Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Hate speech


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Free speech vs. Hate speech

Former Supreme Court Judge Rohinton Fali Nariman has said civil suits against hate speech leading to the award of punitive damages should be taken up by courts.

What did the ex-Judge say?

  • He described the Fundamental Duty of fraternity (Article 51A(5)) as the only Constitutional method of assuring the dignity of every citizen and the unity and integrity of the nation.
  • The cardinal principle of fraternity prescribed that every citizen honoured the other citizen in the spirit of brotherhood, transcending religious, sectarian, and other tendencies.
  • He opined that civil suits like defamation being dealt with fines would be more efficient in curbing hate speeches against individuals.

Article 51A(5): Promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities and to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women.

What is ‘Hate Speech?

  • There is no specific legal definition of ‘hate speech’.
  • The Law Commission of India, in its 267th Report, says: “Hate speech generally is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like
  • Thus, hate speech is any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence.”
  • In general, hate speech is considered a limitation on free speech that seeks to prevent or bar speech that exposes a person or a group or section of society to hate, violence, ridicule or indignity.

How is it treated in Indian law?

  • Provisions in law criminalize speeches, writings, actions, signs and representations that foment violence and spread disharmony between communities and groups and these are understood to refer to ‘hate speech’.
  • Sections 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code are generally taken to be the main penal provisions that deal with inflammatory speeches and expressions that seek to punish ‘hate speech’.

[I] Section 153A:

  • Promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’, is an offence punishable with three years’ imprisonment.

[II] Section 505:

  • 505(1): Statements conducing to public mischief– The statement, publication, report or rumour that is penalized under Section 505(1) should be one that promotes mutiny by the armed forces, or causes such fear or alarm that people are induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquillity. This attracts a jail term of up to three years.
  • 505(2): It is an offence to make statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes.
  • 505(3): Same offence will attract up to a five-year jail term if it takes place in a place of worship, or in any assembly engaged in religious worship or religious ceremonies.

Why curb hate speeches?

  • Creates social divide: Individuals believe in stereotypes that are ingrained in their minds and these stereotypes lead them to believe that a class or group of persons are inferior to them and as such cannot have the same rights as them.
  • Threat to peaceful co-existence: The stubbornness to stick to a particular ideology without caring for the right to co-exist peacefully adds further fuel to the fire of hate speech.

Issues in regulating hate speech

  • Powers to State: Almost every regulation of speech, no matter how well-intentioned, increases the power of the state.
  • Hate speeches are Political: The issue is fundamentally political and we should not pretend that fine legal distinctions will solve the issue.
  • Legal complications: An over-reliance on legal instruments to solve fundamental social and political problems often backfires.

Way forward

  • Subjects like hate speeches become a complex issue to deal with, in a country like India which is very diverse, as it was very difficult to differentiate between free and hate speech.
  • There are many factors that should be considered while restraining speeches like strong opinions, offensive comments towards certain communities, the effect on values like dignity, liberty and equality.
  • We all have to work together and communicate efficiently for our country to be a healthy place to live in.


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