Disha Ravi and Environmental Activism in India

by HANNA BAJWA

Disha Ravi is a 22-year-old climate change activist, recently arrested and charged with sedition. She is a well-known figure within the environmental movement in India, co-founding the Indian section of Thunberg’s Friday for Future campaign, where students skip school on Fridays to protest the inaction on climate change. Ravi has been frequently present at protests and is vocal about criticising PM Modi’s environmental policies. Ravi is also an author of multiple editorials and articles for international youth climate activists. She was also featured in the September 2020 British Vogue as one of the profiles of four activists of colour who fight against environmental racism.


Ravi was arrested for allegedly being involved in sharing a “toolkit” on social media related to the farmers’ protest. A “toolkit” is a document created to explain any issue. It also provides information about petitions, details about protests, and mass movements. While “toolkits” have been around for decades, the accessibility of social media has recently brought them to the centre of interest. Toolkits have been used for the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011, Hong Kong protests of 2019, several climate protests across the world, anti-CAA protests across India, and most recently, in the anti-farm law protests centred in North India. The “toolkit” used for the anti-farm law protests was shared by Greta Thunberg as well. The 18-year-old shared a toolkit on Twitter which was later deleted, with the activist saying it was being “updated by people on the ground in India”.


Why has this “toolkit” caused so much controversy? Delhi Police claimed that the document was evidence of a conspiracy “to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India.” Leaders in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have also said that the toolkit was “evidence of international plans for attacks against India.” Ravi was flown to Delhi and remanded in the custody of Delhi police; over allegations, she was a “key conspirator” in the toolkit tweeted by Thunberg. The arrests did not stop with Ravi, as police said they are searching for two more suspects and for others who are “waging a cultural war against the government.” The police filed a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy against Ravi and said the arrest is related to an investigation of farmers storming the historic Red Fort on January 26, 2021.


Ravi’s arrest has led to several questions. How could Indian activists who seek a cleaner planet be targeted in a society that “believes” in free speech? What message does this signal to the youth of India? Historian Ramachandra Guha said that Ravi’s arrest was meant to send a “chilling message” to the youth, warning them to abstain from activism. The backlash against this message from Indian society is imminent. The arrest also caused a divide within the Indian society, with 10 groups demanding Ravi’s release whereas crowds of people burned photos of Thunberg and Rihanna, both supporters of the protests, claiming that “international interference” in the affairs of India would not be tolerated.


More recent updates have found that Ravi refused bail by the Additional Solicitor General (ASG) SV Raju, who appeared in front of the Delhi Police, and stated that after the toolkit was leaked on social media, a cover-up operation was carried out and most of its parts were deleted. After this, sections 201 and 204 of the Indian penal Code (IPC) - which deal with the destruction of evidence - were added against the activist. The ASG also said that the toolkit had a cheat-sheet that contained information defaming the Army and having nothing to do with farmers' protest. The counsel representing Disha said to the court that there is no evidence implying that the toolkit on farmers' protest is responsible for the violence on January 26.

"If highlighting farmers' protest globally is sedition, I'm better in jail," Ravi said through her counsel during the hearing. Late on Friday, Thunberg posted two tweets with a hashtag supporting Disha. "Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest and assembly are non-negotiable human rights. These must be a fundamental part of any democracy. #StandWithDishaRavi," Thunberg said in one of her tweets.


It has been brought to attention that there is increased international scrutiny to India’s backsliding democratic freedoms, including worsening freedom of the press, detentions of journalists, internet shutdowns, and violent responses to non-violent protesters. Moreover, it indicates that the Central Indian government is panicking and mistaking people with anti-government sentiment to be anti-national. The actions of the Delhi police make us question why the authorities behaved with such haste and fury. While Disha Ravi reminds us about the power of dissent in an autocratic regime, she also is an example set by the government: if you dissent, you will pay the price.


Image: Flickr