When there is a democratic protest, who draws the red lines?

Anxiety and outrage erupted in urban India on Valentine’s Day earlier this week, when the New Delhi police force swooped all the way down to the southern city of Bengaluru to arrest the 22-year-old environmentalist (she works in a start-up specializing in vegan food) Disha Ravi, who takes inspiration from the Modi-Shah regime’s latest bete noire — the celebrated climate change activist, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden.

To justify its extreme actions, the government levied an assortment of obscure charges that are unlikely to pass any rigorous judicial examination. It alleges that Ravi collaborated — as the “key conspirator” — in the creation of a “toolkit” that was intended to “spread disaffection against the Indian state” and “wage economic, social, cultural, and regional war.” 

Many observers immediately noted that the actual aim of these sensational claims has nothing to do with their plausibility in court. As the veteran news anchor Suhasini Haidar tweeted on February 15: “The message is clear: lock up your children, stop them protesting, or we will.”

In his NDTV column, the acclaimed writer and public intellectual Ramachandra Guha asked the fundamental, underlying question: “How could a non-violent campaign to spread awareness about global warming, and tweets in support for farmers’ protests, constitute a seditious threat to the mighty, professedly self-reliant, Indian state?” 

The award-winning biographer of Mahatma Gandhi proceeded to outline six reasons why this is happening. Some are transparent: The Modi-Shah combine’s ever-present authoritarian impulse to stifle all possible dissent, along with its “compelling desire to manage the headlines.” There is also the Indian state’s entrenched xenophobia (which re-emerged because Ravi was tenuously connected to Thunberg) and — as Haidar also pointed out — the goal of sending “a chilling message to the young.”

Guha adds that it has become increasingly evident that “Indians in their 20s and 30s, who are animated by ideals of religious pluralism, caste and gender justice, democratic transparency, and environmental sustainability — that is, by ideals different from and often opposed to those of the Sangh Parivar — have more energy and more time on this earth to fulfil their own hopes for our land. Therefore, they must be sent off to prison, through the abuse of state power and of the legal process if necessary.”

He concludes that “unlike MPs and MLAs of other parties, these young activists cannot be made to join the BJP through bribery or coercion. Nor are they burdened by charges of corruption, nepotism, or dynastic entitlement [which means that] at a psychological and ideological level, the Sangh Parivar fears the likes of Umar Khalid and Natasha Narwal far more than they fear Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee.”

The great additional irony in this Indian administration’s diversion of its might, attention, and resources into punishing its own idealistic young citizens is the careless squandering of an unusually golden global opportunity. 

As the festival producer of the giant, multinational Jaipur Literature Festival — one of the most prominent contemporary expressions of Indian “soft power” — Sanjoy Roy tweeted, “India has so much going for it right now, the pharmacy of the world, lower Covid numbers, new investment opportunities from infra to insurance, why would [you] distract from that with arresting #DishaRavi or remarking about #Rihanna comments! Build the narrative don’t kill it!”

Those are entirely legitimate concerns, as India’s raucous right-wing has repeatedly inflicted costly public embarrassments on the government it purports to support. 

As the opposition leader, Dr Shashi Tharoor tweeted to his 7.9 million followers: “The people who have tarnished Modi & defamed India internationally are those who decided to arrest a pair of 20-something activists over a Twitter hashtag. They have destroyed decades of built-up soft power & shattered India’s global image as a democracy.”

On February 17, the Indian Express newspaper laid out the stakes in its editorial entitled “Toolkit Justice.” It said: “In the name of unravelling a grand foreign plot, [the Indian government] seems to be harnessing all its formidable power and energies to go after, and to be seen to go after activists, instead of addressing the central issue — the protesters’ fears and anxieties about the laws in question. In the process, it is sending out a chilling message, especially to the country’s young — you can speak out and talk back to your government at your own peril.”

With penetrating logic, the Indian Express argued that “India’s democracy cannot be so thin-skinned about international interface, so paranoid, 70s-style, about the ‘foreign hand.’ In an open democracy, the power of a government lies not in creating an obedient and pliant citizenry by criminalizing the protester, but in extending and enlivening the public sphere. The wise men and women of the government need to ask: When there is a democratic protest against a law passed by parliament, who draws the red lines, where, and at what cost?”

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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