UPDATE 18. February 2021: GRETA THUNBERG FOLLOWER ARRESTED FOR SEDITION

Greta Thunberg sparks criminal conspiracy probe in India with accidental tweet

People attend a Maha Panchayat, or grand village council meeting, as part of a farmers’ protest against farm laws at Kandela village in India on Feb. 3, 2021. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

By Lee Brown - 04. February 2021

Greta Thunberg faces criminal conspiracy probe in India over farm protest tweets

Greta Thunberg accidentally shared a message showing she was getting told what to write on Twitter about the ongoing violent farmers’ revolt in India — sparking a police investigation and a political firestorm, according to reports.

The 18-year-old left-wing eco-activist shared — and then quickly deleted — a message that detailed a list of “suggested posts” about the ongoing protests, according to the posts that were saved by Breaking 911.

The list gave a series of tips on what to post, asking her to also repost and tag other celebrities tweeting about it, including pop star Rihanna.

As well as the Twitter storm, the “toolkit” she shared also suggested highlighting planned demonstrations at Indian embassies.

The campaign material and social media template was created by Canada’s Poetic Justice Foundation, which claims to be a grassroots group creating “events to provoke, challenge and disrupt systemic inequities and biases,” Times Now said. The group’s website confirms it is “most actively involved in the #FarmersProtest.”

The group then shared to Facebook a series of screenshots of the posts it appears to have gotten celebrities to share.

After deleting the list, Thunberg then shared a supposedly newer “toolkit” and a message saying, “We stand in solidarity with the #FarmersProtest in India.”

India’s foreign ministry issued a rare statement accusing “foreign individuals” and celebrities of “sensationalism” and “trying to enforce their agenda.”

Delhi police on Thursday confirmed that it had launched “a criminal case against the creators of the ‘Toolkit document'” that Thunberg shared.

“The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India,” police said of the plot supposedly taken up by the celebs.

The force filed a First Information Report (FIR) — a preliminary formal investigation — with a specialist cyber-crimes squad leading the investigation, according to NDTV.

Activists from United Hindu Front burn an effigy depicting Greta Thunberg after she tweeted in support of protesting farmers in New Delhi, India, on Feb. 4, 2021. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters 

Numerous Indian newspapers and TV stations initially reported that a FIR had also been filed against Thunberg herself. However, Delhi Special Commissioner of Police Praveer Ranjan later clarified that nobody had been identified and that the probe was looking into those behind the toolkit, Indian news agency ANI said.

The investigation is focusing on the spreading of disaffection against the government, promoting hatred and criminal conspiracy, the agency said.

One Indian minister, VK Singh, said that Thunberg’s deleted tweet “revealed the real designs of a conspiracy at an international level against India.”

“Instructions were laid out clearly as to the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘what,'” Singh wrote.

“Conspiracies at this scale often get exposed and ultimately it took the hasty tweet of Greta, who with other international celebrities suddenly turned sensitive towards farmer issues.”

A series of high-profile Indian celebrities also joined the attack on celebrities overseas getting involved in the farmers’ revolt that has gripped India for more than two months.

Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut even called the protesting farmers “terrorists” and Rihanna a “fool” for her widely shared tweet that asked her 100 million Twitter followers, “Why aren’t we talking about this?!”

Thunberg remained defiant Thursday. “I still #StandWithFarmers and support their peaceful protest,” she tweeted Thursday morning.

“No amount of hate, threats or violations of human rights will ever change that.”

Tens of thousands of farmers have been hunkering down at the Indian capital’s fringes to protest new agricultural laws they say will leave them poorer and at the mercy of corporations.

In their most violent clash on Jan. 26 — India’s Republic Day — hundreds of police officers were injured and a protester died. Scores of farmers were also injured but officials have not given their numbers.

The farmers were seen in the footage after they broke through barricades by foot, on horses and tractors — attacking police officers, many of whom were seen jumping off a wall to get away from the mob.

One farmer was killed in what police said was an accident after his tractor overturned, Agence France-Presse reported, but farmers said he was shot.

Television channels showed several bloodied protesters and police said they suffered “many” casualties but gave no figures.

People watched in horror as the takeover of the fort, which was built in the 17th century and served as the palace of Mughal emperors, was beamed live on hundreds of local TV stations.

Protesters, some carrying ceremonial swords, ropes and sticks, overwhelmed officers trying to stop them in the large-scale attack.

All over the city, security forces fired tear gas and fought back with batons, but the protesters laid into police with branches and metal bars, and hijacked buses that had been used to block their convoys.

As night fell, authorities cut internet and phone links in the areas where the farmers set up their camps, according to AFP.

The US Embassy released a “security alert” warning Americans to avoid trouble zones.

Indian farmers gather at the Red Fort amid their ongoing protest against the new agriculture laws in New Delhi. RAJAT GUPTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 

The farmers have been demanding the withdrawal of new laws they claim will favor large corporate farms and devastate the earnings of smaller-scale farmers.

Farmers — many of them Sikhs from Punjab and Haryana states — tried to march into the city in November but were stopped by police.

