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India 12-Jan, 2023

Data check: 500% rise in cases filed under hate-speech law since 2014

By: Anshul Vipat

Data check: 500% rise in cases filed under hate-speech law since 2014

Apart from the increase in the new cases, the number of pending cases with the police has also gradually increased. Image Source: IANS

Based on the information provided in the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Crime in India (CII) report, there has been a six-fold increase in hate speech crime in the country.

“Where have we reached in the name of religion, what have we reduced religion to is tragic," an anguished Supreme Court observed last month as it asked states to crack down on those delivering hate speeches. The apex court issued notices to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand to promptly register criminal cases against the offenders without waiting for a complaint to be filed. The apex court warned any delay on the part of the administration in taking action on this "very serious issue" will invite the court's contempt.

The statement issued by Justices K M Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy makes an important point. In the past few years, the country has seen a phenomenal rise in hate speeches cutting across political and religious lines. India does not have a specific law that defines hate speech, there are select legal provisions or sections in the law that prohibits speech, text or any publication that incites hatred between any community or groups.

The rising hate in speeches

Based on the information provided in the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) Crime in India (CII) report, there has been a six-fold increase in hate speech crime in the country.. While 2014 (323 cases) saw the least number of cases in the seven years, the year 2020, with 1,804 cases, saw the highest. Tamil Nadu had the highest number of cases (303), followed by Uttar Pradesh (243), Telangana (151), Assam (147) and Andhra Pradesh (142).

If we take a look at cases filed under Section 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), we can see a six-fold increase from 13 in 2014 to 82 in 2020. Although cases filed under IPC Section 295-297 (insults against the religious beliefs of an individual or community) saw an overall decrease by 3.2 percent. However, there was a 16.5 percent increase in these cases in the last year – from 1,459 in 2019 to 1,749 in 2020. Cases registered under Section 505 (which deals with hateful publication) increased almost six times in four years – 257 cases in 2017 to 1,527 in 2020.

Apart from the increase in the new cases, the number of pending cases with the police has also gradually increased. In 2016, a total of 903 cases were pending trial in courts, which further increased to 2736 by the end of 2020. The conviction rate of cases under Section 153 was as low as 20 per cent in the five years between 2016 and 2020. In 2016, 15.3 per cent of cases ended in convictions, while in 2020, the conviction rate had risen to 20.4 per cent.

The UAPA noose

As mentioned before, the absence of a uniform hate speech makes a citizen vulnerable to several hate speech laws pertaining to the case. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act is one of them. The primary objections to the Amendment are under Section 35, in addition to the categorization of organizations as terrorist organizations, extended the power to include within its scope the categorization of individuals as terrorists as well. With the recent amendments, several individuals have been slapped with UAPA in the name of engaging in acts of hate crimes, physical violence as well as communally charged speeches by the members of political parties. This includes journalist Siddique Kappan and students Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam among several others. 

According to the data, 2019 witnessed the highest number of cases under the act. One of the major reasons behind this was the nationwide protests organized against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019. Large number of activists, protestors and students were arrested under the UAPA during the protests in 2019. 2018 also came as a year with high number of cases under UAPA with the registration of 1182 cases. In 2020, 814 cases were registered under the unlawful activities prevention act. Maximum cases were registered in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir (289), Manipur (157), Assam (95), Jharkhand (86) and Uttar Pradesh (83).

Hate speech has been a problem in India for decades. But the scale of the problem has accelerated in recent years, with Indians being regularly bombarded with hateful speech and polarising content. The issue of hate speech has often come up before India's courts. But the judiciary has mostly been wary of imposing restrictions on free speech. In 2014, while hearing a petition which asked the Supreme Court to issue guidelines to curb hate speeches made by political and religious leaders, the court recognised the adverse impact these could have on people but refused to go beyond the scope of existing laws.

"It is desirable to put reasonable prohibition on unwarranted actions but there may arise difficulty in confining the prohibition to some manageable standard," the court said. Instead, it asked the Law Commission - an independent body of legal experts which advises the government - to examine the issue.

In its report submitted to the government in 2017, the commission recommended adding separate provisions to the Indian Penal Code to specifically criminalise hate speech.

Data of the last five years highlights multiple challenges as far as cases related to ‘hate speech’ are considered. While we enjoy our constitutional right of freedom of speech, it’s high time we draw a fine line where freedom of speech ends and inciting hatred begins.

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