Slapgate’s Lessons

By Sanjay Raman Sinha

The shocking incident when a government school teacher Tripta Tyagi was booked by the police for ordering a Muslim child to be slapped by his classmates in a school in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district has raised the communal curtain. A video became viral showing students slapping their Muslim classmate on the teacher’s command. Tyagi was booked on the complaint of the boy’s family under IPC Sections 323 (punishment for voluntarily causing hurt) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace). Both these charges are non-cognisable offences. However, even before the public outrage had barely subsided, another teacher Hima Gulati allegedly made derogatory comments about Islam in a classroom of the Delhi government school in Kailash Nagar in East Delhi. Four students reportedly alleged that the teacher asked them why their families did not go to Pakistan during Partition. Gulati was also booked by the police.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a post on X (formerly Twitter) condemned the incident. He tweeted: “Sowing the poison of discrimination in the minds of innocent children, turning a holy place like school into a marketplace of hatred—nothing worse a teacher can do for the country. This is the same kerosene spread by the BJP which has set every corner of India on fire. Children are the future of India—we all have to teach them love not hatred.”

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav demanded that the Muzaffarnagar teacher be sacked immediately and called her a “blot on the teacher society”. AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi tweeted: “Indian Muslims are facing the same persecution & discrimination as Jews faced in the 1930s, will it lead to Kristallnacht? Hope not.” On the Muzaffarnagar incident, he said: “It is a product of the last nine years”. 

Meanwhile BJP spokesperson Harishchandra Srivastava, reacted to Yadav’s post on X, terming it as a political agenda. “The tweet made by Akhilesh Yadav regarding the Muzaffarnagar school incident is superficial politics and a disgusting political agenda to create disharmony in the society,” he wrote on X.

Although hate speech in schools is a new phenomenon, hate speech isn’t. Its virulency has constantly increased in the social and political domain. Political and religious leaders have been spewing hate speech with unending regularity. It has created fissures in society and created a toxic environment full of communal venom. The law is quite grey in this area. Hate speech hasn’t found its place in the legal lexicon and law enforcers have been struggling to book perpetrators.

On April 28, 2023, the Supreme Court proactively ordered the immediate registration of first information reports in cases involving hate speeches. The apex court also instructed the police chiefs of Delhi, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh to file suo motu cases in hate speech incidents. Later, the Court extended the decision across India and said that any violation of its order will be treated as contempt of court. 

In the Muzaffarnagar slap case, the Supreme Court sought the response of the Uttar Pradesh government, and the district superintendent of police was directed to file a report on the steps taken so far in the probe into the matter, as well as steps taken to protect the victim-child. The bench was hearing a petition filed by the great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Tushar Gandhi.

In the new bill which the government has brought in proposing changes in the Criminal Procedure Code and the Indian Penal Code, a definition of hate speech has been given and criminal charges and punishment have been instituted. The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita seeks to punish hate crime offences related to religion with up to three years in jail and a fine. The bill is awaiting assent from the president. Besides, a one-year jail term has been provided for those using words with the deliberate intention of hurting someone’s religious feelings. The Law Commission in its 267th report has said: “It is difficult to define hate speech as any ambiguity in the definition may give way to curbing the freedom of expression.”

There are seven types of laws used in the country to deal with hate speech, but hate speech has not been defined in any of them. Till now, social media platforms were not stopping their users from using offensive language. Now inflammatory religious comments are under tighter scanner. Most of the legal provisions dealing with inflammatory and derogatory speech are included under Sections 153A, 153B and 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

If we look at the data of National Crime Records Bureau, there has been an increase of six times, or almost 500%, in the cases of hate speech registered under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code in seven years—323 cases in 2014, 1,804 cases in 2020. Section 153A deals with “the promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language” and not hate speech itself. 

The Election Commission had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in which it was said that there is no clear law in the country regarding hate speech. The Commission said that whatever laws are in place at present, they are not capable of taking action against those who make inflammatory speeches or statements that spread hatred through hate speech.

The Law Commission had given its 267th report in 2017, in which it was also suggested that necessary amendments should be made in the criminal law regarding hate speech. In this wider ambit of hate speech jurisprudence, bigotry and hate speech in schools needs to be looked at. The serious concern is that schools nurture impressionable minds. Communal comments can mould and condemn these young minds to a lifetime of bigotry and divisive hate mongering. The sad and disturbing fact is that schools have increasingly become nurseries of such attitudes. In schools, abhorrence, hate and narrow mindedness is not limited to Hindu versus Muslims, but it also includes Dalits, tribals and other marginalized communities.

The seriousness of the problem is put in context if we look at the student data. India has around 15 lakh schools, more than 97 lakh teachers and more than 26.5 crore students. Even if a marginal percentage of students gets affected by the communal or caste bias, the long-term social impact is staggering. 

In October 2022, the Supreme Court bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia delivered a split verdict in a batch of pleas challenging the ban imposed on wearing of hijab in pre-university institutions in Karnataka. (Aishat Shifa vs State of Karnataka). Justice Dhulia overturned the Karnataka High Court verdict and said: “Our schools, in particular our Pre-University colleges, are the perfect institutions where our children, who are now at an impressionable age, and are just waking up to the rich diversity of this nation, need to be counselled and guided, so that they imbibe our constitutional values of tolerance and accommodation, towards those who may speak a different language, eat different food, or even wear different clothes or apparels! This is the time to foster in them sensitivity, empathy and understanding towards different religions, languages and cultures. This is the time when they should learn not to be alarmed by our diversity, but to rejoice and celebrate this diversity. This is the time when they must realise that diversity is our strength.”

Though the Right To Education (RTE) has increased the access of students of marginalized sections into the formal education system, no corresponding measure has been taken to protect and nurture these “marginalized” students as they come in close contact with the better off sections of the society. The fortress of biases and prejudices of the elitist educational system has persisted and no one is questioning it. The RTE Act expressly prohibits any discrimination. It states: “The State Government and the Local Authority shall ensure that a child belonging to a weaker section and a child belonging to disadvantaged group is not segregated or discriminated against in the classroom...”

Constitutionally, India is on a very strong ground with respect to children’s rights. Under the Directive Principles of State Policy, it is mandated “that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.” Further, Article 21 of the Constitution prevents discrimination. It states: “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.” 

Many laws have been formed to prevent social or religious discrimination. Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, has also been instituted. But the ground realities have challenged the basic premise of all these constitutional mandates and laws. Today, hate speech has seeped into the classrooms. The parents of the victims are averse to reporting cases of discrimination to higher authorities. Hate speech being a verbal crime is yet to be socially recognized as such. All this makes a section of the future generation an easy target for discrimination, and as Muzaffarnagar showed, physical punishment.