Climate activist Disha Ravi, and India’s shrinking space for dissent

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s public enemies go, Disha Ravi is an unlikely candidate. The 22-year-old climate change activist works for a vegan food company and likes to join volunteer clean-up drives. Earlier this month, she helped disseminate a list of peaceful ways to support a major protest by farmers against new agricultural laws.

In today’s India, that was enough to make her a target. Over the weekend, Ravi was arrested. Police accused of her of sedition and conspiring to “spread disaffection” against the state.

Ravi’s arrest is the latest example of a disturbing trend in the world’s largest democracy. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is deploying the country’s legal machinery to suppress opponents in a clampdown on dissent not seen in decades, critics say.

Extinction Rebellion are already facing arrest

On 26 January, clashes broke out between farmers and police officers. Authorities shut down the internet at the protest sites and made dozens of arrests. Police later connected the violence to a “toolkit” tweeted by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, without citing evidence and despite the fact that the document lists only peaceful modes of protest.

(A toolkit is a document created to explain any issue on the social media. It also provides information on what a person must do to address the particular issue, which could include information on petitions, details about protests and mass movements.)

The police alleged that an organisation linked to the document – the nonprofit Poetic Justice Foundation, based in Canada – had promoted a separatist movement in the state of Punjab.

Ravi, the 22-year-old environmental activist, belonged to a group of young people around the world who joined Thunberg’s Fridays for Future environmental movement. She completed a degree in business administration at a prestigious university in Bangalore.

“Countries like India are already experiencing a climate crisis,” she said in an interview with The Guardian last year. “We’re not just fighting for our future, we are fighting for our present.”

<p>Police detain an activist during a protest against the arrest of Disha Ravi in New Delhi, on 17 February 2021</p><p>” height=”3356″ width=”5034″ srcset=”https://static.independent.co.uk/2021/02/18/17/GettyImages-1231210256.jpg?width=320&auto=webp&quality=75 320w, https://static.independent.co.uk/2021/02/18/17/GettyImages-1231210256.jpg?width=640&auto=webp&quality=75 640w” layout=”responsive” i-amphtml-layout=”responsive”><i-amphtml-sizer></i-amphtml-sizer><figcaption
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Police detain an activist during a protest against the arrest of Disha Ravi in New Delhi, on 17 February 2021

(AFP/Getty)

Friends describe Ravi as a hard-working young woman with a slightly goofy side who is the only breadwinner in her family. She is passionate about animals and the environment, says Yuvan Aves, 25, a fellow volunteer in the Indian chapter of Fridays for Future. The message from Ravi’s arrest is, “if you ask difficult questions or decide to do something for a good cause, you can be sent to jail,” he says. “For something as harmless as a toolkit.”

On 14 February, Ravi reportedly told a judge in Delhi that she had made minor edits to the toolkit document but did not write it. “We wanted to support the farmers,” she said in court, according to New Delhi Television, briefly breaking down in tears. A lawyer for Ravi declined to comment.

Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired from India’s Supreme Court last year, says the contents of the toolkit that are in the public domain are “not seditious in any manner”. The use of sedition cases in recent years is “a straight-up attempt to stifle the voices of dissent”, he says.

Extinction Rebellion are already facing arrest in the probe. Prem Nath, a senior police official in Delhi, told reporters last week that the activists’ intent was “to propagate the toolkit worldwide”, spur protests at Indian embassies and “tarnish India’s image”.

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