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Arrest of 21-Year-Old Climate Activist Disha Ravi Sparks Global Outrage, Draws Attention to ‘Illiberal’ India

Arrest of 21-Year-Old Climate Activist Disha Ravi Sparks Global Outrage, Draws Attention to ‘Illiberal’ India

Anu Ghosh
  • A cross-section of concerned people from across the world and across the political spectrum have come together in her support, while condemning the Indian government for trying to kill dissent in a democracy.

Hot on the heels of pop icon Rihanna’s tweet in support of the farmers protest in India, deriding the Modi government for its handling of the issue, comes another instance of scrutiny of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hardline stance against those supporting the protests, further adding to challenges faced by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government 

Politicians, including members of the main opposition party, actors, academics, activists and influencers across the globe have condemned the arrest of 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi for allegedly editing and sharing Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “toolkit” on social media promoting support for farmers’ protest in India, and have called for her immediate release.

Global leaders and personalities have raised their voice in solidarity with Ravi, saying that supporting farmers’ protests is no reason to arrest anyone.

Ravi’s supporters have expressed anger and disbelief, calling Ravi’s arrest “shocking” and a clear show of “harassment and intimidation,” seeing Ravi’s arrest as an extension of the authorities’ attack on free speech in India.

Meena Harris, Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece has spoken out strongly against the arrest of the Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru student. Harris, a Harvard-trained lawyer tweeted, “Indian officials have arrested another young female activist, 21 yo Disha Ravi, because she posted a social media toolkit on how to support the farmers’ protest. Read this thread about the sequence of events and ask why activists are being targeted and silenced by the government.”

International figures like poet Rupi Kaur, who has been supporting the farmers’ protest, have also come out in support of Ravi. Kaur tweeted, “Once Greta tweeted, India got intl backlash for their attack on farmers. Modi gov’t lost their minds & needed a diversion so they zeroed in on the toolkit. Suddenly a basic google doc was labeled a tool of sedition. Indian media got to work & crafted a conspiracy for the ages.”

Her tweets were retweeted by Meena Harris.

British journalist Lucy Siegle, UK MP Claudia Webbe also came forward in her support demanding the release of the activist.

Siegle tweeted, “I’m very concerned for climate activist #dishaRavi International leaders must condemn these trumped up charges and her detainment.”

Webbe, comparing Ravi’s arrest to that of Nodeep Kaur tweeted, “Disha Ravi is 21; a student & climate activist Nodeep Kaur is 24; a labourer & Union activist Both women were targeted, arrested & imprisoned for peacefully supporting the #FarmersProtest This suppression is driven by authoritarianism & free market capitalism. Don’t Be Silent.”

Nodeep Kaur is a 23-year-old Dalit woman who hails from a family of activists in Punjab, who was arrested on January 12 and is still in custody. Meena Harris had also tweeted in support of the labor rights activist, sparking a social media debate on her arrest. Harris shared media reports alleging sexual assault on Kaur. The tweet had sparked a social media debate.

Author Bill McKibben tweeted, “Delhi police arrest young climate activist @Disha__Ravi on ridiculous charges. Only a government that puts profit over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water and a livable planet, an act of terrorism.”

Journalist. Analyst. Global Opinions Writer at Washington Post. Words in TIME, NYT, Guardian, FP Rana Ayyub tweeted her dismay at this travesty against free speech. “The bravado of Narendra Modi. Arresting a 21-year-old climate change activist for volunteering in the farmers protest. Disha Ravi has been incarcerated for expressing solidarity with the farmers. Is the world watching?”

Several Congress leaders condemned the arrest on Twitter, calling it “atrocious” and a form of “harassment”.

In a tweet, Congress leader P. Chidambaram said the “Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi was arrested”, calling on students and youth to raise their voices to protest against the “authoritarian regime”.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called Ravi’s arrest “an unprecedented attack on Democracy” in a tweet saying, “supporting farmers is not a crime”.

Karnataka MP Jairam Ramesh tweeted, “Completely atrocious! This is unwarranted harassment and intimidation. I express my full solidarity with Disha Ravi.”

Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Shashi Tharoor and many others also tweeted in her support and demanded her immediate release.

Leaders from other opposition parties, including CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, too voiced their support for Ravi and demanded her release.

