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How young activists are coping with surveillance

The arrest of activists like Disha Ravi and Nodeep Kaur has shocked young Indians. But some are pushing back

Activists Nodeep Kaur (left) and Disha Ravi.
Activists Nodeep Kaur (left) and Disha Ravi. (Getty Images & Reuters)

The legal storm surrounding activists Disha Ravi, Nodeep Kaur and Shantanu Muluk has sent shockwaves through India’s young activists. The travails of Kaur and Ravi have vindicated their concerns about online privacy and state surveillance. But they also say that despite the government looking into links related to the act of coordination between political organisers and protesters, they will not be discouraged from standing up for their beliefs.

During the protests against the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), Bengaluru-based graphic designer Sharath Ravishankar, 25, worked to leverage social media. “I have a decent following, so I crowdsourced help and managed to translate explainers on CAA and NRC into 15 or 16 different languages,” he says.

For several young people, engaging with such digital initiatives represents a first step towards participation in democratic processes. Indrayudh Sengupta, 24, attended his first protest in December 2019 at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar after he saw anti-CAA toolkits go viral. “Instagram accounts with large followings and even many of my friends were sharing these posters and explainers on their Stories,” he says.

Such posters, explainers and “toolkits” not only amplify fact-checked information but also educate people on the best way to contribute to causes they care about, she explains. “A toolkit is just a document outlining a plan of action. They are like indexes to a book or timetables in schools,” says Mitali, a freelance management professional in Mumbai who wishes to be identified only by her first name.

After the effective abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, relating to Jammu and Kashmir, in 2019, AJ, 26, and a group of co-organisers used Google Forms to curate a mailing list of around 300 people who would receive explainers on social justice issues in the valley.

AJ requests only her initials be used; she doesn’t want the government to trace her identity and label her work “sedition”, “anti-national” or “sympathetic towards separatists”. “We also made a tweet bank for a Twitter storm highlighting 100 days of lockdown in Kashmir,” she says.

But the government’s crackdown on activists has left some young people, previously energised by social media, disillusioned about their impact. “I was scared for my safety and stopped sharing political content online,” Sengupta admits. “If someone did take issue with what I was sharing, who would help me?”

AJ adds that due to the current political climate, she and her co-organisers have scrubbed the internet clean of their outreach efforts. “We have deactivated the group’s social media and email and erased the Google drive that had the mailing list and infographics because that’s how the authorities accessed material to investigate Disha and Shantanu,” she says.

Invisibility, however, is not an option for everyone. Doctors and lawyers who provide on-ground relief for protesters rely on social media for information.

“SOS calls on social media inform health workers about where help is needed,” says Harjit Singh Bhatti, 35, national president of the Progressive Medicos & Scientists Forum. He has distributed medicines in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh and set up health camps on the Capital’s borders at Ghazipur, Singhu and Tikri for farmers protesting the new farm laws.

Delhi-based human rights lawyer Mishika Singh, 30, has used WhatsApp to organise help for protesters. In a group of around 250 people, she regularly released lists of lawyers on standby at protest venues across Delhi. She also helped create city-specific groups for legal aid and prompt, fact-checked developments. Following the arrests of young activists, Singh, Dr Bhatti and their colleagues are now forced to find ways to protect their privacy while still maintaining a digital presence.

“Our WhatsApp group has around 150 members but only 10-20 keep profile photos,” Dr Bhatti says. The rest, he says, are scared of retaliatory action from the authorities at their medical institutions if their identities are made public. Singh explains that lawyers sometimes hesitate to coordinate online owing to the possibility of being slapped with charges of conspiracy against the government.

“Despite knowing their rights, lawyers fear for their safety because even attorney-client privilege is being violated,” she says, referring to police raids on the office of Mehmood Pracha, defence counsel for several accused in the north-east Delhi riots, including student-activist Gulfisha Fatima, who faces charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

“Organisers need to publish their information for legitimacy but this information can be used against you,” says Avantika Kadapatti, 21, founder of Do It For The Hood, a women’s healthcare non-profit.

HL, a 20-year-old student activist in Mumbai, adds that doxxing, trolling and harassment—especially for queer and trans folk—is an ever-present threat. HL doesn’t want their full name published, afraid of being outed to family members or losing accommodation. “If you asked me if I was scared six months ago, I would have said no…. But now coordinated political action is being seen as a conspiracy,” says HL.

Despite such worries, however, young organisers remain resolute in their endeavours for social justice. “Our work is legal and constitutional,” says Samata Kala Manch activist Vinit Vichare, 23. He was held in a 2018 raid on the Republican Panthers Caste Annihilation Movement office in Govandi, Maharashtra, by policemen investigating a complaint related to the Elgar Parishad event that preceded the Bhima Koregaon violence of January 2018. “My laptop, hard disk and mobile were confiscated during the raid even though my name was not on the search warrant,” he says. “I had my last semester exam on the same day. Ironically, the subject for that exam was ‘Para-legal education’ and questions were asked about the Indian Constitution.”

Madhura Padhye, a 41-year-old NGO worker in Kashmir, says seeing toolkits of explainers, posters and infographics being shared widely gives people a sense of security and solidarity. “Young people feel like they are a part of something larger than themselves, especially when they see like-minded people willing to risk their freedom and safety for a cause,” she says.

HL believes the government intends to scare young Indians by treating Disha and others like her harshly. But it seems to be having the opposite effect.

Ravishankar says he’s more motivated to create protest art when his peers are targeted and Kadapatti’s parents are proud of her for standing up for her beliefs despite fears of arrest or sedition charges.

Mitali sums up the opinions of her generation: “It’s not criminal to organise people to a particular cause. If the government can do it, why can’t the people?”

Rhea Arora is a journalist based in Mumbai.

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