Disha Ravi’s arrest is wrong
Disha Ravi, a 22-year old Bengaluru-based environmental activist, has been accused of sedition, promoting religious enmity and engaging in criminal conspiracy, among other offences. After the Delhi Police detained her in Bengaluru on Saturday, and formally arrested her the next day, a Delhi magistrate has remanded her to a five-day police custody. The principal basis for the allegations against Ms Ravi is that she was involved in framing and editing a “toolkit”, which outlined measures to protest against farm laws; that she provided activist Greta Thunberg the “toolkit”; that the violence on January 26 copied the “action plan” in the toolkit; and this also had the involvement of Khalistani groups.
Ms Ravi’s arrest throws up three issues. The first is the role of the State. The government has decided to politically invest in a narrative of a global foreign conspiracy against India, of which the “toolkit” is evidence. But the evidence to suggest such a conspiracy is limited. Despite its objectionable characterisation of the Indian State in parts, did the “toolkit” — a common technique in both political and civil society campaigns now — really lead to the violence on January 26? Is there direct evidence? At a time when India is facing criticism for growing illiberalism, is arresting young activists the most ethical or prudent course of action? How does it sync with India’s constitutional guarantees on free speech and political activity?
The second is the role of the judiciary. The metropolitan magistrate’s decision to remand Ms Ravi to custody, without her private counsel being present, without questions about the process of her arrest, and without adequate scrutiny of the charges and evidence, does not reflect well. Courts must treat cases involving personal liberty with more rigour, rather than casually send people to jail when bail should be the norm. And finally, there is the role of activists themselves. Dissent is indeed a right, and taking up positions — even if they are logically inconsistent (how environmental activists stand in support of the ecologically unsustainable practices of Punjab’s farmers is a mystery) — is also a right. But often, activists end up getting used in larger political games. The fact that pro-Khalistan groups are actively seeking to leverage the current farm protests is not a secret, which makes it even more important for civil society to maintain its distinct identity and position on the issue.