Disha Ravi was a regular college student at Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru, when she watched a documentary on animal cruelty at a screening. Her friends describe her as a tenacious and social person who had always dreamed of becoming a chef, even though she thought her parents would never let her go to culinary school. But that documentary changed her life. It opened her eyes to the cruelties of the meat industry, and set her on a path of environmental activism, which has now landed the 22-year-old in trouble with the Delhi police.
On Saturday evening, Delhi police turned up at Disha’s home in north Bengaluru, took her on a flight to Delhi and arrested her. The allegations? She planned and edited parts of the ‘toolkit’ or a Google document on farmers’ protests that Greta Thunberg had tweeted. Though toolkits are nothing but Google documents used to prepare a social media campaign or to plan protests, the Delhi police have registered an FIR under sedition and conspiracy, alleging that this toolkit was being used to malign India. Disha will be spending the next five days in police custody.
Disha is a familiar face at cleanups and tree-planting drives in Bengaluru. She is both passionate and concerned about climate change and her arrest has come as a shock to close friends and family members who describe her as a young and dedicated climate campaigner.
“She was just 19 when I met her at two events — one of them was a lake cleaning drive in Ulsoor and the other was an event in Sarjapur called Mara Kadi Bedi (Don’t Cut Trees). As a person, she was very resourceful and knowledgeable. She explained how many human activities were linked to climate change,” says Mukund Gowda, who volunteers for pro-environment groups in Bengaluru.
Another activist shares that Disha attended cleanup drives in Hebbal in 2019. “She carried reusable bottles and even came to cleanups by travelling on buses. She often promoted alternatives to industrial dairy production,” says the activist.
Before her life of environmental activism, she was a business administration student in Bengaluru’s Mount Carmel College and was known to be an avid animal lover and an aspiring chef. “As a student, she enjoyed doing what most of us do — vibe to the latest Bollywood songs, keep up with YouTubers who talk about skincare and fashion, watch Netflix, cycle, chill with her friends or her dog Sammy. She also loves making food and experimenting with new vegan recipes and is determined to make the world's best hummus,” says a close friend of Disha.
Her friends say her role model is Jane Goodall, a primatologist who spent her life in the jungles of Asia and Africa, and is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzees. “Disha dreamt of working with turtles and marine life and hoped to pursue a career in ecological conservation and restoration,” says her friend.
Her family’s experiences spurred her to take up causes related to the environment. “Her grandparents were farmers and she has seen how they struggled and how food production gets affected by the climate crisis through droughts, floods, change in pH balance of the soil and other problems,” says her friend.
In college, Disha was introduced to the cruelties of the meat industry. “She attended an on-campus screening of a vegan documentary that really opened her eyes to the cruelties of the meat industry. As an animal lover and a passionate chef who hoped to travel the world and try all sorts of cuisines, it wasn't so surprising that she'd been so deeply affected by what she'd seen. After getting involved with the vegan community, she eventually started attending rallies to help spread awareness on the problems with industrialised farming,” says her friend.
Disha then turned vegan herself and interned at Goodmylk, a company that makes plant-based alternatives for dairy products. “She lives by the principles she believes in and straight out of college, she joined Goodmylk full-time,” says her friend.
In January 2019, she was inspired to take up volunteer work with Fridays For Future (FFF), the international movement led by climate change activist Greta Thunberg and was a part of protests that took place in Bengaluru in September 2019.
The ‘toolkit’ that Greta shared had information on how to support the farmers’ protests, including text that could be tweeted and Twitter handles that could be tagged to amplify those tweets. However, Greta deleted her February 3 tweet that had a link to the toolkit, as it contained dates from January, and replaced it with a new one. The modified tweet is still on her profile. However, by then, screenshots of the older Google doc had gone viral. According to the Delhi police, Disha shared the document with Greta. When the Public Prosecutor accused Disha of conspiring against the nation, she told the court, “I was just supporting the farmers. I supported the farmers because they are our future and we all need to eat.”
Disha’s neighbours say that she and her mother have been living in her residence in north Bengaluru for over a year now. Activists and friends who know her well say she is the sole earner in her family and was looking to take up extra work. “She came to me looking for extra work from 7 am to 9 am and 7 pm to 9 pm. It was evident her pay was not enough to manage herself and her family,” the activist says.
The same activist scoffs at the idea that she was being funded for her activism. “I have Splitwise accounts of all my transactions to manage expenses. Our volunteer work is not being funded by anyone,” says the activist.
Prominent environmentalists came forward to condemn her arrest on Sunday. “I know a lot of young people like her and I am proud to know people like her that are upset with the way in which the government has prioritised corporations over their futures and how it has neglected important issues. These are people who have taken the principles of the Constitution to heart. Penalising or criminalising their voices is something that is condemnable,” says Nithyanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based environmentalist.
He adds that environmentalists were first targeted during the protests against the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), 2020. “The government has targeted young people since the time of the protests against EIA when charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) were invoked on organisations and websites that had hosted petitions,” says Nithyanand. “A democracy cannot function like this and the government should ideally engage with them. People who are older, including me, need to listen to younger people and understand what their aspirations and concerns are,” he adds. One of the organisations that was charged under the stringent UAPA in 2020 was Fridays for Future. The charges were later withdrawn after the Delhi police said they had erroneously sent notices.
This time, the Delhi police have pressed charges against Disha and are also investigating others who made edits to the document.
But the police’s actions were decried by several youth-based environmental collectives which came out in support of Disha. “To imply that climate change activists are a danger to the peace and harmony of this country in a political climate that is highly polarized is to play fast and loose with their safety and security, especially when there is absolutely no proof to back up this claim,” a statement issued by the collective says.
With inputs from Soumya Chatterjee