In India’s southern city of Bangalore, Disha Ravi was a cheerful, familiar figure among local climate activists.
The sprightly 22-year-old helped clean up lakes, plant trees and campaigned against plastic. She attended workshops, walked the streets demanding climate action, loved animals and spoke out against sexism and capital punishment. A vegan and the sole-earning member in her family, she worked with a local company that makes plant-based food.
Ms Ravi is also one of the founders of the local wing of Fridays For Future, a global movement begun by climate change activist Greta Thunberg. Here, she participated in campaigns to preserve the lion-tailed macaque in an Indian bio-diversity spot, and stall a hydro power plant, among other causes.
Living in a low-lying neighbourhood in a city which would get easily flooded during rains, she worried about climate change. Bangalore, she said, was experiencing severe rainfall and flooding these days. She had lived in the family home for 13 years, and found that the city had never experienced such heavy rains as it had in recent years.
Ms Ravi did not mince her words. “People of colour are suffering from the climate crisis first-hand – a lot of people don’t give us attention that we need. The fact that you would choose to listen to a white person on the same issue rather than a person of colour, to me, is environmental racism,” she told Vogue magazine last year.
Friends and fellow campaigners say she is a law-abiding activist. During a recent campaign to save trees in her city, Ms Ravi went to the police and sought permission. “We have interacted during many campaigns to protect the environment. I always noticed she never transgressed the law,” said Tara Krishnaswamy, a veteran activist.
At the weekend, Ms Ravi was arrested after sharing a document intended to help farmers protest against new agriculture reform laws. The police say she was a “key conspirator” in the formulation and dissemination” of the document. The so-called “toolkit”, which suggested ways of helping the farmers, was tweeted by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. “The call was to wage economic, social, cultural and regional war against India,” the police said.
They say Ms Ravi “collaborated” with separatist groups to “spread disaffection against the Indian state”.
In court, Ms Ravi, accused of sedition and conspiracy, broke down and told the judge she had merely edited two lines of the document. But police believe she shared the document with Ms Thunberg, and then asked her to remove it after it was “accidentally” leaked. The court remanded her to police custody.
Ms Ravi’s arrest has sparked a firestorm of protest and shocked many Indians. The chief minister of Delhi, run by an opposition party, has called the arrest “an unprecedented attack on democracy”. A journalist wondered how “editing publicly available documents that help people coordinate views disagreeing with those of the government can be an act of sedition”. Yet another journalist tweeted: “The message is clear: lock up your children, stop them protesting, or we will”.
Last July, the Delhi police temporarily blocked the website of Fridays For Future India, describing its content as “objectionable” and depicting an “unlawful or terrorist act”. Members said all that it had done was swamp the environment ministry with thousands of emails in protest against an environmental law.
“In India, people continue to suffer because of laws that are anti-people. We live in a country where dissent is suppressed. We in Fridays For Future India were labelled terrorists for objecting to the law]. Only a government that puts profit over people would consider asking for clean air, clean water and a liveable planet, an act of terrorism,” Ms Ravi told an interviewer at the time.
In September, she told The Guardian: “Countries like India are already experiencing a climate crisis. We are just not fighting for our future, we are fighting for our present. We, the people from the most affected [regions], are going to change the conversation in climate negotiations and lead a just recovery plan that benefits people and not the pockets of our government”.
In a video interview, the feisty and outspoken young campaigner made it clear that she is no fan of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
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“Mr Modi has convinced everybody that everything he is doing is good. There are so many questionable things about his governance. Not just in terms of equal rights but environmental rights or human rights.”
“My parents support him, I know.”
Her friends describe Ms Ravi as a bright student, who won debates in college, where she graduated in business administration with a specialisation in finance. Like many young people of her generation, she loves Bollywood songs, binge-watches Netflix shows, loves cooking and pampers her dog. She plans on doing a masters in conservation: her role model is the world-famous conservation activist, Jane Goodall.
Ms Ravi’s friends and co-workers say she is a “funny, goofy girl” who is often late to events. “We get irritated but we never say anything to her because she is so passionate about what she does,” a friend said.
The website of the Bangalore-based food company where she works mentions her as the “youngest member” who joined as an intern and then came on “full time to work her magic on our customers by leading the company’s direct-to-consumer efforts”.
On social media, Ms Ravi has posted about Olive Ridley turtles, doing away with plastic and posed for pictures with her kitten and her dog. A Harry Potter fan, she has also shared pictures of Evanna Lynch. On Facebook, she calls herself a “carrot enthusiast”. On Instagram, she describes herself as “climate worried.”
Her profile says: “People united will never be defeated.”
With additional reporting by Imran Qureshi in Bangalore