Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old environmental activist accused by the Delhi Police of being part of a conspiracy against India for helping draft and share a toolkit about the farmers’ protests, has been granted bail by the Patiala House Court in Delhi.
In the bail order, Additional Sessions Judge Dharmender Rana noted that the evidence on record was “scanty and sketchy”, which comes as no surprise to anyone who had followed the arguments on bail on 20 February.
It was nearly two hours into the bail hearing, when Judge Rana said what most reasonable people were no doubt thinking:
“Prosecutor Sahab, you’re not understanding my question. What is the link between the alleged conspiracy and the violence?”
Additional Solicitor General SV Raju had been presenting the Centre and Delhi Police’s reasons for why Ravi should not be granted bail.
He had talked about the banned Khalistani organisation Sikhs For Justice and about the hyperlinks to articles on Genocide Watch’s website that were critical of India’s actions in Kashmir. He had spoken about another organisation called Poetic Justice Foundation, which was not a banned organisation but – which he claimed – had Khalistani links and had been in touch with alleged associates of Ravi about the said toolkit.
However, what he had failed to talk about, despite repeated questions from the judge, was how the Delhi Police had decided to link the toolkit in question with the violence which took place on 26 January.
According to the government lawyer, it didn’t matter that the toolkit itself didn’t speak of violence, and didn’t have anything to do with Sikhs For Justice. He insisted the toolkit was connected to Khalistani movements and the circumstances established this.
“Is there any evidence or are we only to act on surmises, inferences and conjectures,” the judge had asked ASG Raju.
After 20 more minutes of ASG Raju arguing about how a conspiracy could be present even if execution of some act couldn’t be proved and several specific questions about the evidence for the police’s claims, the judge finally queried whether the government lawyers were understanding his question.
No answers were forthcoming from the government’s lawyers, who insisted they needed to investigate the matter further. And hence, the court had little choice but to grant Ravi bail.
Delhi Police’s ‘Toolkit Case’
The lack of evidence to link Disha Ravi and the toolkit to the Republic Day violence has been evident ever since the Delhi Police’s FIR in the case, registered on 4 February 2021, came to light.
According to them, during social media monitoring, it came to their notice that a Google Doc had been shared “which contains a detailed plan of a large conspiracy to wage an economic, social, cultural and regional war against India.”
To support this very serious claim, the Delhi Police cites the following parts of the toolkit:
- “On 26th January, a major day of globally coordinated actions. Show your support at local physical locations. Wherever you are. Either find protests happening in your city/state/country and participate (in large or small numbers) or organize one. In addition to the options below, you are encouraged to organize solidarity protests either near Indian embassies, near your local Govt. offices.”
- “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...”
They also point out the following:
- Moreover, the said document talked about “More ways to participate (from 21st-26th February, 2021)" in which it encourages people to record videos and take pictures to support the protest and says that the same would be shown to the protesters at the protest sites.
- A section of the document titled “Prior Actions” urges people to do a number of things, including a TweetStorm on 23 January, Physical Actions near Indian Embassies, Govt. offices, etc. on 26 January, and most notably, point no. 7 says, “Watch out for (or Join) the Farmers’ March/Parade (a first of its kind) into Delhi and back to the borders on 26th January”, among other things.
- Further plans for TweetStorms on 4 and 5 February 2021 as well as on-ground action on 13 and 14 February.
The Delhi Police go on to claim, very seriously, that the toolkit calls for “economic warfare against India and certain Indian companies” (it included a call to boycott and protest agaisnt Reliance and Adani companies). They also gravely point out that there is a call to “target symbols linked to Indian culture such as Yoga and Chai.”
How exactly this constitutes “economic, social, cultural and regional war against India” in any reasonable, logical sense, is anybody’s guess.
The toolkit also talks about various people to contact to sustain the protests and draw popularity. “Many other entities, websites, journalists, so-called fact-checking websites and other organizations are mentioned by the conspirators as their potential allies in their plan to disrupt public order,” the FIR says. (Which parts of the toolkit outline a plan to "disrupt public order", going by the legal definition of public order as per the Supreme Court, the FIR fails to say.)
It is, therefore, evident, the Delhi Police argue that from the contents of the toolkit’that the violence which took place on 26 January “was a pre-planned conspiracy meant to undermine India’s sovereignty and integrity, security of the State and public order”.
No evidence has so far been cited by the Delhi Police to back up this conclusion, as Judge Dharmender Rana’s questions to the government suggested.
The only thing mentioned in the FIR that somehow seems to be connected to the violence is an alleged statement by Sikhs For Justice in the build-up to Republic Day, where they supposedly offered a reward of USD 2,50,000 “for waving secessionist flag at the India Gate on Republic Day, 2021.”
Even assuming this was the inspiration for the hoisting of a Nishan Saheb flag at the Red Fort on 26 January (not a separatist or secessionist flag, by the way), the FIR notes no connection between the toolkit and Sikhs For Justice, or that this reward was mentioned in the toolkit.
Does Any of This Meet the Definition of Sedition?
As is probably clear to anyone with a grasp of English, none of the elements of the toolkit cited by the Delhi Police in their FIR make any mention of violence or unlawful disruption.
