The term “hate speech” was not widely known in India till Godhra happened. In the last few months, the term has gained wide currency, especially after the alleged anti-Muslim speech by Varun Gandhi in March.
Hate speech is a term for speech intended to offend a person or persons on the basis of attributes such as race, gender, nationality, religion and ideology. Most nations of the world have passed laws prohibiting hate speech. These laws consider the incitement of hatred between communities as the defining feature of hate speech.
It is difficult to draw the line between permitting free speech and prohibiting hate speech. In December, the Election Commission sent a notice asking Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to explain his speech at a rally in Mangrol, seen by the commission as an activity which could aggravate existing differences and create mutual hatred and tension. In his reply to the commission, Modi defended his “right of free speech”, his right to “debate on political issues in the marketplace of politics”.
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Reports say that at one point, his audience responded by shouting “Kill him, kill him”. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony’s speech prompted Roman citizens to cry, “Revenge, fire, burn, kill, slay... Let not a traitor live.” The comparison ends there, because Antony’s was not an inflammatory speech, it was a masterstroke of oratory.
In contrast to the legal position in other nations, in the US the First Amendment prohibits any restriction of free speech. Judges have ruled that even when free speech instigates violence, such advocacy of violence can be considered criminal only if there is a threat of imminent violence.
The vocabulary of hate politics has led to the use of several other expressions. “Racial profiling” is one of them. The term refers to the practice of considering racial or ethnic characteristics in determining whether a person is likely to commit a crime of a given type. This often results in the police picking on people of a particular group while looking for potential suspects. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, the focus was on people of West Asian origin.
The unreliability of racial profiling was exposed after Robert Wilkins, an African- American, was stopped by the Maryland state police, who wanted to search his car. He objected, but the police carried out the search. Wilkins sought remedy in court. In settling the case, the police were asked to collect data on the search procedure. It was found that black motorists made up 15% of speeding motorists, but the proportion of black drivers stopped and searched was 73%.
Another manifestation of inter-racial conflict is the issue of miscegenation. The word refers to mixed marriage, especially of a black person with a white spouse. Anti-miscegenation laws were in force in the American colonies as early as the 17th century. The issue came to a head when Jack Johnson, the first black world boxing champion, married a white woman. As the black population celebrated Johnson’s victory, whites rioted. The conflict abated in 1967 after the US Supreme Court struck down all anti-miscegenation laws as violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.
More drastic and cruel measures were adopted in Nazi Germany, where the Jews were objects of racist hatred. Soldiers from the French colonies in Africa returning after World War I had married white women and had children by them. Children of these marriages were called “Rhineland bastards”.
The infamous Nuremberg Laws were invoked to deprive Jews of German citizenship. These laws recognized people as German only if all four of their grandparents were of German or kindred blood. Offspring of three or four Jewish grandparents were Jews. All others were declared to be “Mischling” or cross-breed.
Under the iniquitous guidance of Eugen Fischer, who propounded a pseudo-scientific theory of racial hygiene, thousands of children of mixed marriages were sterilized under the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Fischer’s influence is also seen in the work of his student, Hendrik Verwoerd, who became prime minister of South Africa. The latter drafted the apartheid policy of his country. The policy envisaged encouraging medical experiments on blacks, prohibiting inter-racial marriages and relocating blacks to the outskirts of towns.
The term “ethnic cleansing” was in the news at the close of the last century in relation to the conflict in Yugoslavia. The UN defines the term as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group”. In the Yugoslav wars of the closing decade of the last century, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo witnessed large-scale cleansing of local populations.
While politicians continue to fan communal hatred, we have a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. Not surprisingly, US President Barack Obama’s call for a new beginning while addressing Cairo university students has been welcomed as a “love speech”.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org