The arrest of Bengaluru climate activist, 22-year-old Disha Ravi, and the issue of non-bailable arrest warrants against two others, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu, in connection with the farm-protest ‘toolkit’ tweeted by climate activist Greta Thunberg, seems not just heavy-handed but also suggests the Delhi Police is confusing protest/dissent with sedition or war against the state. Leaked WhatsApp conversations between Ravi and Thunberg, assuming they are authentic, may prove the two were in regular contact and even discussed different ways to drum up support against the three farm laws that were passed by Parliament.
But arresting Ravi, instead of asking her to make herself available for questioning suggests the police are convinced the toolkit was responsible for the violence on Republic Day. If the toolkit in question is similar to that used by most organisations—political parties, activists, NGOs—who organise campaigns, this is probably jumping the gun. Asking people to gather to protest, to provide them with template tweets where important leaders are tagged—the staple of most toolkits—or suggesting the most effective ways to protest, etc, is quite different from a plan to change the route of the rally to head for the Red Fort instead of sticking to the route that was agreed to with the police.
Juxtapose this with the FIRs—in some BJP-ruled states—against various journalists for their reporting on the Republic Day event, and it appears the government is uncomfortable with a narrative that is different from its own; the Supreme Court stayed their arrests after the journalists petitioned it. There is little doubt the journalists who reported a farmer dying in a tractor accident as the victim of the police firing at him got it completely wrong, and this most likely inflamed passions; given the experience of these journalists, this was worse than shoddy reporting, but to think that the journalists were part of some grand (global) conspiracy was more than a stretch.
Indeed, by focusing so much on the foreign hand, the government seems to be ignoring the anger—even if misguided—of a significant number of farmers in Punjab over the farm laws and their intent; it is difficult to sustain an agitation of this magnitude, and over so many months, unless there is deep-seated anger in enough protesters.
It is also important to keep in mind that while there are various media reports on investigations by various investigative arms of the government—and not just in this case, but many others—starting a probe against various persons, the actual convictions are quite low, giving rise to the view that most of these agencies are mere tools of the political order of the day.
As per the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of persons acquitted/discharged in cases of offences against the state (these cover sedition, which Disha Ravi is reportedly accused of) was 1,887 in 2016, 3,237 in 2017, 3,490 in 2018, and 3,538 in 2019 versus 14,360, 16,210, 13,160, and 12,140 arrests in these years. The number of convictions in these years were 769, 1,734, 2,269 and 1,739, respectively, while a large number of cases, from these, and earlier years, are still under trial.
Protest is a legitimate part of democracy as the prime minister himself has pointed out on many occasions. Indeed, with the explosion of platforms in which to express such views—in both traditional and social media—as well as new ways in which to garner support and grow protests, governments all over the world have to deal with increasingly vocal citizenries; misinformation and hyperbole are not just common in such situations, they are growing by the day.
Governments will have to find ways to neutralise these campaigns with their own onslaught of news/views across various platforms; the use of investigative authorities has to be done with great care, and the use of blunt tools like arrests under sedition laws is best avoided.