‘Disha Will Get Justice When Illegal Case Against Her Is Quashed’

Rajani Santosh, a co-activist of Disha Ravi, rues the fact that instead of highlighting the illegal procedure of Ravi’s arrest, the media was busy vilifying a 22-year-old climate activist

Since August 2019, I have been volunteering for several environmental groups for research and advocacy on local environmental issues like waste management, illegal tree felling, water wastage and most recently the farm unrest. Together, we have been trying to declutter, simplify local environmental-friendly practices and along our journey, we are constantly educating ourselves too.

Disha Ravi has been part of the same group of conscientious citizens in Bengaluru who are trying to make a change. Be it Central farm laws, anti-coal campaigns or local climate issues, Disha has been at the forefront of mobilizing young people for petitioning, demonstrating, forming human chains in an orderly and peaceful way. She is also a vocal advocate for animal rights and a vegan too. Law-abiding citizens of her generation who live simple lives are a rare breed.

Therefore, as a co-activist, the news of her arrest (in the Toolkit Case) came as a huge shock. It was chilling to see her being vilified in the media. The Centre’s manipulations and Karnataka govt’s involvement in her arrest should have been highlighted as an attack on Indian federal structure! But instead of speaking about the manner in which a 22-year-old was picked up by the police of another state, reporters were digging out details about a protest toolkit.

Disha and her band of activists in the Fridays For Future (Bengaluru chapter) have been on ground since late 2018 (when she was in college). Learning the science, economics and politics behind the climate crisis, she saw a role model in Greta Thunberg. She voiced her opinion before the powerful and spoke in a language that motivated youth to speak for themselves in other countries.

They organised walks, plogs, conferences, panel discussions since 2019 on a range of social issues. You can see from the timelines on their social media accounts how these students consulted senior environmentalists like Dr Yellappa Reddy, Dr Harini Nagendra, Leo (ESG) and other experts.

Rajani (inset) feels Disha is a rare example of climate conscious citizen of her generation

I do not think the arrest has dampened the spirit at all. It will only make us work closely with each other. Her arrest has brought one fact in focus: that environmental activists have a stake in farm laws because these laws push for farmland consolidation which will lead to loss of biodiversity-based agri-models of our country.

The bail order for Disha Ravi was a relief. However, what happened was wrong and she will get complete freedom only when the case against her is legally quashed. We are in a climate emergency and very few voices are speaking up. Sadly, environmental cases get attention only when there is loss of many human lives due to unnatural floods, glacial bursts or similar man-made disaster. Soon, the issue gets buried under news TRPs and we move to the next calamity.

For now, Disha is lying low and speaking to very few of us, and I think that is best for her now. But I am in touch with her lawyers and we shall take this case to its logical, legal conclusion.

Farmers’ Agitation Is Modi Govt’s Biggest Test

Forget the Covid pandemic; forget the economic downturn; forget election debacles or political crises. The biggest test that the Modi regime, soon to turn seven years old, has been subjected to during its ongoing tenure is the deafening protests by farmers against the changes that the Indian government has sought to bring about in the way farmers are able to grow, market, and price their produce.

In the last three months, protests by farmers have reached a crescendo. On January 26, which was India’s 72nd Republic Day, a group of angry farmers deviated from their designated protest route, tried to storm the historic Red Fort, and clashed with police. As that was happening, a few kilometres away, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was presiding over the official Republic Day celebrations on Delhi’s Rajpath.

At least 70 farmers have died during the raging protests against three laws that the government has passed. And, the protests, which began in the northern state of Punjab, have now spread across the country. What makes the controversial farm laws and the protests against them such a big trial for Modi and his government? For an answer, let us first recapitulate the new laws and their impact.

The three new farm laws change decades-old policies regarding procurement and storage of farm produce. One law permits the setting up of mandis (or trading places) that are de-regulated from government control—that is, where farmers can sell directly to all traders at prices they negotiate rather than to only government licensed traders; another law permits farmers to enter into contract farming through deals with corporate entities and to grow whatever crops they decide to under contract; and the third allows traders to stock produce with less restrictions than at present.

The government’s rationale for these changes is ostensibly this: they will enable farmers to sell at whatever prices they want and to anyone they want to; and to be able to enter into contracts that could assure them regular and steady streams of income. From the ongoing protests, which have been escalating, it is quite evident that the farmer community has not bought this logic.

Farmers and their supporters feel that especially the smaller farmers whose incomes are meagre will be hit by the new measures. First, their produce volumes are too small for them to be able to negotiate prices with traders who aren’t regulated—thereby they would likely be exploited. Second, although the government has assured that the mandi system will not be dismantled, farmers fear that the new “unregulated” mandis will consequently do exactly that, and that small and medium farmers will suffer. Lastly, contract farming, they fear is a way of giving the corporate sector easy access to the farm sector.

Nearly 60% of 1.3 billion Indians depend either directly or indirectly on agriculture, which accounts for 18% of the GDP. But the farm sector is severely skewed. Almost 70% of Indian farmers own land that is less than 2 hectares (20,000 sq. m) in area. And as much as a quarter of Indian farmers subsist below the poverty line. Moreover, because of lack of alternative employment opportunities millions of Indians depend on the farm sector without really contributing to productivity.

