The People’s Union for Democratic Rights on Thursday condemned the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, and called for her “immediate and unconditional release”. The association also called for a repeal of the sedition law.

“Disha Ravi’s arrest has raised questions as family members have alleged that the Delhi Police arrested her without observing the inter-state arrest protocols,” the statement read. “Further, several commentators including members from the judiciary have noted that there is nothing in the advocacy toolkit which can be read as inciting violence or disaffection.”

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. Ravi was arrested on February 13 from her Bengaluru residence by the crime branch of the Delhi Police. The next day, a Delhi court sent the activist to police custody for five days. The police alleged that Ravi was the editor of the “toolkit” and called her the “key conspirator” in its formulation and dissemination.

“Disha is an active member of the India chapter of Fridays for Future (FFF) an environment organisation,” the PUDR statement said. “In July 2020, FFF was targeted with notices under UAPA [Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act] and IT [Information Technology] Act for its targeted email campaign against the Environment Impact Assessment Notification which had reduced public consultation for projects and allowed for post-facto clearances. Both notices were withdrawn but FFF had come under the police’s radar.”

The new updates to the draft 2020 Environment Impact Assessment notification prescribed the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed activity and the mechanism, whereby these would be assessed by expert committees appointed by the environment ministry. Several environmentalists and organisations alleged that the draft notification does away with the requirement for public consultation for a number of projects that could create an adverse ecological impact. However, the Centre has refuted the allegations.

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  1. ‘Nothing seditious,’ says ex-SC judge on farm protest document, decries Disha Ravi’s arrest

On using the sedition law, the PUDR said the Delhi Police used a “colonial era law”, which despite being read down by the Supreme Court in 1962 to “refer to only those expressions that incite violence, is being invoked incessantly against peaceful forms of dissent”.

The association also said that by alleging that an international conspiracy was involved, the police was cracking down on users of online platforms. “By alleging international conspiracy against the nation via a toolkit, the police is seeking to clamp down on digital platform users by defaming their support for the farmers’ agitation as an instance of sedition,” the PUDR statement said. “The ‘toolkit’ has become a catch word on the pretext of which a ‘conspiracy’ is being constructed to register a cluster of sedition cases against dissenters and protesters much like the anti-CAA protests lately.”

The PUDR also provided figures from the National Crime Records Bureau’s reports in 2018 and 2019 to suggest that the sedition law is overused. “That the use of sedition law is politically motivated is well represented in government’s own figures,” the statement said. “As per the NCRB’s latest figures in 2018 and 2019, 163 cases of sedition have been filed, in 43 cases trial was completed of which only 3 resulted in conviction. The rising number of cases along with failing rate of prosecution year after year have been attributed to the use of the law in cases that are legally unsustainable, a fact that has also been observed by courts while dismissing cases or granting relief to the accused.”

All India Catholic Union expresses concern

The All India Catholic Union said it was “deeply distressed and extremely worried” at the “hounding” of the young environment activist.

“What makes it more critical is that this form of persecution comes from both State and non-state actors, and at a time when the nation is struggling to come out of the medical and economic catastrophe of Covid, natural calamities in the Himalayan region, and the crisis in agriculture as reflected in the strike by the country’s farmers,” a statement said from the union’s national President Lancy D Cunha said.

The statement added that a vibrant civil society was “vital to the overall health of the nation, its plural heritage and its constitutional guarantees”. “As a representative body of ordinary Catholic communities across the country, the AICU understands the importance of civil society in defending and projecting freedom of faith, expression and fraternity,” it said. “Any action by governments, and others, that erodes any of these freedoms seriously impacts every group, especially religious minorities.”

The case against Disha Ravi

Questions have been raised on the possible procedural lapses that might have occurred in the manner the Delhi Police arrested her. Several media reports said the 22-year-old was brought to Delhi from Bengaluru without her parents being informed. They added that she was brought to the national Capital without being presented before a court in Bengaluru for a transit remand, and was then presented in a Delhi court without a lawyer of her choice. On Tuesday, the Delhi Commission for Women took suo motu cognisance of the matter and sought a response from the police.

In its first information report, the Delhi Police claim that the “toolkit” has given “a call for economic warfare against India and certain Indian companies”. The FIR in connection with the campaign document has been filed on charges of sedition, promoting enmity, and criminal conspiracy.

The Delhi Police have also issued non-bailable arrest warrants against activist Shantanu Muluk and Mumbai advocate Nikita Jacob in the case. However, both of them were granted transit bail by the Bombay High Court.

On Monday, former Supreme Court judge Deepak Gupta said there was nothing seditious in the document edited by the 22-year-old climate activist. “I have gone through the documents of the toolkit, those which are available in the public domain and I see there is nothing that says anything with regard to violence or anything with regard to inciting people,” Justice Gupta said. “...I don’t see what is seditious about this document...not at all.”