February 27, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
“If highlighting farmers’ protests globally is sedition, I am better off in jail.” With this sentence, 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi showed the country what courage is all about. Charged with sedition for editing a digital document on how to highlight the ongoing farmers’ protests, Disha uttered one of the most powerful statements heard in India over the past seven years. On February 23, the Delhi Sessions Court granted bail to Disha. She’s out of jail for now but the case against her continues. Here’s why her incarceration should worry each one of us.
The sedition charge would have been explained in great detail to Disha, which makes her statement even more courageous. Don’t forget this is a 22-year-old facing serious jail time and a protracted legal battle.
The court seemed to understand the weakness of the case. “Considering the scanty and sketchy evidence on record, I do not find any palpable reason to breach the rule of bail for a 22-year-old girl who has absolutely no criminal antecedent,” Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana said.
Soon after, a second judge – Pankaj Sharma, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of the Patiala House Court – disposed of a Delhi Police application seeking extended custody. By then, Disha had already spent eight days behind bars.
Just think of how warped the situation is. A college student is arrested from her home and taken to Delhi for a so-called crime. And what was this crime? She went online to support the farmers’ protests.
Disha is not a political activist. She is just a young Indian with an urge to engage with the national issues of our time. She is just like many other young people, who are disturbed by the turn the country is taking and are making themselves heard. Instead of hearing them out, the government views them as a threat. Disha became the latest among several students, journalists and activists to be jailed for speaking their minds.
In 2018, then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg made a global mark with her climate activism. She started Fridays for Future, “a global people’s movement for climate justice”. Disha, a student of Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru, was inspired by that to start Fridays for Future India, coordinating agitations across Bengaluru every Friday.
That urge came from watching her grandparents, who are farmers, grapple with the impact of climate change. It’s no wonder she was moved by the protests against three farm bills that threaten to negatively impact farmers across the country.
On February 13, that connection put her in jail. The Delhi Police arrived at Disha’s Bengaluru home and arrested her in a case related to a “toolkit”. What is a toolkit? It’s essentially a digital document that activists use for campaign information. In this case, it was a toolkit tweeted by Thunberg in support of the farmers. Disha accessed it and edited a couple of lines.
The toolkit’s objective was “to enable anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing farmer protests in India to better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis”.
The trolls swung into action right away. On social media, they claimed the toolkit was part of a conspiracy against India. The Delhi Police followed up with a case of sedition, promoting hatred amongst communities and criminal conspiracy.
Disha was the first to be arrested. The police went on to claim that she was a key conspirator and worked closely with creators of the toolkit. The police version then made a fantastic connection to those demanding Khalistan. “They all collaborated with the pro Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian State,” the police said, echoing the government line that seeks to discredit the protesting farmers by claiming they are funded by separatist groups.
In fact, Bharatiya Janata Party MP PC Mohan even compared Disha to terrorists Ajmal Kasab and Burhan Wani. The MP from Bengaluru Central said: “Burhan Wani was a 21-year-old. Ajmal Kasab was a 22-year-old. Age is just a number! No one is above the law. Law will take its own course. A Crime is a crime is a crime is a crime.”
How did Disha respond?
Accepting that she was part of a peaceful protest against the farm laws, she said: “If the offence is that I protested peacefully, I’m guilty. If the offence is that I advertised about this peaceful protest, I’m guilty. If this is the parameter, I am definitely guilty.”
With this, Disha showed spine where some of our greatest icons have crawled when asked to bend. Film stars, cricketing icons, you name it, parroted the government line when the international spotlight was trained on the farmers. It took a young student to show that our icons’ feet are made of clay.
Disha’s lawyer wasn’t to be left behind. He said: “The toolkit talks about digital strike. This doesn’t mean the Gulf Strike. Physical action called for in Embassies, Ambani, Adani offices – doesn’t mean throwing stones. These are tools for people to express their feelings across the globe.”
Disha added: “If there is yoga and I prefer kung fu, will I become a Chinese spy? I’m not saying this. It’s in the FIR. We’re reducing the bar of someone having a different point of view.”
Nowadays, there are various grievances we have with our courts but this wasn’t to be one of those cases. The court repeatedly asked the state for evidence of a link between the toolkit and the violence on January 26 in New Delhi.
When the police couldn’t provide any, Disha’s lawyer quipped: “Jiska koi nahin hota uska conspiracy hota hai.”
After all this, it’s no wonder that the court threw out the police demand that bail be rejected. “The offence of sedition,” the court said, “cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments.”
The order presumably has an implication for all those charged with similar crimes simply because they protested against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
The world is increasingly recognising that India is turning from a vibrant democracy to an autocracy. The hate speech, the curbs on freedoms, the trumped up charges… All of this is being noticed.
It’s clear that the Narendra Modi government, whose electoral success has been matched only by its poor performance, is feeling under siege and is responding with a heavy hand – often against the youth. It’s counter-productive and a losing battle in the long run.
Disha’s statements in court were a wake-up call to the judiciary. The world and, frankly, India is looking to it. “Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation. They cannot be put behind bars simply because they choose to disagree with state policies,” the Delhi court said while granting bail to Disha. It’s a sentiment that should ring loud across India.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.