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What you won't hear at India's G20
As they arrive in New Delhi, world leaders will be talking a big game on climate. They won't be talking about their crackdowns on climate protesters.
Over the next two days, some of the world’s most powerful nations will meet for the G20 summit, which is widely seen as vital for making progress on international climate goals.
The host of this year’s summit, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has pledged to place climate change front and center—but has maintained that the focus should not be on his country.
“India has not caused any problems to the environment,” Modi said during a visit to the U.S. this summer.
Disha Ravi, a 24-year-old Indian climate activist, would likely beg to differ. If India did not cause any problems to the environment, she wouldn’t have co-founded Fridays for Future India—and she wouldn’t have participated in the 2021 protests that eventually led to her arrest, imprisonment, and indefinite wait for trial.
So in light of the G20 summit kicking off this week in India, today we’ll be telling Ravi’s story, and looking at the growing effort to vilify and dehumanize climate activists—both in India, and around the world.
Today’s interview with Disha Ravi comes to us from Amy Westervelt, the producer of the podcast Drilled. The interview is part of her recently-launched investigative series on the worldwide effort to not only to criminalize, but dehumanize, climate activists. (Find the full series here).
Out of all the stories Amy tells in this series, Ravi’s is particularly extreme. When she was just 22, the activist—whose grandparents are farmers—helped edit a Google doc containing resources on how to support farmers protesting against India’s agricultural reform laws. Celebrities like Rihanna and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg wound up sharing the document on Twitter, which angered India’s right wing. Ravi was eventually arrested and jailed for sedition for her alleged role, and she is still fighting those charges today.
In her interview with Amy, Ravi explains that her arrest is just one example in a country that has effectively criminalized dissent. Indian officials have raided nonprofits that oppose the country’s coal mines, blocked environmental websites, and criminally charged journalists covering the 2021 farmer protests.
The human rights violations have been largely unremarked on by leaders like President Biden, who welcomed Prime Minister Modi for a state visit in June. HEATED reached out to the U.S. State Department for comment about whether President Biden would raise the issue at the G20 summit, but received no immediate reply.
But this silence is to be expected, as India is far from the only country cracking down on climate protests. Last Friday, for example, a Minnesota jury found 54-year-old Mylene Vialard guilty of felony obstruction for protesting the Enbridge-owned tar sands oil pipeline. Earlier this summer, Vietnamese climate activist Hoàng Hồng was arrested for her climate work; four activists in Uganda were arrested for protesting the East African Crude Oil Pipeline; and nine people were arrested by Scottish authorities for protesting an INEOS oil refinery.
Around the world, people who perpetrate climate injustice are treated far better than the people who protest it. You’ll hear from one of those protesters today.
Prefer to listen rather than read? Find Amy’s full interview with Disha Ravi here—or search “Drilled” on your favorite podcast app.
I was hoping it would die down, but the right-wing communities eventually filed a [sedition] case against the creators. And then the next day, someone high-up in the Delhi police gave a press conference saying that they will catch the makers of the Toolkit.
But even then, I wasn't worried. I did end up contacting some lawyers, and they said the same thing. It is innocuous. So when the police came, I was not worried and I answered their questions. I was very cooperative.
And they just arrested me. They didn't come with an arrest warrant. They literally used my paper and my pen from my house to write out an arrest warrant, and I was flown to Delhi.
Amy Westervelt: Like they asked your mom if they could borrow a pen?
Disha Ravi: They did! And my mom made them tea. I'm so annoyed with her that she made them tea.
Amy Westervelt: How long were you held?
Disha Ravi: It was 10 days, which I'm so glad because now it seems like such a small number. Back then, I didn't know it would be 10 days, because these are very serious charges. No one gets out in 10 days.
It was only because of the massive amounts of public pressure, and everyone protesting and making a huge fuss about it. I think that genuinely played a huge role in keeping me safe in prison.
Amy Westervelt: How long did you have to stay in Delhi afterward?
Disha Ravi: About a month. Every single day, they'd make us come in [to the police station] at like 9 a.m. and we'd have to be there till like six, seven, eight p.m straight. The only breaks we got were on Sundays.
Amy Westervelt: And what are they doing this whole time? Just grilling you about stuff?
Disha Ravi: They're asking me questions, like “How do you know Rihanna?” And I'm like, I wish I was friends with Rihanna. Rihanna, if you're listening, I want to be friends. But this part I’m not really allowed to talk about.
