Chronology – the word imparted new meaning by Union home minister Amit Shah while detailing progression from the Citizenship Amendment Bill to the National Register of Citizens in April 2019 – must be factored in when assessing the Supreme Court’s recent direction to the Union Government to “indicate its stand” on “recommendations made by the Law Commission of India” regarding amendments in laws to deal with hate crimes.
The formal directive came during the hearing last week, when the apex court expressed anguish and concern over hate speech being used as a tool by news channels for increasing viewership. These media outlets were fittingly termed the “chief medium of hate speech” by Justices K.M. Joseph and Hrishikesh Roy.
Except for a handful, news channels attempt to outdo rivals in whipping up hatred against the target ‘selected’ for the day by an invisible conductor. But, it is also necessary to recognise news channels as amplifiers of the vituperative narrative, produced and spread over social media every day in an organised manner to further the regime’s political narrative.
The interim order was issued when the court was addressing the “phenomenon of hate speech and the inadequacies of the current law in preventing it in a meaningful way”.
The judges chastised channels for allowing hate-mongering individuals from political groups adequate airtime in the hope of driving up profits and TRPs.
But more importantly, the court asked the Union government why it is “standing by as a mute witness when all this is happening” and treating it as “a trivial matter”.
This is where chronology is important, for Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur would dispute the court and argue that the government preceded the court in criticising news channels. His ministry would cite Thakur’s speech at the 47th annual gathering of Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development, delivered two days prior to the court hearing the clutch of 11 writ petitions seeking directions to regulate hate speech.
Yet, hearing Thakur admonish news channels for “inviting guests who are polarising, who spread false narratives and who shout at the top of their lungs,” was ironic, because the current regime had discreetly signalled ‘friendly’ media to spread toxicity through its staple of vitriolic discussion programmes, more shouting matches than rational conversations, in which its representatives begin with the knowledge that the ‘referee’ is on their side.
Thakur’s public speech was not the first time that the government changed tack on spiteful content.
In July, the minister, feeling the international heat on account of the Nupur Sharma episode, left leading anchors and editors of news channels perplexed by asking them to dial down debates with the potential to incite religious polarisation. They had previously presumed that such coverage had this regime’s blessings. Furthermore, ‘suggestions’ often emanated from social media teams of the ruling party and officials in the government.
Neutralising the media was among the Modi regime’s priorities from 2014.
With rising corporate ownership of the media, this period witnessed many in the news industry repeating the Emergency act of predecessors, famously dubbed by L.K. Advani as “crawling, when asked to bend”.
The Supreme Court, whose judges are possibly among demographic groups consuming these debates, rightly stepped in and clubbed various petitions as part of the current Chief Justice of India’s efforts at streamlining. This ensured that a host of issues related to hate speech was examined systematically. The court asking the Centre to respond to the Law Commission’s viewpoint that “new provisions in IPC are required to be incorporated” to put an end to hate speech, is welcome.
Justice Joseph specifically called for an “institutional mechanism” to deal with hate speech. He suggested a set of rules on the lines of Vishaka Guidelines, the norm till they were superseded in 2013 by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.
The court unambiguously indicated its disinclination to wait while the Union government dragged its feet and said that these guidelines could be in place till changes are made in law. One hopes for the Court’s definitiveness to be retained when the case is next heard in November.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based journalist and author of The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.