• Spriha Mehrotra

The Toolkit of Perils

The Farmers’ Protests have been an eye-opener in terms of how fragile Indian democracy has become. A government elected by the people, for the people and of the people certainly is doing a well enough job to ensure that these very people do not disagree with it.

Today, the juncture we stand on as a society and as a country that claims to be representative of the demands of its voters, it is important to ask ourselves if it is even about the content and cause of the protests or the institution of protests itself. Is dissenting synonymous with sedition now or does the government think it can do no wrong? These questions might seem like they come from a place of principle rather than real life, but the fact remains that be it the principle or the limitations of reality, the people are being undermined, and for a country as pluralistic as India, the long term effects of that can be very detrimental to our development, personal and social.

This is why when the news of the arrest of Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old Climate activist from Bangalore broke out, everyone had something to say. The present ruling government is popular for the way it charges dissenters with sedition and how it makes use of draconian policies like the UAPA to instrumentalise that process. In this particular case, however, there was a consensus on how its use may have been excessive.

Ms Ravi’s involvement in the protests was only to the extent of helping edit a “toolkit” that was shared by Greta Thunberg on her Twitter handle. The purpose of the toolkit was merely to raise awareness on the cause of the protests and to mobilise support for the cause of the farmers on an international level. This is not something rare as toolkits are commonly used as vehicles to communicate the ethos of protests to those who may be unaware, and were widely used during the #BlackLivesMatter Protests of 2020. It can thus be seen as something that interconnects global democracies to further the debate on human rights and freedom of speech and expression, both nationally and internationally.

It is thus, not a matter of surprise or shock when India convicts protestors as anti-national elements and conspirators against the native establishments. It is also a matter of grave concern for India’s global image when it is already under scrutiny for backsliding democratic freedoms and civil rights due to its internet shutdowns, violent responses to non-violent protests, detention of journalists and vocal dissidents of government policies and actions.

The most striking aspect of this issue is certainly the harms it accrues to the notion of freedom to disagree peacefully. There is an extremely thin line between standing against the government and standing against the country, which the establishment today either fails to see or fails to acknowledge. The point of the matter is that the Indian diaspora is largely heterogeneous and thus, cannot under any circumstance, be expected to have a common ideology, a common understanding of issues, a common interpretation of the law and a common way of dissent. This further plays into the idea that the government too cannot expect to always come out with policies and legislations that are accepted by everyone unequivocally. Owing to our diversity, there will always exist a sense of diversity in the manner in which we view our larger welfare and disbenefit.

If we are given a platform to, thus, speak out against a particular policy, it is obvious that the people will use it. Furthermore, if people are discouraged from speaking up, it may alienate the voters and plant the idea of a selfish government, which is neither helpful nor consolatory. This becomes increasingly evident when we look at the farmers’ protest today. The Prime Minister’s remarks on “Andolanjeevis” and “FDI – Foreign Destructive Ideology” are not only disrespectful to the protestors and their cause but moreover to the voters in a democratic state too.

Ms Ravi’s arrest does not only pose a threat to the general viability of rights and freedoms in this scenario, but also to the entities that owe their existence to such contingencies, like media houses, artists and social media platforms.

The India of 2021 is one where all aforementioned entities are under the active radar of the government, which is why they either choose to be wholehearted allies of the establishment or remain entirely tight-lipped about their opinions. This is validated because of the India-Twitter standoff over the government’s orders for the suspension of accounts that supported the causes of farmers, suggesting that these accounts spread “misinformation” and were “threats to national security”. This is something India has not ever witnessed in its 74 years of independence, and this poses a serious risk to independent and neutral investigative reporting too.

For these exact reasons, there has been harsh criticism that has been showered onto the government by many, including Delhi CM, Arvind Kejriwal who called the arrest of Ms Ravi an “unprecedented attack on democracy” and Historian Ramchandra Guha who protested against the arrest of the environmental activist in Bangalore to name a few.

This brings us back to the charges that are laid on Disha currently: sections 124A (Sedition), 153A (promoting hatred amongst various communities on social/cultural/religious grounds), 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code, along with being accused of having Khalistani connections and “promoting disaffection against the Indian state”. This is the terrifying reality of being an open protestor in India today. It is also reflective of India’s patriarchal social makeup. Burning effigies of Greta Thunberg and Disha Ravi is an alarming depiction of how the opinions and participation of women in political spheres is not appreciated in male-centric agencies, especially in India.

The saddest part, in all of this, is that though everyone knows who is right and who is wrong this time, the government has been successful in creating a state of fear and intimidation on social media and even on the ground. People are afraid to speak up against the government because who knows when they get severely charged for an opinion they are fully entitled to. Parents are worried about their children being arrested without proper reason or in an abhorrent lack of due process, just like Ms Ravi was by the Delhi Police. This is an aggravated problem and a pressing social issue, and guardians are actively advising their children to not participate and raise their voices against the establishment out of a fear of consequences. This leads us into a toxic cycle, where dissent is crushed relentlessly, and those who can dissent don’t engage in it due to oppressive regimes and structures.

Thus, Ms Ravi’s arrest has become symbolic of India’s clampdown on freedom and liberty to vocally stand up against what you believe is wrong. It is also symbolic of the lack of respect for people and their beliefs by a government that is only in power due to these very people they are scared of.

The state of India thus can be described in one sentence – “When the law is used to break the law, we live in a state of lawlessness.”

By Spriha Mehrotra

mehrotraspriha@gmail.com

The featured image first appeared in TheScroll’s article on February 18th.