Since then, they have hunkered down at the edge of the city and threatened to besiege it if the farm laws are not repealed.

“We will do as we want to. You cannot force your laws on the poor,” farmer Manjeet Singh said.

The government insists that the recently passed agriculture reform laws will benefit farmers and boost production through private investment.

Still, the government has offered to amend the laws and suspend their implementation for 18 months, but the farmers insist they will settle for nothing less than a complete repeal.  

“We want to show (Prime Minsiter Narendra) Modi our strength,” said Satpal Singh, a farmer who drove into the capital on a tractor along with his family of five as the country celebrated Republic Day. “We will not surrender!”

Another farmer, Nareesh Singh, said as he revved up his tractor: “We are going to show the government that we mean business.”

Sikhs hoist a Nishan Sahib, a Sikh religious flag, on a minaret of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. AP  The protest leaders claimed police provoked the farmers into violence.

“When you attack a peaceful protest, then difficulties for the government will surely increase,” union leader Kawalpreet Singh Pannu told AFP. “This won’t stop here. Our movement and message have only become stronger.”

He said a new protest would be held Feb. 1 outside parliament when the government announces its budget.

The leaders said more than 10,000 tractors joined the protest, and authorities tried to hold back the rows upon rows of tractors, which pushed aside concrete and steel barricades.    

In a statement, police said they had to act after the farmers broke the conditions for the rally and took “the path of violence and destruction.”

Farmers in large numbers take part in a “parallel parade” on tractors and trolleys, during their ongoing protest against the new agricultural laws. RAJAT GUPTA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

With Post wires

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GREAT THUNBERG FOLLOWER ARRESTED FOR SEDITION

In India, a climate activist's arrest shows shrinking space for dissent

A 22-year-old climate change activist who works for a vegan food store seems like an unlikely target for state persecution. But when Disha Rivi shared a list of ways to peacefully support the ongoing #FarmersProtests, she was accused of sedition and conspiring to "spread disaffection" with the government. Here's what her story reveals about the status of democracy in a country that increasingly silences activists and crushes dissent, online and off.

In India, a climate activist’s arrest shows shrinking space for dissent

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By Joanna Slater and  Niha Masih - 18. Februry 2021

NEW DELHI — As public enemies go, Disha Ravi is an unlikely candidate. The 22-year-old climate change activist works for a vegan food company and likes to join volunteer cleanup drives. Earlier this month, she helped disseminate a list of peaceful ways to support a major protest by farmers against new agricultural laws.

In today’s India, that was enough to make her a target. Over the weekend, Ravi was arrested. Police accused her of sedition and conspiring to “spread disaffection” against the state.

Ravi’s arrest is the latest example of a disturbing trend in the world’s largest democracy. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is deploying the country’s legal machinery to suppress opponents in a clampdown on dissent not seen in decades, critics say.

Modi won a landslide reelection victory in 2019 that made him the most powerful Indian leader since the 1970s. But the country’s independent institutions — including the judiciary and the media — have rarely appeared weaker, experts say. Researchers who study democracy around the globe recently put India among a group of nations heading toward autocracy.

Freedom of expression is being curtailed. A comedian was recently kept in jail for more than a month for a joke he did not tell as judges repeatedly denied him bail. The use of Internet shutdowns to quell protests and disrupt communication has soared under the Modi government. (India now uses the tactic more than any other country, according to Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks such suspensions.) The Indian government this month ordered Twitter to block hundreds of accounts linked to the farmer protests.

The filing of sedition cases against people who criticize politicians or governments has also jumped, shows a recent analysis by Article 14, a research and reporting website focused on democratic rights. More than 95 percent of such sedition cases over the past decade were registered after Modi came to power, it found. 

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Members of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party reject any suggestion that there is a crackdown on dissent. “India is the largest democracy that humankind has ever seen, with an independent judiciary that routinely rules against the government and free media that daily provides a platform to the government’s vocal critics,” said Baijayant Panda, national vice president of the BJP. “These allegations are instigated by the losers of elections in order to try and maintain their own relevance.”

Experts say previous Indian governments also targeted their opponents with politically motivated charges. But some warn that what is currently unfolding goes much further and even see parallels to an infamous period in the country’s history known as the Emergency, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled by decree and suspended civil liberties.

“It’s a kind of smarter Emergency,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s leading political scientists. There are no mass arrests of Indian politicians, as the country saw in 1975, but the ruling party has a “creeping stranglehold over all institutions” while opposition parties are weak, Mehta said. “In some sense, I think it’s much more insidious.”

Government pressure on journalists has intensified, and the mainstream media seldom criticizes the government. Key agencies are headed by personnel considered loyal to Modi. India’s Supreme Court has delayed rulings on the constitutionality of major government policies, including changes to the status of Kashmir, an overhaul of campaign finance laws and a new pathway to citizenship that some believe undermines India’s secular founding ideals.

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Tarunabh Khaitan, vice dean of the faculty of law at Oxford University, recently wrote a paper describing how India’s constitution is under assault from “a thousand cuts.” India risks becoming a democracy in name only, he said, one where elections continue but the opposition has little chance of taking power.

