The name of Disha Ravi [DR], a 21-year-old climate justice activist, shook Bharat by storm in mid-February 2021. DR is the founder of the India chapter of Fridays for Future, an international protest network launched by Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. On 13 February 2021, DR was arrested, on the grounds of her alleged involvement in the creation and dissemination of a ‘toolkit’ to support the farmers’ protests, which have been raging since November 2020. To quote the Guardian, this toolkit was shared in the form of a Google doc, and included a compilation of information, hashtags, suggested actions, ideas and contacts for those who wanted to help support the farmers.
The state’s reaction to DR’s climate justice advocacy and solidarity with the protesting farmers was beyond out of proportion. DR was arrested in her native Bengaluru, flown to Delhi, and charged sedition. She was held in police and judicial custody for 10 days, causing tremendous distress to herself and her family. The arrest was based on a First Information Report [FIR] filed by the Delhi Police, which maintains that the above-mentioned toolkit “contains a detailed plan of a large conspiracy to wage economic, social, cultural, and regional war against India”. The FIR, and subsequently the Delhi police, have failed to provide any tangible evidence to substantiate this claim. The entire saga of arresting DR, the wave of right-wing, bhakt-led media attacks against her, and the hollowness of the claims made by law enforcement, certain public figures and bhakts of all hues, set a dangerous precedent. The objective of this crackdown of stealth is clear – to set a precedent to the younger generation of citizens on the consequences of speaking up for justice, and for the rights one believes in. Sedition is used to instill fear and water-down protest, a reality that has led a number of legal experts to call for its abolition.
The name of Bhagya Abeyratne [BA], a 19-year-old woman, started making headlines when she attended a popular TV show, aired on a privately-owned TV channel. In the course of her appearance, she raised a number of issues that concerned environmental destruction in her native region, home to the Sinharaja forest reserve, a Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO-designated world heritage site. This unprecedented drive of environmental destruction is state-sanctioned and takes place under the auspices of the Nandasena regime. It is fuelled by the powerful business interests that placed him on the presidential chair. Hence the absolute ruthlessness and boldness of those engaging in the incredibly self-destructive act of destroying invaluable forest land. This writer maintains that it would be naïve to assume that the ongoing environmental destruction in Sri Lanka is not connected to the geopolitical repercussions, emanating especially from Sri Lanka’s strategic position and tight squeeze between ‘Belt-and-Road’ and ‘Indo-Pacific’. An incisive reading of such geopolitical dimensions, however, is for a separate article.
Governments Scared of Gen Z Women?
In relation to DR and BA, what is of interest is the ways in which the Bharatiya and Sri Lankan governments, law enforcement and state authorities reacted to the two women and their activism for environmental and socio-economic justice.
In DR’s case, the Sanghis, RSS goons, bhakts – and to borrow from the most argent of bhakts, the indomitable Mr. Bhakt Bannerjee, WhatsApp University graduates, – all lined up to paint the most excruciatingly negative picture of DR. They all rallied to spew hatred, insult, body-shame, infantilise, disregard the agency of a 21-year-old woman who spoke her mind on a rights issue she was passionate about. The sexism and anguish, especially bhakt-masculine arrogance as well as bhakt-cis-feminine arrogance, targeted against DR were beyond vicious.
Surprisingly [or not so surprisingly after all], the reaction of the Sri Lankan authorities towards BA shares a lot in common with Delhi’s obsession with DR. In both cases, two women who spoke their minds on issues that mattered to them came under fire from their respective governments. The backlash targeted at them came from very powerful places. In both cases, law enforcement bodies have been involved. While DR was arrested on sedition charges, BA received intrusive visits from the police and other government officials [Sri Lankan police – I daresay, shares the many vices of police forces around the world, including fragile masculinity and an extremely toxic level of misogyny. The Lankan police recently made a public display of these traits, when some men in the police went to court against one of their own – a senior officer – and the first woman in the force to reach such high office].
The cases of DR and BA signify how challenging it is for the two phallocentric, out-of-touch, and to use words meaningfully, ‘extremist regimes’ in Delhi and Colombo to acknowledge the agency of young women. In her climate change work and advocacy to support the farmers’ protests, DR was up against the mighty Modi Sarkar and its sanghi/bhakt/Hindutva elements.
BA, for her part, is up against a militarising and repressive regime, with no policy agenda on any issue. It thrives on a petty brand of Sinhalese nationalism, communalism and social conservatism.
