Activists and organizations in India and abroad have condemned the arrest of Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old climate activist from the city of Bengaluru in India, whose crime seems to have been circulating campaign material in solidarity with the ongoing farmers’ protest. Disha was taken into custody on Saturday, February 13, by the Delhi police and remanded to five days in police custody on Sunday. Among the charges leveled in the case are sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting hatred, according to media reports.
Two others, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, have also been issued arrest warrants and they have moved the courts for protection from arrest. Nikita Jacob is a Mumbai-based advocate who has also been charged with editing the toolkit.
The crackdowns come in connection with the First Information Report (FIR) filed by the Delhi Police against unknown persons, a day after a ‘toolkit’ was shared by Greta Thunberg, the renowned 18-year old climate activist from Sweden, on February 3. Thunberg had tweeted in support of the farmers’ protest. Like any other toolkit used to support a protest online, this document gave basic recommendations about whom to tag on the tweets in solidarity with the protest, what hashtags to use and which Twitter handles and news portals to follow for updates.
Thunberg’s tweets came at a time when a number of international celebrities, including musician Rihanna, had tweeted in support of the farmers’ protest. A stung Indian government organized a counter-campaign on Twitter which was joined by many Indian celebrities. It was around the same time that talk emerged of a conspiracy involving the toolkit. In fact, immediately after the FIR was filed, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said, “I think it has revealed a lot. We have to wait and see what comes out.”
On Sunday, the public prosecutor accused Disha Ravi of being part of an international conspiracy and of having links with Khalistani separatists. The Khalistani movement led a violent but failed campaign for the secession of the State of Punjab in the 1980s. Punjab is also one of the epicenters of the farmers’ protests, which began in November against three laws passed by the Narendra Modi government. Leaders and members of the ruling BJP have been continuously linking the farmers’ protest to the Khalistani movement in a bid to discredit the former.
During the court proceedings on Sunday, Disha Ravi broke down, saying “I was just supporting farmers.. I supported farmers because they are our future and we all need to eat.” She maintains she was not a creator of the toolkit, but had only edited two lines.
The Delhi Police which is directly under the control of the Union Home Ministry, however went public with a number of charges against her. In a tweet, the police said, “Disha Ravi.. is an Editor of the Toolkit Google Doc & key conspirator in document’s formulation & dissemination. She started WhatsApp Group & collaborated to make the Toolkit doc. She worked closely with them to draft the Doc.”
“In this process,” added another tweet, “they all collaborated with the pro-Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian State. She was the one who shared the Toolkit Doc with Greta Thunberg.”
Speaking to a media outlet after the arrest, former judge of the Supreme Court Deepak Gupta said he did not see anything seditious in the toolkit. He termed the arrest of Disha Ravi an attack on free speech and expression.
Disha is a coordinator of Fridays for Future (FFF), which emerged from the movement against climate change, initiated internationally by Greta in 2018. The series of climate actions Disha had led had garnered her international attention. She has been featured in the Guardian, Vogue etc.
The Indian government took particular note of the FFF when, along with two other organizations, the group led a campaign urging citizens to oppose the draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification 2020, which dilutes many environmental laws. At that time too, a toolkit was used.
Scroll reported, “In July, their websites were blocked by the government. The Delhi Police sent notices to the domain hosts of fridaysforfuture.in and claimed the website “depicts objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of India.”
“We in Fridays For Future India were labeled terrorists for objecting to the draft EIA notification. Only a government that puts profit over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water and a livable planet, an act of terrorism,” Disha said in an interview with the Auto Africa Report last year.
According to her, climate activism and the plight of the farmers are fundamentally connected. “My motivation to join climate activism came from seeing my grandparents, who are farmers, struggle with the effects of the climate crisis,” she said.
Her arrest in connection with the toolkit compiled to raise awareness about and amplify voices of the hundreds of thousands of farmers protesting across the country has caused wide-spread shock and outrage.
Condemning the arrest, the Youth-based Environmental Collectives, of which she is a part, said in a press statement:
“To imply that toolkits are some conspiracy gizmos used by foreign forces to destabilize India is as stupid as the ‘Cow was abducted by aliens’ rubbish that was aired by the same mainstream media channels that are now airing this nonsense. This controversy is baseless and has no merit. To imply that climate change activists are a danger to the peace and harmony of this country in a political climate that is highly polarized is to play fast and loose with their safety and security, especially when there is absolutely no proof to back up this claim.”
“Delhi Police’s actions are all the more sinister because the 21-year-old was taken to Delhi from Bengaluru with no disclosure about her whereabouts, not even to her parents, an action that can be termed extra-judicial abduction,” said the Coalition for Environmental Justice in India.
“Delhi Police’s disregard for the rule of law is no secret,” its statement added. “However, this action against an individual without following the due process of law, and in clear violation of norms for arrests and detentions laid down by the Supreme Court, reflects absolute contempt for constitutional principles. The act of criminalizing young people for extending solidarity to a struggle that resonates with their own aspirations for a healthy and secure future, strikes as a new low.”
“The @DelhiPolice chief should hang his head in shame for #DishaRavi’s arrest, as should @DrSJaishankar & colleagues for contributing to hysteria over the toolkit. If these clever men see sedition in it, they aren’t fit to hold public office in a democracy,” tweeted veteran journalist Siddharth Vardharajan. He is among the several journalists facing charges for tweeting a story where the family members of the farmer, Navreet Singh, alleged that he was killed in police firing during a tractor rally by the farmers on January 26.
Manshi Asher, who works for Himdhara Environmental Research and Action Collective, said this is not the first instance when the government has arrested anyone who they deemed has shown any resistance and solidarity with the people’s movement.
“Considering the reason the police have invoked against the climate activist, it appears the current dispensation wants to create an atmosphere of fear among dissenting voices and against those who are showing solidarity with the agitating farmers. Clearly, the Narendra Modi-led government wants common people to see there is a pattern, and those who ask critical questions and show any sort of opposition will be silenced and criminalized,” Asher added.