Against that background, reforms in the agriculture sector are overdue. But changing the system of pricing and procurement of crops without other structural changes in the sector cannot be a solution. In fact, it could lead to further suffering for millions of Indian farmers. The farmers’ protests are a sign of how acute the problem is. And, for the Modi government, it is the most critical test that it faces in its tenure thus far. In 2016, Prime Minister Modi announced a sudden decision to demonetise large currency bills. Ostensibly, it was with the intent of limiting or detecting unaccounted money in the system. What resulted was: widespread suffering for small traders, daily wage earners and other large segments of the population that operate in the “cash economy”. Those with so-called unaccounted wealth went largely unscathed.

Demonetisation was certainly a critical test that the government faced. But its effects—on economic growth and on small businesses—were not nearly as serious as the impact of the new farm laws have been. Over the last few days, the clashes between farmers and the authorities have turned more violent, particularly in the areas surrounding the capital city of Delhi. The authorities resorted to blocking of Internet in various areas around the capital and neighbouring states—purportedly in efforts to curb social media interactions. Police resorted to tear gas and baton charges against thousands of protestors. Already, the ripples of what is happening in India have reached the world outside. And questions are being asked about the true value of democracy in a country that prides itself as being run on the highest democratic principles.

ALSO READ: The World Is Taking Note Of Indian Farmers’ Protest

The police and authorities’ action against famers’ protests have also spilled over to affect others. A freelance journalist, Mandeep Punia, who was covering the protests, was arrested on the border between Delhi and Haryana last weekend. He was granted bail after spending two days in custody and much outrage. Others have had cases filed against them for reporting or broadcasting news that has been considered “anti-government”.

But the more serious issue is that India’s mainstream media has almost been rendered toothless in recent years, particularly after the current government came to power in 2014. It does not require media experts to see how the majority of mainstream TV news channels and print publications largely avoid taking on the government and critiquing its policies. When they choose to do so the critiques are of the milquetoast variety, tailored not to ruffle the feathers of those in power too much. In any democracy, the role of the media as the fourth estate should be that of a watchdog. In India, at least when you look at it from a dispassionately distanced point of view, it may seem that the mainstream media is more of a lapdog.

For the Modi government, the farmers’ agitation has other possible consequences. The farm sector’s voters aggregate as the largest block during any election. And although the government at the Centre is safely ensconced for the next four years, there are crucial state elections that are due and those could be impacted by which way farmers decide to vote. Also, if the agitations escalate and food supplies are affected across India, they could have other economic consequences such as inflation and distribution bottlenecks. Already reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic, the economy could be hit further. For the Modi government the farmers’ agitation over the controversial laws could be something that could bring it to its knees.

‘Red Fort Violence Was A Bid To Discredit Farmers Protest’

Imran Malik, 25, who participated in Tractor Rally from Ghazipur border to Seemapuri, says the march was peaceful and orderly. He feels the violence at Red Fort could be an attempt to discredit the movement

On January 26, I left my house early in the cold morning to stand in solidarity with our farmer brothers and sisters and take part in Kisan Tractor Rally with a few like-minded friends of mine. I am a resident of Delhi and support the farmers protest against Central agriculture laws. I come from a family of farmers in Uttar Pradesh and feel duty-bound to support our ‘anndatas‘ (providers).

We reached the Ghazipur border around 10 am, given the traffic was moving at snail’s pace. The atmosphere at the gathering point was electric; everyone around stood up for one another in true spirit of Republic Day celebration. There was an endless sea of tractors at the border and one could sense the binding spirit of the people fighting for their fundamental rights.

The security, as in every Republic Day, was really tight but the participants were also self-disciplined. A few people could be seen listening to the Prime Minister’s speech on their phones to find out if he had anything to say about them. The speech got over at around 12 pm and we came to know that many farmers present at other borders had removed the barricades and entered the National Capital.

ALSO READ: Global Implications Of Farm Laws

Soon, there were messages and news received on mobile phones that at certain points, there were clashes between protesters and police. Looking at the orderly march that I was a part of, it was imaginable that miscreants had penetrated into the rally participants. Kuch shararati tatvon ne movement ko bigadne ki koshish ki (Certain anti-social elements tried to discredit this movement).

However, there was no untoward incident in our cavalcade. We carried the Indian Tricolour with us and our tractor (belonging to a friend from Muradnagar) also had a music system fitted in it. We felt like we were all part of one nation, one voice. Indeed, it was a national festival.

Malik says his column of rally was orderly and peaceful

Our procession marched as was planned earlier and we moved from the Ghazipur border towards Seemapuri. En route, we met with posse of policemen, but the exchanges on both sides were cordial. After all, most security personnel in India too come from farming community. Rare is an extended family in India which is not involved in farming in some way or other.

By this time, around 1 pm, we received reports and messages that many protesters have entered Red Fort. I had no plans to go to Red Fort, so I left from home. Later I saw visuals of violence and clashes. I strongly condemn such incidents.

At the same time, the episode has forced the government to sit up and take note. The state has finally begun to listen to the people it claims to serve. Over the last few years, any group or individual who expressed any dissent would be treated disdainfully and dubbed as anti-national, or be blamed for identity politics.

But the government has been unable to find any chink in the formidable farmer protests. Ye movement bikhra nahi. The tractor rally yesterday was a symbol of determination that the farmers want to see this through to its logical end. The farmers are agitated because they are staring at a bleak future. The government which bulldozed its way through every other movement, such as one at Shaheen Bagh, should better sense the mood of the public and initiate dialogue in earnest.