Two days after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres criticised India over its human rights record and growing hate speeches during a three-day visit, the Supreme Court on Friday made some of its strongest comments yet on the subject.
“This is the 21st century. Where have we reached in the name of religion?” the court said, hearing a petition on hate speeches and directing authorities to act against such instances by themselves or face contempt charges. “Contempt will be initiated if the authorities fail to act,” the court said.
It said the state of affairs in India was “shocking for a country that is supposed to be religion-neutral”.
“The Constitution of India envisages a secular nation and fraternity among citizens assuring the dignity of the individual…The unity and integrity of the nation is one of the guiding principles enshrined in the preamble,” the judges said.
“The petitioner points out [that] despite various penal provisions, no action has been taken and there is a need to serve constitutional principles. We feel this court is charged with a duty to protect the fundamental rights and also protect and serve the constitution where the rule of law is maintained,” they added.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court had sought responses from the centre and the states to a plea requesting an urgent intervention to stop the “growing menace of targeting and terrorising (of) the Muslim Community in India”.
Petitioner Shaheen Abdullah had asked the top court to direct the centre and states to initiate credible probes into the incidents of hate crimes and hate speeches across the country.
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for the petitioner, presented a recent “Hindu Sabha” as an example where BJP MP from West Delhi, Parvesh Verma, called for the “total boycott” of “these people” in a hard-to-miss reference to Muslims.
The judges also read comments by another speaker at the event, Jagat Guru Yogeshwar Acharya, who urged attendees to “slit the throats” of anyone who “raises a finger at our temples”.
Thanked by Mr Sibal for their stern order to the police and governments to file cases on their own, the judges said, “It’s our duty… if we don’t do it, it’s abdication on our side.”
In his petition, Mr Abdullah has also sought invoking the tough anti-terrorism law Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and other stringent provisions to curb hate crimes and hate speeches.
He said the Muslim community is being “targeted and terrorised” by the participation of the members of the ruling political party in delivering the hate speeches.
The hearing came two days after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres red-flagged growing hate speeches in the country in a rare rebuke.
“As an elected member of the Human Rights Council, India has a responsibility to shape global human rights, and to protect and promote the rights of all individuals, including members of minority communities,” Mr Guterres said in a speech in Mumbai.
Though he praised India’s achievements 75 years after leaving British rule, Mr Guterres also said that the understanding that “diversity is a richness… is not a guarantee”.
Citing Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Mr Guterres said their values need to be guarded by “condemning hate speech unequivocally”.
India must do this “by protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics. And by ensuring the continued independence of India’s judiciary”, he said, adding that “much more needs to be done to advance gender equality and women’s rights”.