India arrests young activist tied to Thunberg's movement, stirring outrage

The arrest of a climate activist in India with links to Greta Thunberg's movement has sparked outrage amongst politicians and the public.

BANGALORE - As a climate activist, 22-year old Disha Ravi would turn up anywhere in Bangalore to plant trees or hug those marked for cutting. A vegan, she worked in a start-up that made plant-based milk alternatives.

Since the age of 19, having seen her farmer grandparents’ struggle with unpredictable rainfall and drought, she started to write petitions and join protests for strong climate action. 

“No one really knew Disha except our small circle in Bangalore… until Saturday,” said a friend. 

The Delhi police on Saturday travelled over 2100km to arrest Ms Ravi from her home in Bangalore. 

Her crime? Editing and sharing a Google document that suggested ways to build online support for the ongoing farmers’ protests around Delhi. The police accused Ms Ravi of being “a key conspirator” in an “international campaign against India.” 

The “toolkit” came into public view when Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted it on Feb 3 for those who wanted to express support for farmers or amplify their voices. 

The police from the Indian capital filed a complaint against makers of the toolkit in early Feb, accusing unnamed people of sedition. Ms Ravi, a member of youth volunteer group Fridays For Future, inspired by Ms Thunberg, is the first to be arrested under the complaint. 

The police flew Ms Ravi to Delhi on Saturday evening, and on Sunday, produced her in court without a lawyer. As the public prosecutor said the Delhi police accused her of sedition, conspiracy, and waging “a war against India”, Ms Ravi had to argue for herself. 

“I did not make the Toolkit. We wanted to support the farmers. I edited two lines on Feb 3,” she told the magistrate. 

The court allowed Ms Ravi to be held in police custody for five days for questioning. 

Indian environmentalists have called her detention without legal counsel illegal, and the government’s probe against a routine advocacy toolkit an over-reaction. 

“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,” read a statement signed by India’s most prominent environmentalists on Feb 14. 

Although India is touted to be a global climate leader and has one of the developing world’s largest commitments to cutting carbon emissions, Ms Ravi’s arrest comes as another instance of an intensifying cracking down on young environmentalists and climate activists. 

In July last year, the Delhi police had invoked a counter-terrorism law to block three websites of student climate activists after the groups campaigned against the government’s attempt to dilute in forest protections during the Covid-19 pandemic. After a public outcry, the police unblocked the sites. 

This time, the climate activists are caught in the farmers’ stand-off with the government. 

Since November, thousands of farmers, primarily from northern agrarian states Punjab and Haryana, have camped out around Delhi demanding the repeal of new farm laws that fundamentally change how crops can be sold in the market. 

Environmental groups have also supported the protests. “When the farmers' movement is asking for policies that increase viability in farming, prevent exploitation of farmers by big capital and local traders and guaranteed minimum prices for crops, these are policy directions that will lead to greater crop diversification and allow farmers to adopt sustainable practices,” said Kavita Kuruganti, founder of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture.

“Arrest of... Disha Ravi is an unprecedented attack on Democracy. Supporting our farmers is not a crime,” tweeted Arvind Kejriwal, chief minister of Delhi.

However, after a farmers’ march on Jan 26 turned violent, with hundreds storming the capital’s historic Red Fort, police sent in paramilitary troops, erected barricades, and shut down the Internet. 

Earlier this month, Ms Thunberg, popstar Rihanna and and US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris had led many international celebrities on Twitter in questioning police action against farmers. The tweets provoked an angry response from India's external affairs ministry and a flurry of pro-government tweets from Bollywood and cricket stars condemning “foreign involvement in India’s internal affairs.” 

In a Feb 3 tweet to her 4.8 million followers, Ms Thunberg also shared an old version of the toolkit meant to garner online support on Jan 26, like emailing your local parliamentarian, using hashtags and images, and organising demonstrations around the closest Indian embassy or local government office. She later deleted it to share an updated version. 

Several pro-government Twitter users found the old version suspicious. 

“The deleted tweet of Greta Thunberg has revealed the real designs of a conspiracy at an international level against India. Need to investigate the parties which are pulling the strings of this evil machinery,” tweeted Mr VK Singh, India’s minister of state for road transport and highways. 

Environmentalists and campaigners say the toolkit is a routine online campaign strategy document.

But pro-government media highlighted phrases like “urgent action”, “organise on-ground action”, “Twitter storm”, “expose fascist responses to dissent”, and “disrupt yoga and chai image of India,” to allege that its makers meant to damage India’s reputation.

The Delhi police also claims that the toolkit is made by Poetic Justice Foundation, a Canadian organisation that it says supports a Khalistani secessionist movement for an independent Punjab. 

On Monday afternoon, the Delhi police issued warrants for the arrest of two other young activists. Around the same time, about hundred people gathered at protest in Bangalore, demanding Ms Ravi’s release. 

A 22-year-old woman stood next to a poster that said ‘Hands off our forests, Hands off our activists’. Nervous about police action, she asked to be written about anonymously. 

“If the government wants to shut up young people who fight for the planet’s future, it’s going to have the opposite effect. That’s why I’m here protesting,” she said.