In July last year, FFF activists say they got their first ‘warning’: a notice under UAPA, later called an ‘error’ by the government.

Fridays For Future or FFF members in Bengaluru holding placards for a pro farmer protests
news Activism Monday, February 15, 2021 - 19:37

It was in July 2020 that the website of Fridays for Future (India) [FFF] was taken down by the Delhi police. It was said that the Delhi Police Cyber Crime Unit Deputy Commissioner had cited the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to block the site, reportedly at the behest of Union Environment Minister Prakash Javedkar. The site was back up in a day, and the notice was taken back; the Delhi police called it an ‘error’. But one thing was clear: FFF, a students’ movement, had come under the police radar.

FFF is a global movement inspired by climate change activist Greta Thunberg, and has dominated headlines in India in the last two days, after a 22-year-old FFF activist from Bengaluru, Disha Ravi, was arrested by the Delhi police. The Delhi police called this an urgent mission, one that made them swoop down to Bengaluru, and take Disha Ravi to Delhi without a transit remand. Disha Ravi has been accused of sedition, conspiracy and attempt to incite — all for editing a Google document that called for international support to the farmers protest. The police’s contention was that Poetic Justice Foundation, an organisation based out of Canada, was also behind the document, and that they support the Khalistani movement.

Many FFF members TNM spoke to are shocked that the Delhi police have levelled such serious allegations against Disha. But not many of them are surprised that a Canadian organisation contacted their activists. “We communicate with a lot of  international organisations. FFF is an organic movement that has no real parallel in India, and therefore we also proactively reach out to international organisations. During the pandemic, most of FFF’s work has been online. I assume that this Canadian organisation would have met FFF colleagues online as FFF social media pages had made it clear that they were supporting the protesting farmers,”  Akash (name changed) who was an active member of FFF (India) until recently, tells TNM.

Big Brother was watching FFF

Akash, like others who spoke to TNM, believe that the UAPA notice in 2020 — when the group was protesting the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification by the Union government — was their first warning. “When we received a UAPA notice for the EIA notification protest, I told my colleagues that we are under watch. They wanted to send us a message, which they did with the notice,” Akash says.

What seems to have irked the Union government is that FFF had taken a strong stand against the draft EIA 2020 (Draft Environmental Impact Assessment notification 2020) that reduced public consultation on projects and allowed post-facto environmental clearance. Along with traditional slogans and posters, the FFF page also put out several memes to reach out to people about the issue, says Akash.

“Some of these memes could have been construed as derogatory towards the Union Environment Minister (Prakash Javadekar),” he says, “Plus, the Delhi police may also have noted the stand we took during the anti-NRC-CAA protests.”

FFF’s work in India

FFF in India has several chapters across states and cities, and is engaged in activities which involve raising climate awareness, cleaning lakes and parks, and workshops on how to advocate and litigate on pro-environmental issues. The movement that has around 150 activists across India, depends on organic participation, largely from school and college communities. It kicked off in India with a climate strike on March 15, 2019 that saw lakhs of students participating all over India. 

Quickly though, the activists realised that merely writing letters to politicians or standing with placards against climate change is not enough, and that it was imperative to oppose policies. FFF activists became a part of the movement to save Aarey forests in Mumbai. In October 2019, FFF activists were arrested along with others as they protested at the Aarey colony.

But it was the protests against CAA and NRC that made FFF activists interact more with other groups, both nationally and internationally. “Many activists all over the world were baffled by what was happening in India, and wanted basic know-how of the issues,” an FFF activist tells TNM.  “So this is where FFF members took the initiative to explain the issues — just as Disha did with the present farmers’ agitation for the broader international community.”

However, by the end of December 2019, there were differences of opinions between various activists. 

‘Climate-only’ versus ‘all human rights’

Some believed that FFF should stick to climate issues and not get into other debates. There were others who believed that asking for a better and safer environment cannot be separated from questioning the government or its policies. Many felt that they should also voice support for other human rights issues. A few left the movement over these disagreements. A few also felt that they were being let down by government babus, and the environment cannot be safeguarded with the current mindset of the officials and politicians.

One former activist tells TNM that he spoke to Disha some time around October 2020, cautioning her about the overtly anti-government stance being taken on the FFF social media pages. “You need to understand our concern clearly. We believe that CAA protestors and farmers need to be supported. But the first question before us was whether this was FFF’s mandate. Second is that our political parties are not mature enough to take such criticism, and the present regime is intolerant. We have thousands of school kids participating in our events, and it is problematic to then be political too,” one activist says.

Another activist tells TNM, “The DNA of politicians in India and Europe are different.” 

“It is not easy to take on the government and not face repercussions in India,” she points out. 

The ‘toolkit’

No one in FFF was clear on how they became part of the Google document — but no one is surprised either. “We have always been interacting with international groups on climate change. But after Aarey and NRC protests, more groups were getting in touch with us to understand issues. Since many Punjabi organisations abroad were supporting the protest, it is highly probable that they reached out to groups based out of India for clarity,” a former FFF activist says.

Three FFF activists TNM spoke to rubbish the ‘Khalistani connection’. “There are online meetings arranged almost every day on different issues, and it is not possible to ask for the antecedents of each group. Our space works on the basis of trust, and this feeling that we are all here for certain worthwhile causes. I am sure Disha and others volunteered to garner more support for farmer protests because they felt strongly about it,” an FFF activist says.  

These activists believe the government’s only concern is the international attention on any particular issue. “As long as an issue is discussed within the nation, the government thinks it can control the narrative. They don't want anyone to drum up international support, which is why they came after FFF even during the EIA notification protest,” a former activist adds.

Kritika (name changed), another activist who is part of the Indian chapter of an international pro-environmental group, says, “FFF and our members were getting arrested for peacefully protesting against the Aarey tree felling in Mumbai. At that time, our phones were being looked into, and we were threatened with dire consequences (for protesting).”

“So for some of us it was a cautious decision to sustain the movement, as we had seen what the government has done with international organisations like Amnesty and Greenpeace. So now after Disha’s arrest, I cannot go and hold a placard saying ‘Climate Change is real’ or ‘Time to act is now’ — I may even be booked for sedition for showing solidarity to Disha,” she adds. 

While academics, legal experts and activists have raised concerns on the grounds and the process of her arrest itself, many of Disha’s contemporaries are now afraid to be associated with FFF and other such organisations. 

“I have been getting calls and messages from people expressing apprehensions from people who participated in our 'strikes'. So there are a lot of people who are in fear and are deleting their photos, social media posts of them being part of the movement. They are now untagging our Twitter and Instagram handles. If this was the goal of the government, then I think they have succeeded,” Akash tells TNM.

READ: Ramachandra Guha, Cong's Sowmya Reddy join protests against Disha's arrest in Bengaluru

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