Letís call it hate speech

Honey Singh
The debate over whether to ban Honey Singh's music has been wrongly characterised in terms of obscenity and censorship. The real issue is of recognising hate speech, and addressing a legal framework that does not view women as full citizens.

Both Anurag Kashyap ('All atwitter', IE, January 4) and Pratik Kanjilal ('Just bad taste', IE, January 5) have defended Singh's work, but neither can bring themselves to quote his lyrics: In "C***t", the protagonist sings of assaulting a woman after intercourse and subjecting her to genital mutilation (is that what Kanjilal calls "a little provocative"?). Honey Singh has, of course, denied any connection with this song, but interestingly, both Kashyap and Kanjilal proceed on the assumption that it is his work.

Similar misogynistic trends run through much of Singh's music. My objection here is not to songs which may be classified as merely obscene (what Kanjilal might describe as having "bad language or lousy ideas"), or even those which draw on troublesome tropes of women as gold-diggers or prostitutes. Unfortunately, Singh's music goes beyond this. "Yaar Bathere" (Many lovers) describes a woman who has multiple partners after having taken expensive gifts from the protagonist. In the accompanying video, Singh and singer Alfaaz stand among 10 men outside an apartment building. An overturned car is burning. Singh jumps onto the car and proceeds to smash its windows with a baseball bat. A group of women on a balcony look down at this scene, our vision of them obscured by thick smoke.

If the women in this video were replaced by members of a religious community, there would be no question that this music incites violence against that community. In fact, such incidents happen to women in real life. Acid attack survivors frequently describe scenarios where men, believing themselves to be scorned, take recourse to violence and mutilation. Kashyap himself, in an interview about Gangs of Wasseypur, acknowledges Bollywood's influence in small towns: "The real fan base of Bollywood is in Wasseypur. I have not seen this kind of confluence of Bollywood and crime elsewhere. The dialogues they have memorised from films become their constant punch lines." Why is Kashyap so reluctant to make similar connections about women and violence when it comes to Honey Singh?

Speech about women is judged within a matrix of obscenity and censorship rather than being recognised as hate speech. Under Article 19 of the Constitution, the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression does not extend to incitement to commit an offence. Hate speech ó any form of communication which vilifies a person or group based on their identity, and incites violence or prejudice against them ó ought to be outside the protection of Article 19.

The law does not meet this standard when it comes to women. Gender-based hate speech is not an offence under the Indian Penal Code. At most, Section 505 punishes statements or rumours that are likely to incite any class or community of people to commit an offence against any other class or community of persons. Similarly, making statements or spreading rumours which cause fear or alarm in any section of the public is an offence.

Section 153-A, which directly addresses hate speech, criminalises speech that promotes feelings of hatred, enmity or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities, on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community. The section also recognises drills, exercises and movements where the participants are likely to use criminal force or violence against any religious, racial, language or regional group, or caste or community, and where this drill/ exercise/ movement would, for any reason whatsoever, cause or be likely to cause fear, alarm or a feeling of insecurity amongst members of this group, caste or community.

Section 153-B speaks directly to citizenship. It criminalises speech that propagates that any class of persons, because they belong to a particular religious, racial, language or regional group or caste or community, be denied or deprived of their rights as citizens of India.

Gender is conspicuous here by its absence. The law on hate speech does not recognise gender among the categories of identity that affect citizenship. Speech that suggests women are not full citizens, or causes fear in the mind of women as a group, is not punished. Yet citizenship is more than merely the right to vote every five years. It is the right to live in your country without fear. In the absence of this right, Kashyap and Kanjilal's solutions ó to refuse to consume Singh's music, or to criticise and disparage those who consume it ó make a mockery of the violence that women face every day. Kashyap may dismiss Honey Singh's song as "the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically", but to women watching Singh's video, the message is clear: the men we reject may show up outside our homes, armed not with music but with acid.

The writer is an advocate practicing in New Delhi

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