Sedition, said Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was the “prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen”. He said this in the context of the British colonial administration’s use of this section (124A) against many freedom fighters, including himself and Tilak. And while pleading guilty as charged, he said it was his moral duty to express disafection towards a regime that had done “irreparable harm to my country”.

This was 1922. Almost a century later, young activists who have challenged the Government of India to be more responsible towards their future, are being subjected to the kinds of ordeals that Gandhi, Tilak and many others faced. There is however at least one crucial difference; unlike the freedom fighters who were struggling to rid India of its colonial shackles, these young people are in no way trying to overthrow the Indian state. Nor, whatever the hyper-imaginative sections of the government and the sensationalist sections of media might say, have these activists ever advocated separatism, violence, hatred against some sections of society, or other such actions that could threaten the integrity of India. Indeed, an essential similarity with Gandhi and others has to be noted: in everything they have done as environmental activists, they have been non-violent. It is a mockery of justice that while dozens or hundreds of hatred-spewing people who have incited or been part of violent acts against peaceful citizens, such as Sangh Parivar cadre that attacked farmers on the Singhu border on 28th January, roam around freely simply because they are close to Delhi’s corridors of power, people like Disha Ravi are picked up and held in ways that should make any democracy cringe in shame.

Why then such an attack on young environmentalists who are only asking for a healthier present and a secure future? If, as per one statement by the police, there may be thousands of people involved inciting disaffection and in some way involved with the violence on January 26th, then how will catching 3-4 of them help? When in history has a violent uprising been stopped by picking up a few of its advocates? If violence was really in their minds, why did not use it, along with farmers against whom similar charges are being made, for the several months before January 26th that they have been active?

No, the government actions are not to quell violent disorder or actions to destabilise India, for the government knows quite well that such is not the intention of these activists (or of the farmers they support). Rather, they are meant to stop exposes of and opposition to the blatant crony capitalism that is taking control of every sector of our economy. One of the world’s biggest mobilisaton of farmers (and joining them, workers, youth, feminists, environmentalists, academics, artists, and many more) in recent history has shaken a government that has moved rapidly towards the privatisation and corporatisation of India. The farmer movement has not only opposed the 3 laws which are further steps towards such corporatisation, but also the favours the government has granted to big corporates like Adani and Reliance. Several youth environmental groups have supported the movement (with their ‘Greens with Farmers’ campaign), while also carrying on their own campaigns on a spate of ecologically and socially disastrous projects cleared by this government. These include the private port (Adani, of course) threatening a bird sanctuary and fisher livelihoods at Pulicat (Tamil Nadu), coal mining in Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve in Assam, and a national highway through Mollem National Park in Karnataka and Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa. Many of them jointly initiated a ‘Youth Action to Stop Adani’ campaign that has aligned with adivasis and fishers and others impacted by this corporation’s industrial projects across India, as also with young people in countries like Australia where Adani has proposed the world’s biggest coal mine, threatening local indigenous populations as also one of the world’s natural wonders, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Indian state has never taken kindly to local and national dissent on such matters. Whether under the Congress, or the BJP, or even Left and regional parties, opposition to so-called ‘development’ projects that entail grabbing of land, destruction (politely called ‘diversion’) of forests, draining out of wetlands, take-over of coastal areas, construction in fragile mountains, has often been dealt with harshly. In particular since 1991, when the then Congress government explicitly moved away from a focus on domestic self-reliance (weak as it was), to one on global economic integration, the private sector (Indian and foreign) has gained increasing clout. Economic policies have increasingly favoured the handing over of agricultural, farm, forestry and pastoral lands, water, seeds, and other natural resources (including airwaves) to powerful corporations. Barring a few exceptional decisions taken by the (very) occasional bold minister, India has been up for grabs to whoever can bid the highest or sidle up closest to the government. And if you happen to speak up against this, and become sufficiently visible, chances are you will be dealt with harshly. Several activists currently in jail with charges of sedition or under laws like Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), were involved with local farmer or adivasi movements resisting such corporate landgrab.

While the BJP is by no means the only party to follow such a path, it has taken India’s slide into an ecocidal, corporatised and authoritarian regime to new depths. Since 2014, it has not rejected almost any proposal for mining, industries, mega-dams, ports, highways, and other projects that are devastating for environment and livelihoods. Environmental laws and provisions have been systematically diluted, or sidestepped; its own agencies that warn against such projects have been ignored, such as Wildlife Institute of India’s observations that the Mumbai-Delhi highway stretches in Rajasthan will fragment crucial wildlife habitats (https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/wildlife-biodiversity/rti-reveals-moef-cc-cleared-3-highway-proposals-disregarding-wii-s-views-75250). While it has tom-tommed the UN ‘Champion of the Earth’ award to MP Modi, it has ignored the UN Secretary General’s call on India to stop further extension of coal mining, or the urging of UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, in January 2021, to immediately release prisoners held under UAPA (https://www.counterview.net/2021/01/these-people-shouldnt-be-in-jail-un.html). It attempted to bring in the weakest ever Environmental Impact Assessment regime in mid-2020, in the middle of a pandemic lockdown; in fact the hundreds of thousands of protest emails/tweets/letters it got from young activists in that period may well be the beginnings of its ‘big brother is watching’ attitude towards the youth. At that time it even filed a UAPA case against youth groups, hurriedly withdrawn as it got intense flak. But it has been watching, and now it is hitting out again, with the January 26th violence as its flimsy excuse. Unable to deal with the resolute farmers on Delhi’s borders, it is hitting out at what it considers softer targets.

It is also worth noting that while the sedition clause has been repeatedly used against people’s movements and civil society, including by the Congress (e.g. against anti-nuclear activists a decade back), such use has seen a visible rise in BJP times. For instance, 96% of sedition cases filed since 2010 for criticising the government, are during BJP’s rule (https://www.article-14.com/post/our-new-database-reveals-rise-in-sedition-cases-in-the-modi-era).

This regime has also added a heady dose of hyper-nationalist, communal flavour into the crony capitalist mix. Many people are equating the current situation to the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi in 1975-77. That was a very dark period indeed, but in some ways this is a more dangerous one. Unlike then, this regime has succeeded in creating an ‘India vs India’ situation, with a large number of ‘ordinary’ citizens convinced that people like Disha Ravi, or those charged under UAPA over the last few years, are indeed threats to the country; and that if you are also Muslim or Christian or Dalit or adivasi then you must be unquestioningly anti-national. The hatred being spewed against Ravi, including calls for ‘destroying’ people like her (uttered by the Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij, against whom no action has been taken … is this not inciting violence?), the selective leaks from her private communications, a sensationalist media already pronouncing judgement on her, are all symptoms of the dangerously volatile atmosphere generated in the last few years. In this sense, and in the way it is selling off the country to corporations, it is this government that is that is leading to the country’s break-up, and should be asked: who is the real anti-national?

As the youth are showing, however, such actions are not going to cow them down. They have regrouped and issued statements of solidarity with those accused, as also continued their campaigns against specific projects shown to be ecologically hazardous.

Civil society resistance has always sprung back after every attack on its existence. India’s democracy, built on the legacy of multiple freedom movements against pre-colonial and colonial rulers, and on a history of post-Independence movements by adivasis, dalits, women, environmentalists, farmers, LGBTQ+ activists, and youth, is not so weak as to quietly lie down while the government attempts to sell off its present and future.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam; views expressed here are personal.


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