Indian expat Harpreet 1000
Indian expat Harpreet Mansukhani Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

  • Petition filed against hate-filled speeches and communally-divisive remarks during India's national election campaign
  • Top court responds to petition filed by UAE-based expat Harpreet Mansukhani on Monday, April 15
  • India's Election Commission taken to task over its inability to act against candidates who spewed hate speech during poll campaign

Dubai: Hate speech and vitriolic language during election campaigns had become the "new normal" in India.

But a UAE-based expat keen on spreading tolerance is pushing back hate-filled words uttered in the public domain — by fighting it through the courts.

And India's Supreme Court, no less, has accepted the challenge against foul, divisive election campaign speeches.

It was Sharjah-based yoga teacher, Indian expat Harpreet Mansukhani, who made the move against incitement to sectarian strife.

In its Monday (April 15) decision, India’s Supreme Court gave the country’s Election Commission 24 hours to explain its inability to act against candidates who spewed vitriol in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll campaigning.

Why did she file the petition?

Speaking to Gulf News in an exclusive interview on Tuesday, Mansukhani said: “I filed the petition because I was pained by what was happening back home. I felt strongly about the need to revive tolerance.”

What is hate speech?
Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or a group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

A mum of two from Mumbai, who is also pursuing an online degree in human rights law, Mansukhani said: “For the past 17 years, I have been in the UAE where people from different backgrounds live in peace and harmony.

"India is also a very diverse country where people from different cultures and languages have lived together for centuries. We just have to remind ourselves that we need to practice tolerance and build a secure future for the generations to come.”

Reluctant lawyers

She said she had tried to file the public interest litigation several months ago, but made little headway as there were no takers.

“Lawyers were reluctant to take it up and I was told it presented a jurisdiction issue. But I went by my gut feeling and by the grace of God, I was able to eventually submit the writ petition, the first hearing of which took place on April 8.”

In her plea, Mansukhani sought the constitution of a committee, chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge, to keep a close watch on India’s election process.

She contended that provisions of Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act 1951 were not enough to ensure “free and fair elections”.

Appeal against hate speech

The petition states: “An appeal in the name of religion, race, caste, community or language by spokespersons and media representatives of political parties on TV debate shows are normal which affect elections of the whole country and the Election Commission has never taken any action against the political parties …”

It also spoke of how spokespersons, media representatives of political parties /other politicians use hate speeches on TV channels and social media platforms based on caste or religious lines, but get away with it because they usually do not contest in the elections.

I was pained by what was happening back home... We have to remind ourselves that we need to practice tolerance and build a secure future for the generations to come.

- Harpreet Mansukhani, Indian yoga teacher

“The essential component of a constitutional democracy is its ability to give and secure for its citizenry a representative form of government, elected freely and fairly, and comprising of a polity whose members are men and women of high integrity and morality,” the petition said.

Election Commission taken to task

Subsequently, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to respond to the petition calling for stern action against those spreading hatred on religious and casteist lines.

Following the ‘rap’, the Election Commission censured two political leaders from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh — Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and opposition leader Mayawati for making communal remarks in their campaigns and suspended them from campaigning for 48 hours and 72 hours respectively.

Two others leaders — Maneka Gandhi and Azam Khan — from the same state were also barred on similar grounds.

Mansukhani, however, said, she was not very happy with the outcome of her petition. “The damage has already been done, the leaders have long been campaigning on the basis of their ideologies and any votes they may get on this basis should be considered unconstitutional.”

She said away from sectarian and religious beliefs, there were many pressing issues that deserve attention. “What matters at the end of the day is the economy, people’s well-being, their safety, peace and harmony.”

Harpreet Mansukhani vs Election Commission

Harpreet Mansukhani talking to the Indian media in New Delhi after her public interest litigation on hate speech was filed in the Supreme Court. The first hearing was on April 8. Image Credit: Supplied

April 8: A bench headed by Supreme Court Chief Jutice Ranjan Gogoi issues a notice to the Election Commission of India on a petition filed by Harpreet Mansukhani, that sought action against political leaders and party representatives, besides media houses, who base their shows on caste or religious lines.

April 15: Supreme Court gives the Election Commission 24 hours to explain its lawyers submission in court that it was “powerless” to act against religious and hate speeches by candidates. While the ECI was represented by advocate Amit Sharma, Mansukhani was represented by senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Arup Banerjee.