On January 26th, India’s Republic Day, which celebrates the 71st anniversary of the nation’s Constitution, was marked by thousands of farmers angered over several controversial agricultural reforms, surging past police barricades and storming the historic Red Fort of the capital.
Just over a month later, local environmental activist Disha Ravi was arrested on the 13th of February and subsequently charged for sedition, criminal conspiracy, and inciting riot. The move came after evidence was unearthed on a publicly editable “toolkit” was criminally investigated for seeking “to artificially amplify the fake news through various tweets which [the co-conspirators] have created in the form of a tweet bank”, says Delhi police Joint Commissioner Prem Nath.
Authorities claim that the toolkit was used by Ravi for purposes beyond merely promoting free speech in the form of encouraging disagreement; instead, as a medium to stir up civil unrest in the form of riots. The former is a protected right under the Indian constitution, the latter is criminal activity, that according to local laws, is punishable by life in prison.
There is a thin line between the two- although, suggests Mukul Rohatgi, former Indian Attorney General, a distinct and empirical one. He opines that Ravi’s arrest was supported by “no such [calls to violence] material” and that the charge of sedition was “completely wrong”, reported the Indian Express. Ravi fell “absolutely” on the err side of that line, he contends.
As an ex-holder of the position of the highest ranking law officer in the country, the presidential advisor argued in the National Judicial Appointments Commission cases. Rohatgi attributed the moves made to “a trigger-happy police” and cited relevant papers and the Constitution.
Meanwhile, a global climate change movement loses a member- Ravi is part of the Indian chapter of Fridays For Future, an NGO founded by eighteen year old Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg expressed her concerns at Ravi’s arrest, stating that “[she] was shocked”.
Rohatgi, who “also served as additional solicitor general in the Vajpayee government”, gave further comments. The judge qualifier foreby gave his opinion on the potential for broader misuse of ‘sedition’ as a means of charging detainees: Indeed, the conduct was according to him “a colonial hangover from the British” to prevent locals “from rising up against them”. In light of these comments, new developments occurred exactly ten days after Ravi’s arrest.
The police-regarded suspect was released from Tihar Jail on bail on 23 February, escorted by officials. The release came on a “personal bond of 1₹ and two sureties of similar amounts” according to Sam Eer, a home time correspondent for the Hindustan Times.
Additional sessions judge Dharender Rana commented that “there was ‘scanty’ and ‘sketchy’ evidence to back” sedition charges, and an “aware citizenry” was “indisputably the sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy”, while Rohatgi also affirmed that there was the absence of any “call to violence, arms, or to overthrow a government”.
The prominent shows of defiance (for which Ravi is being charged for inciting) against the federal government, which has not yet made any permanent changes to the reforms, continue in full force. Officials had previously offered to suspend the reforms’ implementations for eighteen months and to amend the law. However, after nine months of talks between the government and the country’s farmers’ unions, protests have not ceased, and the aforementioned offer has been firmly rejected.