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Of Hate Speech, Communal Violence and the Law

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Megha Bhasin:

Free speech is quintessential in a democracy because it facilitates the exchange of diverse opinions. In a representative democracy, dialogue facilitates the testing of competing claims and obtaining of diverse input into political decision making. Free speech is also critical to the enjoyment of personal autonomy. In the area of hate speech, the libertarian idea of free expression comes into tension with the aspiration of equal dignity. Societies like India which are committed to pluralism are obligated to safeguard individual expression while promoting egalitarian principles against harming others’ safety and dignity.

Maintaining public order is something that the government has to balance against speakers’ rights. The threat to individuals’ physical well-being and dignity interests may supersede those of individuals who resort to intimidating symbols like burning crosses and swastikas to elicit violence. When a Danish newspaper publishes caricatures depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, leading to widespread protests from Muslims across the world and France forbids the wearing of symbols representing religious insignia to schools because it constitutes a propagandist pattern, the issue of freedom of speech and restrictions imposed in public interest come to the fore.

Hate speech, the “words that are used as weapons to ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade,” damages “not only the targeted group or individual’s physiological and emotional state, but also personal freedom, dignity, and personhood” and society at large.

On February 27, 2002, two train carriages carrying Hindu activists were allegedly set on fire by a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, resulting in fifty-eight deaths. In response, there were widespread attacks throughout Gujarat by Hindus against Muslims, involving killings, sexual violence, torture, destruction of property–including the destruction of places of worship–and the internal displacement of people. The violence continued for several months afterwards, despite the deployment of the Indian army in Gujarat.

Muslim women were particularly targeted by Hindu attackers as symbols of the community that they sought to humiliate and destroy–not only as bearers of children, but also as a target of revenge for the supposed historical defilement of Hindu women by Muslim men during repeated “Muslim” invasions of the “motherland.” Some survivors reported rapists shouting that they intended to impregnate them with “little Hindus,” and pregnant women were allegedly attacked so as to destroy the fetus. At the height of the killings, on March 1, 2002, Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat described the riots as “resulting from the natural and justified anger of the people.” Praveen Togadia, the international general secretary of the VHP stated that the “time was ripe for forming a separate army of Hindu youths who would protect the religion from attacks by jehadis.” In December 2002, after the BJP party’s decisive win in the state assembly elections in Gujarat, Togadia reportedly asserted that the experiment of the “Hindutva lab” would be repeated in other parts of the country and that “[a] Hindu Rashtra [state] can be expected in the next two years. We will change India’s history and Pakistan’s geography by then.”

Raj Thackeray’s vitriolic invective against North Indians in Maharashtra raises important issues on the law relating to hate speech.

S. 153A of the Indian Penal Code punishes those who attempt to promote enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and commits acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony. In Baburao Patel [1980 Cr LJ 529], the court convicted the accused under this section for two articles written by him in which he portrayed contemporary Muslims as descendants of foul Moghuls who were lascivious perverts and murderers. S. 153B similarly punishes imputations and assertions prejudicial to national integration. S. 295A punishes anyone who with deliberate and malicious intent commits an act aimed at outraging the religious feelings of any class, by insulting its religion or religious beliefs. In Ramji Lal Modi [1957 SCR 860], it was held that this provision is within the protection afforded by Art. 19(2) of the Constitution. S. 298 punishes anyone who utters words, etc. with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings. S. 505(2) punishes the making of statements which would promote enmity, hatred or ill will between classes. What is lacking is the political will to uphold the rule of law, and not to be subservient to the rule of the jungle.

Mob violence is also a result of a feeling of alienation and demonisation of a target group. The hate-literature on minorities has been created for several decades and has been spoon-fed to a section of the majority community in the same way as German Nazis did. For good governance as well as for social cohesion and harmony among the communities, relentless action both legal and social against hate-speech is called for. However, our criminal justice system and our judiciary have not galvanized themselves to meet this situation and deliver speedy justice.

The genocide in Gujarat and the continuing malfunctioning of the state government, judiciary, police and the bureaucracy states that there is an assault on the secular fabric of this nation. However, Gujarat cannot and must not become the only focal point since the manifestations of fascism are spread throughout the country and is evidenced in various incidents throughout the country.

Vested interests and misplaced strategic policies limit the space and scope for a culturally diverse and religiously tolerant state and society. Hate-based ideologies result in nullifying the valuable cultural and intellectual heritage of the country. Unfortunately, pulpits have been often used to incite people against religious minorities as well as other sects within the country. There is a need to inculcate a culture of tolerance within our own surroundings, so as to reverse pervading hate-based indoctrinations that can only increase social ghetto-ism on the basis of religion and sect. The challenge before the law enforcers is to strike a balance between permissible speech on the one hand and on the other, active incitement that could spiral into violence.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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