Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such
Thing as public Liberty, without Freedom of Speech; which is the Right of every
Man, as far as by it, he does not hurt or control the Right of another; and this
is the only check it ought to suffer, and the only Bounds it ought to know.
- Benjamin Franklin (1722)
For years together, a lot has been said about free speech and one’s freedom of
expression. The debate goes on from human rights to fundamental rights. In
India, free speech is protected under Article 19(1) of the Constitution.
However, with the gradual passage of time, free speech has faced certain
obstructions from the State in terms of defamation, sedition and hate speech.
When we talk about hate speech, we refer to any form of speech or reference
which reflects a certain extent of hatred towards an individual or a community,
etc. the term ‘hate speech’ has not been formally defined in any of the Indian
legislations, however, it is a term created out of social context and generally
refers to any speech which a certain portion of the society disapproves of.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, Hate Speech
Speech that carries no meaning other than the expression of hatred for some
group, such as a particular race, especially in circumstances in which the
communication is likely to provoke violence.
In the well-known case of Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan v. Union of India
Supreme Court did not penalize hate speech as it does not exist in any of the
pre-existing legislations in India. Instead, the Supreme Court requested the Law
Commission to address this issue in order to avoid its stepping into the forum
of judicial overreach. This is primarily why the responsibility was handed over
to the Legislature.
In the case of Canada (Human Rights Commission) v. Taylor
, the understanding
and determination of hate speech was laid down as follows:
Three main prescriptions must be followed. First, courts must apply the hate
speech prohibition objectively. The question courts must ask is whether a
reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances, would view the
expression as exposing the protected group to hatred.
Second, the legislative
or hatred or contempt
must be interpreted as being restricted to
those extreme manifestations of the emotion described by the words detestation
This filters out expression which, while repugnant and
offensive, does not incite the level of abhorrence, delegitimization and
rejection that risks causing discrimination or other harmful effects. Third,
tribunals must focus their analysis on the effect of the expression at issue,
namely whether it is likely to expose the targeted person or group to hatred by
The repugnancy of the ideas being expressed is not sufficient to justify
restricting the expression, and whether or not the author of the expression
intended to incite hatred or discriminatory treatment is irrelevant. The key is
to determine the likely effect of the expression on its audience, keeping in
mind the legislative objectives to reduce or eliminate discrimination.
The above reference was made in the case of Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan v. Union of
. After making the above reference and analysing the available laws
regaulating hate speeches in India, the Court held that:
the statutory provisions and particularly the penal law provides sufficient
remedy to curb the menace of hate speeches. Thus, person aggrieved must resort
to the remedy provided under a particular statute. The root of the problem is
not the absence of laws but rather a lack of their effective execution.
Therefore, the executive as well as civil society has to perform its role in
enforcing the already existing legal regime.
A recent example is the case of Amish Devgan v. Union of India and Ors
the petitioner, while hosting a debate, had described Pir Hazrat Moinuddin
Chishti, also known as Pir Hazrat Khwaja Gareeb Nawaz, as aakrantak Chishti aya...
aakrantak Chishti aya... lootera Chishti aya... uske baad dharam badle.
case focused on various necessary aspects of law in order to determine the
understanding of hate speech. Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code was
interpreted which talks about spreading of enmity between groups and doing acts
prejudicial to harmony.
The Apex Court also examined the validity of FIR in
order to decide upon the FIRs filed against Amish Devgan. Although the plea for
quashing of FIRs was rejected, the Apex Court provided the petitioner with
interim protection on the basis of his apology of not intending to spread hatred
and his co-operation in investigation.
Subsequently, there was the case of Vinod Dua which took Amish Devgan’s case
a citation. Several FIRs were filed against Vinod Dua for apparently making
seditious comments against the Government. Court granted him with protection
against arrest on the basis of sedition whereas the investigation continued on
the basis of the FIR. This case also held a lot of importance in determining the
meaning of hate speech. This case majorly focused on free speech inclusive of
If we focus on the above-cited portions from the cited judgments, we understand
that hate speech is basically made against a particular group or individual and
it is entirely immaterial whether there was an intention to hurt the sentiments.
As far as we consider intention to be irrelevant, we cannot pull down the
provisions of Indian Penal Code into this issue because the basis of Criminal
Law is mens rea which translates to ill intention
Subsequently we are left
with the Constitution of India. All that can be done is hate speech can be
included under the objections to Article 19(1). Our Indian Constitution also
underlines the concept of Utilitarianism coined by Jeremy Bentham and this
concept refers to maximum happiness for maximum people. Maximum happiness rests
with the freedom of speech and expression which also includes criticism. Such
criticism can either be positive or negative. Criticism is considered to be hate
speech when it affects the sentiments of a certain group. However, if we
entirely focus on the effects upon sentiments, then it will turn out to be a
huge attack on free speech guaranteed under Article 19(1).
- AIR 2014 SC 1591
- (1990) 3 SCR 892
- Dr Farrukh Khan is an Advocate and Managing Partner of Law Firm- Diwan
- Somya Mishra is an Advocate, working with Diwan Advocates.