Preliminary Findings on Online Hate Speech and the Law in India

During the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots, in which over sixty people died and thousands were displaced, social media was reported to have played a significant role in spreading rumors and propaganda. In this context, an incendiary video of two men being beaten to death, described (incorrectly) as a video of Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob was circulated on the Internet. Similarly, a Muslim man was killed by a mob in Pune following the circulation of morphed images denigrating iconic leader attributed to him. These images were circulated on Facebook and through Internet messaging applications on smartphones.

State governments in India have taken to disabling Internet services, especially mobile data services, in response to threats of violence. For example, in June 2016, the Indian government shut down the Internet in the state of Haryana, fearing potential violence arising from ongoing protests. Internet shutdowns are becoming commonplace – there have been thirty-nine incidents since January 2015. The alleged reasons for the shutdowns ranged from apprehensions about provocative social media rumors related to the recovery of cow carcasses to the prevention of cheating during a public government-administered exam. Many of these justifications offered for Internet shutdowns fall within the umbrella of online hate speech or incitement to violence.

Hate speech is a serious concern in the Republic of India. However, Indian law does not use the phrase “hate speech.” Different forms of what may arguably be called hate speech are covered in different ways by various Indian statutes.

This briefing paper outlines preliminary issues that we noted while conducting a detailed study of hate speech laws in India. It teases out some of the major concerns that arise in the context of both online and offline hate speech, especially speech as potential incitement to violence. Our upcoming detailed report covers a wider range of what might be called hate speech, and extends to speech that may not act as potential incitement to violence. The report offers a more nuanced and detailed picture of the current state of affairs, as well as the conclusions drawn and recommendations made.

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