Inspired by the teenaged activist Greta Thunberg, Indian environmentalist Disha Ravi has campaigned against climate change, led tree planting drives and fought development projects in fragile ecosystems.
Ravi, 22, is now being held in a New Delhi jail on suspicion of sedition, a crime punishable by life in prison. Her alleged misdeed: collaborating with Thunberg on a social media campaign to support Indian farmers opposed to new agricultural marketing laws.
Ravi’s detention last weekend, for what New Delhi police claim is an “international conspiracy” against India, reflects the increasingly aggressive tactics that the government of prime minister Narendra Modi is prepared to employ against dissent, as it confronts growing public resistance.
It has sent shockwaves through India’s expanding network of young environmental activists, and stoked anxiety among parents about the price their children could pay for speaking out.
“Her arrest is certainly disheartening for all of us,” said Joel Kyndiah, 18, an activist from the town of Shillong. “We’ve always been peaceful and democratic in how we pursue the problem of climate change.”
Critics said the arrest reflects the government’s particular antipathy towards young campaigners — especially educated, tech savvy and globally connected youth who talk about issues that resonate internationally such as the environment.
“The youth don’t show fear and the government doesn’t like that,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, 53, an activist with the Chennai Solidarity Group, an environmental justice collective. “They think young people should study, work hard and obey, not question the state.”
The Modi government set its sights on environmentalists soon after taking power, after an intelligence bureau report — leaked to the public — called foreign-funded NGOs “tools” of western governments seeking to thwart India’s economic progress.
In 2015, an Indian campaigner for Greenpeace was barred from flying out of the country to London, where she was to speak publicly about a planned coal mine in a sensitive forest area. Greenpeace India’s bank accounts were frozen.
Since then, New Delhi has moved steadily to dilute India’s environmental rules and regulations, and diverted protected lands for industrial uses while boasting to businesses about its accelerated speed in granting permission for projects in sensitive habitats.
“They have tried to dilute every law for one purpose — the ease of doing business,” said Claude Alvares, director of The Goa Foundation, an environmental group. “They have openly declared that business is more important and the environment is not important any more.”
Yet the drive for development in ecologically sensitive areas — such as plans to expand a railway line, roads and power lines through a protected national forest in Goa — has stoked resistance from young people, who are influenced by global trends and adroit at mobilising via social media.
Among them was Ravi, a farmer’s granddaughter, who launched the Indian arm of Fridays for the Future, the movement inspired by Thunberg, while a college student in 2019. Today, FFF India has chapters in around 40 cities, while Ravi gained prominence as a global voice in the movement.
Yet FFF India came under pressure last summer as the authorities sought to overhaul the environmental impact assessments process to reduce the role of public inputs, including from independent experts, in decision-making.
Activists of FFF and two other groups, Let India Breathe and There is No Earth B, mobilised a campaign to bombard the environment minister with emails opposing the changes. New Delhi responded by blocking the groups’ websites and threatening arrests under draconian anti-terrorism laws, which allow suspects to be held without charge for lengthy periods.
The government did not follow through on its threats. But Ravi’s efforts to bring global attention to farmers’ protests, which are seen as the biggest threat to the Modi government since he came to power in 2014, drew the full force of Indian state power.
The furore began after Thunberg tweeted a message of solidarity with the farmers, sharing a “tool kit” for mobilising support for their protests. The document, which Ravi allegedly helped prepare, suggested such non-violent actions as tweeting, demonstrating in front of Indian embassies, and putting international pressure on New Delhi.
After Thunberg’s tweet, Delhi police, who answer to Modi’s trusted home minister Amit Shah, filed a criminal complaint, calling the document “a call to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”.
Ravi was arrested from her home in Bangalore and flown to New Delhi, where she has been held for interrogation although she has not been charged. Two other climate activists, a lawyer and engineer, have been named by police as suspected co-conspirators.
While the arrest has stoked fears, many young activists insist they will not give up their cause.
“We will not be intimidated or dissuaded from going forward,” said Kyndiah, the Shillong activist. “We’re doing our best to make parents understand, that your children aren’t going against the country in any way. We’re fighting for a future in which we can all have decent, liveable lives.”
Another young campaigner, who requested anonymity because of concern for her safety, said Ravi’s arrest stemmed from a government “that doesn’t approve of citizens using their democratic rights”.
“They’re trying to intimidate and scare every other young environmental activist,” she said. “But we’re not interested in anything except a future where we can breathe.”