Before anyone outside her hometown knew her name, Disha Ravi spent four years raising awareness among young people in Bangalore, India, about the effects of climate change.
Now the 21-year-old activist is jailed in New Delhi. The allegation: She distributed a “tool kit” in the form of a Google Doc containing talking points and contact information for influential groups to drum up support for farmers who have been protesting against the Indian government for months.
The document — which police say she shared with Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish climate activist — resembles the kind that grassroots organizations around the world have used for years to campaign for their causes.
But Ravi, the police contend, was using it to “spread disaffection against the Indian state.”
The arrest, the latest in a series of broader crackdowns on activists, has triggered anger and disbelief among opposition politicians, student groups and lawyers, who say the government is using its law enforcement agencies to increasingly stifle dissent, in line with a broader deterioration of free speech in India. Ravi’s arrest, they said, has raised the crackdown to a new level.
“There is a method to this madness,” said Manshi Asher, a researcher with the nonprofit group Environmental Justice, “and a pattern that is so clearly telling us that those asking critical questions would be silenced.”
Ravi is being held under a stringent sedition law that has been used to criminalize everything from leading rallies to posting political messages on social media. Although she has not been formally charged, she is to spend five days in police custody.
In its response to other contentious policies — including citizenship laws that worked against Muslims, a clampdown on the disputed Kashmir region and the farmers’ protests — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has resorted to arrests, stifling dissenting voices and blocking access to the internet. Groups that track internet freedom say India’s has declined for a third consecutive year.
For months, thousands of farmers, many of them Sikhs from the agricultural heartland state of Punjab, have camped out on the outskirts of New Delhi, protesting a slate of new laws that will dismantle a subsidy system that has for decades protected them from the vagaries of the free market.
The protests have been largely peaceful. But on India’s Republic Day, as Modi watched a military parade in central Delhi, farmers streamed into the city, using tractors to remove barricades. Clashes with police left dozens injured. One farmer was killed when his tractor flipped over near India’s Supreme Court.
Members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party used the incident to claim the farmers’ protest had been hijacked by Sikh separatists. The farmers, in turn, say the violence last month was the result of a government conspiracy to derail their movement.
The police opened an investigation into the violence and on Saturday they raided Ravi’s home in the southern city of Bangalore, bringing her to Delhi.
On Sunday, Ravi appeared in court without a lawyer, telling the judge that she had edited two lines of the Google Doc, but had not disseminated it.
“They are the ones who are providing us with our food,” she told the court, referring to the farmers. “And we all need to eat.” The document described why Indian farmers were protesting, and included links to the websites of organizations focused on agricultural issues worldwide.
Thunberg initially tweeted a link to the “tool kit,” which Indian authorities say was proof the young Swedish activist is part of an international conspiracy against India. The tweet was later deleted.
Ravi’s career as an activist could be described as passionate, but fairly limited.
When she was 18, she led a campaign to clean Bangalore’s lakes and parks. She started a reforestation drive and organized vegan picnics to educate young people about the impacts of climate change.
Ravi was inspired to join the farmers’ movement because of her grandparents, farmers whom she saw struggle to tend land battered by both drought and downpours.
“Her day starts with educating people about climate change,” Ravi’s friend Yuvan Aves said, “and it ends at speaking for politically and marginalized groups.”
Tamanna Sengupta, a climate activist who has worked with Ravi, said the government arrested Ravi because they wanted to make her an example and dissuade others from helping farmers in their struggle.
“They will soon come for the protesting children,” she said.