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Disha Ravi’s idealism needs channelling, not rejection

Disha Ravi’s arrest was a featured BBC story. The police allege the “toolkit” on how to help farmers protesting against agricultural reform laws, tweeted by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, was a call “to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India”. Ravi had “collaborated” with separatist groups to “spread disaffection against the Indian state”. Civil society groups and NGOs routinely share lessons on how to organise protests for maximum effectiveness and impact. Arresting  under sedition laws is more of an indictment of the authoritarian mindset of the government than of her actions, as was clear in the censure of Delhi Police by additional sessions judge Dharmender Rana.

India invites mockery and ridicule, telling the world it’s ruled by an insecure and vindictive government. Police heavy-handedness damages Brand India, turning it into a compromised liberal democracy that in some respect is inching closer to communist China. In its annual report Democracy under Siege published this month, Freedom House shifted India from “free” to “partly free”. It “appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader”, eroding “its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all”. With the Biden administration’s sensitivity to human rights concerns, this is not inconsequential and, if it persists and worsens, will raise questions over India’s presence in the Quad as a grouping of Indo-Pacific democracies. The politicisation of police and security agencies occurred under Congress governments. Instead of checking the rot, this government has worsened it and it’s also guilty of abusing and cheapening sedition laws, as noted by Sweden’s V-Dem Institute.

This will also have a negative impact on FDI. Investors look for freely convertible currency, clear and transparent regulatory norms and authorities, a stable tax regime, rule of law with accompanying institutional integrity of tax officials and judicial officers, and speedy and impartial dispute resolution. These are put under big question marks when institutions are seen to have been corrupted to serve political masters of the day.

An even graver long-term impact might be the disenchantment of India’s youth. Ravi is young, engaged, passionate, idealistic. These are good qualities to be encouraged, not discouraged let alone punished. To paraphrase Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by naivety.” Her parents should be proud of a daughter with such an engaged social conscience.

That said, Ravi is also misguided. The sad reality is decades of pursuing the dream of a socialistic pattern of society have left India with the biggest pool of poor, sick, malnourished, stunted and illiterate people in the world. The primary blame for this rests on a Congress so enamoured of the poor that it multiplied their numbers. A green activist shouldn’t be ignorant of the environmental harm of existing farming practices like annual crop burning, power subsidies for irrigation pumps to grow water-intensive crops that deplete groundwater and lower water tables etc. Reforms that redirect farmers to less water-intensive perishable crops are commendable.

There’s more. In a Vogue interview, Ravi complained: “The fact that you would choose to listen to a white person … rather than a person of colour, to me, is environmental racism.” Yet Ravi herself follows Thunberg with her Fridays for Future. Also, the descriptor “person of colour” is an ugly American import. It’s racist, offensive and insulting, implying there’s white folk, and all the rest as also-rans. It’s also factually wrong. We’re not a monolithic cohort to be classified at the whim of the Caucasians who make up a small fraction of the world’s total population. It recalls an ancient cartoon where an English society hostess introduces a guest from Ghana to one from Burma (as it was) and says: “You must have a lot in common. You’re both natives.” I prefer to be called Indian, or Asian. We don’t call Caucasians “people without colour”. Besides, ‘whites’ are the real “people of colour”: pink when born, red when sunburnt, blue when cold, purple when bruised, grey when dead, and supposedly yellow with fear and green with envy.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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