This is not the first time that this government has tried to muzzle free speech under the guise of applying “reasonable restrictions”. What’s more, the imposition of penal provisions by the Delhi Policeof sedition, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity with different groups, and rioting against Disha Ravi from Fridays for Future India (FFF India), and Nikita Jacob and Shantanu Muluk from Extinction Rebellion India (XR India)is unlikely to be the last.

In July last year, FFF India had its website blocked by the Delhi Police for organising a mass email campaign encouraging public participation and consultations on the Draft Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2020. | Pictured here: a protest against the Notification in Delhi. Courtesy of Pranav Menon.

Even if there was any involvement of the Poetic Justice Foundation in the most recent Farmers’ protests, issuing non-bailable warrants against these activists is a disproportionate measure taken with the intent of creating a chilling effect; the Supreme Court, in Balwant Singh and Anr v State of Punjab, has clarified that mere slogans of ‘Khalistan Zindabad’ and ‘Raj Karega Khalsa’ do not qualify as sedition. Besides the illegal mode of detention, members like Kapil Mishra of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party have systematically used online trolls and different forms of misinformation to harass these activists and create a conspiracy out of what is otherwise a routine exercise for organising protests.  

Repression: Part of the Government’s Toolkit

A Toolkit is a standardised document that is used in most protests across India and other countries. Prepared for digital circulation, it contains multiple documents that indicate the context and the need to protest, organisations and links to further the movement, where the protest is set to be held, and how to participate and increase awareness about it. The current controversy surrounding the ‘toolkit’ uploaded by Greta Thunberg—and which Disha Ravi made edits to—is an attempt to delegitimise the ‘Greens with Farmers’ coalition, which is a collaboration between youth-led environment movements (like FFF India and XR India) and farmers unions, against the three farm laws in contention. 

The criminalisation of the youth’s right to protect their environment, demand public consultation and organise peacefully against government policy is an abuse of executive power. It sets a dangerous precedent for voicing solidarity or support via coalitions, be it farmers, daily-wage labourers, or our doctors.

Post-1991 and until December 2018, the State has been privy to 283 reported ecological conflicts. This accounts for more than one-tenth of all the environmental justice movements documented globally. 85% of such conflicts receive high or medium intensity responses from the State, wherein locals’ informed consent was disregarded when large-scale displacement and massive diversions of forest land occurred. Similarly, India’s rank of 168 out of 180 in the Environmental Performance Index, 2020 is primarily attributed to a loss of biodiversity, increased susceptibility to climate-induced disasters, and the violent suppression and displacement of community leaders and locals defending their commons from diversion. 

While such State action may be difficult to digest for youth and student-led climate movements, they are not new for environmental defenders and human rights activists. It is well known that land rights activist Mahesh Raut, Father Stan Swamy (who may well be the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India), and noted lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj have dedicated their lives to fighting for environmental justice for forest dwellers and have faced lengthy and arbitrary detentions. Our concern about such rampant State violence towards peaceful environmental justice struggles is very real.

In this context, the story of FFF India, XR India, and the farmers’ protest raise many questions about India’s democratic fabric. Does the citizen, who is part of a diverse people which shapes the State, have the freedom to speak out when issues concern them? Is the right of free speech only reserved to the narrow public which the government in power seeks to empower—that is, the corporate, the Hindu, or the trans-nationalist capitalist? FFF India and XR India’s activists, amongst many others in India, are being targeted and detained because they fail to adhere to this notion of the public. 

Fridays for Future India and Extinction Rebellion India: The Story Thus Far

Initiated in August 2018, both Fridays for Future India and Extinction Rebellion India began as movements inspired by Greta Thunberg’s Friday school strikes. Both initially sought to confine themselves to purely environmental concerns in order to enable a wide platform of volunteers to join in protests against the government’s environment policies. However, soon there was a realisation that speaking about the environment and ecology was in fact a political concern which simultaneously demanded advocacy on the concerns of other underrepresented and displaced people suffering from the climate crisis.

FFF India and XR India exist to push the State to ‘act now’ in recognition of the severity of the impending climate crisis. Both organisations strive for the free flow of information, and these groups are non-partisan, autonomous, decentralised, horizontal entities without any leaders. What they seek is accountability from the State through weekly demonstrations and protests every Friday in urban cities across India. Incidentally, all protest calls are rooted in the premise of inclusion and non-violence. The values embedded in these movements recognise the need for love and affection; most characteristic of all, they avoid shaming individuals in this era of cancel-culture. The focus is, and always will be on the systems of oppression that affect our environment, ecology, and human beings worst affected by the climate crisis. 

