Defending Climate Defenders: Disha Ravi’s Arrest in Context

Defending Climate Defenders: Disha Ravi’s Arrest in Context

By Rebecca Wilton

If you were asked to describe the function of a Google Doc, you might note its convenience for remote collaboration, its ubiquity in organizing circles, or its penchant for getting lost in the Cloud. Would you also mention its advantages as a key weapon in an international conspiracy?

This week the Indian government arrested and detained Disha Ravi for just that, alleging editing a Google Doc and sharing it with Greta Thunberg[1] (who subsequently tweeted it to her 4.9 million followers) constituted sedition.[2] Ravi is a well-known youth climate activist who founded the Indian branch of Thunberg’s Fridays For Future protest network.[3] The Google Doc contained a “toolkit” for activists about the recent farmers’ protests in India, with links, hashtags, and suggestions for amplifying and contributing to the farmers’ cause.[4]

The “completely atrocious” detention,[5] Ravi’s arrest by plainclothes policemen, as well as the violation of other criminal procedural safeguards have drawn widespread condemnation.[6] Former finance minister P. Chidambaram aptly summed up the public outrage and bewilderment at the arrest in several tweets, commenting “The Indian state must be standing on very shaky foundations if Disha Ravi, a 22 year old student . . . has become a threat to the nation” and “India is becoming the theatre of the absurd.”[7]

Ravi’s arrest is part of both a larger crackdown by the Modi government against dissenters[8] and a global uptick in the application of serious criminal charges to environmental defenders and climate activists.[9] The danger these activists face is real. A recent study analyzing almost 2,800 social conflicts related to the environment found that 20% of environmental defenders faced criminal charges or were imprisoned, 18% were victims of physical violence, and 13% were killed in the period of 2011-2019.[10] When indigenous activists participated, those numbers rose to 27%, 25%, and 19% respectively.[11] Indeed, deaths and injuries continue to mount among participants in the ongoing farmers’ protests highlighted by the contentious Google Doc at issue in Ravi’s case.[12]

The United States is no exception to this concerning trend. The forceful response by state police to indigenous water defenders protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline is infamous, and state authorities continue to target environmental activists.[13] Multiple protestors demonstrating against the Mountain Valley Pipeline were charged with “threat of a terrorist act” felonies in 2019 for chaining themselves to construction equipment.[14] Last summer, two Louisiana climate activists were arrested for delivering boxes of plastic pellets to the homes of oil and gas lobbyists and charged with “terrorizing” them – a felony punishable with up to fifteen years in prison.[15] Even where charges are ultimately dropped, the arrests themselves act as a deterrent by intimidating,  harassing, and silencing activists.[16]

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden has attracted significant attention for his promise to make environmental justice a central priority in his climate action plan[17] and has taken the promising first step of rejoining the Paris Climate Accord.[18] If President Biden sincerely wants to be a transformative leader on issues of climate and the environment, his administration must rebuke the use of criminal penalties to target climate activists at home and abroad. Otherwise, his promises risk paying lip service to a noble idea without actually changing the status quo.


[1] Greta Thunberg is a climate activist from Sweden who has emerged as the most prominent face of a global youth climate movement. See Charlotte Alter et al., Time 2019 Person of the Year: Greta Thunberg, Time (2019), Thunberg’s advocacy has drawn the ire of political leaders prior to this most recent Twitter controversy. See, e.g, Derrick Bryson Taylor, Trump Mocks Greta Thunberg on Twitter and She Jabs Back, N.Y. Times (Dec. 12, 2019).

[2] Sameer Yasir, Climate Activist Jailed in India as Government Clamps Down on Dissent, N.Y. Times (Feb. 15. 2021),

[3] Hannah Ellis-Peterson, Disha Ravi: The Climate Activist Who Became the Face of India’s Crackdown on Dissent, The Guardian (Feb. 17, 2021),

[4] Id.

[5] Id. (quoting former Indian environment minister Jairan Ramesh).

[6] See, e.g., Ritika Goyal & Shrutika Pandey, Disha Ravi’s Arrest Is Yet Another Example of Police’s Disregard for Checks and Balances, The Wire India (Feb. 16, 2021),; Swati Deshpande & Amit Anand Choudhary, Several Legal Eagles Question Sedition Charges Against Disha Ravi, Times of India (Feb. 16, 2021),; Politicians, Actors, Influencers Across the Globe Condemn Arrest of Activist Disha Ravi, The Tribune (Feb. 16, 2021),

[7] P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN), Twitter (Feb. 14, 2021, 10:43 AM),

[8] Narenda Modi has served as India’s Prime Minister since 2014; critics assert civil society freedoms have shrunk under his administration. Vindu Goel & Jeffrey Gettleman, Under Modi, India’s Press Is Not So Free Anymore, N.Y. Times (May 6, 2020),; see also Ellis-Peterson, supra note 3.

[9] See Letta Tayler & Cara Schulte, Targeting Environmental Activists with Counterterrorism Measures Is an Abuse of the Law, Human Rights Watch (Nov. 29, 2019),

[10] Arnim Scheidel et al., Environmental Conflicts and Defenders: A Global Overview, Global Envtl. Change 9 (2020).

[11] Id.

[12] See Anju Agnihotri Chaba, As Rate of Farm Suicides Fell, Protest Claimed Lives of Many More Farmers in Punjab, Indian Express (Jan. 6, 2021),; Red Fort Violence: Delhi Police Detain 200 After Farmer Protests, BBC News (Jan. 27, 2021),

[13] Joshua Barajas, Police Deploy Water Hoses, Tear Gas Against Standing Rock Protestors, PBS NewsHour (Nov. 21, 2016),

[14] Pete Davis, Another MVP Protestor Charged With Felony Terror Threat, MetroNews (June 27, 2019),

[15] Emily Holden, US Climate Activists Charged with Terrorizing Lobbyist Over Plastic Pollution Stunt, The Guardian (June 25, 2020),; La. Stat. Ann. § 40:1 (2020).

[16] See, e.g., Justina Calma & Paola Rosa-Aquino, The Term ‘Eco-Terrorist’ Is Back and It’s Killing Climate Activists, Grist (Jan. 2, 2019),; Will Parrish & Sam Levin, ‘Treating Protest as Terrorism’: U.S. Plans Crackdown on Keystone XL Activists, The Guardian (Sept. 20, 2018),

[17] See, e.g., Juliet Eilperin et al., Biden to Place Environmental Justice at Center of Sweeping Climate Plan, The Wash. Post (Jan. 27, 2021),; Rebecca Hersher, Hope and Skepticism as Biden Promises to Address Environmental Racism, NPR News (Jan. 29, 2021).

[18] Press Release, President Joseph R. Biden, Paris Climate Agreement: Acceptance on Behalf of the United States (Jan. 20, 2021), available at; see also Elian Peltier & Somini Sengupta, U.S. Formally Rejoins the Paris Climate Accord, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2021),