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This article is written by Advocate Paramvir Singh, District Court Jind, Haryana.

Introduction

Since the early December of 2020, we have witnessed a historic event in India led by the farmers who were protesting against the farm laws introduced by the central government of India. It was termed as the largest protest ever in the history of not just India but all over the world. The biggest reason why this protest was so special is the support it gathered from all over the world including media houses and celebrities who all termed these farm laws as draconian ones. 

The protest engine was in full steam until the day of 26 January, 2021 which completely changed the landscape of the protest. The tractor rally which was supposed to be a peaceful one on a fixed route changed its course and led to several violent clashes between farmers and the policemen. What made it worse was that it was all happening on the republic day of India and the whole world was watching it. All of a sudden the protest which had support and sympathy all over the world and pushed the central government on the back foot becomes anti-national and pro-Khalistan. People started to agitate against them, PIL were filled to vacate the protest place and more importantly the central government which was pushed into its shell was again in full action.

Between all such predicament, one thing which really stood out and caught the attention of everyone was “the toolkit” shared by the environmentalist Greta Thunberg on her Twitter account on February 4 which is alleged to be the evidence of the master plan made by the anti-national forces which led to the violence occurred on the republic day.

Here in this article, we will shed light upon the scenario which made this toolkit case standout and implications that followed.

What is a toolkit?  

As pamphlets are used in offline protests out on the streets, a toolkit is their online equivalent for protests on social media. A toolkit is a set of guidelines that suggests how a particular goal can be accomplished. Toolkit charts out a plan of action that explains the topic at hand and offers a set of suggestions that can be followed to achieve this particular goal. Typically, toolkits are made for social media campaigns. These toolkits include information on how to promote the campaign through different social media websites.

The toolkit which is under scrutiny currently was shared by the teen climate activist Greta Thunberg on February 4 which advised people on how to show support for the farmers protesting against the farm laws. “It is meant to enable anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing farmers protests in India to better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis. This is not just about one country and its oppressed people, it’s about common people across the world having the opportunity to be self-sufficient, feel secure about providing for their families and lives well on their own terms, as any democracy true to its name should facilitate,” the toolkit reads.

The tweet by Thunberg also demanded that people should “tweet-storm” on or before Republic day and protests should be conducted outside India around their embassies all over the world. Although she deleted this tweet later on but the controversy had already erupted.

How Disha Ravi came under the hammer?

After the republic day violence by the protestors, the police and the central government were already on spree to apprehend the culprits and in that meantime the tweet of Thunberg sparked a new controversy which led the police to the 22-year-old Disha Ravi. She is a graduate from Mount Carmel College in Bengaluru. She is part of a climate activist group called Fridays for Future, which was started by Greta Thunberg in 2018. Ravi started the Indian wing of Fridays for Future in 2019 and heads the organization in the country.

She was arrested by the cybercrime unit of Delhi police from her home in north Bengaluru alleging that Ravi was the one who shared the toolkit document with Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg and that she is a key conspirator in the formulation and dissemination of the document that indicates a copycat execution of a conspiracy behind the January 26 violence. Delhi Police also alleged that they were involved with the pro-Khalistani Poetic Justice Foundation to spread disaffection against the Indian state.

Along with Disha, Advocate Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk were also issued non-bailable warrants after Delhi Police alleged that they were all involved in creating the toolkit although they both have got transit anticipatory bail. 

Disha has been booked under Indian Penal Code, 1860, Sections 124(a) for Sedition, 153(a) for promoting enmity between different sections of the society and 120(b) for criminal conspiracy. Although this wasn’t the first time when the young activist was in confrontation with the government. Her organization was under the government’s scanner for protesting against the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2020. The environmental organization was served a notice under the Unlawful Actions (Prevention) Act, which was later withdrawn by the police. 

Legal reasoning behind arrest

Section 124(a) of the Indian Penal Code talks about Sedition. It says that whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life or with imprisonment which may extend to three years. The explanation to this section states that word “disaffection” includes disloyalty and all feelings of enmity.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the Sedition law is only for the purpose of curbing the liberty of citizens. Over the years there have been so many instances where the demand has been made for the scrapping of the Sedition law but till now it has not been removed. The reason for this demand is that the Sedition law prohibits the right of a citizen’s freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

The reason why Disha was arrested as alleged by the Police under Sedition law is that her toolkit contained the messages and instructions asking protestors to show dissent towards government which led to the violence on the republic day in which hundreds of police personnel got injured and she was working with the pro-Khalistani group which has been declared by the government as anti-India element to spread disaffection against India at International level.

Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code states that whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religions, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities or commits any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony in the society or organizes any exercise or activity intending to use criminal force or violence against any religious, racial, language or regional group shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years.

According to the police, the toolkit prepared by Disha with the help of pro-Khalistani groups for the purpose of instigating the communal disharmony between Sikhs and others and this led to the violent clash between protestors and police at the Red Fort where pro-Sikh flag was hoisted by the protesters.

