Free speech cannot be a subterfuge for illegal activities.
“Climate Activist Jailed in India as Government Clamps Down on Dissent” screamed the headlines in the New York Times. An editorial in the Indian Express admonished the government: Weaponising an advocacy document to arrest an activist signals paranoia, not democratic power.
At the outset, the arrest of 21-year-old Disha Ravi, an environmental activist from Bengaluru and founder of the group called “Fridays for Future India” does appear like an atrocious case of overkill on the part of the establishment and a direct assault on free speech. However, a meticulous scrutiny of the details of the case reveals a different story: a dark tale of a covert ideological warfare, collusion with anti-India forces and even a possible inadvertent nexus with Pakistan—all under the garb of empathizing with farmers.
First, all those people crying foul must realize that India is not a banana republic where the police can arrest anyone on a whim or a fancy. Delhi Police Commissioner S.N. Shrivastava categorically stated: “Disha Ravi has been arrested after following all due processes. Whether someone is 22 or 50 years old, law treats everyone equally. The court was in agreement with the decision to arrest her.” An arrest which has the judiciary’s concurrence cannot be deemed as unjustified or erratic; the judge must have seen some merit in the police FIR.
The cyber cell team of the Delhi Police has charged Disha Ravi with allegedly sharing a seditious toolkit with Swedish teen climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg. The toolkit came to light when Greta Thunberg accidentally linked the document while tweeting her support for the farmers.
The toolkit in question turns out to be a noxious piece of propaganda that claims that “India has a long history of human rights violations, violence and cruel indifference to its most vulnerable citizens” and that India was “rushing headlong into fascism”. The statement further avers: “International focus on these protests may be the only thing preventing more state sponsored violence and another massacre/genocide in India.”
More incriminating than this outlandish and baseless characterization of India is a call for a coordinated action plan against the state using the farmers’ protest as a façade. The kit specifically lists the activities that have been successfully executed so far including a “tweet storm” on 23 January, global protests at Indian embassies and government offices on 26 January and joining the farmers’ parade into Delhi on 26 January. According to the police the emphasis on protests on 26 January and the violence that occurred in Delhi on that day appear to be linked.
The ideological angle to the agenda plus the coordinated action plan militate against the toolkit being an honest and transparent appeal for justice. There is more to it than meets the eye.
Once Greta Thunberg realized her gaffe, she erased the link and uploaded a more moderate version allegedly at the behest of Disha Ravi.
A WhatsApp transcript between the two accessed by India Today reveals that Disha then advised Greta to “not tweet the toolkit” as both Disha’s and Greta’s names were on it. Disha Ravi also asked Greta Thunberg to “not say anything at all for a while” as the issue had started blowing up and “we” could face action under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. At the end of their conversation Disha assures Greta that her name will be “in the clear” and that they will deactivate all social media accounts.
This exchange clearly indicates that Disha Ravi was not purely a passionate crusader for farmer’s rights; she had an agenda of her own and she was fully aware that her actions were unlawful. Moreover, the decision to deactivate all social media accounts also points to a nefarious game plan.
There are other questionable and murky details to this narrative. As per the Delhi Police, the toolkit was jointly created by Disha Ravi and two other accomplices: Mumbai based advocate Nikita Jacob and engineer-cum-activist Shantanu Muluk, with input from a Canada-based separatist group, the Poetic Justice Foundation. In fact, on 11 January, a fortnight ahead of the Republic Day violence in Delhi, Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk attended a Zoom meeting organized by the Canada based group.
Then there is the question of one Pieter Friedrich mentioned as an influencer in the toolkit tweeted by Greta Thunberg. Pieter Friedrich is an anti-government activist who may have links to Pakistan’s ISI according to police sources.
There appear to be many questionable activities and links that cry out for answers.
Coming to the crux of the present controversy, the million-dollar question: Does this police arrest violate Disha Ravi’s right to free speech? The answer is in the negative. Dissent in a democracy is not a free for all in which everything and anything goes.
Despite being a fervent champion of individual rights, John Stuart Mill the philosopher fully comprehended the consequences of unbridled free speech. To restrict the abuse of free speech he interjected the “harm principle”, which envisioned a governmental role in exceptional circumstances. He postulated that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others”.
A systematic effort at mobilization against the government and collaboration with forces inimical to the country fulfill the “harm principle” enunciated by John Stuart Mill: free speech cannot be a subterfuge for illegal activities.
Despite all the brouhaha, one must rest assured that the Indian judiciary has the integrity and capability to tease out the truth from the untruth. The law must take its course; the investigation must proceed unhindered and truth must be unearthed. The ugly haste to censor the government and derail investigation is indefensible.