Cataclysmic Consequences Of Hate Speech
Politicians have excelled themselves in personal verbal assaults on each other in the run up to the general elections. The number of such attacks is unprecedented and also their ingenuity in coining new abuses. They have not, so far, indulged in hurling gallis for which the ‘Rai Saheb Shahar Darogas’ were known for. But privately, one is sure that gallis, enriched by the mixture of Hindi and Urdu gallis, must be in use.
The leader who is recipient of most of such questionable honour is Narendra Modi. The latest most ingenious one was by Azam Khan, powerful minister in Akhilesh Yadav cabinet and who is known for his temper and brusqueness. He called Modi elder brother of a puppy. Beni Prasad, who is known for libellous verbal assault, could not be left. He called Modi a thug. Imran Masood, a Congress candidate, excelled all threats and name calling like Hitler and fascist (Modi) by threatening to chop Modi into pieces. He was arrested for making a hate speech.
A BJP MLA then hit out at the Congress’ Gandhi family saying they should be stripped and thrown out of the country. BJP MLA Heeralal Regar, while addressing a rally in Tonk, Rajasthan, warned that if the BJP came to power at the Centre, come 16 May, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi would be stripped and immediately sent back to Italy. However, speaking to CNN-IBN, Regar said he had been misquoted, even as he apologised for his remark. “I have not taken any name. If anyone is hurt by my comments, I apologise.” The Congress party has now complained to the Election Commission over Regar’s remarks against their top party leadership.
The fact is that the forthcoming general elections are one of the most viciously fought ones since Independence. Hate speeches are passé. If Masood wants to chop Modi to bits, a BJP MLA wants to strip the Gandhis and pack them off to Italy. Name-calling and abuse are normal. Most of it is justified by blaming the divisive nature of Narendra Modi’s candidature. But it surely takes two mindsets among groups to be divisive. The reason why Modi sounds divisive is because the other parties are equally divisive. If the political parties appear keen to personalise the conflict, the electorate too is.
Unfortunately, even the media is split down the middle. Is this a good thing? Anger management may be a good thing for individuals, but bottling up anger by very large groups of people who feel disenfranchised or excluded is not a very nice thing. It would come out at some point of time. The bad language and abuse are manifestations of feelings of exclusion by one stream of opinion by the other. Once the elections decide, the anger itself may not dissolve, but will at least lend itself to more dispassionate introspection by people. And that would be a good thing. What’s different about this election is, it’s personal for everybody. All parties, claiming to be secular, have personalised their attacks on Modi.
Modi, on the other hand, has also made the fight personal between him and the Congress dynasty. So is the case with most of Modi’s direct opponents—whether it is Nitish Kumar or anyone else. For communities, too, it is personal. One theme coming through is that Muslims may vote en bloc for whoever they believe can defeat Modi. This trend could lead to polarisation at least in north India. The election issues are thus not about policy and issues anymore. They are about whether you like someone or don’t. They are personal. The voters’ emotions have been roused; those who back Modi, those who dislike him are passionately for others.
The media has let itself be pro-someone and anti-someone else. This division is unfortunate. Most publish news which few trust. Journalists have intentionally and openly given up all pretensions of being neutral. While neutrality was never really there in reality, since the language and line of reportage can always be tilted in the direction the owners of newspapers wanted in the past, this time journalists are backing one horse or the other in the run-up to 2014. Just as newspapers in the US formally endorse one candidate or the other in state and federal elections, this has begun to happen in India too. A tinge of bias is there too. A factor that has added a new edge to partisanship among journalists, especially those in Delhi, is that no one has a clue about Modi’s strategies and policies. They all know Modi of 2002 riots. Delhi journalists could pretend earlier to be neutral since all the claimants to power were from within the political class they were familiar with—either from the Congress, or from the BJP in Delhi (Vajpayee was always a favourite with Delhi journalists). Even this time, if someone like an Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj had been named BJP nominee for PM, the partisanship would have been much less.
But Modi is an unknown entity. He is an outsider to Delhi, and so are the people advising him. This has led to fears that Delhi journalists may be marginalised if a Modi prime ministership were to materialise. This makes them hope against hope that he will lose and spare them the trouble. Partisanship results from a lack of knowledge about who you have to deal with, come May 16, 2014. Those who back Modi do not know him any better. But the fear is more palpable among Delhi journalists than those elsewhere because the media in Delhi has been eating out of the hands of powerful people for as long as one can remember. They belong to the system, are thus for status quo. They are used to dealing with members of the Lutyens Club. God knows how Modi would behave, that is the fear that gnaws media persons.
Recently, the Supreme Court gave two judgments on political hate speech. The apex court decided on January 30 to review a set of controversial rulings—popularly known as the Hindutva judgments, which hate-mongering politicians have been using with impunity. Then, on March 12, the court, while stopping short of cracking down on political hate speech, asked the Election Commission to examine ways of eradicating this malaise. But the free speech libertarians and liberals are fighting a vicious battle. The libertarians swear allegiance to the Hindu Right, which comprises the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as the more virulent and fundamentalist organisations like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Modi has however stuck to rhetoric of development. The liberal camp, on the other hand, is manned mostly by frenzied secular authors, artists and academics, who want to safeguard their right to creativity, fearless expression and polemical inquiry. The issue of political hate speech not from the prism of freedom of expression, but from that of electoral politics is being discerned. Academicians say that hate speech must be understood as hateful propaganda, primarily carried out
by a dominant social and political group, rather than the mere expression of individual opinions. And history bears witness to this propaganda leading to cataclysmic consequences, most common being genocide and communal conflagrations.
The loopholes in India’s election laws exacerbate the problem. Religious electioneering is punishable as a corrupt practice, but it applies only after a candidate has officially thrown his hat into the ring. Prior to that, he has a free pass. The BJP’s Varun Gandhi is alleged to have said in 2009: “If you want to save the Hindu religion, vote for me,” and then went on a Muslim-bashing spree. He made deft use of this lacuna. Earlier, in 2002 and 2007, Modi and his cohorts did their bit of hate-mongering. The Election Commission, the constitutional body in charge of superintendence and control of elections, pleaded helplessness, contending that the law permitted it only to rebuke, not penalise.
But no one seems to have noticed—in fact intentionally ignored the hate and seditious speeches by Owiasi of Hyderabad on a daily basis. While Election Commission cannot sanitise election speeches, it must check extreme instances of hate speeches. Congress should have taken action against Imran Masood for his comments on Modi but instead Rahul campaigned for him.
The fact is that in India where religion and caste are integral part of life, politics can hardly be kept sanitised from the above factors. True, in this election hate has swamped ideology and ethics. This election is completely personalised and thus no wonder personal verbal assaults are the only weapon to fight—unfortunate but true!
By Vijay Dutt