Yechury tweeted, “Modi regime thinks by arresting a grand- daughter of farmers, under Sedition, it can weaken the farmers’ struggles. In fact, it will awaken the youth of the country and strengthen the struggles for democracy. #DishaRavi”.

Rajya Sabha MP, Kapil Sibal also tweeted, “Disha Ravi Climate Activist Is the state so weak that a tweet threatens its security? Is the state so paranoid that a 22 year is a national security threat? Is the state so intolerant that it cannot tolerate youth standing with farmers? Is this the “badlav” Modiji wanted?

Actor Siddharth too tweeted his support saying, “Standing unconditionally in solidarity and support with #DishaRavi. I’m so sorry this happened to you sister. We are all with you. Stay strong. This injustice too shall pass. #shameondelhipolice.”

Thousands have signed an online petition calling for her to be freed.

“Disha is a dedicated climate activist,” said one volunteer at the India chapter of Fridays For Future, a global climate activism group founded by Thunberg, as reported by CNN. “It was difficult to wrap my head yesterday when I came to know about (her arrest), I was shocked.”

Highlighting the climate of fear for speaking out against the Modi government, which is prevalent in India today, the volunteer declined to be named due to safety concerns. “This leads to a lot of caution,” she said. “We are asking for liveable future … It is our right.”

Ravi was arrested for “educating people on the farmers protest & how best to support — in a democratic, peaceful way,” tweeted Trisha Shetty, an Indian activist for human rights and gender equity. “Shame on our Govt for trying to silence the best of our youth.”

“We live in a country where dissent is suppressed,” Ravi had told Auto Report Africa in an interview. “We in Fridays For Future India were labelled terrorists for objecting to the draft EIA notification. Only a government that puts profit over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water, and a liveable planet, an act of terrorism.”

Recalling those events, a young climate activist who volunteers with Let India Breathe, said, “This was only done to shut us up. And solidarity was key. We did not shut up. We spoke up about it.”

Ravi’s arrest, he added, was aimed at creating a chilling effect. “All FFF [Fridays for Future] volunteers are below 20 years,” he said, requesting anonymity. “If we are able to maybe influence votes, decisions of corporates, or make noise, then they know what they are in for.”

But pro-government social media handles claimed it was evidence of a global conspiracy against India, justifying the arrest.

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And the Indian government has bristled at the celebrity attention, sharply criticizing those voicing support for farmers online.

“Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs on February 3. “The temptation of the sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

Tens of thousands of farmers have been demonstrating for months against new agricultural laws, which they say will devastate their livelihoods.

Under the previous legislation, farmers had to sell their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, where they were guaranteed to receive at least the government-agreed minimum price. There were restrictions on who could buy, and prices were capped for essential commodities.

The new laws dismantled this committee structure, instead allowing farmers to sell their goods to anyone for any price.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has argued that the reforms will modernize the agricultural industry, while giving farmers more freedom to do things like sell directly to buyers or other states without a middle man.

But many farmers say the changes will allow big companies to drive down prices. While farmers could sell crops at higher prices if the demand is there, conversely, they could struggle to meet the minimum price in years when there is too much supply.

Makeshift protest camps have sprung up around the capital New Delhi and workers have gone on strike in several states. Violence has broken out on occasion — most notably on the occasion of India’s Republic Day, Jan. 26, when police and protesters clashed on the streets.

Ravi’s motivation to become a climate activist stemmed from watching her grandparents, who are farmers, struggle with the effects of climate change, she said in an interview with Auto Report Africa in 2020.

Police accused Ravi of being a “key conspirator” in the “formulation and dissemination” of the document – a “toolkit”.

Toolkit, is a term activists use for a campaign information document, instructs people to call government representatives, share solidarity hashtags on social media, participate in rallies, and sign petitions. It gained visibility after Thunberg tweeted a link to it on February 4, crediting “people on the ground in India.”

“I did not make the toolkit. We wanted to support the farmers. I edited two lines on 3 February,” Ravi told the court, according to NDTV .

It’s unclear still what Ravi is being charged with, but many fear she is being held under a colonial-era sedition law that has been used in recent arrests against journalists.

People charged under the draconian law have to surrender their passports, are not eligible for government jobs and must produce themselves in the court as and when required.


Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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