Indian environmental activist Disha Ravi granted bail

A young Indian environmental activist linked to Sweden’s Greta Thunberg is to be freed on bail, 10 days after she was arrested and accused of sedition for her efforts in supporting a protest by farmers against new agricultural laws.

Disha Ravi, 22, who launched the Thunberg-inspired “Fridays for Future” movement in India in 2019, was granted bail on Tuesday by a New Delhi judge, who called the evidence against her “scanty and sketchy.”

Judge Dharmender Rana said he had seen nothing to link Ravi to violence at a farmers’ protest in Delhi last month, and affirmed Indians’ right to oppose government policies.

“Citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation,” the judge said in his bail order, citing an earlier case. “They cannot be put behind the bars simply because they choose to disagree with the state policies. The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.”

A well-known face among India’s growing ranks of young climate activists, Ravi was arrested at her home in the IT hub Bangalore on February 13, and flown to New Delhi, sending shockwaves though the environmental movement in India and abroad.

Thunberg publicly expressed solidarity with Ravi, writing in a tweet that “freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest and assembly are non-negotiable human rights. These must be a fundamental part of any democracy”.

Yet Ravi’s arrest reflected the authorities growing use of India’s sweeping colonial-era sedition law against students, academics, journalists and others for verbal or social media criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of his ruling Bharatiya Janata party, as well as participation in protests against state polices.

In public statements, Delhi police claimed that Ravi helped develop a “toolkit” for mobilising public support for the protesting farmers, which she passed to Thunberg, who released it on Twitter days after the violence.

The intervention by the Swedish activist — as well as support from the pop star Rihanna — infuriated Modi’s government, and prompted New Delhi to scold on Twitter that “the temptation of social media hashtags, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible”.

Delhi’s police force, which answers to Modi’s most trusted political ally home minister Amit Shah, took to Twitter to describe the toolkit as “a call to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war on India”, as it launched a criminal investigation into what it described an international conspiracy.

After Ravi’s arrest, police said she was a “key conspirator” in formulating the document and accused her of collaborating with suspected Sikh separatists — harking back to a violent insurgency that rocked India in the 1980s but was quelled before Ravi was born.

However, the judge said any call to violence in the toolkit was “conspicuously absent” and that India’s constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech and expression to its citizens “includes the right to seek a global audience”.

Ravi has been ordered to co-operate with the police investigation, and barred from leaving the country.