India police arrest climate activist linked to Greta Thunberg movement over protests ‘toolkit’

A 22-year-old climate campaigner has been arrested and two other activists are wanted by Delhi Police in a case related to a toolkit shared by Greta Thunberg in support of Indian farmers, sparking outrage amongst prominent Indians who claim it’s an attempt to crush dissent.

On Saturday, police reached Disha Ravi’s house in Soladevanahalli village in Bengaluru, capital of the southern Karnataka state, where she lives with her single mother. Her mother was told that she was being taken for questioning and it was only later that she came to know that her daughter was taken to Delhi where she was arrested, The Hindu quoted sources close to the family as saying.

Police said she was a “key conspirator” in the “formulation and dissemination” of a Google document made in support of the ongoing national farmers’ protest. She has been charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy. This was Delhi Police’s first arrest in a case that was registered against unnamed people last week, after Ms Thunberg tweeted the document.

The toolkit, a common term used by social activists for campaign material, was the sole document over which the investigations were started after police said it found its origins tied to a Sikh separatist movement for an independent “Khalistan”. Two other activists, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu, who normally goes by one name, face non-bailable warrants by the Delhi Police in relation to the toolkit.

Ms Ravi reportedly broke down during the court hearing and said she only made two edits to a document she denied creating.

“I was just supporting farmers … because they are our future … they are the ones who are providing us with our food and we all need to eat,” Ms Ravi was quoted as saying during the proceedings. The Independent has reached out to Ms Ravi’s lawyer for comment.

Several youth-based environmental groups condemned Ms Ravi’s arrest and demanded her immediate release.

“Seeing the kind of treatment being meted out to some of the youngest members of our collectives, there is no doubt in our minds that the intent of the government is to target and silence voices of dissent amongst the youth of this country,” the statement said.

Ms Ravi’s family has rejected the allegations, saying she was arrested on “fabricated charges”.

The arrest came after international celebrities, including Ms Thunberg, Rihanna and American lawyer and author Meena Harris, niece of US vice president Kamala Harris, expressed support for the plight of farmers who say they are being mistreated by Indian authorities. Ms Ravi was put before a magistrate’s court in Delhi, which approved her police remand for five days. No formal charges have been announced yet.

“Ravi was lawfully arrested. There is no question about it. She has been arrested and remanded and produced in court. Charges would be framed after further investigation,” Delhi Police spokesperson Chinmoy Biswal told The Independent.

Lawyers noted that she was presented before a magistrate despite not being represented by legal counsel, with some suggesting 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,” said top criminal defence lawyer Rebecca John. “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,” Ms John added.

Lawyers also said that multiple High Court orders are required to detain a person from another state and it includes providing a copy of the formal complaint in the regional language, which was allegedly not done in Ms Ravi’s case.

Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister and opposition Congress party leader, wrote on Twitter that Ms Ravi’s arrest was “completely atrocious”, and showed the “intensifying murder of democracy in India”.

Speaking to The Independent, Nityanand Jayaraman, an environment activist from Chennai, said the reaction of police over something as harmless as a protest toolkit was disproportionate.

“The illegal manner in which Disha has been picked up from her home in Bengaluru and taken to Delhi without information to her parents, or a transit remand from a Bengaluru court show how the rule of law has broken down in the country,” Mr Jayaraman said.

“As a woman, she ought not to have been held overnight without charges. The reaction is … meant to scare young activists from engaging in democracy. People like Disha should be celebrated, not jailed,” he added.

Delhi Police claimed in a tweet on Sunday that Ms Ravi was the editor of the toolkit, a charge she has denied. They said she started a WhatsApp group to make the toolkit document with others, and “collaborated with pro-Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian government”.

They said Ms Ravi shared the toolkit document with Thunberg. Police said she later asked the Swedish environmental activist to remove the document from her tweet after realising that it revealed “incriminating details accidentally”.

Ms Ravi is one of the founders of the Indian branch of Thunberg’s “Fridays for Future” climate strike. She earlier landed in trouble with Delhi Police after campaigning for a new draft of the Environment Impact Assessment Notification, a set of rules issued by the government to speed up the process of environmental clearances for businesses.

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