Kodaikanal: Before the elections, one might have had a serious discussion on what comprises freedom of speech and what its Constitutional limits are. Both are reasonably clearly defined under the law. Indians are entitled to full freedom of speech with a few exceptions, amongst which the most notable are bans on sedition and incitement to communal violence. The entitlement and bans are equally noteworthy, because they make clear that “we the people” chose to create a society in which we had the freedom to question our government and other dominant groups, but eschewed all forms of speech inciting violence, especially communal violence, here described as hate speech.
Over the past five years, each of these provisions has been challenged. Journalists who criticise the government or ruling party have cases against them, not to mention the merciless trolling that hounds them. The sedition ban has been misused against students, and the ban on hate speech has been repeatedly violated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers and party leaders with openly communal remarks.
These examples should have been a warning of the hideous election campaign to come, but the scale of its vitriolic bombast still caught most of us unawares. An NDTV survey found that hate speech has multiplied exponentially since the 2014 election campaign and that 84% of the instances of hate speech have been committed by BJP candidates. The Prime
Minister has himself repeatedly violated the Election’s Commission’s Model Code of Conduct—both in his repeated references to military actions to seek votes, and in his endless labelling of Opposition parties as Pakistani “agents”. BJP president Amit Shah has similarly violated the Model Code of Conduct, most recently in his announcement that a Citizen’s Register will offer citizenship to Buddhists, Hindus and Sikh immigrants, but not to Muslims or Christians. Neither leader has suffered a consequence for these clearly discriminatory utterances, not even a short-term campaigning ban.
What about the Opposition parties, BJP supporters will ask: have they not indulged in hate speech too? No, I don’t think so. Hate speech, as we have seen over the past five years, incites violence, most often communal in nature. What Yogi Adityanath said qualifies under this definition, because he pitted our Hindu majority (“Bajrang Bali”) against our Muslim minority (“Ali”). The BSP’s Mayawati and the Congress’ Sidhu, both of whom the Election Commission censured along with UP Chief Minister Adityanath, did engage in identity politics when the former asked Dalits and Muslims to unite and the latter asked Muslims to vote en bloc. But they did not spew hate against any group or community, as Adityanath did and continues to do.
By applying the same yardstick to Adityanath, Mayawati and Sidhu, the Election Commission has blurred an important distinction, between speech that plays into communal sentiments and encourages majoritarian domination on the one hand, and on the other, speech that seeks to unite the real and potential victims of such domination. The Election Commission’s punitive measures against the three should have reflected this great difference, but did not. Nor was the repeat offender, in this case Adityananth, suffer a repeated punishment.
Then again, what can we expect of an Election Commission that has not acted against Prime Minister Modi or BJP president Shah’s blatant violations of the Model Code of Conduct?
For that matter, does Giriraj Singh have the freedom of speech to call for a ban on the use of the colour green in electioneering, because it is a “Muslim colour”? Personally, I am in favour of a ban on all communal symbols in an election campaign, including the use of the colour saffron to Hinduise the campaign and the use of the colour green to Islamise it. If candidates are not allowed to speak communally, then why should they be allowed to use symbols—including the clothes they wear—that bring religion into politics, especially at a time when the country is being polarised along religious identities?
In the forty plus years that I have voted, I have not seen such an abusive, vulgar and biased election. I was among the many that feared Indira Gandhi might have suborned the Election Commission when she lifted the Emergency in 1977 and called elections. The voters, thankfully, proved me wrong. This time, I fear I will not be. Three phases of the election have been completed, without any serious action against hate speech. Clearly, the Election Commission is a severely weakened institution that has lost its credibility, just as our universities are losing their few liberties, among which the freedom of speech—and therefore thought—was paramount.
We appear to have arrived at a point where freedom of hate speech exists, but the freedom to criticise our rulers without hate does not. Having long prioritised the test of action above speech, on the grounds that we Indians love to vent our rage, but generally do not act on it, I now have to face the fact that for many of us, hate speech has become the precursor of hateful action. Given a chance, Pragya Thakur will demolish more mosques and masjids. Given a chance, Giriraj Singh will change our national flag to remove the band of green. Given a chance, Amit Shah will impose his National Register of Citizens, and who knows how many will somehow be omitted?
I hope I am wrong. Either way, we will soon find out. In the meantime, I will enjoy my freedom of speech for as long as it lasts. Luckily, I am not on social media, and so am spared the pain of being trolled.
Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst.