By Nevin Clinton
Online hate speech in India is a hugely relevant topic in cyber laws right now. Thanks to the unclear definitions on what exactly hate speech is, and due to the boom in the availability of internet access and cyberspace, there has been a surge in online hate speech cases. The scenario as of now is such that it has become a part and parcel of social media and the internet. The situation is thus precarious as of now and there needs to be immediate attention on the laws surrounding online hate speech.
What is hate speech?
Before proceeding to online hate speech, it is essential to understand first as to what hate speech is. On that note, the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation". The Indian Penal Code prescribes punishments for such acts under Section 153A and Section 295A, but there have been no definitions so far in any statute.
Laws on online hate speech in India
The current laws in India on hate speech (online or otherwise) are such that there is plenty of scope for over-criminalization. However, these incidents only keep increasing by the day, pointing to a probable bias in handling of these cases. Now, the IPC covers hate speech under Section 153A where punishments for promoting ‘disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc’ are put forth. Section 295A on the other hand provides for punishments for insulting religious beliefs.
It is noteworthy here that these provisions do not specify anything about carrying out such hate speech in cyberspace. This is where Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 was relevant, before it was struck down. The section provided for punishment for sending ‘offensive messages through communication services’ including sending ‘false information’ to annoy, insult or cause ill will.
Section 66A, despite being the only one that recognized online hate speech, had room for exploitation and the same took place, with targeted people including teenagers being arrested even for posts put up on social media. This led to PILs to be filed and in the Shreya Singhal judgment in 2015, the Act was struck down. Subsequently, the section did continue to be in use in various parts of India, due to a lack of awareness, before the Supreme Court reiterated the fact twice recently that the Act was struck down and must not be invoked.
Challenges and Solutions
The position of laws on online hate speech in India as of now is unclear. In fact, there is no provision that directly addresses it. While the laws on hate speech under the IPC will continue to apply, the situation is still one where there is a need for specific legislation. Further, the IPC provisions themselves have their own problems such as room for exploitation.
Therefore, addressing this position of law is a need of the hour. Bringing in amendments or even a new set of laws can go a long way in bringing in a positive change. For example, a new section can be introduced in the Information Technology Act, 2000, similar to Section 66A but removing the problems that it had. Putting forth clear definitions will be crucial in this regard.
Encouraging counterspeech has been discussed in legal circles as a viable solution wherein hate speech is responded to, in order to minimize the damage done and to educate the offender. This can be done by social media companies or even other third parties. Favouring alternative dispute resolution mechanisms can also prove to be an effective solution.
The current scenario surrounding online hate speech and the laws in India is one of uncertainty. Even as the problem of hate speech in cyberspace is burgeoning, this is a matter of concern which needs immediate redressal. There are plenty of ways in which this can be set right and for the same, cooperation between different parties is required. If that is done, a cyberspace where there is minimal hate speech is a very real possibility.