When Free Speech Becomes Hate Speech

0
250

RAJDEEP SARDESAI

COVID-19 is not the only virus stalking the nation. Hate is in the air with social media acting as a super-spreader. Last week, on the death of prominent social activist Swami Agnivesh, a former IPS officer N Nageswara Rao tweeted: ‘Good riddance.. You were an anti-Hindu donning saffron clothes. You did enormous damage to Hinduism. I am ashamed that you were born a Telugu Brahmin…my grievance against Yamraj (god of death) is why did he wait so long?’ After protests from several Twitter users, the social media site pulled down the offensive tweet.

Nageswara Rao is no ordinary police officer: in 2018, he was appointed acting Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and he was also Director General, Fire Services and Home Guards before retiring in July this year. That an officer holding such high posts should make such a spiteful remark is perhaps a sign of the times: even those who swear allegiance to the Constitution and are empowered to even- handedly maintain law and order are now wearing the ideology of hate on their uniform, to the point of wishing death on someone like Agnivesh. Worse, Rao is unrepentant and has defended his hate speech.

The tweet brought back memories of a similar tweet when journalist- activist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in 2017. Then, a Surat-based businessman Nikhil Dadhich had tweeted: ‘A bitch died a dog’s death and now all the puppies are wailing in the same tune!’ It was an awful, obnoxious remark that seemed to ‘celebrate’ the tragic assassination. It may even have passed unnoticed in the crazy social media whirl but for an inconvenient truth: Dadhich was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the micro-blogging site! Once again, the individual was unapologetic, only ‘proud’ to be followed by the Prime Minister.

Rao and Dadhich are not alone: there are thousands of anonymous Twitter handles, Facebook posts and WhatsApp groups that are designed to spread extreme animosity between individuals and communities. Under the guise of being open source platforms, the social media universe has created its own code of conduct where the lines between free speech and hate speech are often blurred. These are, as an outstanding recent Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ puts it, the ‘digital frankensteins’ of  our times, amoral beasts running amok in a carnivorous social media jungle where the rules are being subverted to actively promote hatred and division.

This big tech-driven social media hate is transitioning seamlessly into the news environment. Thus, to blame social media alone for stoking the flames of disharmony would be to run away from the nature of the virus. Hate is an infection that is contagious when it is ‘normalised’ and that is exactly what has happened in recent years. The anti-minority dog-whistles for example are now so frequently espoused that their expression is almost seen as routine. The Indian Muslim as ‘anti-national’ narrative has been deliberately and repeatedly pushed by a section of the power elite so as to acquire a potency of its own. When a rabble-rousing Union minister, for example, openly screams in an election meeting, ‘Desh ke gaddaron ko’ and the crowd responds with a blood-curling chant of ‘Goli maaron saalon ko,’ there is little attempt made to rein in the minister. Or indeed when anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protestors are identified by their clothes or illegal immigrants are referred to as ‘termites’ or Tableeghis as ‘corona carriers’, there is a brazen attempt to stroke religious prejudice. It is almost as if a hyper-polarised environment is meant to act as a spur for incendiary communal rhetoric. 

Just how far this ‘normalisation’ of a narrative of hate and bigotry has travelled is best exemplified by the recent Sudarshan TV case involving a series of programmes done by the channel to purportedly investigate a ‘Muslim conspiracy’ to take over the civil services with a hate-mongering slogan ‘UPSC jihad’ being put out as a promotional video. Rather than acting ‘ab initio’ against a programme that was prima facie intended to vilify the Muslim community, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry allowed the telecast on the specious argument that it did not wish to ‘pre-censor’ the programme. This despite the fact that the I and B programming code clearly allows the ministry to prohibit a programme if it is ‘likely to promote hatred or ill-will between communities’: the code is wide enough to prohibit programmes that ‘contain an attack on religions or communities or visuals or words contemptuous of religious groups or which promote communal attitudes.’ With the I and B Ministry dithering, it required the Delhi High Court and then the Supreme Court to step in and stop the further broadcast of the programme.  

Ironically, the I and B Ministry has told the apex court that there are enough existing regulatory mechanisms for the print and electronic media and that if at all the court is inclined to lay down guidelines or frame a regulatory mechanism, then it should begin with digital media and news portals. So here is a ministry which has failed to exercise its regulatory jurisdiction in the case of a blatant violation by a TV channel, now telling the court that the ‘real’ issue lies outside in the unchained and chaotic digital world. Perhaps, the I and B Ministry is itching to clamp down on any anti-government websites that are beyond its purview at the moment. Or maybe it simply views Sudarshan TV with a more benevolent gaze since the channel is widely perceived to be in sync with the ruling
party’s ideology.

But while Sudarshan TV may espouse an ‘in your face’ militant Hindutva worldview, what of those ‘mainstream’ channels which quietly push a daily drip of communal poison and fake news with the sole objective of  demonising a community? Take for example the horrific lynching of two sadhus in Palghar in Maharashtra a few months ago. Without even attempting to uncover the reality, some TV channels immediately projected the killings as a Hindu-Muslim conflict while lining up foul-mouthed extremists from both communities in a monstrous slugfest that passes off as prime time ‘debate’. Now, when it turns out that the claims of a communal angle are totally false and all those arrested are local tribals who mistook the sadhus for kidnappers because of a WhatsApp rumour, will any news channel publish an apology for having consciously misled their viewers only to garner television rating points? Those ‘news traffickers’ who seek to profit from hate must be acted against swiftly. Only then can we find a vaccine to the virus that threatens to divide us.

Post-script: Since we started with a story of a police officer, let me end with a cop too. For over a year now, I have been receiving WhatsApp messages from a senior IPS officer echoing the strident Islamo-phobia which is so prevalent today. The officer was once in charge of a city with a large Muslim population. Is it any surprise then that law-enforcers are often caught on the wrong side of the law when there is a communal riot?