These values and principles translate into calls for accountability such as demands to provide transparent information on sanctioned environment clearances, forest diversions, disaster capabilities, assessment reports, air quality monitoring reports, and displacement and compensation packages yet to be disbursed. Both groups from time to time have also sought the implementation of the National and State Action Plan for Climate Change, and seek to hold the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) accountable to India’s climate obligations under the Paris Convention. 

Tagging roads with ‘Climate Action Now’ at a protest in New Delhi. | Courtesy of Pranav Menon.

A ‘climate strike’ is organised annually by local chapters, based on the call for a global climate strike by FFF. An effort is made to submit a memorandum with a list of demands to either the MoEFCC, state environment departments or local government offices, but these documents have been unceremoniously ignored by these authorities without much additional engagement with local activists. Nonetheless, these strikes become a motivation to mobilise youth from all backgrounds to ‘Tell the truth’ regarding the need for governments to declare a ‘Climate Emergency.’ These declarations are also accompanied by ‘die-ins’ and funeral ceremonies for the planet, that accompany other performative elements at protest sites.

Members of these groups also frequently engage in day-to-day actions like waste segregation exercises, plogging, river clean-ups, and on-ground initiatives with local communities affected by developmental decisions [1]. Most participants are volunteers who do not expect any remuneration resisting anti-ecological decisions. 

Although operating as digital platforms, both FFF India and XR India seek to build solidarities with different struggles for a just and ecologically sustainable future, with the larger agenda of creating a ‘movement of movements’. Although nascent organisations, both FFF India and XR India are currently moving along the learning curve of mobilising, learning from grassroots struggles and imbibing their practices in organising and resisting. Their principles encourage building solidarity with indigenous and local struggles for climate justice and against ecological displacement, as seen in other FFF chapters across Latin America and Australia, which FFF and XR India are keen to imbibe [2].

To this end, they associate with farmers movements, land rights campaigns, forest rights campaign, worker unions, and women’s movements. They also endorse calls by grassroots activists, environmentalists, academics, policymakers, and scientists that warn of the deteriorating ecological crisis across the country. 

Courtesy of Pranav Menon.

The first instance of such solidarity was seen in the Save Aarey Forest Movement against the felling of trees for a Metro Ccr shed in Mumbai, which resulted in some activists being detained due to the imposition of Section 144. This has inspired FFF chapters across India to take up digital as well as on-ground campaigns to protest against environmental disasters such as Assam’s Baghjan oil or Andhra Pradesh’s Vishakapatnam gas leak. Issues taken up include the wrongful diversion of forest land such as in the case of My Mollem (in Goa), Save Thano (in Uttarakhand), Save Hasdeo Arand (in Chhattisgarh), and Save Dumna (in Madhya Pradesh). The groups  also peacefully organised movements against destructive hydroelectric projects as seen in the case of Citizens for Teesta (in Sikkim), Save Dihing Patkai (in Assam), and Dibang resistance (in Arunachal Pradesh).

In this regard, the allegation that FFF India and XR India are of foreign ‘radical origins’ is a misnomer, despite the fact that both organisations are inspired by the global climate strike. By engaging on issues of local, regional, and national importance, FFF India intends to adopt a justice-based approach to issues of climate and ecology. 

These groups cherish the need to facilitate a people-led ecological recovery of India, rooted in ideas of Eco Swaraj, while recognising indigeneity, intersectionality, and locality as key to building discourses on climate justice and sustainable livelihoods from the ground up.

But, Why Did Environmental Youth Groups Support Farmers?

Both FFF India and XR India have consistently endorsed that the three recently-passed agricultural legislations favour output-based farming as practised in the Global North, and do not represent the cultural values Indian farmers associate with their farmland and farm produce. The rise in extreme weather events has necessitated the need for price assurance for crops, highlighting the need to strive for the environmental justice claims of the farmers.

The legislations that seek to promote production-oriented industrial farming would force farmers to take up intensive monocropping patterns to meet contract farming agreements. These models of agriculture may affect soil fertility and the microbial resistance of crops will require the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides, and will increase pressures on the water table and other natural resources. Furthermore, these laws not only diminish the state and local governments’ powers to regulate agricultural markets and produce, but also violate models of decentralised governance that are ecologically sustainable in the long run. 

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By allowing the direct entry of market players without restrictions, the three farm legislations may also result in the greater monopolisation of farm produce without constraints on buying, leaving small and marginal farmers with fewer avenues for selling their produce. This affects the lives of landless labourers, a majority of whom belong to backward castes, tribes, and minority communities whose wages for subsistence depend on the remunerative prices earned by farm produce. The laws will also affect women farmers, who are generally considered labourers while negotiating with the market, and will weaken their financial security. They may also hamper food security as prices of produce may increase as a result of a concentration in suppliers. Such outcomes can deprive the poor of subsidised and nutritious food, a situation made worse in a country that ranks 102 out of 117 in the Global Hunger Index, 2019. 

