Communal Harmony and Hate Speech

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Free speech is quintessential in a democracy because it facilitates the exchange of diverse opinions. In a representative democracy, dialogue facilitates the testing of competing claims and obtaining of diverse input into political decision making. Free speech is also critical to the enjoyment of personal autonomy. In the area of hate speech, the libertarian idea of free expression comes into tension with the aspiration of equal dignity. Societies like India which are committed to pluralism are obligated to safeguard individual expression while promoting egalitarian principles against harming others’ safety and dignity. Maintaining public order is something that the government has to balance against speakers’ rights. The threat to individuals’ physical well-being and dignity interests may supersede those of individuals who resort to intimidating symbols like burning crosses and swastikas to elicit violence. When a Danish newspaper publishes caricatures depicting the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, leading to widespread protests from Muslims across the world and France forbids the wearing of symbols representing religious insignia to schools because it constitutes a propagandist pattern, the issue of freedom of speech and restrictions imposed in public interest come to the fore. Hate speech, the “words that are used as weapons to ambush, terrorize, wound, humiliate, and degrade,” damages “not only the targeted group or individual’s physiological and emotional state, but also personal freedom, dignity, and personhood” and society at large. On February 27, 2002, two train carriages carrying Hindu activists were allegedly set on fire by a Muslim mob in the town of Godhra, in the state of Gujarat, resulting in fifty-eight deaths. In response, there were widespread attacks throughout Gujarat by Hindus against Muslims, involving killings, sexual violence, torture, destruction of property–including the destruction of places of worship–and the internal displacement of people....
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