December 14, 2014

When a Majority is Used to Trivialise Hate Speech

Brinda Karat

THE central government, which had adamantly refused to accept any resolution of the issues arising out of the hate speech by its minister Niranjan Jyoti, was forced to accept a compromise resolution read out by the chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

The episode highlights various facets of the BJP or rather the Modi style of governance.

From the initial response of the prime minister it was clear that he had no intention of addressing the protests rightly expressed by the opposition in both Houses of Parliament.  He was present on the first day itself in the Lok Sabha but refused to say a word. Two days later he was forced to break his silence in the Rajya Sabha. The difference in his approach in the two Houses is not difficult to fathom. In the Lok Sabha, his party has the numbers. It can steamroller everything through. In the Rajya Sabha if the opposition unites as they rightly did on such a sensitive issue, the prime minister is forced to respond.  His attitude makes it clear that the majority that the BJP has on its own in the Lok Sabha has been used at the very first opportunity to undermine minimum democratic and constitutional requirements in defence of its narrow sectarian politics.

The Speaker unfortunately instead of upholding the demand of the opposition in the Lok Sabha berated them for being non cooperative. She claimed that the statement made by the parliamentary affairs minister was sufficient. This is reminiscent of the UPA 2 government when the prime minister remained silent while other ministers replied.

During the coal gate scam debate in 2013 when parliament was repeatedly adjourned Sushma Swaraj, then opposition leader had said, "Not allowing parliament to function is also a form of democracy like any other form." Her counterpart in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley defending the protests said, " By disrupting parliament, we have given out a message to the country. When we disrupted parliament three years back on 2G scam, the telecom sector was cleaned. Now, the country is faced by the issue, how to cleanup the entire process of allocation of resources."

If the arguments were valid then, they are equally valid today. At that time it was on the issue of corruption that the attitude of the government forced the opposition to adopt tactics which stalled parliament. Today it is on an equally important issue, that of hate speech leading to communal polarisation. At that time the BJP had blamed the adamant attitude of the government. This time it is their government and prime minister who are playing the same game.

After the prime minister's statement and when the opposition continued its protests, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha said it was, “utterly disgraceful" that opposition members should disrupt the House. At some point in 2013 when the House was stalled, he had asked whether the opposition wanted the Rajya Sabha to become a “federation of anarchists." As the chairman it is his responsibility to make sure the House runs. However the onus does lie on the government. It did then, it does now.

The prime minister's statement in the Rajya Sabha raises further issues. According to the Rajya Sabha website, while he stated that he strongly disapproved of such statements and that they should be avoided, he added, that "even during the heat of the election, we should try”  the exact word he used was                           "koshish karna chaiye" "to avoid it."

With the prime minister himself making a distinction between non-election and election time, there is every reason to be concerned. Delhi elections are round the corner. Niranjan Jyoti's communal abuse was as part of the election campaign. When the prime minister does not give a guarantee that his ministers will not make hate speeches, the demand for Niranjan Jyoti's resignation has a validity, because quite simply Mr Prime Minister                   "koshish" is not enough.

Just as the minister’s expression of regret for whatever it is worth was forced by the outrage inside and outside parliament, so also the prime minister’s criticism of the “language used” by her. It is strange that the prime minister advises “grace” in accepting her apology. The national interest demands that he should send a strong message by asking her to resign, gracefully or otherwise. If it is the prerogative of the prime minister to choose his ministers it is also his responsibility to ensure the first principle of good governance, namely accountability.

If the prime minister's statement was not taken at its face value and the Rajya Sabha did not function even after his statement, it is also because hate speech was not an aberration nor an exception.

In the last two months, the capital has seen the flare up of two communal incidents in Trilokpuri and Bawana, in both of which the involvement of BJP leaders have been reported. In the run up to the UP state elections, similar tactics of creating communal polarisation was successfully utilised by the BJP on the “riots for votes” mantra. At that time it was Amit Shah who led the campaign. The Election Commission banned him from addressing rallies in UP during the last Lok Sabha elections after he had made a series of highly provocative speeches which further intensified, as they were designed to, the polarisation that had been created under his guidance in Muzaffarnagar. It was lifted only after he gave a written undertaking that he would not use                 "abusive or derogatory language."

What happened to him? He was promoted as BJP chief. After he became chief, did he warn his Party against committing the same crime he was banned for?

On the contrary, as BJP chief he deputed five term BJP MP Adityanath as chief campaigner in the UP by-elections. Adityanath with his known history of making inflammatory speeches against Muslims was not sent there to preach universal brotherhood. He did what he was sent for by Shah. He made a series of communal speeches that bring shame to any democratic country. The Election Commission reprimanded and cautioned him. It asked the UP government to proceed against him under the relevant sections of the IPC.

Yet it was precisely this MP who was chosen as the first BJP speaker in the Lok Sabha debate against communalism in the last session of parliament. He once again made highly provocative statements on the floor of the House. He was loudly applauded by his BJP colleagues. The prime minister did not say a word.

The prime minister chooses his ministerial colleagues. He has  included men like Ram Shankar Katheria from Gujarat, Sanjeev Baliyan riot accused from Muzaffarnagar and Giriraj Singh from Bihar, charged with crimes under Sec 153 A, in his ministry. In fact, Giriraj Singh had also been banned by the EC from campaigning in Bihar and Jharkhand after his provocative statement. This is the same clause that applies to Niranjan Jyoti. The relevant portions state, “any advocacy of... religious hatred…that promotes on grounds of religion...disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious groups” will invite punishment of upto three years imprisonment or fine or both.

Venkaiah Naidu, minister for parliamentary affairs called the minister a "village woman" implying thereby that she couldn't understand the niceties of language. Apart from being highly insulting to "village women" he has read his colleague absolutely incorrectly.

 She knows exactly what she said. She also knows what her Party line is. She correctly interpreted the prime minister’s silence when Adityanath was speaking as tacit support for what he said. She cannot be faulted if she read the promotion of charge-sheeted ministers as rewards for their efforts for communal polarisation. She knows who her party president is. She knows what he wants and she delivered that in her speech in the Delhi campaign.

Hate speech is a weapon to ridicule, to humiliate, to terrorise and to polarise. Yet the laws against it are weak and ineffectual. The enforcement of the legal framework is so weak that in spite of so many examples of communally-charged speeches in election after election, there has not been a single case in India where a candidate has been disqualified for making a hate speech. In fact, candidates should be held responsible even when their supporters make hate speeches, such as those made by Niranjan Jyoti. The only time when a leader felt the heat was when the late Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena supremo, was debarred from exercising his franchise after the Supreme Court in 1999 upheld the indictment made against him for hate speeches.

During the term of the UPA government, there was a draft legislation before parliament against communal violence which included an important clause against hate speech. But it was iced because the then government was too arrogant to dialogue on the legitimate objections raised on other clauses by several state governments.

Yet India does need such a law. In March this year, in response to a petition filed by the Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan against hate speech the Supreme Court directed the Law Commission of India to draft guidelines to define such infractions. The Law Commission should make its report public. The Bill against communal violence should be brought back into the agenda of parliament. Niranjan Jyoti should be removed from the ministry. The RSS pracharak in the prime minister should not overshadow his duty to uphold the constitution of India.