Climate activist Disha Ravi (foreground) after being granted bail by a Delhi court on February 23
Climate activist Disha Ravi (foreground) after being granted bail by a Delhi court on February 23

The scathing remarks of a Delhi court while ordering the release on bail of the climate activist Disha Ravi on Tuesday ought to make the government sit up and take note. Not everyone criticising it is an anti-national or a supporter of the secessionist Khalistani fringe. Or a sympathiser of the Islamist jihad.

Anyone voicing a different opinion, even most trenchantly criticising the government, its leaders and its actions and/or non-actions, is not only fully entitled to do so under the Constitution but what is more, ought to be welcomed, since criticism helps rulers correct themselves, keeps them on their toes, and generally helps them from developing a swollen head.

Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy. Ruling politicians, from the Prime Minister down, should be large-hearted enough to care for what the critics say (rather than preen themselves with the cringing sycophancy of courtiers). Even if the critics are misguided, even if the criticism is ill-informed, or even baseless, even if it is motivated by ill-will and animus, allowing them to have their say is their basic right, not a favour from the rulers.

Democracy without dissent and difference of opinion is unthinkable, nay it is dead as an institution. The present-day rulers should consider what all they had said while they were in the Opposition. Would they have approved had the then incumbent regime tried to silence them by invoking the anti-terror or anti-sedition laws? Of course not.

In the case of Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old Bengaluru-based climate activist, using the sledgehammer of a summary arrest for a misguided and misunderstood ‘toolkit’ was wholly uncalled for. If the idea was to deter others from expressing themselves, whether right or wrong, on matters of state, it did not serve the purpose. The excessive police action merely ended up bestowing celebrity on the hitherto unknown young girl. It inspired tens of thousands of other young men and women to stand up for her.

Besides, if the young people do not engage themselves in promoting universal causes such as fighting global warming, or are impervious to the wide-pervasive poverty and hunger all around them, it will be a bad day for the country. A wise leadership would welcome the nation’s youth to be involved in the task of nation-building. We should have more such activists like Disha Ravi.

Even if she were misled and misguided in carelessly appending the impugned toolkit with alleged references to the ISI and Khalistani elements, the first reaction of the police ought to be to grant her the benefit of the doubt. Young people, in their enthusiasm, do often tend to err. Though only the investigators can pronounce with a degree of finality about her motive in forwarding the said toolkit to the green activist Greta Thunberg, slapping sedition charges was unacceptable. Additional Sessions Judge Dharmendra Rana’s words while freeing Ravi on bail were most apt here. “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister the wounded vanity of governments.”

To arrest a young woman when there was, as the judge said, not even “scanty and sketchy evidence available on record” reflected an attitude of arrogance. And if it is granted that the previous regimes were equally, if not more, guilty of abusing the harsh anti-terror and anti-sedition laws --- several 15-year-olds were booked under sedition law for participating in the anti-nuke protests in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu --- but the present regime, with a huge majority of its own does not have to be so paranoid, so sensitive to criticism that it has to invoke the most stringent, most draconian provision in the IPC to hound its critics.

If nothing else, the fact that every time it goes after its critics with the sledgehammer of the antiquated sedition law or anti-terror provisions, it ends up frittering away a lot of goodwill, especially among the educated chattering classes, ought to persuade it against taking recourse to such summary and undemocratic conduct.

Maybe the police and the bureaucracy seek to curry favour by launching such punitive actions but the onus lies with the political leadership to not fall prey to such self-serving tactics. Personal liberty of citizens is too valuable a right to be snatched away upon their exercising another equally precious fundamental right, that is, of free expression of opinion. Democratic rulers cannot arrogate to themselves the power to behave like the absolute monarchs of yore.

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