Although India was ill-prepared to face the health and economic hazards brought in by Covid-19; it was rather oblivious to the possibility of discrimination and social intolerance emerging as an accessory to such hazards. Covid-19 has given birth to a new way of racial polarization by way of ‘hate speech’ against the north eastern community in India. The issue has been further aggravated by the tensions evolving with China at the borders especially after the Galwan valley incident. The community, with no logical explanation for the same, is perceived to be of Chinese or Asian origin by a majority of the citizens of the nation and are being constantly berated for spreading the virus. Among the many other defaming names often used for the north eastern community, a new name has been added i.e. ‘coronavirus’; which is highly derogatory.
Although the Indian Constitution grants every citizen the freedom to speech and expression, the same is not an absolute right. One of the most important aspects of public interest happens to be protection of the vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society from oppression of any form, be it physical, economic, social or mental. It is true that dissenting opinions and critical voices mark the very basis of a plural democracy, however, freedom so granted must not be used as a tool for dehumanization. Hate speech has been recognized as one of the major concerns by the United Nations which has provided recommendations to control the spread of such misinformation leading to irreparable miseries to the marginalised communities. The recommendations attach responsibilities to various players of the global world i.e. United Nations Departments, Agencies, Funds and Programs; member States; tech companies; media, civil society and other stakeholders.
Incapacity of Existing Laws to Tackle this Discrimination
Discrimination due to physical features against the people of northeast is not new and it has remained in prevalence since many decades. In some cases, such instances are taken on a light note and the people from northeast enjoy the pleasure of being treated as foreigners in their own country. However, in many cases such instances turn ugly with them resulting in physical attacks and humiliation leading to mental trauma which goes beyond the fun of calling someone ‘momo’ or ‘chinky’.
In India, there are legislations dealing with the menace of hate speech leading to racial discrimination including the Indian Penal Code, 1860 under Section 153A (promoting enmity between different groups), 153B (imputations and ascertains prejudicial to national integration), 505(1) (statement conducing public mischief) and 505(2) (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill will between classes). The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 under Section 7 penalizes any form of untouchability promoted by words or by signs or representations.
However, the continued instances of harassment both physical and verbal meted out to the northeastern community is an undefiable evidence of the inability of the current legislative framework in countering hate speech and racial violence.
Recommendations and Way Forward
The need of the hour is to stop considering hate speech against the north-eastern community as merely a collateral damage brought by the wave of Covid-19, and rather take the same seriously and focus at curbing it to the core. The said community needs to be provided with platforms to raise their voices against the injustices experienced in this already uncertain situation.
New Law Against Discrimination- In order to stop the ad hominem attacks being faced by the community, the State governments in alliance with the Central Government need to come up with regulatory frameworks consistent with international human rights standards. The said legal/ regulatory framework should comprise succinct definitions and provisions penalising activities that endorse or promote ‘hate speech’
Fast Track Courts and Special Police Squads for handling cases related to the northeast people, particularly those which are racially motivated and involve heinous crimes against the northeast women and children. Further, special designated public prosecutors should be appointed especially for handling cases related to the northeast. They should be properly trained and sensitised.
Educational Interventions- Suitable innovative ways should be devised to integrate each and every aspect of the northeast into the consciousness of the people outside. Further, large scale educational migrations from northeast to Delhi has been a prominent feature of recent times. One reason for such exodus is the absence of institutions of excellence in the northeast. Therefore, a detailed socio-economic study of the nature of student migration should be undertaken to provide valuable insights for the planning of higher education in the region.
Increasing Accountability of the Media- Another important role is that of the media because it has the responsibility to serve two purposes: first, taking immediate actions against propagandas of discrimination and spread of misinformation and exposing such activities; and second, providing a platform to the victims to voice their ordeals and experiences before the nation so that necessary actions can be taken at the earliest.
Proportional and Necessitated Content Regulation and Fact Check- Most importantly, social media platforms need to come up with stringent policies which define the ambits of ‘violating content’ and such policies should be nuanced considering the legal provisions and international human right standards. Also, the policies of the media houses must emphasize on corroboration of facts before any event is circulated as ‘news’ in order to keep a check on the growing issue of ‘fake news’. The intention must be creation of awareness by way of sensitization of the masses towards the growing issue of ‘hate speech’ in the country.
A legitimate discourse must not end up being suppressed by misinformation, propaganda and false news. Also, the State should not take advantage of the situation to promote self-serving propaganda questioning the very basis of a plural democracy like India. Hence, freedom of media, press and journalism becomes all the more important at this stage.
About the Author: Garima Gupta is pursuing an integrated L.L.M and Ph.D.from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. She graduated from National University of Study & Research in Law, Ranchi.