Amy Westervelt: So what’s your situation now?
Disha Ravi: The investigation is still on. It wasn't supposed to be, because there was a Supreme Court order that put all sedition charges cases on hold. But the caveat is that very few people actually just have only sedition charges. I am being charged with sedition and lower charges.
During my last hearing I asked for them to modify my bail so I can travel. But the order came out [on the day of this interview], and they said no.
So that's what's happening. It's going nowhere. And also the police suddenly said they've started the investigation again. I don't know what that means, because they never called me for anything. I just have to live in this in-between where I have limited freedom.
Amy Westervelt: And this has been going on for how long?
Disha Ravi: For two years. And I have no idea when it will end. They don't have a deadline. Isn't it the ideal job? You have no deadline on any of the projects you're doing?
Amy Westervelt: I imagine that it just makes it really hard for you to plan your life.
Disha Ravi: I can't. I don't know when it's going to end. And this order where they won't modify my bail condition isn't a good thing. I don't know how long it will take.
Amy Westervelt: That's really hard. I'm sorry, Disha. Are you allowed to continue to do activism under your current situation?
Disha Ravi: Oh no. I am not allowed to do similar activities that would “defame India.”
It feels bizarre that I could do that, because it feels larger than life. We're a huge country, and I’m a small person, so the bigness is weird to me. If a 21-year-old can “defame India,” That's not much, is it?
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Amy Westervelt: Beyond what happened to you, are you seeing an increase in efforts to suppress climate activism in India? And how would you describe the efforts?
Disha Ravi: There has been an increase. They are being very clever about how they actually limit environmental activism. They're cutting off our limbs.
The government is not directly arresting activists from protest sites. They’ll let [a protest] happen, and then file charges later on. They'll be pretty severe charges too, so they will arrest people from their homes. Because then there's less media attention. There's no footage of them picking people up.
Protests against mining and development are [also] framed as an indirect attack against the country. Any form of protest is quickly framed into that narrative, which wakes up all the nationalists. So [climate activism has become] no longer an environmental issue, it's an issue against the country itself.
Another way we get in trouble is cutting off our funding—which firstly, we don't have much of. If we had a penny for every time someone tweeted that we had money, we'd actually have money.
But movements in India are not allowed to get any form of money. If a person is fundraising on behalf of a movement, you can't publicize that it’s about anti-mining or anti-dams. That'll get you in trouble.
If you want to get money from outside the country, you need a license called an FCRA. And the FCRA has been cut off for so many organizations. Greenpeace India lost it ages ago, when I was a child. Amnesty India got shut down a little after we started working with them; their bank accounts were frozen and their director was hit with a bunch of charges. We started working with Oxfam because they do really good work in India, and they lost their FCRA license. 350 didn't even manage to open anything in India because of the paperwork.
You know how the U.K. is passing a bunch of laws which basically makes activism illegal? We've had those for a while. We have so many variations. Sedition is one. The UAP is another. There's a special segment called the NIA, and if you get arrested by them, you're never going to get out. They've tried to charge Arundhati Roy a bunch of times.
Amy Westervelt: My God. Come on.
Disha Ravi: I'm serious, you can Google it. The only reason she's not been charged so far is because she's so famous. If they charged her they'd lose all credibility.
Amy Westervelt: Do you think that it would ever get to a point where you would want to leave India?
Disha Ravi: I get asked this question a lot. I absolutely won't be leaving.
I'm very adamant about it, because this is my country. This is my country as much as it is theirs. So I'm going to stay here and make their lives miserable. I know they will make mine [miserable] too. But I'm just going to continue doing my work.
My intention isn't even to make their lives miserable. My intention is to get climate justice. But apparently doing that makes their lives miserable. So I guess it is what it is.
Want to listen to Amy’s full interview with Disha Ravi? Find it here, or search “Drilled” on your favorite podcast app.
The Media’s Role in Criminalizing Protest. Drilled, August 2023.
In newly gleaming Delhi, Modi hopes G20 will cement India as a major global player. Guardian, September 2023.
Who gets arrested for climate crimes? HEATED, July 2023.
The arrest of this activist should put India’s ‘democracy’ title in question. The Washington Post, February 2021.
Catch of the Day: Higgs, submitted back in April by reader Jeanne, is all about tackling climate change and saving our winters.
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