Disha Ravi's Arrest

Disha Ravi’s arrest sparks off protests in Bengaluru

Print edition : March 12, 2021

Disha Ravi, in happier times. Photo: Handout

People demanding the release of Disha Ravi during a protest rally in Bengaluru on February 15. Photo: Aijaz Rahi/AP

Organisations that work with the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy protesting in front of the abandoned Union Carbide factory on February 17. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Friends, former classmates and members of civil society are speaking up and protesting against the Delhi Police’s arrest of Disha A. Ravi, a young and passionate environmentalist, in Bengaluru, both for the manner in which it was carried out and for the ostensible reasons for it.

SINCE the beginning of the farmers’ agitation on the borders of Delhi in November last year against the passage of three agricultural laws, there has been an unashamed effort by the propaganda machinery of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its broader allies in the right-wing Hindu ecosphere and the media to delegitimise these protests. The desperation of this effort is evident from the fact that it reached the doorstep of a 22-year-old Bengaluru climate change activist called Disha A. Ravi. She is variously being described in right-wing circles as the “toolkit kingpin” and a member of “the global conspiracy” to malign India. The Delhi Police arrested Disha Ravi on February 13 from her home in north Bengaluru where she stays with her mother and took her to Delhi. Bengaluru Police officials have stated that they were unaware of the entire operation.

According to the first information report filed by the Delhi Police, Disha Ravi has been accused of editing a toolkit (a toolkit is essentially a primer on coordinating and supporting social media campaigns, and this particular toolkit contained information about the widespread farmers protests) and of being a “key conspirator in document’s formulation and dissemination”. In the process of formulating this document, which subsequently the international climate change activist Greta Thunberg tweeted, the Delhi Police accused Disha Ravi of having “collaborated with pro Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian State”.

For this alleged crime, Disha Ravi has been charged under draconian sections of the Indian Penal Code such as those relating to sedition, criminal conspiracy, intent to provoke rioting and promoting enmity between groups. A metropolitan magistrate’s court in New Delhi sent her to five days’ police custody on February 14. Several informed people have pointed out that a toolkit is usually put together to inform and engage interested online participants.

Also read: DISPATCHES | Delhi court grants bail to Disha Ravi, the Bengaluru-based climate change activist slapped with sedition in the ‘toolkit’ case

A day after news emerged that the young environmental activist had been arrested, a spontaneous protest was organised in central Bengaluru, which attracted around 1,000 citizens. While some of them know Disha Ravi and are her friends and classmates, the others present included members of student organisations, youth groups, lawyers, farmer activists, journalists and environmental activists. Protesters carried placards that read “Release Disha Ravi”, “Free Disha, Free Democracy”, “Democracy is Dying, Do Something!” and “Release all Political Prisoners Now!”. The presence of the senior farmer leader Badagalpura Nagendra of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha holding a placard in Kannada demanding that Disha be released bolstered the impromptu protest.

Several of Disha Ravi’s close friends, who had worked alongside her in her activism, broke down while speaking to journalists at the protest. While speaking to Frontline on the condition of anonymity, they described Disha Ravi as a “passionate environmentalist”. A friend who often joined her at clean-up drives said that she was “just a regular girl like any of us and if this could happen to her, it could happen to any of us. She was just so passionate about the environment and was involved in planting drives and waste clean-up issues. She was even involved in an effort to clean up Ulsoor Lake once.”

A friend who knew Disha Ravi from her Mount Carmel College days, where she had completed an undergraduate degree in business administration, mentioned that issues of climate change bothered her so much that she had become a vegan and that “her model in life was the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall”. A few other protesters also sought to bring up the fact that a “girl from Bengaluru and Karnataka, a Kannada girl, was picked up while the government here allowed it”.

Also read: The Union government’s assault on free speech

Addressing the protesters, the noted historian Ramachandra Guha said: “The Delhi Police is out of hand. The magistrate not giving bail is completely crazy. What state has the Indian state sunk to when they harass a girl simply because she stands in support of the farmers’ protests. This is a message that the Home Minister wants to send to young people. This kind of repression is worse than the Emergency era and the colonial regime. In this regime, Mahatma Gandhi and [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak would have been in jail. It’s a paranoid, fearful and vindictive government.”

The Bengaluru-based environmental activist Leo Saldanha stated: “The arrest of Disha Ravi is essentially a message to every citizen of the country because in her arrest, we are all arrested; democracy is arrested, both in the manner of the arrest and the way it is being justified. Our [Karnataka] Home Minister Basavaraj Bommai says that protocols don’t matter, but protocols matter in a democracy.”

Vinay Sreenivasa, an advocate with the Alternative Law Forum, who spoke to Frontline on the sidelines of the protest, pointed out that it was illegal for a non-local police team to arrest someone without informing the local police. “Disha was protesting against the impact of climate change. We just saw the impact of this in the Uttarakhand glacier disaster where more than 100 people are still missing. She was protesting against the Environmental Impact Assessment notification and was supporting the farmers. What is the toolkit that she is being accused to be part of? A toolkit is a mere guide that provides information on an issue and helps in coordinating a Twitter campaign,” he said.

Later the same day, Saldanha and Sreenivasa were part of a group of 70 citizens who submitted a memorandum to the Bengaluru Police Commissioner demanding action against the Delhi Police. The memorandum pointed to the arbitrary nature of the Delhi Police’s action and stated: “In order for an inter-State arrest to be initiated, the police from the State that intends on making the arrest must contact and coordinate with the concerned police from the State where the arrest is being made. It has been more than 24 hours since the arrest—however, no statement has been issued by the Bengaluru Police regarding this coordination process between them and the Delhi Police or their role in the arrest.”

Also read: Vinod Jose: ‘We are seeing a culture of intolerance’

While Basavaraj Bommai has not commented on the issue, Deputy Chief Minister C.N. Ashwath Narayan justified the arrest by saying that it was “essential to curb anti-national activity”.

Disha Ravi has found several allies in her home town even as her name is being tarnished in the right-wing social media space where aspersions have been cast on her character and canards have been spread about her. The avidness with which she is being targeted and maligned has shocked many of her friends and classmates from her college days. This propelled some of them to take the lead in organising a statement of support that was issued formally on behalf of the alumni of Mount Carmel College.

Clearly drafted by someone close to Disha Ravi, one paragraph of the eloquent statement is worth quoting in full: “Her sense of history is remarkable as she has drawn not only from her personal, familial history of farmer-grandparents and the difficulties they suffered due to the impact of climate change on agricultural practices. She has also drawn her inspiration to protest and lend her voice to farmers’ protests in the country from the greatest of people’s movements in India—the Independence struggle. Through her work, Disha stands as a model to emulate. Her arrest, we believe, is a way to browbeat young, articulate women—which Mount Carmel College has produced for generations—into silent submission.”

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