By Sushil Kutty
The courts of the land should watch their words. The Supreme Court, especially. The top court cannot utter words that put a question mark on its integrity and its motives. More than any entity, the topmost court must be responsible. Observations such as “there is no room for hate crimes based on religion in a secular country” while great sounding are inherently flawed. There cannot be room for hate crimes in any sort of country, secular or religious. Period.
The apex court’s observation that only a certain kind of country can make a distinction between hate crimes and non-hate crimes is fraught with misinterpretations. Reserving ‘hate crimes’ to specific types of countries, of a certain ideological and religious bent, leaves lots of room for hate crimes to boom, or be blown out of proportion.
The specific case which prompted the Supreme Court to make the observation “there is no room for hate crimes based on religion in a secular country” was in the context of a July 2021 case when the Uttar Pradesh Police deliberately chose not to accept the assault of a 62-year-old Muslim man as a “hate crime”.
While the Uttar Pradesh Police finally corrected its interpretation of a hate crime, the Supreme Court made it clear hate crimes should not be “whitewashed”, on the other hand they should be stopped with an “iron hand”.
The UP Police had used an iron hand to take stock of the crime, but refused to label the assault “hate crime”. In fact, the police lodged an FIR only after 20 months. A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court composed of justices BV Nagarathna and KM Thomas observed that “when such crimes are not acted against, a climate of hate is fostered”.
“There is no room for hate crimes on the basis of religion in a secular country,” the bench said, noting that the petitioner’s beard was pulled by a group of men because he was wearing a cap peculiar to Muslims. “Once you stop it with an iron hand, a message goes out… If it is a hate crime there is no point ignoring it.”
The state denied any “religious slur” angle and accused the petitioner of “sensationalizing”. The SC bench refused to acknowledge the State’s interpretation. This is not unusual. Inside the courtroom, the justices’ writ runs unrestrictedly as lakhs of litigants have found to their disgust. Such daily disappointments are common.
The saying justice must be seen to have been done depends on whether you have won or lost the case. There is no hard and fast rule whether a particular crime should be declared a hate crime or not. There is too much subjectivity, and too less objectivity. Higher court judges are prone to be overawed by the reputations of select high-profile lawyers.
Of late, this has become apparent. And like it or not, acknowledge it or not, certain justices are seen as fixed in their interpretations of a crime. ‘Biased’ is the word. Openly biased and nothing can be done about it. Instances of judges dismissing cases with a joke at the expense of the accused is common.
In fact, more cases are laughed out of the court than they are settled inside courts. It is in this context that the “hate crime in a secular country” should be scrutinized. Does it mean hate crimes are kosher in a non-secular country; like Pakistan, for instance? In Taliban Afghanistan?
“Citizens need protection of the state, which has a duty to protect the individuals,” the SC bench said. And so long as it said as much, it was fine, hunky-dory. But the minute it limited hate crime to a “secular country”, it lost its moral compass. Are hate crimes natural the minute one crosses the Wagah border, or the Durand line?
Judges and “justices” aren’t a special tribe of men and women. They shouldn’t be judging people on the basis of whether they belong to a secular country or to a religious country. A hate crime is a hate crime whether it’s a secular country or a fastidiously religious country.
In this particular instance, the crime was acknowledged as a hate crime only because it was committed in a secular country. Pulling the beard of a man of any religious denomination is a crime. There is inherent hate in the act. But if you are pulling the beard of a Muslim man, it’s a hate crime only because India is secular!
To paraphrase the Supreme Court bench, “There is no room to label a crime a particular sort of crime on the basis of whether it is committed in a secular country or in a non-secular country.” A hate crime is a hate crime, does not matter where it is committed. (IPA Service)