Ms. Ravi was released on bail Tuesday, 10 days after police raided her home in the city of Bangalore. Her alleged crime was to associate herself with Greta Thunberg and a Google Doc the Swedish activist produced suggesting ways to support mass protests by Indian farmers. For that, police charged Ms. Ravi with sedition — an offense that can be punished with years in prison — and conspiring to “spread disaffection” against the state. “If highlighting farmers’ protest globally is sedition, I am better in jail,” Ms. Ravi declared in court.
What’s particularly disturbing about Ms. Ravi’s persecution is that it is part of a broad pattern of speech suppression and other violations of democratic norms by the Modi government. Several journalists who covered a day of demonstrations by the farmers in New Delhi last month also face criminal charges. The government has pressured Twitter to block the accounts of hundreds of people linked to the protests. It has intimidated much of the mainstream Indian media into self-censorship.
The agricultural reform legislation that triggered the farmers’ protests is itself evidence of Mr. Modi’s disregard for standards. Most economists think the reforms, which deregulated agricultural sales and storage, were necessary and even long overdue. But Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party rammed them through parliament without meaningful debate, not even allowing a recorded vote in the upper house. Similar tactics were used to adopt controversial laws on citizenship and to revoke the autonomy of the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir. In each case, the fierce opposition they aroused was met with sedition charges, censorship and Internet shutdowns.
As The Post’s Joanna Slater and Niha Masih recently reported, some Indian analysts are comparing the repression to the suspension of civil liberties by then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, a dark period in India’s political history. Mr. Modi, for his part, has taken to portraying his country as a target for foreign conspiracies. In a recent speech to parliament, he said India needed protection from “foreign destructive ideology.” Prosecuting Ms. Ravi for her association with Ms. Thunberg advanced that false narrative.
Fortunately, some of India’s institutions are pushing back. The Supreme Court suspended implementation of the agricultural laws last month. And the judge who released Ms. Ravi did so with a sharp rebuke to her captors. “The offense of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments,” said the opinion. “An aware and assertive citizenry . . . is indisputably a sign of a healthy and vibrant democracy.” Indian civil society indeed remains robust. The question is whether it will be enough to check Mr. Modi’s drift toward autocracy.