MUMBAI/CHENNAI: As news of the arrest of a 22-year-old climate activist broke on Sunday, Ridhima Pandey, a teen campaigning for clean rivers and sustainable living in a north Indian pilgrimage town, tweeted: “We all are united in this fight”.
Other Indian youth activists, meanwhile, were frantically exiting WhatsApp groups used to organise climate action, fearing they could become targets of a government clampdown.
“I feel exposed and honestly a little worried,” said one student who only wished to be identified as a youth activist.
Disha Ravi’s arrest for editing and distributing a document tweeted by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, which supported farmer protests, has stoked fear but also deepened the resolve of many young Indian climate activists.
Police took Ravi to the capital from her home in the southern city of Bengaluru to question her over the accusation that she disseminated the document during months-long protests on the outskirts of Delhi.
A Delhi police source said Ravi had been arrested over a sedition case against those accused of authoring a “toolkit” on ways to help the protesting farmers. If proved, the charge carries a penalty of life imprisonment.
On Monday, with news of Ravi’s arrest splashed across newspapers, young activists rallied behind her.
Nine-year-old campaigner and award-winning activist Licypriya Kangujam, said the arrest wouldn’t stop her from speaking up.
“This is an attempt to silence the voices of young girls and women in this country,” Kangujam tweeted.
“But THIS WILL NOT STOP US from fighting for our planet and future,” she wrote.
India has in recent years charged activists, journalists and students with sedition over their reporting, online posts or alleged role in protests rallies.
Ravi’s arrest was criticised by some politicians, who pointed to the role the 22-year-old, and other campaigners play in spotlighting surging climate threats – from rising heat to landslides and floods.
India in 2018 was ranked as the fifth most weather-affected country in a climate risk index by environmental think-tank Germanwatch.
That year, the South Asian nation suffered one of its longest-ever heatwaves, bringing water shortages, crop failures and riots on top of monsoon floods and two strong cyclones, Germanwatch said in the report.
“The message (sent by the arrest) to parents is: ‘Tell your children to shut up, sit down and study. No one should ask questions.’ But young people will continue to do so,” said Leo Saldanha, coordinator of the Bengaluru-based non-profit Environment Support Group.
A change.org petition calling for Ravi’s released has received more than 10,000 signatures, many from young people, said Saldanha.
In Chennai, in the country’s south, 15 youth organisations signed a statement flagging the “attempts to intimidate and harass young people engaged in shaping the country’s environmental future”.
“We believe Disha Ravi and youngsters like her ought to be celebrated, not harassed and demonized,” the statement read.
Indian youth groups have protested the building of new ports and campaigned for clean air in smog-filled cities across the country.
Much of their activism has been forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic, raising fears about privacy and safety on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Climate activist Pandey, who is active on Instagram and Twitter, does not plan to stop her online campaigning.
“I am not speaking against the country,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“What I say is my point of view, that I will continue to express without fear.”
Her parents haven’t stopped her from posting online but admit to underlying worry.
“Today it is Disha Ravi. How can I be sure it’s not Ridhima tomorrow,” said Vinita Pandey, Ridhima’s mother.
“Every parent whose child is raising her voice has the same concern. But I don’t want to show we are fearful,” she said.
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