The last few days have been quite concerning for a large number of citizens. A young climate justice activist, 22-year-old Disha Ravi, was arrested from Bengaluru by the Delhi Police, and has now been remanded to judicial custody in relation to the ‘toolkit’ case. This case that names two other young activists – Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk – is being seen as a clampdown on dissent and a violation of human and fundamental rights by many. On Friday, a group of artists, lawyers, activists and many others came together to explain why this is setting a dangerous precedent and is a scare tactic to prevent the youth from getting involved in social and political issues.
A virtual gathering organised by National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPL), Coalition for Environmental Justice in India, and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), saw many prominent personalities including music composer TM Krishna, environmentalist Ashish Kothari, NAPL’s Meera Sanghamitra, PUCL’s Kavita Srivastava, come together to discuss the issue.
A press note by the group put forth the argument that “the manner in which Disha Ravi, has been treated has the hallmarks of a state that is readily willing to flout rule of law and established procedural norms, instead of listening to the country’s youth. The warrants issued against two more young people, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk, and the selective ‘leaks’ to the media from Disha’s private messages, are all attempts to paint these young people as part of an international conspiracy to destabilise India.”
Meera began the discussion by pointing out that this was a critical juncture in democracy where its hallmarks – dissent and organising in solidarity in a peaceful manner – are being curbed. “Young people are being targeted for organising themselves to express solidarity [with protesting farmers] in a peaceful way,” she said. Referring to Disha’s arrest, she added, “These actions are draconian and disproportionate and do not respond to the questions of the youth that they are asking for the future of the country.”
TM Krishna argued that we need to understand here who is the aggressor and who are its targets. “We have been told that this [acts of dissent] are being done by fringe groups, which are essentially people raising their voices, agitating etc. The aggressors are the government, or those in the government and those aiding them in being aggressors. And this aggression is happening in two ways – either by private groups’ actions or government action, or both.”
He added that young people are being targeted in two ways. The first, Krishna explained, is by actions such as arresting Disha Ravi, which are “frontal attacks to threaten young persons who want to get involved in social, political issues. It is also a warning to parents.” The second way is through indoctrination, he said. He gave the example of a question asked in an English test recently, where students of a Chennai school were asked to write a letter to the editor against the ‘violence by the protesting farmers’ on Republic Day, with the question having descriptors that clearly painted the protesters as the unruly, unreasonable party. “The second attack happens like this, by poisoning young minds so that they don’t think for themselves,” Krishna said.
Kavita Srivastava condemned Disha's arrest and the criminalisation of the other young activists, calling it a “brazen violation” of their constitutional rights. “She was editing and sharing a document (the toolkit). To be arrested for such a thing! We have to demand an immediate withdrawal of the prosecution that Disha is being put through, as well as for the repeal of section 124A (sedition) and the UAPA law.”
Sandeep Pandey, a social and environment activist, added, “Why was Disha arrested? From my understanding, there was nothing in the toolkit for inciting violence, but it was only about a Twitter storm. That has been done before also.” He added that where injustice is involved, it can never be an internal matter. If someone is peacefully expressing solidarity or dissent, it is absolutely their right, no matter where they are, he said.
Ram Wangkheirakpam, an activist, and director of Indigenous Perspectives, an NGO that provides perspectives and ideas with a focus on northeast India, said that these actions by the government come in the larger context of curbing dissent in the country. “You can’t speak against a political party, what they are doing, or projects they’ve taken up. You can’t send a WhatsApp message, think twice about putting a post on social media.” Abhilasha Singh, who is also from Mount Carmel College, of which Disha is an alumna. She also added that this is happening because the ruling government has been conflated with the state of India.
Activists also expressed concern about what this meant for the larger climate movement in India. Nagraj Adve, member of Teachers Against Climate Change, noted that compared to earlier, the last couple of years have seen many more youngsters take to the streets for the ecology and environment. “These actions are partly against the support for farmer protests, but some of them have also been against protest against dilution of the environment laws through the EIA and coal mining.”
The concerned activists and artists have put forth the following demands:
1. Disha Ravi must be released immediately withdrawing all charges made against her. Warrants against Shantanu Muluk and Nikita Jacob must also be dropped, and no further action should be taken against youth who have been supporting the farmers’ movement and social and environmental justice causes.
2. An open dialogue must be initiated with youth environmental and social action groups and their well-justified concerns about their futures, to come up with policies and programmes that can safeguard India’s present and future generations.
3. A national level, transparent review of legal provisions like sedition, and of laws like UAPA, must be initiated with the intent of replacing them with provisions and laws that help secure the people of India within a framework of constitutionally endowed democratic rights.
4. All processes of decision-making on development, environment and livelihoods must be deeply democratised, ensuring the core involvement of vulnerable communities and sections (including women, youth, ‘disabled’, and LGBTQ+), and affected or interested citizens.