The Law Commission has recently released a report on hate speech laws in India. The Supreme Court in Pravasi Bhalai vs. Union of India asked the Law Commission to recommend changes to existing hate speech laws, and to “define the term hate speech”. The report discusses the history of hate speech jurisprudence in India and in certain other jurisdictions. In addition, it stresses upon the difficulty of defining hate speech and the lack of a concise definition. In the absence of such a definition, certain ‘identifying criterion’ have been mentioned, to detect instances of hate speech. It also discusses the theories of Jeremy Waldron (the ‘dignity’ principle) and makes a case for protecting the interests of minority communities by regulating speech. In this regard, two new sections for the IPC have been proposed. They are as follows:
(i) Prohibiting incitement to hatred-
“153 C. Whoever on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe –
(a) uses gravely threatening words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause, fear or alarm; or
(b) advocates hatred by words either spoken or written, signs, visible representations, that causes incitement to violence shall be punishable with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, and fine up to Rs 5000, or with both.”.
(ii) Causing fear, alarm, or provocation of violence in certain cases.
“505 A. Whoever in public intentionally on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe-
uses words, or displays any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is gravely threatening, or derogatory;
(i) within the hearing or sight of a person, causing fear or alarm, or;
(ii) with the intent to provoke the use of unlawful violence,
against that person or another, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year and/or fine up to Rs 5000, or both”.
The author is of the opinion that these recommended amendments are vague and broadly worded and could lead to a chilling effect and over-censorship. Here are a few reasons why the recommendations might not be compatible with free speech jurisprudence:
- Three – part test
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights lays down three requirements that need be fulfilled to ensure that a restriction on free speech is warranted. The Law Commission report also discusses this test; it includes the necessity of a measure being ‘prescribed by law’, the need for a ‘legitimate aim’ and the test of ‘necessity and proportionality’.
Under the ‘prescribed by law’ standard, it is necessary for a restriction on free speech to be ‘clear and not ambiguous’. For instance, a phrase like ‘fear or alarm’ (existing in Section 153A and Section 505) has been criticized for being ‘vague’. Without defining or restricting this term, the public would not be aware of what constitutes ‘fear or alarm’ and would not know how to comply with the law. This standard has also been reiterated in Shreya Singhal vs. Union of India, where it was held that the ambiguously worded Section 66A could be problematic for innocent people since they would not be aware as to “which side of the line they fall” towards.
- Expanding scope to online offences?
The newly proposed sections also mention that any ‘gravely threatening words within the hearing or sight of a person’ would be penalized. Presumably, the phrase ‘within the sight or hearing of a person’ broadens the scope of this provision and could allow online speech to come under the ambit of the IPC. This phrase is similar to the wording of Section 5 (1) of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act, 1986 in the United Kingdom, which penalizes “harassment, alarm or distress”. Even though the section does not explicitly mention that it would cover offences on the internet, it has been presumed to do so.
Similarly, if the intent of the framers of Section 153C is to expand the scope to cover online offences, it might introduce the same issues as the omitted Section 66A of the IT Act did. Section 66A intended to penalize the transmission of information which was ‘menacing’ and also which promoted ‘hatred or ill will’. The over-breadth of the terms in the section led to scrapping it. Another reason for scrapping the section was the lowering of the ‘incitement’ threshold (discussed below). Even though the proposed Section 153C does not provide for as many grounds (hatred, ill will, annoyance, etc.), it does explicitly lower the threshold from ‘incitement’ to ‘fear or alarm’/’discrimination’.
- The standard of ‘hate speech’
The report also advocates for penalizing the ‘fear or alarm’ caused by such speech, since it could potentially have the effect of ‘marginalizing a section of the society’. As mentioned above, it has been explicitly mentioned that the threshold of ‘incitement to violence’ should be lowered and factors like ‘incitement to discrimination’ should also be considered.
The Shreya Singhal judgment drew a distinction between ‘discussion, advocacy and incitement’, stating that a restriction justifiable under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution would have to amount to ‘incitement’ and not merely ‘discussion’ or ‘advocacy’. This distinction was drawn so that discussing or advocating ideas which could lead to problems with ‘public order’ or disturbing the ‘security of the state’ could be differentiated from ‘incitement’ which establishes more of a ‘causal connection’.
Similarly, if the words used contribute to causing ‘fear or alarm’, the threshold of ‘incitement’ would be lowered, and constitutionally protected speech could be censored.
Despite the shortcomings mentioned above, the report is positive in a few ways. It draws attention to important contemporary issues affecting minority communities and how speech is often used to mobilize communities against each other. It also relies on Jeremy Waldron’s ‘dignity principle’ to make a case for imposing differing hate speech standards to protect minority communities. In addition, the grounds for discrimination now include ‘tribe’ and ‘sexual orientation’ amongst others.
However, existing case laws, coupled with recent instances of censorship, could make the insertion of these provisions troubling. India’s relationship with free speech is already dire; the Press Freedom Index ranks the country at 133 (out of 180) and the Freedom on the Net Report states that India is ‘partly free’ in this regard. The Law Commission might need to reconsider the recommendations, for the sake of upholding free speech. Pravasi Bhalai called for sanctioning politicians speeches, but the recommendations made by the Law Commission might be far reaching and the effects could be chilling.
 Section 5- Harassment, alarm or distress.
(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a)uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
 David Wall, Cybercrime: The Transformation of Crime in the Information Age, Page 123, Polity.