Can activism be equated to sedition?
On Sunday, 14 February, a magistrate in Delhi’s Patiala House Court remanded 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi to five days of police custody in what is now being termed as the ‘protest-toolkit case’.
Ravi was arrested from Bengaluru by the Delhi Police under an unnamed FIR which claims that a ‘criminal conspiracy was hatched by her along with Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg and various others to prepare a toolkit’ on the farmers’ protests in India.
As per the said FIR, the content of the toolkit and the very act of its preparation amounts to sedition, as it allegedly intends to wage a “cultural, economic, and regional war against India”.
In a series of tweets posted on its official Twitter account, the Delhi Police has claimed that Disha is the ‘editor of’ and a ‘key conspirator’ behind the preparation and dissemination of the allegedly seditious protest toolkit.
They have further claimed that she created a WhatsApp group to ‘formulate the toolkit, collaborated with an allegedly pro-Khalistani group Poetic Justice Foundation, and transferred the toolkit to Greta Thunberg’.
Questions have already been raised, including by senior advocate Rebecca John, about the way in which the Delhi Police arrested Ravi, and the way in which the magistrate she was produced before in Delhi remanded her to five days of police custody without her having a lawyer of her choice at the remand hearing.
However, beyond the procedural issues, there are also questions about the police narrative itself.
Decoding the ‘Protest-Toolkit’
‘Toolkits’ — in modern day internet parlance — consist of a set of guidelines to ensure the achievement of certain shared goals.
While toolkits are readily used by government departments and private organisations, they have also gained momentum in social protests across the globe. For instance, detailed toolkits were used to effectively organise and manage the Occupy Wall Street protest (2011), pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong (2019), and anti-CAA protests in Delhi.
Protest toolkits usually provide methods for holding protests, tools and hashtags to create momentum on social media, and guidelines for protestors regarding remedies available during police arrests or clampdown.
The Delhi Police’s interest in this case was piqued by a toolkit tweeted by Greta Thunberg, which she later deleted citing that the same is being “updated by people on the ground in India”.
Soon after, Thunberg tweeted an updated and detailed version of the protest toolkit. As per a copy of the earlier toolkit accessed by The Quint, the document contained various guidelines under heads such as “Urgent Actions”, “Prior Actions”, and “How Can You Help”.
The section on “Urgent Action” asked the protestors to organise a ‘Twitter storm’ on 4 and 5 February, share solidarity messages in photo/video format, call/email their local representatives to take action or sign online petitions to “divest from oligopolies like Adani-Ambani”. The toolkit provides specific hashtags, timelines, and forums, which the protestors can use to create momentum on social media.
While informing the protestors that the global attention on the protests is important for “preventing more State-sponsored violence and another massacre/genocide in India”, the toolkit stated the following under the “How Can You Help” section:
“On 26 January, a major day of globally coordinated actions, show your support at local physical locations, wherever you are. Either find protests happening iny our city/state/country and participate in large (or small) numbers or organise one. In addition to the options below, you are encouraged to organise solidarity protests either at/near Indian embassies, near your local govt. offices or offices of various multinational Adani and Ambani companies. While we are focusing on the 26th, you are encouraged to continue organising gatherings as and when possible — for this is not going to end anytime soon.”
The toolkit further provided guidance to the protestors on how they could help in creating global awareness about the farmers’ protests, “divest from Ambani and Adani”, and sign the following online petitions:
- Petition to abolish the three Farm Bills and support the protesting farmers
- Petition the UN — freedom to express dissent is a pillar of democracy
- How you can petition UK MPs to support the farmers in India
Is a Protest Toolkit ‘Seditious’ in Nature?
After the release of the protest toolkit by Thunberg created an uproar on social media, the Delhi Police lodged an unnamed FIR against preparation and dissemination of the said toolkit.
The police claim that after an inquiry it was revealed to them that the toolkit was ‘prepared’ by Poetic Justice Foundation, a group that the police deems ‘pro-Khalistani’. Special Commissioner of Police Mr CP Ranjan informed the media that the events that took place during the tractor rally on 26 January were a “copycat execution” of the details laid out in the toolkit.
In a press release on 15 February, the Delhi Police have claimed that:
“The main aim of the toolkit was to create misinformation and disaffection against the lawfully enacted government. The toolkit sought to artificially amplify the fake news and other falsehoods and also sought to precipitate action on 26 January, that is, India’s Republic Day.”
This motivated the police to go ahead and arrest Disha Ravi and invoke offences such as sedition and criminal conspiracy against her, based on their claims that she had ‘collaborated’ with others to draft the toolkit.
Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code defines sedition as an offence committed by whoever “attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India”.
The law on sedition in India owes its origin to the colonial government, which incorporated it in the penal code in the 19th century to curb the rising movements of civil disobedience against the British Raj.
Many scholars have traced the post-Independence development of the sedition law in India to argue that the ambiguous wording of the provision has allowed the governments to constantly invoke it against to clamp down dissent.
The Supreme Court in multiple decisions has held that the test for establishing sedition is stringent, asking the State to establish a direct link between the allegedly seditious speech and the consequent public disorder.
Further, the courts have also held that actions that show disapprobation of government’s actions without inciting violence, speech made to improve the conditions of the people or secure change through lawful means would not amount to sedition.
In the present case, the verbatim of the protest toolkit, as accessed by The Quint, nowhere asks or incites the protestors to resort to violent means. The toolkit also doesn’t ask the protestors to participate in actions to “overthrow the government” or create “public disorder”.
On the contrary, the guidelines prescribed in the toolkit ask the protestors to use lawful means of expression to create a global momentum around the plight of the protesting farmers.
It asks for using social media and online petitions to communicate to the government their disapproval of the violation of rights of the protesting farmers.
The Delhi Police has also not provided any information on how the verbatim of the toolkit is directly related to the ‘public disorder’ caused during the tractor rally on 26 January. In fact, the toolkit has made no mention of any ‘tractor rally’ or ‘diverting route towards the Red Fort’.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde believes that this would be a difficult case for the Delhi Police to make in a court of law, explaining to The Quint:
“Sedition has a high bar to cross. The speech must be such as to actually incite violence. The toolkit was only speech in support of farmers. I doubt that it meets the standard of what constitutes sedition, as upheld by the Supreme Court in Kedar Nath & Balwant Singh cases.”Sanjay Hegde, Senior Advocate, to The Quint
Commenting on this issue, senior advocate and human rights activist Indira Jaising told The Quint that in our country “difference of opinion is seen as sedition or called fake news”.
She further stated:
“When a State worries about a 21-year-old and arrests her, there is something rotten in the State, when a woman is sent to jail without being represented by a lawyer, the process of law and the constitution have parted company.”