Another charge imposed upon Disha was the criminal conspiracy under Section 120A whose punishment is provided under Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code which states that ‘when two or more persons agree to do or cause to be done an illegal act or an act which is not illegal by illegal means, such an agreement is designated a criminal conspiracy. Disha was apprehended under this charge because it is alleged by the police that the toolkit was developed by many persons but Disha was the main conspirator.

Aftermath of the arrest 

The arrest of the young activist sparked a row among Indian politics. Many politicians and organizations came in support of her. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal called it “an unprecedented attack on democracy”, even the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris condemned the arrest of the activist.

Apart from political agenda, there are several issues regarding the arrest which need to be answered.  The arrest was made by the Delhi Police in civil clothes from her residence, allegedly without informing the family of the details. If such is the case then this is a gross violation of the guidelines for making an arrest given in the case of D.K. Basu vs. State of West Bengal, requiring police to be in uniform with identifiable name tags at the time of the arrest. It also requires that the reason for arrest have to be clearly stated to the accused and their members. 

The rule of inter-state arrest which was laid down by the Delhi High Court requires establishing contact with the local police stations, in whose jurisdiction the arrest takes place which the Delhi police didn’t do as alleged by the Bangaluru Police. It is also required to obtain transit remand by production at the nearest magistrate within 24 hours which is also stated in Article 22(2) of the Indian Constitution which is also a fundamental right, but police authorities conveniently disregarded the said procedure and she was directly produced before the duty magistrate in the Patiala house court. In a letter sent by the Ministry of Home Affairs to chief secretaries of states in 2012 said producing a person arrested in a different state before a magistrate in the police’s home state is against the law.

The biggest outrage regarding the arrest of Disha was the 5 days of police custody granted by the duty magistrate upon which many senior advocates like Rebecca John and Geeta Luthra voiced their concerns as it was against Rule 8 of the Delhi High Court Rules.

Another fundamental right was alleged to be violated as no effective legal representative of her choice was provided to her, which is provided under Article 22 of the Indian Constitution. It is alleged that the particular crime branch dissuaded the lawyers of her choice by giving them the wrong place of production, instead of Patiala house court.

Last but not the least; it has been argued that the government is using the Sedition law too loosely to curb each and every voice raised against them and this is a gross violation of the Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) as before her senior journalists are accused of sedition for tweeting a story which said that a young farmer on a tractor was allegedly shot by the police.

Scope of Freedom of Speech  

The biggest controversy in which the arrest of Disha Ravi erupted that the government is restricting the freedom of speech and expression of the citizens as well as media persons. If we look into Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution it protects all the citizens’ freedom of speech and expression and is also a fundamental right. As it is a basic human right, the question is can it be curtailed by the law of sedition or any other law for the time being in force.

If we look into clause(2) of Article 19 itself, it states that nothing in sub-clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the state from making any law, in so far as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub-clause in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. 

So one thing is clear the right to freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right and Article 19 itself is imposing restrictions upon that on the basis of stated grounds. 

Even if we look into the precedents of the leading case of Kedarnath vs. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court interprets section 124A as a valid restriction on freedom of speech and expression. It lays down that any words or expression would become seditious only if they were spoken with an intention to incite violence or cause a disturbance in public order. Although with time the scope of sedition has been narrowed down but it still acts as an restriction to the freedom of speech and expression.

Conclusion

As the trial is still going on in the toolkit case it would be wise enough to let the honorable court and not us to give the judgment on the basis of evidence and actual facts. But looking at the case prima facie, it does look like some involvement of the Disha Ravi and her accomplices in the events of 26 January. Sharing of the toolkit by Greta Thunberg and then later deleting it, WhatsApp exchanges between Disha and great does give an impression of a conspiracy. But whether these evidence are true or not and whether it amounts to sedition or not would be wisely decided by the prudent court. 

But between all these scenarios we can’t ignore that the arrest of Disha Ravi was against the rule of law and several procedures and rules were overlooked by the police while making arrest. Also in the last few years, we have seen that the charges of sedition have been used very commonly which were supposed to be used in extreme situations given the freedom of speech and expression which is an important tool for the social and cultural development of the society and the nation. This frequent use of sedition has created animosity in the people and the government needs to look into it before the breakdown of the constitutional machinery. 

References

  1. https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/what-is-toolkit-document-key-to-tech-era-protests-that-has-landed-disha-nikita-in-trouble/605926/.
  2. https://www.news18.com/news/buzz/what-is-the-toolkit-that-was-shared-by-greta-thunberg-leading-to-arrest-of-disha-ravi-in-india-3440087.html.
  3. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/who-is-disha-ravi-here-s-how-the-22-yr-old-activist-is-linked-to-greta-thunberg-101613360074562.html.
  4. https://thewire.in/rights/disha-ravi-arrest-police-disregard-safeguards-law.

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