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Who is Indian activist Disha Ravi?

February 17, 2021

The arrest of a young Indian climate activist on sedition charges for allegedly creating a 'toolkit' to support protesting farmers has drawn widespread outrage in India. More activists fear they may be targeted.

Disha Ravi's supporters protest in Mumbai, India
Disha Ravi was accused of creating a 'toolkit' supporting protesting farmersImage: Rafiq Maqbool/AP/picture alliance

Disha Ravi is a 21-year-old business school graduate from the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, and is also a founder of the India chapter of "Fridays for Future," an international protest network launched by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg.

Over the weekend, Ravi was arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly creating a "toolkit" to aid Indian farmers who are part of an ongoing protest movement opposing new agricultural policy proposals

This toolkit document lays out strategies for supporting the protesters, including what hashtags to use on Twitter.

Indian activist Disha Ravi with her dog in a Facebook picture
Disha Ravi denies she produced the controversial toolkit Image: facebook.com/disha.ravi

The document also asked people around the world to organize protests at the "closest Indian embassy," participate in rallies, and sign petitions.

The toolkit drew the attention of authorities after Thunberg tweeted a link to it in support of India's protesting farmers on February 4.

After her arrest, Ravi denied creating the document.

"I did not make the toolkit. We wanted to support the farmers. I edited two lines on February 3," Ravi told a court.

The Indian government has claimed that the global outpouring of support for the protesting farmers is an international conspiracy to destabilize India.

For over three months, protest by farmers and growing international attention has presented a huge challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The government has refused to give in to demands and repeal the set of agricultural laws, while the farmers have vowed not to bow under pressure.

India civil society outraged

Ravi's arrest sent shockwaves through India's civil society.

"This is nothing more than a blatant attempt to criminalize dissent. The case is an example to send a message that if you speak up, you will be punished. But it will be counterproductive," designated senior advocate of the Supreme Court of India, Colin Gonsalves, told DW.

Indian criminal attorney Rebecca John told DW that Ravi's arrest bypassed ordinary judicial procedures.

"Was the young woman who was remanded to 5 days given a counsel of her choice? Did the magistrate ask the police why Ravi was being produced directly from Bangalore without a transit remand from Bangalore courts? It is a shocking abdication of judicial duties," John said.

Delhi police, who arrested Ravi in Bangalore, said procedures were followed.

"Law doesn't differentiate between a 22-year-old and a 50-year-old. She [Ravi] was produced before a court which sent her to five-day police custody," police commissioner S N Shrivastava told reporters.

Could Ravi be convicted?

Ravi was charged with sedition, which is considered a serious crime under Indian law and could carry a life sentence in extreme cases.

The charge often leads to denial of bail in lower courts and long imprisonment even before the trial begins.

Critics have been arguing for scrapping the sedition law, claiming the state misuses it to silence dissent, rather than to maintain order.

However, studies show conviction is rare to non-existent, with about a third of cases not even making it to trial.

"The point of the sedition law is essentially that of suppressing free speech and free thought, both of which are unpopular with the government," attorney Sanjay Hegde told DW.

A warning for activists?

Ravi's arrest has also raised other questions on how a young girl seeking a cleaner and safer planet could be targeted in a society that ostensibly believes in free speech.

"The arrest of Ravi and the burning of Thunberg's posters and effigies are symbolic warnings of a possible fate that awaits independent women seen as too independent," sociologist Sanjay Srivastava told DW.

Historian Ramachandra Guha said that Ravi's arrest was meant to send a "chilling message" to youth, warning them to abstain from activism. 

"A reason that Disha Ravi was arrested is that while the regime fears independent thinking in general, they particularly fear it when expressed by young people," wrote Guha in an article published on India's NDTV website. 

A demonstration for Disha Ravi on February 15
Ramachandra Guha leads a demonstration in Bangalore protesting Ravi's arrestImage: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP via Getty Images

Other people allegedly connected with the toolkit are also being pursued by Indian authorities. 

Delhi police have now issued non-bailable warrants against Mumbai-based attorney Nikita Jacob and her associate Shantanu, saying that they were also responsible for creating the document.

Ravi's climate activism 

Ravi is a well-known climate activist, and has participated in several campaigns, including protecting the elephant corridor in the hill state of Uttarakhand, preserving a biodiversity paradise in Goa, and protesting logging in Bengaluru and the Aarey forest in Mumbai.

Disha Ravi with Fridays for Future signs
Ravi seen during a 'Fridays for Future' protestImage: twitter.com/Disha__Ravi

The Indian chapter of Fridays for Future rose to prominence for a campaign they ran to raise awareness about India's new draft Environment Impact Assessment 2020, accusing it of dispensing with safeguards without due diligence.

A fellow activist, who wished to remain anonymous, said Ravi is "fun-loving and passionate about environmental causes."

"This arrest is shocking and is a signal to other youth. We are shaken," said the activist. 

On her social media, Ravi has posted about the endangered Olive Ridley turtles and doing away with plastic in India. 

One of Ravi's college friends told DW that the activist is "focused on conservation" and speaks about it openly and knows "exactly what she is doing" with her life. 

In an interview with Indian media last year, Ravi said her inspiration to become a climate activist came from watching her grandparents, who are farmers and struggled with the effects of climate change caused by droughts and floods.

Opposing hydropower in India's Himalayan valleys

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11