The arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi triggered anger and disbelief as politicians, advocates and activists called this the Narendra Modi government’s latest attempt to stifle dissent against his “authoritarian regime” by criminalising protests and cracking down on protestors.
Ravi was arrested for sharing and editing a document intended to help the farmers’ protest against the new agricultural laws. The “toolkit” – a common term used by social activists for campaign material – was tweeted by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg in support of India’s protesting farmers on February 4.
Earlier this month, the police, while filing the first information report in the case, claimed the campaign material was aimed at waging a “social, cultural and economic war against the government of India” and creating divisions among various groups in Indian society.
A Delhi court on Sunday sent Disha Ravi to police custody for five days. No formal charges have been announced, but the Delhi Police said that Ravi was the editor of the “toolkit” and the “key conspirator” in its formulation and dissemination. The police alleged that Ravi had collaborated with a Khalistani group to “spread disaffection against the Indian State”.
The police’s move has stunned critics, who said Ravi’s arrest was a clear warning to those who want to show support to anti-government protests.
Criminal lawyer Rebecca John, who was tracking the proceedings, alleged that the Patiala court hearing took place despite Ravi not being represented by a counsel. She said this amounted to a “shocking abdication of judicial duties”.
“Magistrates must take their duties of Remand seriously and ensure that the mandate of Article 22 of the constitution is scrupulously followed,” John wrote in Facebook. “If the accused was not being represented by counsel at the time of the hearing, the magistrate should have waited till her counsel arrived or in the alternate, provided her with legal aid.”
John also asked if the magistrate asked why Ravi was brought directly from Bengaluru without a transit remand from the courts there. She added that prosecuting agencies must inform lawyers and next of kin when and where they are producing arrested persons. “This cat and mouse game must stop,” she said.
Advocate Vinay Sreenivasa, too, said multiple High Court orders on the procedure need to be followed while detaining a person in another state, including serving the accused a copy of the first information report in the regional language, were violated. “But the basic question remains – what is wrong with sharing a toolkit for a protest?” Sreenivasa told The Hindu. “How can it be a seditious act?”
‘Completely atrocious,’ says Opposition
Senior Congress leader and former Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh called Ravi’s arrest and detention “completely atrocious” and “unwarranted harassment and intimidation”.
His colleague and former Finance Minister P Chidambaram said the Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if a climate activist has become a threat to the nation. “India is becoming the theatre of the absurd and it is sad that the Delhi Police has become a tool of the oppressors,” Chidambaram said.
He mocked the government for its misplaced priorities. “A ‘took kit’ to support the farmers’ protest is more dangerous than the intrusion by Chinese troops into Indian territory,” the Congress leader wrote on Twitter. “I strongly condemn the arrest of Disha Ravi and urge all students and youth to raise their voices to protest against the authoritarian regime.”
Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury accused the Narendra Modi government of trying to dismantle the farmers’ agitation. “Modi regime thinks by arresting a grand daughter of farmers, under Sedition, it can weaken the farmers’ struggles,” Yechury wrote. “In fact, it will awaken the youth of the country and strengthen the struggles for democracy.”
DMK leader Kanimozhi called the arrest “undemocratic” and said she stood with Disha Ravi “against this onslaught on freedom of expression”.
Congress leader Shashi Tharoor quoted an article by the British daily, The Telegraph, which said that Ravi’s arrest was the latest escalation in India’s crackdown on free speech and political dissent. “Doesn’t the Government of India care about the damage to its doing to its own global image,” Tharoor asked.
Samajwadi Party President Akhilesh Yadav also weighed in on the matter. “The question is when will those people be arrested who continue to issue a literal ‘toolkit’ to break the national and social unity of India morning and evening, giving rise to hatred and division among the masses,” he wrote on Twitter.
Arrest is ‘illegal in nature’
In a joint statement, more than 50 academics, artists and activists voiced support for Ravi and called her arrest disturbing, “illegal in nature” and an “over-reaction of the state”, reported The News Minute.
The statement said that this country should be proud of the climate activist, who has become “the latest victims of the Centre’s continuing efforts to delegitimise the ongoing farmers’ protest and the nationwide solidarity it has generated”.
“Delhi Police’s disregard for the rule of law is no secret,” the 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 criminalising 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.”
Meanwhile, environmentalist Leo Saldanha accused the Centre of arbitrarily arresting Ravi. “The Delhi Police have come and taken a brave daughter of the State without adhering to due process,” he told The Hindu. “The authorities, including the home minister and the chief minister, did nothing to stop it.”
Ravi’s arrest also sparked widespread international criticism:
Meena Harris, an American advocate and niece of United States Vice President Kamala Harris, expressed concern about the pattern of arresting activists.