Supporters of a young climate activist arrested in India over a farmers’ protest “toolkit,” later shared by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, have called for her release.
Delhi police confirmed the arrest of Disha Ravi, who is in her early 20s, in a tweet on Sunday that accused her of being a “key conspirator in (the) document’s formulation & dissemination.”
The document, unsigned and publicly available on an encrypted sharing site, provides a list of ways supporters can help the ongoing protests.
“The main aim of the toolkit was to create misinformation and disaffection against the lawfully elected government,” Prem Nath, joint commissioner of Delhi police, told a press conference on Monday.
“The toolkit sought to artificially amplify the fake news through various tweets which they have created in the form of a tweet bank.”
Tens of thousands of farmers have been demonstrating for months against new agricultural laws, which they say will devastate their livelihoods.
Makeshift protest camps have sprung up around the capital New Delhi and workers have gone on strike in several states. Violence has broken out on occasion – most notably on January 26, when police and protesters clashed on the streets.
The toolkit instructs people to call government representatives, share solidarity hashtags on social media, participate in rallies, and sign petitions. It gained visibility after Thunberg tweeted a link to it on February 4, crediting “people on the ground in India.”
The move appeared to anger Indian authorities. The same day, Delhi police announced they had launched a criminal investigation into the toolkit’s creators and would look to charge them with sedition, provoking or inciting a riot and criminal conspiracy.
The document “predates and indicates a copycat execution of a conspiracy behind the 26 Jan violence,” police tweeted. “The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India.”
“In this document, there is an action plan (that) on or after January 26, there will be a digital strike and a tweet storm and also physical action on January 26,” said Special Commissioner Praveer Ranjan at a news conference on February 4. “Using this toolkit, people were informed (on how to enter and exit Delhi).”
On Monday, police accused Ravi of starting a WhatsApp group that collaborated on the document. “She worked closely with them to draft the Doc … She was the one who shared the Toolkit Doc with Greta Thunberg,” police said, adding that Ravi had helped “spread disaffection against the Indian State.”
Ravi was arrested in front of her mother and has been remanded in police custody for five days, Delhi police said.
News of Ravi’s arrest provoked outrage from high-profile figures, including author Meena Harris, the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris. Many Indian politicians, including members of the main opposition party, expressed anger and disbelief, calling Ravi’s arrest “shocking” and a clear show of “harassment and intimidation.”
Ravi’s arrest is “an unprecedented attack on democracy,” tweeted Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi. “Supporting our farmers is not a crime.”
Thousands have signed an online petition calling for her to be freed.
“Disha is a dedicated climate activist,” said one volunteer at the India chapter of Fridays For Future, a global climate activism group founded by Thunberg. “It was difficult to wrap my head yesterday when I came to know about (her arrest), I was shocked.”
The volunteer declined to be named due to safety concerns. “This leads to a lot of caution,” she said. “We are asking for liveable future … It is our right.”
Delhi police on Monday issued arrest warrants for Nikita Jacob and Shantanu, two more climate activists also accused of allegedly editing and owning the “toolkit.” Police searched Jacob’s residence in Mumbai last week and seized two laptops and an iPhone, Nath said.
Jacob and Shantanu are both associated with the non-governmental environmental organization Extinction Rebellion, Nath added.
The farmers’ protests
The protests revolve around three new farming laws, which farmers say could hurt their income.
Under the previous legislation, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to receive at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could buy, and prices were capped for essential commodities.
The new laws dismantled this committee structure, instead allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has argued that the reforms will modernize the agricultural industry, while giving farmers more freedom to do things like sell directly to buyers or other states without a middle man.
But many farmers say the changes will allow big companies to drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at higher prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply.
Thunberg isn’t the only recognizable name to speak up about the protests – international celebrities including singer Rihanna and NBA player Kyle Kuzma have also voiced support for the farmers.
The Indian government has bristled at the celebrity attention, sharply criticizing those voicing support for farmers online.
“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs on February 3. “The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”
Some activists see Ravi’s arrest as an extension of the authorities’ hardline stance against those supporting the protests.
Ravi was arrested for “educating people on the farmers protest & how best to support – in a democratic, peaceful way,” tweeted Trisha Shetty, an Indian activist for human rights and gender equity. “Shame on our Govt for trying to silence the best of our youth.”