Don’t wait for complaints to act against hate speech, Supreme Court tells police

“Hesitation” to comply with the direction would attract proceedings for contempt of the Supreme Court against the erring officers, the court said.

October 21, 2022 05:12 pm | Updated October 22, 2022 07:50 am IST - New Delhi

The Supreme Court of India. File

The Supreme Court of India. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Supreme Court on October 21 said it is "tragic what we have reduced religion to" in the 21st century and a "climate of hate prevails in the country", while directing police and authorities to immediately and suo motu register cases against hate speech makers without waiting for a complaint to be filed.

A Bench of Justices K.M. Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy ordered that any “hesitation” to comply with the direction would attract the proceedings for contempt of the Supreme Court against the erring officers.

Watch | What is ‘hate speech’?

The court directed that First Information Reports (FIRs) should be registered and criminal proceedings initiated against the makers of hate speech "irrespective of their religion so that the secular character of the country is preserved".

The interim directions were primarily for the benefit of the police of Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The court has issued notices to the three States and asked them to submit reports on action taken on hate speech cases.

“We are deeply, deeply obliged,” senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for petitioner Shaheen Abdulla, reacted to the order.

“We are doing far too little,” Justice Joseph replied.

“At least somebody has listened,” Mr. Sibal said.

“We have to… it is our duty. If we don’t, it is plain abdication of duty, nothing else to that… Otherwise, what will happen after sometime,” Justice Joseph told Mr. Sibal. 

The Bench heard the case beyond court hours and ensured that the order was ready and read out loudly in open court.

The petitioner had highlighted the rising incidents of hate speeches targetting the Muslim community. The petitioner said the “total inaction” on the part of the police in the three States have given rise to “despondency and angst” within the Muslim community. The petitioner alleged that events organised in Delhi and Haridwar in 2021 hosted hate speeches by leaders who made open calls for the genocide of Muslims.

“These events are happening everyday,” Mr. Sibal said.

The order even highlighted some of the specific provisions of the penal law under which hate speech offenders ought to be booked. These include Sections 153A (promoting enmity between different groups on the ground of religion), 153B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration), 505 (public mischief), 295A (deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings) of the Indian Penal Code.

“Where have we reached? What have we reduced religion to? It is tragic… and we speak of scientific temper…” Justice Joseph said after reading out instances of hate speeches and what was said by the speakers.

“Very shocking statements have been made in a country that has to be religion neutral,” Justice Roy noted.

The court, in its order, said, “The Constitution envisages Bharat as a secular nation and fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and unity and integrity of the country is one of the guiding principles enshrined in the Preamble”. It said there cannot be fraternity unless members of the different communities and castes were able to live in harmony.

“We feel that this court is charged with the duty to protect these fundamental rights and also protect and preserve the constitutional values, in particular the rule of law and secular and democratic character of the nation,” Justice Joseph read out from the order.

The court directed that the police heads of the three States should issue directions in compliance with its order to their subordinates so that “appropriate action is taken at the earliest”.

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