“We are at the precipice,” Khaitan said in an interview. “Do we jump, or can we slowly, cautiously walk back?”

One case that is considered a harbinger for where India is headed began in 2018. More than a dozen activists were arrested and accused of plotting to overthrow the government, charges they denied. All of the activists worked with India’s most disadvantaged communities — including tribal people and Dalits — and were vocal critics of Modi and his party.

Last week, an analysis by a digital forensics firm in the United States concluded that key electronic evidence in the case was planted on a laptop by a hacker using malware. The findings of the forensic report help bolster long-held claims by human rights groups and legal experts that the case was unfounded. Defense lawyers have asked judges to dismiss the case against the activists, although it is unclear when the court will rule.

Students, activists, journalists and nongovernmental organizations are among those who have come under increasing pressure from the authorities. In Kashmir, the government engaged in a months-long crackdown, snapping communications and detaining mainstream politicians. Elsewhere in India, when anti-government protests break out, law enforcement authorities repeatedly find alleged conspiracies — and arrests follow.

In December 2019, protests erupted across the country in response to a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against Muslims. Dozens of people were killed in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, in the ensuing crackdown. In February, riots broke out in Delhi that left more than 50 people dead, most of them Muslim.

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In the aftermath, the police charged Muslim students and activists who engaged in protests against the citizenship law with conspiracy to commit violence. Among those arrested were a pregnant graduate student who created a WhatsApp group to coordinate protests, an activist who ran a collective to foster interreligious unity and members of a student group working for women’s rights in university settings.

Harsh Mander, 65, is one of the country’s most well-known activists who has worked for years on social justice causes, including efforts to bridge divides between Hindus and Muslims. His name has been mentioned in more than a dozen charging documents connected to the Delhi riots, he said, suggesting he could be arrested at any time as part of the alleged conspiracy.

“It’s like a dagger hung over you,” Mander said. “The hope and expectation is that we would be silent.”

The government’s response to farmer protests outside Delhi is the latest litmus test. Since November, tens of thousands of farmers have blocked roads in opposition to major changes to agricultural policy. While Modi has praised farmers, he has insisted the protesters are being misled. He recently told Parliament that the country was facing a class of professional agitators, whom he called “parasites,” and warned of the need to protect the nation from “foreign destructive ideology.”

On Jan. 26, clashes broke out between farmers and police officers. Authorities shut down the Internet at the protest sites and made dozens of arrests. Police later connected the violence to a “toolkit” tweeted by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, without citing evidence and despite the fact that the document lists only peaceful modes of protest. The police alleged that an organization linked to the document — the nonprofit Poetic Justice Foundation, based in Canada — had promoted a separatist movement in the state of Punjab.

Ravi, the 22-year-old environmental activist, belonged to a group of young people around the world who joined Thunberg’s Fridays for Future environmental movement. She completed a degree in business administration at a prestigious university in Bangalore.

“Countries like India are already experiencing a climate crisis,” she said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper last year. “We’re not just fighting for our future, we are fighting for our present.”

Friends describe Ravi as a hard-working young woman with a slightly goofy side who is the only breadwinner in her family. She is passionate about animals and the environment, said Yuvan Aves, 25, a fellow volunteer in the Indian chapter of Fridays for Future. The message from Ravi’s arrest is, “if you ask difficult questions or decide to do something for a good cause, you can be sent to jail,” he said. “For something as harmless as a tool kit.”

On Sunday, Ravi reportedly told a judge in Delhi that she had made minor edits to the tool kit document but did not write it. “We wanted to support the farmers,” she said in court, according to New Delhi Television, briefly breaking down in tears. A lawyer for Ravi declined to comment.

Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired from India’s Supreme Court last year, said the contents of the tool kit that are in the public domain are “not seditious in any manner.” The use of sedition cases in recent years is “a straight-up attempt to stifle the voices of dissent,” he said.

The government has also demanded that Twitter take down hundreds of accounts linked to the farmer protests. The social media company blocked many of the accounts but refused to do the same for handles belonging to journalists, media outlets, politicians and activists, saying it did not believe the “actions we have been directed to take are consistent with Indian law.”

Meanwhile, police in Delhi say their investigation of the tool kit will continue. Two other Indian environmental activists with the climate change group Extinction Rebellion are already facing arrest in the probe. Prem Nath, a senior police official in Delhi, told reporters Monday that the activists’ intent was “to propagate the tool kit worldwide,” spur protests at Indian embassies and “tarnish India’s image.”

 

Authors:

Headshot of Joanna Slater

Joanna Slater is the India bureau chief for The Washington Post. Prior to joining The Post, she was a foreign correspondent for the Globe & Mail in the United States and Europe and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Her previous postings include assignments in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Berlin. Follow

Headshot of Niha Masih

Niha Masih is an India-based correspondent for The Washington Post based in New Delhi. Before joining The Post in 2019, she reported on politics, conflict and religious fundamentalism in India for Hindustan Times and New Delhi Television (NDTV). Follow