On February 14, India witnessed an unlikely Sunday afternoon visual – the doors of a courthouse in New Delhi flung open and a young woman, accompanied by police officers and confronted by a horde of journalists, emerged with her head bowed and eyes prickling with tears.
Twenty-two-year-old Disha Ravi, an activist and a founding member of the India chapter of Fridays for Future – a global movement for climate justice supported by Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg – was on her way to prison. She had been arrested for allegedly editing and sharing an advocacy document in support of farmers who have been protesting across India against newly formulated laws that they believe will threaten their livelihood.
The document in question was a toolkit for those who want to express solidarity with farmers and, from the contents available in the public domain, it appears it contained no more than the sort of explainers, calls to action, and links to further information that documents commonly used to mobilise protests online usually contain. Except this toolkit made its way to Thunberg, possibly via Ravi, who shared it in a now-deleted tweet.
The ruling party, the BJP, saw this as an attempt to tarnish its image and several of its leaders, including External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, reacted to pro-farmer tweets from international celebrities including Thunberg, Rihanna, Mia Khalifa and Meena Harris, by suggesting that they were part of a global conspiracy against India’s best interests.
The idea that a global network of secessionists and anti-nationals are fuelling the world’s largest protest is nothing short of ludicrous. But instead of addressing the legitimate concerns of protesting farmers, the Indian government seems to be persisting with its two-pronged approach of silencing dissent and attempting to delegitimise the protests with its dubious claim of foreign interference.
Ravi’s arrest encapsulates this two-pronged approach but it is also symptomatic of a larger malaise – the subversion of democratic institutions in order to further political interests. The deep-rooted rot within India’s criminal justice system makes it susceptible to being weaponised by political parties when they control the state. In this context, the eagerness of the police to make out a less-than-credible case against Ravi that helps promote the ruling party’s international conspiracy trope raises serious concerns about the rule of law in India.
Ravi is being accused of sedition under a law enacted by the British colonialists to silence dissent during India’s freedom movement and has since been abolished in the United Kingdom. Judicial precedent has limited the application of this law to exceptional circumstances, involving direct incitement to violence or public disorder. On the basis of the available evidence, it is amply clear that no such case is made out against Ravi.
This view has also been endorsed by experts, including Justice Deepak Gupta, a former judge of India’s constitutional court and N C Asthana, a former senior police officer, who have reiterated that there is nothing in the toolkit that can be linked to violence or disorder on the ground. The latter has also explained why other allegations made against Ravi, such as defaming the country and waging a social, cultural, and economic war against India, are not even legitimate grounds under Indian law.
But the police insist that the toolkit is a threat because of the alleged contributions made to it by a couple of people with alleged links to organisations that condone “extremism”. Not only are the basis of these claims extremely flimsy, it is unclear how they constitute sedition, especially given that in 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that even the act of raising secessionist slogans in a public square without incitement to violence is not sedition.
Moreover, it is unclear how any of this implicates Ravi who made two edits to a document in the public domain before sharing it.
Concerns regarding the motivations for police action against Ravi are also reflected in the manner of her arrest. Legal activists from different parts of the country have pointed out blatant procedural flaws in her detention and the events that followed. Questions have also been raised about the magistrate’s willingness to accede to the police’s demand for custody without due consideration of the facts at hand.
Worse still, following Ravi’s arrest, a smear campaign has been orchestrated by pro-government media organisations and social media accounts that claim to have access to her WhatsApp chats. If privileged and private information that the police had exclusive access to has indeed been selectively leaked to the sympathetic press sources, Ravi’s right to a fair trial is being jeopardised.
According to one of these alleged leaks, Ravi is reported to have asked Thunberg to delete the tweet in which the latter linked to the toolkit saying it might get her into trouble with the government. Ironically this is less an indictment of Ravi than of a system that can penalise critics of government policies with impunity.
Ravi’s fears were not unfounded. Last year Fridays for Future’s website was blocked on police orders and the organisation was charged under anti-terror laws for opposing an environmental impact assessment bill proposed by the government. These charges were later dropped after a public outcry.
Several other prominent activists whose positions confront the political narratives of the ruling party have also been arrested on trumped-up charges. Before Ravi’s case, another activist speaking up for farmers, Nodeep Kaur, was detained under questionable circumstances and warrants have been issued against two other activists for allegedly circulating the toolkit.
All of these incidents point to a compromised criminal justice system that is willing to suppress free speech and create bogeymen at the behest of political power. Systemic issues with India’s criminal justice system have existed for decades and have been exploited by political parties from 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 weakening democratic institutions have become disturbingly evident.
In a country where elections are the hallmark of democracy, the most obvious response to the repression of rights is advocating for political change. But now, more than ever, Indians need to push for strengthening institutions in order to safeguard constitutional rights.
We need to make the police force more accountable and free from outside influence, minimise government influence in judicial appointments, holistically reform criminal law after adequate consultation and scrap archaic laws used to repress 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 all-encompassing development.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.