It has been a long day for climate justice activist Disha Ravi. Organizing is kicking up in the new year, yet still, Ravi manages to look radiant over Zoom from the warm evening glow of her Bengaluru home in southern India.
Bengaluru is the home base for Ravi’s climate justice coalition building. A founder of India’s Fridays For Future chapter (FFF India), Ravi is a vocal activist, but she’s also a 23-year-old who loves music (especially Taylor Swift). Her journey into the environmental movement began at a young age. While she witnessed her grandparents—both of whom were farmers—struggle to gain access to water in rural India, she was simultaneously experiencing floods in her hometown of Bengaluru, which, for the record, is a landlocked city.
Ravi’s farmer lineage is a background she would remain a strong advocate for; it was supporting farmers’ protests that led to her arrest almost exactly a year ago on Feb. 13, 2021. In its aftermath, Ravi became the face of India’s crackdown on dissent. Her case emphasizes the climate injustice that still exists within India—and the need to understand climate solutions geopolitically in order to hold countries rightfully accountable and to make global climate solutions equitable.
The circumstances of Ravi’s arrest are as follows: In September 2020, farmers began holding mass demonstrations—which went on to include tens of thousands of participants—demanding the repeal of three controversial farm laws they said would jeopardize their livelihoods and leave them to the mercy of private corporations. Ravi—the granddaughter of farmers—threw herself in support of the protests. As did public figures like Rihanna and Greta Thunberg.
“I greatly believe that only when we come together can we make a dent”
Thunberg tweeted out to her millions of followers a toolkit document that included information on how to support farmers. Ravi’s arrest was connected to the toolkit. This international support angered many in India who saw it as inappropriate external interference, reported The Guardian. Pictures of Rihanna and Thunberg were publicly burned. The police treated the toolkit as proof of a coordinated international conspiracy “to wage economic, social, cultural, and regional war against India,” per The Guardian, and accused Ravi of being an “editor” and “key conspirator” in its creation. Ravi was accused of sedition.
In court, Ravi said that her involvement with the toolkit held no seditious intent; she had only edited two lines of it. She was incarcerated for 10 days before receiving bail, the conditions of which mainly prohibit her from leaving the country unless given court permission, which Ravi notes is difficult to obtain and comes with an exorbitant fee. In an article for The Independent, Ravi wrote about not being able to attend last year’s international climate negotiations (COP26) as a result, where she was supposed to report for Grist.
It has now been over a year since her arrest, and authorities still haven’t begun criminal proceedings. Thus, her freedoms remain chained to her bail conditions. The police have not been too keen on granting her civil liberties, either: Ravi experienced unjustified pushback from authorities when trying to obtain her passport, a process that ended up taking about three months when, according to Ravi, it should have taken only 10 days.
Ravi’s arrest also led to her being violently harassed by India’s mainstream media, which regularly ran false headlines on her case, denouncing her as “a single mother” and “pregnant.”
“It was definitely a lot,” she recalled. “I had actually deactivated all of my social media, except for my Instagram. I was grateful that [I wasn’t on social media] because you can just go and find the most random thing and completely throw off the chart to derive meanings that aren’t there. I’m glad that I didn’t have to see any of it. But the first day I was out of prison, I was staying at a friend’s in Delhi, and I picked up the paper and on the front-page news was my face!”
Perhaps the most lasting effect of Ravi’s arrest is what she describes as a heightened “general fear of misuse of laws to suppress dissent,” which has extended into India’s larger environmental community. The Guardian reported that immediately following Ravi’s arrest, many of her fellow activists were too afraid to speak to the media, and WhatsApp groups that had been used for organizing fell silent.
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But this wasn’t the first time Ravi’s activism became subject to hostility from the Indian government, whose laws Human Rights Watch describes as “draconian,” especially under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu-nationalist regime. In India, there are laws designed specifically for jailing activists, like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The UAPA operates under the facade of an anti-terror law that essentially allows authorities to detain anyone they deem to be a “terrorist” without any incriminating evidence. The law also has strict requirements for granting bail, so people can spend months or even years in jail without being found guilty.
FFF India once received a UAPA notice: In July 2020, the Indian government proposed amendments to dilute its standards in gauging the environmental impact of any project, program, or policy during or after its implementation in order to ensure sustainable development. The new draft proposed would have, among other things, allowed projects violating the standards to essentially skip environmental clearance altogether and exempted any project that the government declared “strategic.” As part of the regular democratic process, the Indian government invited public comment to its amendments (via email due to the pandemic). FFF India produced about 200,000 objectionable emails on its website before the Delhi police cybercrime unit took it down.
“We were like, What is happening?, and then we see that they sent a UAPA notice to our website provider, saying that our website was dangerous for the ‘peace and liberty’ of India. And we were like, What? For sending emails? That you asked for?,” Ravi said. “Since then, we’ve been very wary of the government. If they can send such a serious notice for emails, I don’t know what else they could do.”
Other laws in India that criminalize dissent include broad prohibitions to hate speech that often stifle peaceful expression, as well as criminal defamation laws that can target journalists. Ravi’s arrest was on the grounds of “sedition,” a conviction under which is rare, but for which police still arrest people. For example, in May 2012, Tamil Nadu police filed sedition complaints against peaceful protesters opposing a new nuclear power plant in Kudankulam. In September 2012, Mumbai police arrested political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi on sedition charges over artwork that satirized India’s national emblem and constitution.
“Thousands of people are dependent on coal, and obviously I don’t want them to lose their jobs, but why isn’t there a plan to transition away from it?”
India’s history of suppressing dissent is concerning from all angles, but especially so from a climate justice lens. The country is a huge player in global warming: India ranks in the top 10 highest carbon emitters and is the second-most populous country in the world with a population of over 1.3 billion people that is still expected to grow. India also remains highly dependent on coal—the dirtiest fossil fuel.
“[India] made a lot of promises that were very ambitious, but I don’t get the point of being ambitious when we are still opening up coal mines,” Ravi said about the country’s performance at COP26. “India always talks about geopolitical equity, which is essential because we’re a developing country. I get that we’ll depend on fossil fuels for a while before we can transition. But we aren’t even talking about it. Thousands of people are dependent on coal, and obviously I don’t want them to lose their jobs, but why isn’t there a plan to transition away from it?”
It is imperative that Indian activists have the protections necessary to hold their country accountable at this critical stage in the fight for climate justice. As FFF India continues to push forth with various campaigns and coalition-building, it’s developed strict privacy protection rules for personal safety, as well as for the safety of the movement and its members. Right now, the team is working on the Global Climate Strike in March, and Ravi remains committed to her vision of climate justice, grounded by a philosophy of self-protection: “To a large extent, I have not seen this work as ‘activism,’ but that we are simply the Earth protecting itself.”
India formally repealed the controversial farm laws in late November 2021 after about a year of protests. This move was a testament to the power of the collective, mass demonstrations, and global support. It is this coalition building where Ravi’s organizing stays focused.
“I greatly believe that only when we come together can we make a dent,” she said. “That—and transformative justice. Both of these go hand in hand because when you work on building a large movement, you will find a lot of disagreements and even more mistakes, but it is important to hold each other close with love and imagine a better future.”