As environmental youth groups, both FFF India and XR India believe these farm legislations are arbitrary in how they quantify agriculture from an ecologically viable subsistence-based occupation, to an unsustainable production-oriented model. The groups strive against the climate injustice which marginalized farmers and labourers face in their day-to-day lives while practising their livelihoods sustainably.

These were amongst the primary reasons for extending solidarity to the demonstrations that took place on 26th January 2021—as Indian environmental youth groups, they sought to echo farmers’ demands for fair prices, as well as support mechanisms for undertaking sustainable agriculture without corporate interference in land use, and soil and crop management practices. The toolkit merely provided the means to extend digital solidarity to the farmers.

Beyond the Politicized Toolkit: Questioning the politics of our development

Like most of the country’s environmental and social movements, FFF India and XR India rely upon Gandhian philosophies of non-violence in their struggles. However, the need for the movements to characterise their demands for direct action on the ground through protests has allowed the state to adopt such repressive measures. Yet, the response from the groups has been to carry out peaceful protests against the wrongful incarceration and witch-hunt of environmental activists.

Thus, while the social, cultural, and political specificities of each movement of resistance is unique, they are premised on the similar tenets of non-violent forms of mobilization. This stimulates the growth of a global movement for environmental justice from the grassroots, using the ‘glocal’ as its springboard. The form of environmental justice advocated for by FFF India and XR India also simultaneously attacks the violence of patriarchy and coloniality—this is evident given the prominent roles of women, indigenous peoples, and farmers to whom these groups seek to pass the mic onto.

The repression of such environmental youth activists by threatening arrest or wrongful incarceration—without due process—seems like a strategy to draw wedges between intersectional solidarities cultivated against the government’s development policies.

Contemporary social movements also represent the common concerns of indigenous peoples and vulnerable communities, as well as their claims to social justice through fairer resource sharing. B Rajagopal has argued that social movements also carry the potential of increasing the importance of the local as the agent of socio-political change in the Global South—this challenges the liberal assumption that increasing globalization diminishes the value of local culture. 

And so, these movements have instituted systems of social accountability and fairer decision making at the sub-national level, and thus are in the process of helping laws become responsive to local needs by engaging multiple community actors. Such groups find common goals and forge strategic alliances across ideological and national boundaries. They offer an alternative space to respond to the current lacunae in development discourses, where the existing political economy of exclusion can be dissected [3].

The social movement perspective also stresses the need for extra-institutional forms of mobilization when institutions fail. To that end, social movements pose a radical theoretical and epistemological challenge to any legislation by articulating alternative conceptions of modernity and development. The introduction of cultural politics as a strategy by social movements problematises the traditional pro-sovereign/anti-sovereign posture that prevails within any nation-state. Instead, social movements work towards the realization of human rights beyond the State, while simultaneously avoiding adopting an anti-state posture. This redefines civil society and democracy beyond formalist realms, and positions them as subaltern counter-publics [4].

Thus, when the government is not wary of globalised capital entering farmers markets through contentious legislations, why is it wary of farmers protests seeking out global solidarities? 

If anything, the resistance of these environment-based action groups that seek to glocalize the farmer’s movement through increasing solidarities must be encouraged rather than defamed by calling them anti-sovereign elements. It is imperative that forms of dissent against these legislations are not viewed as seditious, even if they question the sovereign capacity of the state to enact the same. Such articulations reify the constitutional virtues of free speech through protest and allow diversity in expression than must be cherished in a thriving democracy.

The author is a member of both Fridays for Future, New Delhi and Extinction Rebellion India since 2019.


Featured image: Fridays For Future joins a protest against the Okhla Waste To Energy Plant in South Delhi; courtesy of Vaishnavi Rathore.

[1]  An example of the latter is when FFF India and XR India activists undertook an impact assessment of Mumbai’s Coastal Road project. The assessment concluded that the project could gravely impact the coral biodiversity, adversely impact geology, and deplete the livelihoods of the Koli fisherfolk.

[2] Evidence of this was visible as early as November 2019, at the Bhumi Adhikaar Andolan rally at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. Both FFF India and XR India had volunteered in solidarity with demands for equitable recognition of land rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Several local chapters of FFF in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh have been keen to voice objections to recent actions of allowing commercial coal mining in these states. 

[3] Rodriguez I and Inturias M, “Conflict Transformation in Indigenous Peoples’ territories: Doing environmental justice with a ‘decolonial turn’” (2018) Development Studies Research Vol 5 No 1 pp. 90-10.

[4] Falk R, Law in an Emerging Global Village: a Post-Westphalian Perspective (Transnational Publishers Inc, 1998.

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