Once again, the first weeks of the Narendra Modi administration have been marked by hate crimes — two Muslim men beaten by mobs in Jharkhand and Mumbai, demanding they shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’, one so mercilessly that he died. Another man, a tribal, lynched in Tripura on suspicion of being a cattle thief. Most recently, 24 men accused of being cattle smugglers, beaten and made to shout ‘Gau Mata ki Jai’, in Rajasthan.
This time, however, there is a rising tide of concern, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, there have been a number of editorials, OpEds and talk shows calling for action; internationally, India has begun to feature prominently on a growing list of countries marked by hate crime, including hate speech in electoral campaigns.
A rising graph
Studies of hate crimes in India show that they have steadily risen over the past five years. Amnesty International India documented 721 such incidents between 2015 and 2018. Last year alone, it tracked 218 hate crimes, 142 of which were against Dalits, 50 against Muslims, 40 against women, and eight each against Christians, Adivasis, and transgenders. The more common hate crimes, they found, were honour killings — that have sadly occurred for decades — and ‘cow-related violence’, that was rare earlier but has become more frequent over the past five years.
According to Hate Crime Watch, crimes based on religious identity were in single digits until 2014, when they surged from nine in 2013 to 92 in 2018. Of the 291 incidents mentioned by the website, 152 occurred in Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled States, 40 in Congress-ruled States and the rest in States ruled by regional parties or coalitions. Rarely, if ever, did bystanders attempt to stop the violence or police arrive on time to do so. In both studies, Uttar Pradesh topped the list of States with the largest number of hate crimes for the third year, followed by Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Bihar.
These facts are striking enough to concern any government. The Prime Minister expressed pain at the sickening murder of Tabrez Ansari in Jharkhand, but clearly far more is required. The Rajasthan administration is introducing a Bill prohibiting cow vigilantism, but that deals with only one hate crime. An omnibus act against all hate crimes, including hate speech, is required across India and should be a priority of the 17th Lok Sabha. Germany, for example, amended Section 46 of its Criminal Procedure Code, dealing with sentencing in violent crime, to say the sentence must be based on consideration of ‘the motives and aims of the offender, particularly where they are of a racist or xenophobic nature or where they show contempt for human dignity’.
We have a number of sections in the Indian Penal Code that can be used to punish or even prevent hate crime, but they are disparate and few policemen are aware of them. Those that are, fear to use them in areas whose political leaders mobilise through hate speech. Though some Indian analysts debate whether there is a correlation between hate speech and hate crime, worldwide data show that hate speech encourages or legitimises acts of violence and a climate of impunity. France has a a draft Bill to prohibit hate speech, and Germany has already enacted one.
According to a study by NDTV there are at least 45 politicians in our newly elected union legislature who have indulged in hate speech over the past five years; 35 of them belong to the BJP. No action has been taken as yet by the party, though it is in such a position of strength electorally that it would lose little by acting against them.
In 2018, the Supreme Court directed Central and State governments to make it widely known that lynching and mob violence would ‘invite serious consequence under the law’ (Tehseen S. Poonawalla v. Union of India & Ors). Then Home Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that the government had formed a panel to suggest measures to tackle mob violence, and would enact a law if necessary. The panel’s recommendations are not in the public domain, and acts of hate crime do not appear to have diminished in the year since Mr. Singh’s promise.
In a May 2019 report, Human Rights Watch India pointed out that only some States had complied with the Supreme Court’s orders to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent incidents of mob violence and ensure that the police take prompt action, including safety for witnesses; set up fast-track courts in such cases; and take action against policemen or officials who failed to comply. Those State governments that did comply, the report commented, did so only partially. In several instances, the police actually obstructed investigations, even filing charges against the victims.
Whether it is political hate speech or police bias on the ground, there is little doubt that the national bar against hate crime has been lowered. On television, we see replays of hate speech and videos of lynching. Though the accompanying commentary is critical, repeated iterations normalise the hateful. Indeed, anchors themselves resort to invective far more often than before — note how Kashmiris are routinely heckled and abused on talk shows. The print media too is failing. Several newspapers now publish triumphalist opinion articles, including comments to articles that are hate speech by any definition. Criticism of blatantly communal government actions such as extension of refuge and citizenship on religious identity has grown increasingly muted.
Key steps needed
One of the policy issues that is high on the Modi administration’s list is dealing with incitement to violence through social media. But the focus is on hate in relation to terrorism, and it is unclear whether government policy will extend to cover hate crime. Important as it is to do so, the digital media is not the only offender. In fact, there are several obvious steps which would be easier to take and yield more immediate results than regulation of the digital media. Parliament could enact an omnibus act against hate crime, and the Home Minister could set benchmarks for policemen and administrators to deal with hate crime. The legislature and political parties could suspend or dismiss members who are implicated in hate crimes or practise hate speech. The electronic and print media could stop showing or publishing hateful comments and threats. Priests could preach the values of tolerance and respect that are common to all religions and schools could revitalise courses on the directive principles of our Constitution.
For Mr. Modi, there is an additional challenge. He has twice spoken out against hate crime, but his words of pain have not been backed by action, either by his party or by BJP-led administrations. Does he have so little influence over his own? We have to hope not.
For a demographically diverse country such as India, hate crimes — including crimes of contempt — are a disaster. Each of our religious and caste communities number in the millions, and crimes that are directed against any of these groups could result in a magnitude of disaffection that impels violence, even terrorism. Far less diverse countries than India are already suffering the result of hate ‘moving into the mainstream’, as UN Secretary General António Guterres recently highlighted. We can still contain its spread if we act resolutely. Or else our political leaders might find the lumpen tail wagging their dog.
Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst