consider freedom of speech a fundamental right. Freedom to express opinions and ideas without any prohibitions and fear is the hallmark of any progressive society. Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution of India guarantees “freedom of speech and expression” to every citizen with certain restrictions in the interest of preserving public order and morality.

India is a land of contrasts. In 1988, Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was banned by the Indian Governemnt under pressure from the Muslim groups. Similalry, in 2010, the Mumbai University decided to withdraw the book Such a Long Journey, written by Rohinton Mistry, from its reading list for portraying the Right-wing group Shiv Sena in negative lights. More recently, in 2014, the Siksha Bachao Andolan Samiti forced the publisher (Penguin India) of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, to withdraw all copies from circulation in India. The charge was that the book presented Hindu religion in a bad light and insulted their gods. The list of banned books, films, paintings and other artistic expressions is very long. All this has been done in the name of maintaining peace, public order and morality.

Elections for the 16th Lok Sabha has already started. And with it has started the culture of hate speech. In the last week of March, 2014, Imran Masood, the Congress candidate from Saharanpur, delivered a speech in which he purportedly called for chopping off Narendra Modi’s hand. And with it, a spiral of hate speeches has started by different people belonging to different factions. Amit Shah and Azam Khan joined Masood in the relay race of hate and derogatory speeches. The list of hate-mongers is also very long. To curb them, certain corrective measures were taken by the state apparatus. However, the question is: why is it easier to ban Rushdie’s, Mistry’s and Doniger’s book but not Masood’s, Shah’s and Khan’s speaches? From where, and how, the state machinery concludes that the members belonging to the first group of species are more inimical to public order than those belonging to the second group? The danger which the act of the members of the second group pose to the integrity and peace of society far outweighs the threat, if any, from the members of the first group. And any sane human being can easily differentiate this. By any count, no peace of art created by members of the first group can disrupt public order until and unless they are manipulated and used by the members of the second group for their narrow political gains. A piece of creative writing or art needs to be debated rather than banned.

The grammar of freedom of speech is different from hate speech. When the right to exercise freedom of speech transforms into hate speech, the situation becomes more provocative and rhetorical. Hate speech is usually based on stereotypes and intended to incite hostile behaviour between two groups of people. It is mostly during the phase of mass movements and elections that hate speeches germinate. Because during those phases, the environment is most fertile for their fruition. And the most fertile ground in this election for hate speeches is Uttar Pradesh. Whichever party wins the battle of Uttar Pradesh in this election, will play a decisie role in forming the government in New Delhi next month. Therefore, all major political parties are hell-bent on polarising the electorate there. They do so not because they are really concerned about the welfare of the people but to consolidate their vote-bank. On the one hand, when the Muzaffarnagar riots created a situation of confusion in the Muslim community, Imran Masood and Azam Khan were there to con-solidate their votes. Similarly, when the Congress party offered the freebie of reservation to the people of Jat community, the only tried and tested weapon left in the armoury of the BJP to consolidate their vote-bank was inciting communal passions through hate speech. And this was quite well done by Modi’s frontman, Amit Shah.

We all talk about the threat which the communal forces pose to this country. Every community, whether majority or minority, wants the culture of hate and violence to end. They do not subscribe to the fundamentalist identity politics. However, certain vested interests within the community have kept the flame of communal fire burning. On the one hand, Muslims want to live in peace and dignity but at the same time the so-called Muslim leaders have created an environment of hostility. Similarly, whereas Narendra Modi, through his party’s manifesto, talks about providing equal treatment to minorities, at the same time his front man, Amit Shah, wants to take revenge and teach them a lesson. It needs to be understood that intolerant and fundamentalist tendencies are present in all religious communities in India. But they form a minority. Banning hate speech doesn’t end communalism. But social rejection does. It must be socially unacceptable. We must all stand up against the hate-mongers. It is the duty of the people of India to rise above identity politics. Only then can these fundamentalist forces be defeated. And only then can a progressive and united India emerge.

The author is associated with the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at: imtiaz.ahmad01@gmail.com