The arrest by Delhi Police of 21-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi in connection with an FIR on a toolkit shared online by climate campaigner Greta Thunberg in support of the ongoing farmer protests has, predictably, raised a political storm. The usual positions on the Left and Right have been reiterated as a matter of course with each side painting the other as the devil incarnate.
Perhaps a calmer view of the events that have unfolded would help in identifying the issue at stake which is far more telling than a mere toolkit. There certainly is a case to be made that both government and police have over-reacted. Technically, the government and its supporters can and have put forth the argument that police has acted independently in investigating a duly registered FIR and its decision to take a suspect into custody is open to judicial review. But it is no secret in India that police, especially in this case, rarely if ever takes decisive action in publicly sensitive cases without a nod from above.
More crucially, the decision on the sections under which Ms Ravi has been booked is of crucial import and here, it would be fair to say, police in general does make up its own mind based on the evidence it has gathered rather than await such granular instructions from its political masters.
Further, it is entirely correct to state that neither gender nor age can be an extenuating circumstance when a crime is committed; if that argument were to be taken to its logical conclusion, no woman under the age of 22 could ever be arrested or tried for a crime. That’s as far as the facts go. In terms of political rhetoric, those who endorse the ruling dispensation’s worldview are clearly in sync with the majority opinion in the country. Ergo, a Union minister tweeted that if it is about feting 21-year-olds for their courage he would rather champion Param Vir Chakra awardee Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal.
A BJP spokesperson pointed out that Ajmal Kasab was 21 too when he attacked Mumbai, and the party’s social media head rubbed it in by iterating that the episode was another example of the “Left using impressionable minds as cannon fodder”. But being in the majority is not synonymous with being right and there is an element of whataboutery in these statements. What, then, of the political opposition and voluntary sector which is up in arms over Ms Ravi’s arrest?
Their rhetoric too is par for the course ~ the Congress president and leading lights have made it about freedom of speech and speaking truth to power, the Delhi chief minister has underlined Ms Ravi’s support for farmers as an alibi, and sundry online warriors have heaped abuse on the establishment for being “fascist”. In a sense, this reaction sums up precisely the dangers of an echo-chamber-enabled social media discourse which is light on facts and even lighter on due diligence.
Imagine if Ms Ravi, while exercising her unalienable right to dissent, had ensured she was not interacting with and/or sharing notes with pro-Khalistan networks and other extremist outfits as police alleges. Even those who disagree with her views deeply would then never have countenanced throwing the book at her.