One does not have to be a rocket scientist today to realise that hate speech is on the rise in India, with the potential to incite violence, undermine social cohesion and tolerance, and cause psychological, emotional, and physical harm to those affected.
Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
ON all counts, the decision by the United Nations General Assembly to declare 18 June as the International Day for Countering Hate Speech (beginning this year, 2022) is significant. It comes at a special moment of history when hate speech in several parts of the globe seems to have become the order of the day leading to xenophobia, jingoism, exclusivism and ultimately unbridled violence.
For India particularly, it comes at a time when hate speech is not merely mainstreamed, but those who indulge in hate speech do so with impunity since they are guaranteed immunity by a regime which provides legitimacy to an agenda which is divisive, discriminatory and has no qualms about conscience in denigrating the ‘other’! Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, officials of the BJP are classic examples of how they can use hate speech to the hilt and of the law-and-order machinery which does not do anything about them.
Three years ago, in May 2019 to be precise, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, in a powerful statement, had said, “Around the world, we are seeing a disturbing groundswell of xenophobia, racism and intolerance – including rising anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred and persecution of Christians. Social media and other forms of communication are being exploited as platforms for bigotry. Neo-Nazi and white supremacy movements are on the march. Public discourse is being weaponised for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatises and dehumanises minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called “other”.
“This is not an isolated phenomenon or the loud voices of a few people on the fringe of society. Hate is moving into the mainstream – in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems alike. And with each broken norm, the pillars of our common humanity are weakened. Hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace.
“As a matter of principle, the United Nations must confront hate speech at every turn. Silence can signal indifference to bigotry and intolerance, even as a situation escalates and the vulnerable become victims. Tackling hate speech is also crucial to deepen progress across the United Nations agenda by helping to prevent armed conflict, atrocity crimes and terrorism, end violence against women and other serious violations of human rights, and promote peaceful, inclusive and just societies.”
What Guterres said is painfully applicable to India today. One does not have to be a rocket scientist today to realise that hate speech is on the rise in India, with the potential to incite violence, undermine social cohesion and tolerance, and cause psychological, emotional, and physical harm to those affected. The nation has witnessed all of it, these past weeks – in the wake of Sharma’s obnoxious outburst. Hate speech not only affects the specific individuals and groups targeted but also societies at large. In several parts of India today communities which lived in harmony for years are violently divided.
In a backgrounder for the ‘International Day for Countering Hate Speech’, the UN states, “The devastating effect of hatred is sadly nothing new. However, its scale and impact are amplified today by new technologies of communication, so much so that hate speech has become one of the most frequent methods for spreading divisive rhetoric and ideologies on a global scale. If left unchecked, hate speech can even harm peace and development, as it lays the ground for conflicts and tensions, and wide scale human rights violations. Hate speech is not only a denial of the essential values of the Organization, but it also undermines the UN Charter‘s very core principles and objectives, such as respect for human dignity, equality, and peace. Advancing human rights and fighting hate are at the heart of the Organization’s mission and the United Nations has the duty to confront the global issue of hate speech at every turn. The impact of hate speech cuts across numerous existing UN areas of focus, from human rights protection and prevention of atrocity crimes to sustaining peace and achieving gender equality and supporting children and youth.
“The International Day of Countering Hate Speech’ is an initiative that builds on the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech launched on 18 June 2019. This first UN system-wide initiative designed to tackle hate speech provides an essential framework for how the Organization can support and complement States’ efforts. The strategy emphasises the need to counter hate holistically and with full respect for freedom of opinion and expression, while working in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including civil society organizations, media outlets, tech companies and social media platforms. Hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace. As a matter of principle, hate speech must be confronted at every turn and be tackled in order to prevent armed conflict, atrocity crimes and terrorism, end violence against women and other serious violations of human rights, and promote peaceful, inclusive and just societies. India will not take this seriously.”
