On February 14, India witnessed an unlikely visual on Sunday afternoon – the doors of a New Delhi courthouse opened and a young woman, accompanied by police officers and confronted by a horde of journalists, came out with her head bowed and her eyes stinging with tears.
Disha Ravi, twenty-two, an activist and founding member of the Indian chapter of Fridays for Future – a global climate justice movement backed by Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg – was on her way to prison. She was arrested for allegedly editing and sharing an advocacy document for farmers protesting across India against newly formulated laws they believed would threaten their livelihoods.
The document in question was a toolkit for those who want to express their solidarity with farmers and, from the content available in the public domain, it seems that it contained nothing more than the type of explanations, d ‘calls to action and links to other documented information. commonly used to mobilize online protests generally contain. Except that toolkit made it to Thunberg, possibly via Ravi, who shared it in a now-deleted tweet.
The ruling BJP saw this as an attempt to tarnish its image and several of its leaders, including External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, reacted to pro-farm tweets from international celebrities such as Thunberg, Rihanna, Mia. Khalifa and Meena Harris, by suggesting they were part of a global conspiracy against India’s best interests.
The idea that a global network of secessionists and anti-nationals is fueling the world’s biggest protest is just ludicrous. But instead of responding to the legitimate concerns of protesting farmers, the Indian government appears to persist in its two-pronged approach of silencing dissent and attempting to delegitimize protests with its dubious pretension of foreign interference.
Ravi’s arrest sums up this two-pronged approach, but it is also symptomatic of a wider malaise – the subversion of democratic institutions in order to advance political interests. The deep-rooted rot in India’s criminal justice system makes it susceptible to being armed by political parties when they control the state. Against this background, the police rush to present a less than credible case against Ravi that helps promote the ruling party’s international conspiratorial trope raises serious concerns about the rule of law in India.
Ravi is charged with sedition under a law passed by British colonialists to silence dissent during India’s liberation movement and has since been abolished in the UK. Judicial precedents have limited the application of this law to exceptional circumstances, involving direct incitement to violence or public disorder. Based on the available evidence, it is quite clear that no such case has been established against Ravi.
This view was also endorsed by experts, including Justice Deepak Gupta, a former Indian Constitutional Court judge and NC Asthana, a former senior police officer, who reaffirmed that nothing in the toolbox can be related to violence or disorder on the floor. The latter also explained why other allegations made against Ravi, such as defamation of the country and the social, cultural and economic war against India, are not even legitimate grounds under Indian law.
But police insist the toolkit is a threat because of the alleged contributions made to it by a few people with suspected ties to organizations that tolerate “extremism.” Not only is the basis for these assertions extremely fragile, but it is not known how they constitute sedition, especially since in 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that even the raising of secessionist slogans in a place public without incitement to violence is not sedition.
Additionally, it’s unclear how this involves Ravi making two changes to a public domain document before sharing it.
Concerns about the motivations behind the police action against Ravi are also reflected in the manner of his arrest. Legal activists from different parts of the country have reported glaring procedural flaws in his detention and the events that followed. Questions were also raised about the magistrate’s willingness to grant the police custody request without taking due account of the facts.
Worse yet, after Ravi’s arrest, a smear campaign was orchestrated by pro-government media organizations and social media accounts that claim to have access to his WhatsApp chats. If inside and private information to which the police had exclusive access has indeed been selectively disclosed to sympathetic press sources, Ravi’s right to a fair trial is in jeopardy.
According to one of these alleged leaks, Ravi allegedly asked Thunberg to delete the tweet in which the latter was linked to the toolkit saying it could get him in trouble with the government. Ironically, this is less an indictment of Ravi and more a system that can punish critics of government policies with impunity.
Ravi’s fears were not unfounded. Last year, the Fridays for Future website was blocked by order of the police and the organization was indicted under anti-terrorism laws for opposing a bill on impact assessment. proposed by the government. Those charges were later dropped after a public outcry.
Several other prominent activists whose positions clash with the political narratives of the ruling party have also been arrested on trumped-up charges. Prior to Ravi’s case, another activist defending farmers, Nodeep Kaur, was detained under questionable circumstances and arrest warrants were issued for two other activists for allegedly circulating the toolkit.
All of these incidents point to a compromised criminal justice system that is poised to suppress free speech and create scarecrows at the behest of political power. Systemic problems with India’s criminal justice system have been around for decades and have been exploited by political parties across the ideological spectrum, but, perhaps for the first time since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi briefly suspended democratic rights in the 1970s, the repercussions of the weakening of democratic institutions have become alarmingly obvious.
In a country where elections are the hallmark of democracy, the most obvious response to the repression of rights is to advocate for political change. But now, more than ever, Indians must push to strengthen institutions in order to safeguard constitutional rights.
We need to make the police force more accountable and free from outside influence, minimize government influence in judicial appointments, comprehensively reform the criminal law after proper consultation, and abolish the archaic laws used to suppress dissent. Without these reforms India’s constitutional democracy will remain vulnerable to the political and ideological whims of ruling parties across generations, and Indians will be stuck in a cycle of history that holds back inclusive and comprehensive development.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.