In the absence of that, it is a little difficult to see how the Delhi Police seek to justify a charge of sedition under Section 124A of the IPC. Given that the Supreme Court in the landmark Kedar Nath Singh judgment of 1962 had held that:
“The provisions of the sections read as a whole, along with the explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”(emphasis added)
The Delhi Police have sought to justify the charge during the bail hearing on 20 February by saying that the toolkit also references content by Poetic Justice Foundation and Genocide Watch that are critical of India.
Again, the Kedar Nath Singh judgment is quite clear that “criticism of public measures or comment on Government action, however strongly worded, would be within reasonable limits and would be consistent with the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression.”
During the bail hearing, they sought to draw attention to other posts by Poetic Justice Foundation and comments by its founders Mo Dhaliwal and Anita Lal that indicate Khalistani links and sympathies. Poetic Justice Foundation is not a banned organisation in India and had not been denounced in any way by the government till the FIR was registered.
The police also claim that US-based journalist Pieter Friedrich is somehow involved with the toolkit (he is supposed to be one of the people who could be tagged for supporting tweets about the protests) and that he, too, has Khalistani links. Friedrich has not been declared a terrorist under the UAPA or a proclaimed offender under any law or in any way been publicly censured by Indian authorities.
Judge Rana queried how merely associating with an organisation that the police believe has Khalistani links (without them being a declared terrorist/criminal organisation) would incriminate Disha Ravi or anyone else involved with the toolkit:
“Even I don’t know PJF, you can’t say that ‘everyone knows that they’re Khalistani’. Also, can you incriminate someone who had no knowledge about the affiliation of person she’s meeting?”
Even assuming that Mo Dhaliwal or Pieter Friedrich are supporters of Khalistan, associating with them, without advocating for or instigating violence, amount to sedition? Heck, would linking to pro-Khalistani speeches or articles (which is not even alleged here) amount to sedition?
Not if the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Balwant Singh case in 1995 is anything to go by, where even shouting ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ and anti-India slogans was held to not amount to sedition, in the absence of any link to actual violence.
Why Is the Case Concerning?
The Delhi Police have every right to say that they need to investigate every angle behind the violence which took place in Delhi on Republic Day. They have every right to investigate possible conspiracies and plans to instigate public disorder.
However, the FIR, on the basis of which it is pursuing this ‘toolkit case’, is incredibly lacking in substance, as is clear from the parts of the toolkit it has cited.
Encouraging people to protest without any call for violence is not a violation of public order. TweetStorms do not violate India’s sovereignty. Calls for boycotting certain Indian companies are not economic warfare. Asking people to rebut India’s ‘Yoga and Chai’ image is not an attack on Indian culture.
The first cause for concern here is that the claims of the toolkit being part of a grand conspiracy against India didn’t exactly originate with the Delhi Police.
Their FIR was registered at around 3 pm on 4 February. This followed nearly a day of fevered social media posts by right-wing trolls and breathless shows by pro-government news channels in response to Rihanna and Greta Thunberg’s tweets. It was here that the narrative about the toolkit, referred to in one of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s tweets, had first arisen.
The contents of the FIR are indeed little more than a reproduction of the wildest conspiracy theories that had already been plastered on Twitter and Facebook by these trolls, BJP leaders and right-wing media outlets like Times Now and Opindia.
The FIR itself acknowledges that it came across this issue of the toolkit during social media monitoring – not in the course of its questioning of those arrested on 26 January, or in the course of their investigation of the violence on that day.
It is worrying to see these kind of wild allegations, spread by legions of online commentators without any regard for facts or logic or law, find themselves translated into actual criminal cases by the state.
The arguments during the bail hearing have made it clear that the Delhi Police still have no connection between the toolkit and any banned organisation, or any call to violence. They may be entitled to investigate if such links exist, but the FIR already presumes this – not on the basis of any evidence or credible information or the complaint of someone in the know, but just on the basis of bald assertions.
Attempts are being made to argue that modifications to the original version of the toolkit and the alleged deletion of certain WhatsApp groups by Disha Ravi and others are indicative of a conspiracy.
However, given that the modifications to the toolkit were made before any FIR was registered (and it was a Google Doc, ie updates/edits were in any case the whole point) this would not be a crime unless perhaps the police show that the original version included exhortations of violence. Again, this is not the case.
The deletion of WhatsApp groups, again, is not a crime unless the police had already sent notices to Ravi and the others telling them to preserve all information on their phones as evidence, which is not the assertion here.
The alleged ‘panic’ that the Delhi Police cite in Ravi’s case can hardly be presumed to have anything to do with illegality either. Especially given how the Delhi Police had a year ago registered a UAPA case against the climate activist website which had provided sample emails which could be sent to protest the EIA notification changes – and which Ravi was also associated with. That case was mercifully withdrawn as a clerical error, but it showed how easily UAPA charges can be bandied about.
What we have basically, at this point, is an attempt to foist criminality on a whole range of almost-certainly-legitimate activities, without even the slightest basis to connect these activities to some criminal action. This is not just worrying, but terrifying, as it renders the law, and being a law-abiding citizen, entirely meaningless.
That this is happening in a case like this, which already has global attention, makes it even more concerning.
The chilling effects on young people are also not to be underestimated – not just because of their own fears about being arrested, but their terrified parents who will stop them from engaging in any activism or political debate, no matter how legitimate.