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26 February 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 2:08pm

Claims of conspiracy behind India’s farmers’ protests carry a warning for the world

The arrest of the Indian climate activist Disha Ravi suggests that calls for justice and equity may lead to greater suppression.

By India Bourke

A court ruling in India has delivered an urgent message this week – not just for their country’s own government, but for the world: “In my considered opinion, citizens are conscience keepers of government in any democratic nation,” said the judge. “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments.”

With these words, the judge released on bail the 22-year-old Indian climate activist, Disha Ravi. Her alleged offence? Editing and sharing an online “toolkit” which advised fellow activists on how to support the country’s farmers’ protests.

The protests, which farmers argue are necessary to defend their livelihoods in the face of new laws, have rocked the nation since last summer –becoming a symbol of wider revolt against both deregulated capitalism and state oppression, as Ravinder Kaur has written.

Ravi’s post was consequently widely shared, including by the Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg. Yet the kickback to the toolkit was also swift: within hours, the hashtag #GretaThunbergExposed was circulating on Twitter, implying the campaigner was part of an international conspiracy against India.

Effigies of Thunberg and other supportive international celebrities were burned in the streets of India. President Narendra Modi later appeared to echo the sentiment, claiming that some “foreign powers” were engaged in systematic efforts to “malign” the image of Indian tea, while the Delhi police alleged that Ravi was part of a global conspiracy to defame India and stir unrest.

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This week’s court ruling has attempted to squash these dangerous claims. “The freedom of speech and expression include the right to seek a global audience,” added the judge.

Activists around the world have also stressed the need to stay committed to their work: “There’s nothing we can do to prevent trolls [and] – liars but we can always speak out about what’s right,” the US youth activist and founder of Zero Hour Jamie Margolin told me during the New Statesman and Spotlight’s recent Global Policy Forum.

But Ravi’s case is also far from the only instance of an alleged climate-linked conspiracy being used as a scapegoat by interests under strain.

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Take the way that US TV host Tucker Carlson blamed the recent electricity blackouts in Texas on the failure of wind turbines, as my colleague Emily Tamkin has explored. Or the ongoing abuse and mockery Thunberg suffers in her attempts to spread a message of climate concern. Or the “red-tagging” of activists and environmental organisations in the Philippines, as part of President Rodrigo Duterte administration’s attempt to undermine, threaten and put at risk of violence those who criticise the government.

As the NGO Global Witness noted in its annual report on land and environmental defenders, “criminalising activists as ‘rebels’ or ‘terrorists’ or labelling defenders as ‘anti-development’, is part of a broader global trend used by governments and the media to delegitimise communities’ concerns.”

And as the climate struggle becomes increasingly set on ensuring climate justice accompanies the race for net-zero emissions, the backlash against such movements is only set to intensify. The call for greater equity is what the Fridays for Future movement, to which both Ravi and Thunberg belong, is advocating – and will likely continue to have illiberal interests on alert.

[See also: How a farmers’ protest in India evolved into a mass movement]

Where exactly that leaves nations such as India is a fascinating and sticky question. As professor Navroz K Dubash has written in the Hindustan Times, the Indian government has been a prominent champion of the case for supporting livelihoods and equity in international climate negotiations – but at home, its clampdown on activists such as Ravi appears to contradict these demands.

“The voices of young activists to tackle climate change in the developing countries such as Disha Ravi in India need to be supported not harassed,” Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development, told the New Statesman.

What is certain is that the effects of climate change will continue to hit India particularly hard; a new study out this week shows that the nation’s groundwater has been depleting for years. Thanks to farming reforms in the 1960s which intensified land-use, India’s Punjab and Haryana regions now produce far more rice than the water table can sustain.

Climate change has added to the stress, but is in turn fuelled by the response: vast amounts of energy are now used to extract the required extra water from underground (a cost which local, non-agricultural, industries currently subsidise on the farmers’ behalf).

Few therefore dispute that the current farming system is broken and crop diversification is necessary. But, as Ranjit Singh Ghuman told Lou Del Bello’s Lights On newsletter, placing the brunt of reform on the farmers themselves is “altogether wrong”.

Furthermore, as Margolin points out, “we can simultaneously support people in standing up for their rights as farmers, while also encouraging and fighting for more sustainable practices of farming”. In other words, you don’t have to pick between improved equity and urgent environmental reform; you can demand both. On its current form, however, Modi’s government must do much more to ensure its domestic actions don’t undermine this case.

[See also: How India’s farmers protests went global]