'Need Effective Practical Steps Against Hate Speech': Supreme Court Seeks Responses From States On Appointment Of Nodal Officers

Awstika Das

25 Aug 2023 3:09 PM GMT

  • Need Effective Practical Steps Against Hate Speech: Supreme Court Seeks Responses From States On Appointment Of Nodal Officers

    The Supreme Court on Friday advocated for 'practical and effective' steps to deal with the problem of hate speech so that its earlier decisions are followed both in letter and in spirit. Accordingly, it sought responses from the state government on the status of their compliance with the Tehseen Poonawalla guideline requiring the establishment of district-level nodal officers.A bench of...

    The Supreme Court on Friday advocated for 'practical and effective' steps to deal with the problem of hate speech so that its earlier decisions are followed both in letter and in spirit. Accordingly, it sought responses from the state government on the status of their compliance with the Tehseen Poonawalla guideline requiring the establishment of district-level nodal officers.

    A bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and SVN Bhatti was hearing a batch of petitions seeking action against hate speeches, including a recently filed plea seeking action against calls made by several groups for the social and economic boycott of Muslims following the outbreak of communal clashes in Haryana's Nuh and Gurugram.

    Advocate Nizam Pasha told the bench today that the problem lay not in a lack of guidelines, but their implementation. "Guidelines are in place. There's an order directing the police to take suo motu cognizance of instances of hate speech. The only thing missing is the political will to implement the guidelines. What does one do as a petitioner when this court's order is flouted?" the counsel argued.

    Despite Pasha's passionate argument, the bench maintained that instead of pinning blame, a constructive approach should be adopted. Justice Khanna said, "This way won't solve the problem, because the other side will deny that. We want effective practical steps to be taken to ensure that this court's order is followed."

    The most important thing that these proceedings have resulted in, Pasha explained, was a 'continuing mandamus' with the Supreme Court being 'seized' of the problem of hate speech. In response to this, Justice Khanna assured that the petitions would not be closed. "We are not disposing of the matter," the judge said, "We are not diluting what has been said, at all. We are going to reproduce Tehseen Poonawalla directions which are fairly elaborate. We are adding to it, not subtracting anything."

    Earlier this month, after stressing the need for stakeholders to collaborate to find an enduring out-of-court solution to the problem of hate speech on an earlier occasion, the court suggested a plan of its own: a committee formed by the district police chief that would assess both the content and veracity of hate speech complaints and issue appropriate directions to the investigating officer or the chief of the jurisdictional police station. This committee would meet within specified timelines when they are apprised of any instance of hate speech and also periodically review the progress in all ongoing cases according to the suggestions floated by the bench.

    Meanwhile, the court also permitted the aggrieved petitioners to concurrently approach the nodal police officers appointed in terms of the 2018 Tehseen Poonawalla judgment in which it had issued guidelines to prevent mob lynching.

    During Friday's hearing, the bench proposed a number of other suggestions. It said that increasing the area under CCTV surveillance, with a focus on areas where the need is felt, would act as a 'deterrent' - 

    "It has to be ensured that CCTV cameras are working wherever they are already installed. Not only this, additional CCTV cameras should be added, wherever the district magistrate or the police commissioner feels is required. This would have to be decided at the DCP-level in consultation with the nodal officer. This would be by itself a big deterrent."

    Apart from this, the court suggested the deployment of plainclothes police officers in areas or at events where provocative speeches are likely to be made, and for nodal officers to maintain a record of all videos emerging from violence-hit areas. When the number of complaints exceeds a certain threshold, the committee constituted by the district police chief would be required to examine the material and test its authenticity. Police sensitisation, as the court had earlier indicated, was crucial and needed to be done by police academies in a 'big way'. Not only this, the court also said that measures to counteract both fake and doctored videos and hateful content would have to be taken by the committee - 

    "Ultimately, we want peace and harmony. There has to be brotherhood...We cannot deal with these, but if there's such a committee in place, then, it could step in. Countermeasures are also equally important. Pointing out that a video is false, or doctored. Or even when it has not been doctored, uploading videos saying that what has been depicted or said is not correct or acceptable."

    On being informed that nodal officers in terms of the Tehseen Poonawalla judgment had not been appointed by all states or had been appointed in only a few districts, Justice Khanna asked Additional Solicitor-General KM Nataraj to take the initiative of collecting the responses of the state governments with respect to the status of their compliance. 

    Nataraj agreed. The law officer also said, "I will prepare broad guidelines on the basis of which something further can be developed."

    Should we pass an order today, Justice Khanna asked the additional solicitor-general.

