The recent prevalence of debates on non-issues such as whether citizens must chant the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ is troubling in itself. When influential public figures inject the language of violence and intimidation into this discourse, they are but attempting to ignite a spark in an already overheated atmosphere. Yoga guru and businessman Baba Ramdev’s remark that but for his respect for the law of the land and the Constitution, lakhs of people would be beheaded for their refusal to chant the slogan can be construed as sheer incitement to violence. That this was a response to All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader >Asaduddin Owaisi, who had said he would not utter the words in question “even if a knife were held to my throat”, is hardly a defence. That Ramdev’s remarks were made at a public function organised by the ‘Sadbhavana Sammelan’ in Rohtak, Haryana, where the participants included Himachal Pradesh Governor Acharya Dev Vrat, illustrates the brazenness of such bigotry. In tenor and language they contain the ingredients of typical hate speech: appeal to sectarian feelings, incitement to violence and intent to cause discord. Whether it would fall under the ambit of a specific provision in the Indian Penal Code (Section 295A, for instance) is a separate issue, but one well worth examining. But what is of equal import is the growing feeling that such virulence in speech is met with an accepting silence, or worse, with quiet approbation, by those in political power. BJP president Amit Shah may be right in pointing out that Ramdev is not a member of his party. >But in wondering whether the right of free speech does not apply to the yoga guru , he glosses over an important distinction between bona fide forms of free expression and those that could incite violence.
Summarily dismissing the issue, >Union Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu chose to say that what really mattered was government policy and not individual opinion . But we live in an environment in which even those who hold office sometimes lack any sense of restraint. For instance, Maharashtra Chief Minister >Devendra Fadnavis was reported as saying that those who do not proclaim ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ have no right to live in the country . He later claimed that he was misquoted, but maintained that those who refused to chant the slogan had mala fide intentions. Mr. Naidu did distance his government from what both Ramdev and Mr. Fadnavis said, but clearly, not enough is being done to rein in the motormouths and the extremist fringe in his larger parivar . Ironically, Section 295A, which resembles a hate speech provision, is routinely invoked for all the wrong reasons, and has become a tool to harass people such as authors and artists to appease some religious group or the other. If this frequently misused provision has any justification, its use should be restricted to deliberate and malicious acts that can foment violence and discord. It would be well if the likes of Ramdev are made to understand this.