Evidence in the in the public domain points to Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old environmental activist, being just that — young and an activist. In an online interview, eight months ago, she talks, in sentences that end with a rising intonation, as if her sentences are questions, about causes ranging from climate change to feminism. Evidence in the public domain also suggests Delhi Police — which arrested Ravi in a case filed against unnamed persons for sedition and conspiracy over a “toolkit” tweeted by climate campaigner Greta Thunberg on the farmers’ protest on February 3 — has weaponised what is a typical advocacy document. And that the Centre, to whom Delhi Police answers, is ratcheting up rhetoric of a shadowy international conspiracy even as it insists, after 11 formal rounds of talks with farm union leaders, that it is willing to continue talking. Now, Delhi Police has secured Ravi’s custody on grounds that it needs to probe a link to a pro-Khalistan group, and to recover a deleted WhatsApp group with “vital information”. Of course, only an impartial probe, which accords Ravi all due protections of law, can determine innocence or establish guilt. But given the context of the indiscriminate sweep of FIRs in the January 26 aftermath and the bizarre over-reading of what is a common advocacy tool, the arrest of the 22-year-old activist raises grave worries.
Ever since the farm protests began, the government has sought to demonise the protesters or to undermine their agency by looking over their shoulder — in the case of farmers from Punjab, the Khalistan spectre comes in handy. The fact is that the state’s tryst with terror in the decade of the 1980s has left a bitter residue in the form of a hardliner fringe, more NRI than not. It may also be, as happens in large movements, that this fringe is riding the ongoing mobilisation. But the impression is inescapable that the government is giving it undue attention. In the name of unravelling a grand foreign plot, it seems to be harnessing all its formidable power and energies to go after, and to be seen to go after activists, instead of addressing the central issue — the protesters’ fears and anxieties about the laws in question. In the process, it is sending out a chilling message, especially to the country’s young — you can speak out and talk back to your government at your own peril.
Surely India’s democracy cannot be so thin-skinned about international interface, so paranoid, ’70s-style, about the “foreign hand”. In an open democracy, the power of a government lies not in creating an obedient and pliant citizenry by criminalising the protester, but in extending and enlivening the public sphere. The wise men and women of the government need to ask: When there is a democratic protest against a law passed by Parliament, who draws the red lines, where, and at what cost?