A sigh of relief was felt among young activists and supporters of the ongoing farmers’ movement after Disha Ravi was granted bail by the Delhi court on February 23, 2020, on account of “scanty and sketchy evidence” against her. While the judgment was welcomed for reinstating the freedom of speech and the right to dissent, it came after a silence of nine days.
Ravi was taken in to custody after an FIR lodged by the Cyber Cell against her accused her and other co-creators of waging a “social, cultural and economic war against the government of India.” According to the Delhi Police, Ravi was in touch with Greta Thunberg, Swedish teen climate activist, who first tweeted the toolkit containing Ravi’s name. The tweet was then deleted and an edited document without her name was finally tweeted in support of the farmers’ movement at the Delhi borders. The Police said that the Google document was made under the direction of Canada-based pro-Khalistani group Poetic Justice Foundation. The toolkit was also alleged to be associated with Pakistan’s ISI.
The co-creators of the toolkit were charged with criminal conspiracy and sedition, the most infamous weapon at the government’s disposal today. The sedition law lays down that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, as long as it doesn’t “incite people to violence”. This condition is misinterpreted and manipulated in times of unrest, as could be observed by the current government’s pattern of slapping multiple sedition charges during the anti-CAA-NRC protests in December 2019. The charges serve as a good lesson to teach to anyone who was speaking up against the government, while the Judiciary was later left to correct them.
The same conduct can be observed this time as well. As the police slapped multiple charges, the judges stood up to take a liberal stand. The bail order said that there are no geographical barriers on communication and a creation of a toolkit and using the best means of communication come well under the fundamental rights of a citizen. Judge Dharmender Rana said: “… in the absence of any evidence (that) the accused shared a common purpose to cause violence (on January 26) with the founders of PJF (Poetic Justice Foundation), it cannot be presumed by resorting to surmises or conjectures that she also supported secessionist tendencies… There is not even an iota of evidence brought to my notice connecting the perpetrators of the violence on 26.01.2021 with the said PJF or the applicant/accused.”
Many activists and journalists have pointed out how this toolkit is being used as a pretext to arrest protestors and antagonise the farmers’ movement. Instead of directing the media and Indian citizens to look inwards at the laws that have driven the farmers to indefinite protests, the government is convincing people that any protest in India is part of an international conspiracy, and not out of disgruntlement of the citizens with India’s governance.
It is evident that the conspiracy narrative is being used not just to dismiss the protests, but also as a rhetoric during the upcoming elections. On February 7, 2021, in his address to launch the Asom Mala road infrastructure project in Assam (state elections due for April 2021), PM Modi said, “Some foreign powers are planning to tarnish the image of India’s tea… These conspirators are vowing to malign the image of Indian tea in a systematic manner across the world.”
“Will you accept this attack? Will you accept the people involved in this attack? Will you accept those praising these attackers?” he added. Modi was referring to one of the points in Thunberg’s toolkit that allegedly mentioned disrupting the “yoga and chai image of India in general”.
Although Ravi has been granted bail, Delhi Police continues to probe into the toolkit. A day before the bail was granted, on February 22, 2021, Mumbai-based lawyer Nikita Jacob and engineer Shantanu Muluk were called in for questioning in connection to the case. Even as the Court reiterated the freedom of the citizens, whether the judgement will prick up the ears of the government is yet to be seen.