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Calling it a ‘toolkit case’ obscures Delhi Police’s ridiculous Google Docs arrest of Disha Ravi

Courtesy: Delhi Police official twitter handle

22 year old activist Disha Ravi was arrested over the weekend by Delhi Police in Bangalore for sharing a Google Drive doc with resources for participating in the 2020–21 farmer protests with Greta Thunberg. “They all collaborated with pro Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian State,” Delhi Police said in an unsigned tweet. A tearful Ravi reportedly told a sessions court in Delhi that she only edited two lines in the document. The police has been allowed to take her into custody for five days. 

MediaNama Views is a collection of the MediaNama editorial team’s views on a subject. This is the first MediaNama Views.

Aroon Deep: Enough has been said about how this arrest is yet another illustration of India’s democratic backslide. But beyond the police, there’s an ecosystem enabling such ridiculously frivolous overreaches by the state. Mainstream news outlets, even some with a reputation for independence, are toeing the Delhi Police line by calling it a “toolkit case”, and either taking paragraphs before explaining exactly what Ravi was arrested for, or not doing so at all.

This is a perfect example of banalization, which unlike normalization or trivialization, makes Ravi’s arrest, and all other squashing of dissent, a boring and unremarkable part of the daily news cycle. Journalists and editors need to avoid the pitfalls of bad faith pressure to become exhibitionists of Swiss-grade neutrality under all circumstances, and for once pursue independence. The government has arrested an activist with frivolous bad faith justifications (when has that happened before?), and used a publicly available document with, at best, questionable participation. Even if outlets have the dignity to not fall for the trap of cheering the punishment of “sedition”, they should not lend credibility to this massive breach of freedom by framing it in clumsy and obscure terms.

Aditya Chunduru: Disha Ravi was arrested for editing a publicly-available Google document. Period. The government is trying to conflate the act of creating (or just editing) a “toolkit” — a common method of organising protests — with “sedition” and “conspiracy”. Perhaps the government wishes to convince the general public that Ravi and whoever else is named in the case next are akin to terrorists. And, it seems to be working; as of writing this piece, Ravi is being compared to Ajmal Kasab on Twitter.

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It is up to media organisations to call the State out, break down the “sedition” narrative and explain what is really happening. The Delhi Police is telling us it’s raining and it’s our job to stick our hands out of the window. For all we know, it isn’t.

Soumyarendra Barik: Ravi’s arrest is shocking, but unfortunately comes as no surprise. When the Prime Minister stood up in Parliament and coined the term “andolanjeevi” — a new “breed” of agitators, that the country must be “guarded from” — it was a clear message that India would go to lengths to suppress dissent. Heavy-handed state actions have long been used to instil fear in dissenters, and those critical of the people in power. It’s an attempt by governments to create a chilling effect, and it is no surprise that the Indian government so often resorts to it, as a first line of defence to scramble any attempt at dissent.

But, what does it say of a nation, with clear intentions of being a “world leader” in a number of sectors, with a clear commitment—on the global stage—to protecting the environment, when a young environment activist is reprimanded, and arrested, for the mere act of slightly tweaking a document with resources for participating in the ongoing farmers’ protest. The tragedy at Uttarakhand, is a clear symbol of just how bad things can get if the world’s ecology is fiddled with, and in times like these, activists like Ravi ought to be celebrated.

Nikhil Pahwa: Canvassing for support and giving others a framework for canvassing support is legitimate political activity. At the Harvard Kennedy School, Professor Marshall Ganz teaches frameworks for political communication, explaining the construct of effective political messaging.

It is the nature of modern day campaigning to use hashtags, coordinated messaging, memes, and a digital toolkit towards their purpose has been used by political parties, governments, and yes, even the SaveTheInternet campaign that I ran in 2015. We created spreadsheets that those supporting us could use for tweets to get the message across. We used hashtags and memes for indicating mass support for the movement.

Activists are not the only ones using toolkits. We’ve seen AltNews even disclose Google Docs that are used by those handling Twitter handles of current and past ministers, and used to achieve uniformity of messaging, word for word. Activism is legitimate political activity. Politics is not the exclusive preserve of politicians. 

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Ravi’s arrest reeks of using the process to punish someone for campaigning against a position that the state has taken, and possibly to feed a narrative that the farmers protest is some kind of international conspiracy. It also seems to be a move to distract attention against a legitimate political activity. 

In the landmark Shreya Singhal vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court of India had said, and it’s important to remember this framework:

“But even advocacy of violation, however reprehensible morally, is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. The wide difference between advocacy and incitement, between preparation and attempt, between assembling and conspiracy, must be borne in mind. In order to support a finding of clear and present danger it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated.

“This leads us to a discussion of what is the content of the expression “freedom of speech and expression”. There are three concepts which are fundamental in understanding the reach of this most basic of human rights. The first is discussion, the second is advocacy, and the third is incitement. Mere discussion or even advocacy of a particular cause howsoever unpopular is at the heart of Article 19(1)(a). It is only when such discussion or advocacy reaches the level of incitement that Article 19(2) kicks in. It is at this stage that a law may be made curtailing the speech or expression that leads inexorably to or tends to cause public disorder or tends to cause or tends to affect the sovereignty & integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, etc. Why it is important to have these three concepts in mind is because most of the arguments of both petitioners and respondents tended to veer around the expression ‘public order’.”

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