In India, we have mainstreamed violence ‘in the name of religion’. The violence against Muslims and Christians has been given legitimacy unheard of in any democracy all over the world. This violence, the UN emphasises, is often manifested through targeted attacks on individuals or communities, acts of extremism, communal violence, State repression(bulldozing), discriminatory policies or legislation (like the anti-conversion laws, use of hijab etc.) and other types of embedded structural violence. Incidents involving hate speech, negative stereotyping, and advocacy of religious or national hatred have resulted in killings of innocent people, attacks on places of worship and calls for reprisals. Such violence also disproportionately targets religious dissidents, members of religious minorities, converts or non-believers. We see this happening today with frightening regularity.
On 1 July 1946, just a year before India got her independence, Ahmedabad was on the boil with the traditional rath yatra taking place. Unfortunately, instead of it being a day of bonding and harmony, the day flared into communal violence as both Hindus and Muslims went for the jugular: in a rioting spree and murdering one another. Vasant Rao Hegishte and Rajab Ali Lakhani were good friends and also volunteers with the Seva Dal. Deeply disturbed with what was happening in the city, they were determined to do all they could to stop the venom, the fire and the killing from spreading. They jumped into the midst of the violence begging those involved on both sides to cry halt immediately; many did listen and relented.
There is recorded evidence which show that their heroics helped save a Muslim driver from a Hindu mob and a Hindu who owned a washing company from a Muslim mob. Their acts of valour seemed to have temporarily quelled the violence. Late that day, they returned very exhausted to the Congress Office at Khand-ni-Sheri when they received news that a group of Dalit families in the Jamalpur area were surrounded by a very violent mob.
They immediately ran back and tried to pacify the mob. Their entreaties fell on deaf ears. The crowd warned them to stay away; but Vasant and Rajab lay down on the road in order to prevent the Dalit families from being touched. The blood-thirsty mob did not spare them and brutally murdered them: two young men who had the courage to lay down their lives for the cause of communal harmony and peace!
In India today, rife with hate and violence, Vasant and Rajab have much to teach us: the country thanks to machinations of the fascists is deeply polarised and divided on communal lines. Manipulative politicians and other vested interests leave no stone unturned in dividing and instigating people in the name of religion. A great shame but a painful reality! ‘The International Day of Countering Hate Speech’ and the anniversary of the martyrdom of Vasant and Rajab, less than a fortnight away, are reminders to all, that our great country is about pluralism and diversity; about respect and tolerance of all religions and ideologies and above all, about justice and equity for all. The preamble to our Constitution embodies these.
A National Campaign Against Hate, in a draft statement says: “The goal is to strive for fraternity which is the only way to robustly strengthen the other pillars of our democracy, namely justice, liberty and equality. We need to perforce formulate evidence-based collective responses that resist all forms of discrimination, as well as attacks and atrocities on all oppressed communities, whether marginalised due to caste, religion, gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality or ability, as well as those who organise as workers, civil rights activists, and also individuals who raise their voices.
“We seek to: 1. Build harmony and solidarity at every level, from grassroots to international within a framework of justice. 2. Strive to safeguard fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms and resist draconian laws and measures 3. Educate ourselves about syncretic pluralistic cultures, traditions and sub-altern histories country-wide 4. Build upon these traditions to strengthen fraternity within and across communities’ country-wide 5. Stem all Hindutva-driven attempts to dilute or replace our constitution 6. Seek justice for victims of communal, casteist and misogynist hatred and discrimination 7. Be alive to India’s heritage of casteism and patriarchy in order to strengthen our democratic ethos within 8. Comprehend and support ‘Not in My Name’ campaigns and all local resistance against fascism.”
There is hope, as long as there are committed citizens, who have the courage to address the hate-spree and to stop the rot. The regime must be held accountable and there has to be a people’s movement that is visible and vocal in saying, “enough is enough”! Today, the first ‘International Day of Countering Hate Speech’ is a beginning; the journey ahead will be tough!
The words from the Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ could help sustain one in the journey
“Obstinate are the trammels,
but my heart aches when I try to break them.
Freedom is all I want,
But to hope for it I feel ashamed.
I am certain that priceless wealth is in thee,
And that thou art my best friend,
But I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room.
The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death;
I hate it, yet hug it in love.
My debts are large, my failures great,
My shame secret and heavy;
Yet when I come to ask for my good,
I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted”.
Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org