Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Punishing Hate Speech


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Issues with free speech

A recent religious conclave has witnessed inflammatory and provocative speeches by some religious proponents hinting at a Myanmar-type ‘minority cleansing campaign’.

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 tranquility.
  • 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.

What has the Law Commission proposed?

The Law Commission has proposed that separate offences be added to the IPC to criminalize hate speech quite specifically instead of being subsumed in the existing sections concerning inflammatory acts and speeches.

[A] Inserting two sections

  • It has proposed that two new sections, Section 153C and Section 505A, be added.

Section 153C

It is an offence if anyone-

  • Uses gravely threatening words, spoken or written or signs or visible representations, with the intention to cause fear or alarm OR
  • Advocates hatred that causes incitement to violence, on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe

Section 505A

  • It proposes to criminalize words, or display of writing or signs that are gravely threatening or derogatory, within the hearing or sight of a person, causing fear or alarm or, with intent to provoke the use of unlawful violence against that person or another”.

[B] Imprisonment

  • Section 153C: two-year jail term for this and/or a fine of ₹5,000 or both
  • Section 505A: prison term of up to one year and/or a fine up to ₹5,000

Other committees’ recommendations

  • Similar proposals to add sections to the IPC to punish acts and statements that promote racial discrimination or amount to hate speech have been made by the M.P. Bezbaruah Committee and the T.K. Viswanathan Committee.
  • At present, the Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws, which is considering more comprehensive changes to criminal law, is examining the issue of having specific provisions to tackle hate speech.

Why regulate hate speech?

  • 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 fundamentally social and political problems often backfires.

What lies ahead?

  • 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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