    "Let us come back with these first," ASG Nataraj replied. At this juncture, Senior Advocate Sanjay Parikh told the court that the Maharashtra unit of the non-profit People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) had also prepared suggestions that they had filed in the court and circulated.

    In the end, the bench adjourned the hearing with the following order - 

    "The Additional Solicitor-General has stated that the home ministry will ascertain and get information from state governments with regard to the appointment of nodal officers and a status report in this regard will be filed within three weeks. In case, state governments do not furnish information as required, the said statement will be made in the status report. Standing/nominated counsel of state governments are also required to obtain instructions and appear in this court on the next date of hearing. Some suggestions have been given which will be examined and considered on the next day of the hearing. Copies of suggestions will be shared with the counsel. Suggestions may, if not already filed, be filed in the Registry along with service on other counsel. State governments are also permitted to file suggestions..."


    Earlier this month, Nuh in Haryana witnessed communal violence, which eventually spread to the neighbouring Gurugram in Delhi NCR. In response, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal announced protest marches throughout the national capital region. Fearing that these rallies would lead to large-scale violence, Shaheen Abdulla filed an interlocutory application in the Supreme Court in the pending hate speech matter, urging the court to urgently intervene. In February, the Supreme Court had passed directions in his petition to the State of Maharashtra to prevent hate speeches in ‘Sakal Hindu Manj’ rallies.

    Even while refusing to pre-emptively stop any rallies or protest marches after considering the application in a special hearing on August 2, a bench led by Justice Sanjiv Khanna urged the authorities, including the police, to ensure that no violence breaks out in these events, and that there are no instances of hate speech. The bench also directed the authorities to use CCTV cameras, where installed, and make video recordings of the rallies in sensitive areas wherever required, and preserve all videos and surveillance footage. The order reads:

    “We hope and trust that the State Governments, including the police authorities, will ensure that there are no hate speeches against any community and there is no violence or damage to properties. Wherever required, adequate police force or paramilitary forces will be deployed. Further, authorities including the police will take use of the CCTV cameras where installed or make video recordings in all sensitive areas wherever required. The CCTV footage and the videos will be preserved.”

    On August 4, when the matter was taken up again, the court issued a call to action to stakeholders to find an enduring solution to the problem of hate speech. Highlighting that the difficulty lay in implementing and executing the law on hate speech, Justice Sanjiv Khanna suggested appropriately sensitising the police forces to ensure that victims of hate speech could access meaningful remedies without having to come to the court.

    Less than a week later, the petitioner was back in the apex court with a plea seeking action against calls made by several groups for the social and economic boycott of Muslims after the communal clashes in Nuh and Gurugram in Haryana. According to the application, despite the court’s order, more than 27 rallies were organised across various states in which incendiary speeches were openly delivered urging for the social and economic boycott of Muslims. Not only this, extremist groups also escalated rhetoric with calls to kill Muslims, the applicant claimed. Some Hindutva groups and leaders delivered such hate speech, Abdulla has further alleged, in the presence of the police. The plea states:

    “…Such rallies that demonise communities and openly call for violence and killing of people are not limited in terms of their impact to just those areas that are presently dealing with communal tensions but will inevitably lead to communal disharmony and violence of an unfathomable scale across the country.”

    Abdulla’s application – mentioned by Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal on August 8 seeking urgent hearing – has sought action against the police officers who participated in these rallies and meetings, on grounds of their failure to prevent hate speech. The applicant has further prayed for directions to the concerned state police to explain the action taken by them against instances of hate speech.

    Recently, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Brinda Karat and KM Tiwari have also sought to be impleaded in this case. The politicians have expressed concerns about the demonstrations held by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal at various locations across Delhi. The applicant has alleged:

    “Recently leaders of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, etc. have incited people against Muslims in the name of Hinduism at public meetings held in various places in Delhi. People were instigated against constitutional values and secularism in the name of Hinduism. There have been continuous calls for economic and social boycott of Muslims. These speeches are clearly an offence under several various sections of the Indian Penal Code such as 153A, 153B, 295A, 505(1), etc. But unfortunately, neither stringent action is being taken against such people by the police and administration nor are such meetings being stopped.”

    In related news, the Delhi High Court Women Lawyers Forum sent a letter petition to Chief Justice DY Chandrachud over videos of such hate speeches being circulated on social media. Signed by 101 female lawyers, the letter petition has urged the Supreme Court to direct the Haryana government to take steps to prevent incidents of hate speech, ban videos of such speech in accordance with the law, and take immediate action against those found responsible for committing such acts.

    Case Details

    Shaheen Abdullah v. Union of India & Ors. | Writ Petition (Civil) No. 940 of 2022

    Click Here To Read/Download Order

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