On 13 February 2021, Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist was arrested by the Indian police. Her alleged crime? Editing a Google Doc ‘toolkit’ containing information on how to support the ongoing farmers’ protests in India. Toolkits are standard advocacy material used to coordinate protests and educate people about a movement. But in this instance, the Delhi Police named Ravi as a “key conspirator” alongside climate activist Greta Thunberg (whose Fridays For Future movement Ravi is a founding member of) in the dissemination of the document. Officials claimed Ravi and Thunberg were in collaboration with Khalistani separatist movements to “spread disaffection against the Indian state”.
The swiftness in charging a young woman with sedition (inciting violence, hatred, contempt or disaffection against the government), for what was found to be an “insignificant instance”, sends a clear message to young Indians, especially women. It seems that getting involved in protests or voicing your opinion makes Indians fair game to be targeted and even jailed.
This trend of cracking down on dissent is not new in Modi’s India, where censorship is the norm and journalistic freedom rests on shaky ground. But Indian women, in particular, are no strangers to this culture of stifling dissent. We are socialised to be docile beings, taught to perform the roles ascribed to us without question and not to upset the status quo by having opinions on subjects like the economy or politics.
“The swiftness in charging a young woman with sedition, for what was found to be an ‘insignificant instance’, sends a clear message to young Indians, especially women”
However, it’s not just Indian women who have faced the flack for speaking out in support of the farmer’s protests – women around the world have been on the receiving end of a noticeably fierce backlash. In February, Rihanna posted a six-word tweet, accompanied by a CNN article highlighting the internet shutdowns and violence against protesters, which sent the Indian government into a tizzy. “Why aren’t we talking about this?!” she asked. Right-wing Indians accused her of being ignorant, bought by separatists and even slut-shamed her. Nationalist troll armies went so far as to glorify her abuser Chris Brown, for assaulting the singer back in 2009.
Greta Thunberg shared the same article and tweeted an updated ‘toolkit’ with information about the protests – the same toolkit that Disha Ravi was arrested for. Lawyer Meena Harris, the niece of US vice president Kamala Harris, compared the violence used against the protesters to the US Capitol insurrection, calling it “militant nationalism”, which resulted in Hindu nationalists burning pictures of her. The Indian government promptly released a statement dismissing the tweets of the various women as “sensationalist” social media tactics that were “neither accurate nor responsible”.
Clearly, the Indian government is afraid of women who have an opinion. This has to do with the religious fundamentalist Hindutva ideology that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seeks to propagate. The social, economic, financial and sexual inequality that plagues Indian women can be pinned to Brahmanical patriarchy. This term, coined by Uma Chakravarti, ties women’s struggles in the country to their caste and has its roots in ancient India where the control of land by certain caste groups was maintained by regulating women’s sexuality. Given the defining role played by caste in India’s socio-political reality, it explains why keeping women in check is key to preserving the existing social order. Hence, the efforts to intimidate them into silence when they step out of line.
Ravi is not the first woman to be arrested for speaking out against the Indian government. Gulfisha Fatima, Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are all women who have vocally challenged government policies, organised protests and have been jailed for it. In the case of the farmer protests, women have much at stake too, as women farmers are largely invisible due to patrilineal and caste based land ownership. Of the 73.2% of rural Indian women engaged in agriculture, only 12.4% own land, making them more vulnerable to the effects of these new farm laws putting them at the mercy of big corporations.
They’re already paying the price too. Nodeep Kaur, a 24-year-old Dalit labour rights activist was arrested on 12 January for attempted murder and rioting, when she was protesting outside a factory on the outskirts of Delhi. She was reportedly subjected to sexual and physical assault in custody, proving that Dalit women pay a greater price for choosing to voice their dissent. Kaur belongs to the 81% of female agricultural workers from the Dalit and Adivasi communities who are essentially landless labourers. Despite the violence and discomfort, women farmers stand shoulder to shoulder with men in the face of tear gas and water guns used against them.
The Modi government has every reason to be afraid of these women. A free-thinking, independent woman, unafraid of voicing her opinions, is sure to shake the foundation of Brahmanical oppression that Indian society is built on. And this happened briefly during the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests, as the women of Shaheen Bagh sat peacefully protesting for over 100 days.
“In the case of the farmer protests, women have much at stake too, as women farmers are largely invisible due to patrilineal and caste based land ownership”
While Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur have been granted bail, there are still many women behind bars for speaking out against the BJP government. However, these women’s arrests haven’t scared others into silence. Activists like psychologist Dr Ritu Singh and filmmaker Jassi Sangha continue to amplify the farmers’ cause from the protest site. While the men camp at the protest site, women young and old do their part in mobilising, raising funds and sustaining protest sites back in Punjab.
Curbing female dissent is a common phenomenon in authoritarian regimes around the world, be it Hong Kong, Poland, Brazil, Israel or India. While the Indian government has betrayed its priorities and intentions by pursuing activist witch hunts, it loses its international credibility as a democracy. As for the women, they continue to raise their voices, notwithstanding the consequences.