Indian politicians and activists on Monday condemned the arrest of a 22-year-old climate campaigner accused of sedition for helping edit an online document that Sweden’s Greta Thunberg had promoted in support of farmers protesting in the country.
Thunberg had shared a "toolkit" or an action plan on Twitter that listed ways to help Indian farmers, who have been protesting agricultural reforms here they fear will ruin their livelihoods.
Over the weekend, police brought Disha Ravi, a leader of the Indian arm of Thunberg’s climate crisis-related Fridays for Future movement, to the capital from her home in the southern city of Bengaluru to question her. Thunberg said she had no comment on the detention of Ravi.
Police said the arrest was part of an investigation into how a group of farmers stormed the historic Red Fort on the occasion of India’s republic day last month.
“The main aim of the ‘toolkit’ was to create misinformation and disaffection against the lawfully enacted government,” Delhi police official Prem Nath told reporters.
Police have registered a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy. The colonial-era sedition law carries a penalty of life sentence.
“The toolkit sought to artificially amplify fake news through various tweets which they have created in the form of a tweet bank. And they sought the public to participate in the action on Jan 26 that was the Republic Day of India,” Nath said.
The crackdown comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government faces allegations it is suppressing dissent. The government denies the charge and says people are free to protest if it is done peacefully.
Thousands of farmers overwhelmed police and reached the Red Fort complex in the old quarter of Delhi last month after tearing down barricades and driving tractors through roadblocks.
Police said they were also looking to detain two associates of Ravi in a widening probe.
Ravi could not be reached while in custody and her family was not immediately available for comment. Her tight circle of friends in Bengaluru said they were terrified over what she was going through and for themselves in case they were dragged into the probe.
Ravi worked for a vegan food company in the city and was enthusiastic about environmental issues, her friends said, speaking on condition that they are not identified. On social media, her posts relate to climate change, helping animals and her love of Harry Potter books.
“The Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old student of Mount Carmel College and a climate activist, has become a threat to the nation,” P. Chidambaram, a leader of the main opposition Congress party said.
A group of people gathered in Bengaluru and held placards seeking her release.
Activists have planned more protests across the country over the next few days and the hashtag #IndiabeingSilenced was trending on Twitter.
On Sunday, a Delhi court ordered that Ravi be held in police custody for five days.
“This is their way of trying to scare away youngsters from raising their voice about anything. This sends a message to all young people out there that, you know, shut up and stay at home or this is what is going to happen to you,” said Leo Saldanha, a member of the Environment Support Group in Bengaluru.
Bhavreen Kandhari, a member of Thunberg’s movement in India, said the organisation was awaiting clarity from the police before making any statement.