On Hate Speeches

Moa Jamir

The issue of hate speeches, whether alleged or otherwise, periodically emerges in the public domain in India. Most recently, there was a significant uproar when one such speech was alleged to have been made in Parliament, considered the abode of democracy. The proliferation of various social media platforms, along with political polarisation, appears to fuel this phenomenon.

In April 2023, terming speeches as a "serious offense" capable of undermining the secular fabric of the country, the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories (UTs) to Suo Motu register cases against those making hate speeches, even without any complaint. Nevertheless, it continues with impunity.

However, it is prudent to understand what a ‘hate speech’ is first. According to the United Nations (UN), there is no universal definition of hate speech under international human rights law, and the concept is still “under discussion, especially in relation to freedom of opinion and expression, non-discrimination, and equality.” 

To address the issue globally with a unified framework, the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, however, defined it as: “Any kind of communication in speech, writing, or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group based on who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factors.”

According to the UN, this definition, though not a legal one, is broader than ‘incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence’ – which is prohibited under international human rights law and has three important attributes.

First, hate speech can be conveyed through any form of expression, including images, cartoons, memes, objects, gestures, and symbols, and it can be disseminated offline or online.

Second, it is “discriminatory” (biased, bigoted, or intolerant) or “pejorative” (prejudiced, contemptuous, or demeaning) towards an individual or group.

Third, hate speech targets real or perceived “identity factors” of an individual or a group, including: “religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender,” but also characteristics such as language, economic or social origin, disability, health status, or sexual orientation, among many others.

Furthermore, the UN emphasises that hate speech can only be “directed at individuals or groups of individuals” and does not include “communication about States and their offices, symbols, or public officials, nor about religious leaders or tenets of faith.”

Hate speech is a denial of the values of tolerance, inclusion, diversity, and the very essence of human rights norms and principles, the UN noted, and when left “unchecked, expressions of hatred can even harm societies, peace, and development, as it lays the groundwork for conflict, tension, and human rights violations, including atrocity crimes.”

Tackling the issue is imperative and demands a holistic approach, mobilising society as a whole. According to the UN, all individuals and organisations – including governments, media, private and Internet corporations, faith leaders, educators, youth, and civil society – have a moral duty to firmly speak out against hate speech and counter “this scourge.” It also recommends constant monitoring and analysis to fully understand its dynamics. 

Preventive measures, however, are equally imperative. The UN’s plan stressed on the transformative power of education as a tool to address the root causes and drivers of this phenomenon and promote peaceful, inclusive, and just societies for all. For starters, the syllabus and curriculum themselves should not be divisive but inclusive.

The concerned authorities must also demonstrate political will, prioritising the resolution of this issue irrespective of the identity of the perpetrators and the targeted victims at all levels, not political gain. 

In Nagaland, the phenomenon of hate speeches has not reached a ‘concerning level,’ but the danger remains. The society and the concerned authorities must be well-prepared and equipped to deal with the issue adequately and holistically as and when required.

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