When the Delhi Police flew down to Bengaluru from Delhi on a Saturday afternoon and in a dramatic moment whisked away environmental activist Disha Ravi to their own hunting ground by return flight, the country was riveted to the television screen.
Ravi later made a sharp statement in open court that should have caught the headlines in the daily newspapers, but sadly did not attract the attention of our news makers. “If supporting our farmers protest amounts to sedition then I am happy to be in jail,” she said. A strong statement that, coming from the mouth of a young 22 year old.
Soon after Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana had released her on bail after she had been in jail for ten days, I happened to interact with a dozen students of law from various colleges. Rana’s 18-page order had been read in toto by one of the students. It was apparent that it had left a marked impression on him.
All the young people listening online felt that the government had been unnecessarily harsh on a student activist who was more concerned with the degradation of the environment than the intricacies of the three farm laws that the government claimed would double the income of the farmers without explaining to them how that would come about.
Like a Cervantes tale
These students were of the opinion that the government was nervous about something and hence, was tilting at windmills like Don Quixote in the tale by the Spanish author, Cervantes. Further, that the government had converted the Delhi Police into its Sancho Panza, another prominent character in the story.
The bottom line is that the young people did not believe that Disha Ravi is anti-national or a seditionist or pro-Khalistan, as suggested by the police. She did not, while editing the “toolkit”, as activists call campaign information documents, or otherwise, even remotely incite anyone to violence. She could not have anticipated that there would be any violence on January 26. It is for the Delhi Police to indentify the group that caused the mayhem at the Red Fort and hold accountable the officer or officers of its own force who failed to take adequate precautions despite the intelligence advisory which it had itself put out earlier of possible trouble from pro-Khalistan agents.
The students unanimously rejected the theory that one Mo Dhaliwal, a name not heard of earlier in India, was in cahoots with Ravi to foment riots in Delhi. There were one or two Zoom calls between Ravi’s associates and Mo Dhaliwal but no mention of violence in the “toolkit” that was brought out through their efforts.
If Dhaliwal intended to foment riots in Delhi, he certainly did not share that intent with Ravi, because if he had voiced that intent it is certain that she and her friends would have ceased further interactions with the man from Canada. Till today, the exact identity of Dhaliwal has not been disclosed by the Delhi Police. Anita Lal, the name of Dhaliwal’s associate, is not a Sikh name.
Another interesting observation made by these law students was that when cornered, the government itself creates a new situation to draw attention away from the problem in hand. There is some food for thought in that observation. The farmers agitation had put the government of Narendra Modi on the backfoot. It had not faced such a tricky situation earlier. With bluff and bluster, it had extricated itself from the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Register of Citizensand turned the tables on those peaceful protestors by pinning the blame for inciting the communal riots in North East Delhi on them instead of the actual culprits, who were their own committed followers.
This new attempt to pin the blame for the January 26 disturbances in Delhi on Disha Ravi’s FFF or Fridays for Future organisation because of the document she edited and sent to her friend Greta Thunberg in Sweden is another instance of a Machiavellian plan to silence all critics of government’s policies by twisting facts and playing with young lives to achieve its objectives. Only, in this case the plan was thwarted by a judge with a conscience.
The same judge had rejected the bail plea of Safoora Zargar, a 28-year-old Muslim woman accused of the terrible crime of fomenting the Delhi riots of February 2020 when the only protest she had participated in was the sit-in in Delhi’s Shaheen Baugh against the citizenship initiatives. But in that case, Zargar and her co-accused were shackled by the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which makes it almost impossible for the judiciary to grant bail. The law directly transgresses the Supreme Court’s own dictum of “bail, not jail”. The Supreme Court needs to take up the urgent task of studying the constitutionality of the UAPA and its misuse.
The sedition law, as laid down in Section 124(A) of the Indian Penal Code had been dissected by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath v/s the State of Bihar in 1962. It is settled law after that ruling that Section124(A) can only be applied if the state, as distinguished from the government of the day, is the object of a violent revolution.
The tendency of the police, egged on by the ruling political dispensation, to fall back upon the sedition clause needs to be nipped in the bud before many more law-abiding citizens, operating in the sphere of journalism or civil activism, are roped in by a government bent on snuffing out all criticism and opposition.
Disha Ravi’s Fridays for Future volunteers were very prominent in the demonstration against transporting coal through Goa’s Mollem reserved forest to Karnataka where it was to be used by that state’s captive power plants. The coal, incidentally, was shipped to the Mormugoa Port in Goa from Adani’s coal field in Australia. The Delhi Police cyber cell had pulled down Friday for Future’s website in July and threatened to use the UAPA against Ravi and others at that time. Faced by protests, the Delhi Police restored the website.
If Home Minister Amit Shah had sent a senior officer to quietly meet this young woman and win her over to the government’s point of view, it would have served his cause and his country. Instead, he treated her like a criminal and set the Delhi Police on her heels. It was a step in the wrong direction.
The mistreatment of Disha Ravi has moved the conscience of our youth. They exulted when she was freed on bail. But should she have been arrested at all? And if arrested, should she not have been released on bail as a matter of right? The government is making too many mistakes.
Julio Ribeiro served in several senior positions as a police officer and was India’s ambassador to Romania.