The arrest of 22-year-old Disha Ravi, a Bengaluru-based climate activist, by Delhi Police in a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy, is unfortunate. She was arrested from her home in Bengaluru and produced before a Delhi magistrate on Sunday who remanded her in police custody for five days. She broke down in court, pleading she was not part of any conspiracy and was merely supporting the protesting farmers.
The police argued that the controversial toolkit which the green activist Greta Thunberg had tweeted on the farmers’ protest was shared by Ravi. Regardless of the contents of the toolkit, which apparently bore the impress of an organized Khalistani campaign, Ravi’s activism for environmental causes and her antecedents did not warrant the sledgehammer approach of the police.
Invoking the provisions of the antiquated sedition law against those using social media to air their unvarnished and even half-baked opinions is a bad advertisement for a democratic polity. The Indian State cannot be so fragile, so vulnerable that a mere tweet could destabilise it. Also, the authorities ought to make due allowance for the relatively young age of the users and the laissez-faire mores of the social media platforms before proceeding to charge alleged offenders with serious crimes.
The police claim Ravi, as one of the editors of the toolkit, shared it with Thunberg as part of a larger conspiracy to spread disaffection against the state. Further, the violent protests on Republic Day at Red Fort mirrored the action plan as envisaged in the said toolkit. Realising the controversial contents of the toolkit, Thunberg immediately deleted it. But by then it had been copied by the authorities. The police were now looking for two others, who were allegedly involved in updating the toolkit, which instigated social media users to cause a ‘Twitter storm’ in favour of the protesting farmers.
Whether the case against Ravi will eventually reach the trial stage is not known, but her arrest may have already disrupted her life-plan. She is a marked person now. Social media users ought to be mindful of the pitfalls of participating in controversial causes, provoking strong views on either side. The manner in which the government has sought to enforce its writ over the popular social media platform, Twitter, is a case in point. Forcing Twitter to delete certain accounts perceived to be anti-state, at the pain of arrest of its senior India-based executives, underlines the limitations of the platform’s own powers as its ultimate editor-operator.
Yes, Twitter could challenge the said orders in courts, but when it drags its feet on deleting such hashtags as ‘Modi planning genocide of farmers’, it weakens its defence of freedom of speech. No court would justify such inflammatory slogan-mongering. Both governments and social media platforms ought to respect certain red lines where an ideal balance between peoples’ right to freedom of speech and the State’s duty to uphold the majesty of law is observed. Very often, that balance is tilted in the wrong direction, hurting the cause of democracy.