The Proxy Regime of Lanka: An Important Reminder
Beyond the above-mentioned widely-known and acknowledged characteristics of the Nandasena regime, it is crucial to highlight that the regime is very much what this writer would call a ‘proxy’ regime. To elucidate further, and contrary to a myth successfully sold to many millions of Sri Lankans, the Nandasena regime is NOT a powerful government. In truth, it is a proxy regime that implements the agendas of a) the powers that be that laid the strategic plan to bring it to power in post-Easter-Sunday-2019 Lanka, and b) the powerful business interests that made this mission possible. Taking stock of this reality is essential not only to BA, but to all citizens [especially those of Gen Z] seeking to transform our society, environment and governance in a positive direction.
Misogyny, Infantilising and Shutting Down?
By the mere act of speaking out, DR and BA have single-handedly kicked the oppressive regimes of their countries below the belt. Most importantly, it is crucial to note that it is not only the regimes and the state-sanctioned discourses of hatred that they have rattled. It is very important to highlight and reiterate the truth that is often unsaid – that both women have in fact considerably offended the toxically-masculinist and deeply patriarchal structures of the two countries. It is in these restrictive and inherently oppressive structures and frameworks that politics, the media and consequently, public opinion operates in the two countries [and indeed in many other places in the Subcontinent and beyond].
To elucidate further, let’s take the example of media portrayals of DR and BA by supposedly progressive media platforms.
DR has been repeatedly shut down on the basis of not being sufficiently knowledgeable about the issues at hand. Senior politicians were vocal in their aversion of DR. At the same time, she has been subjected to high levels of misogyny and slut-shaming. The most worrying of such attacks have been those made by women, in some cases women who happen to be much older that DR. Some of this misogyny included the most hideous efforts to slander DR [this writer refrains from providing any links to such content, some of which can still be found on social media platforms. The fact that no action has been taken against such pathetic levels of misogyny says something about the said social media platforms and their disregard for the agency and rights of women, especially non-white women]. To quote one analyst, DR’s arrest, slut-shaming [sic] is symptomatic of “New India’s” ugly, deep-rooted misogyny. The Modi Sarkar’s ‘better tomorrow’ narrative is all but a fictitious utopia that cannot be realised for as long as the state plunders into the abyss of intercommunal hatred and gross gender-based injustices.
On top of the wave of state-sanctioned harassment of BA, she was – and is endlessly being – infantilised in Sri Lankan media, by politicians and governmental authorities. Words that are used to refer to an underage child are routinely used to refer to a 19-year-old full-fledged citizen who spoke her mind against environmental destruction. The most worrying reality is that this is not only done by mainstream media, the misogyny and many other vices of which are well-known.
It is of interest to note how SL Vlog, an online media platform that prizes its brand of independent, viewer-funded, Patreon-fuelled journalism, portrayed BA. In a news cast devoted to BA’s comments and related repercussions, the anchor, herself a woman representing the younger generation, constantly refers to BA as ‘Darivi’ and ‘Daruva’, and ‘podi lamayek’, thereby completely and recklessly infantilising BA. This use of words completely disregards the fact that we are talking about a 19-year-old woman, and a full-fledged citizen entitled to civic rights, and an adult in the eyes of the law of the land. BA is referred to as a kid who spoke her mind on a TV channel. The way in which the SL Vlog newscast refers to BA is deeply problematic and leaves a markedly negative impact on the otherwise progressive stance it upholds on climate justice and the state-sanctioned harassment of BA. In yet another newscast on 17 March 2021, SL Vlog cites a social media post by Dr Harini Amarasuriya MP, the only politician in Sri Lanka’s 225-member legislature to clearly articulate the pathetic level of infantilising of BA. Blind spots are such that even in that second newscast, BA is still referred to in the above-mentioned infantilising words.
Patriarchal dictates: deeply embedded and difficult to unpack
The fact that a supposedly progressive media platform approaches BA in this way does not come as a surprise. This precisely because of the truism that the entire political sphere, and the media apparatus [including classic electronic and print media, as well as social media] operate along what this writer described above as ‘toxically-masculinist and deeply patriarchal “structures”. In these spaces, the gender of the person who edits and reads the news or leads the media platform does not matter. Irrespective of who is in a spearheading role, they are accustomed and conditioned to follow a conservative and phallocentric set of codes. SL Vlog’s use of words to refer to BA is exemplary of the difficulties of breaking free from such codes, even when one wholeheartedly means well and is intent upon an accountable brand of journalism.
Standing with Gen Z Women: A Collective Citizens’ Responsibility
DR and BA, and indeed the many millions of women of their generation – in all their diversity [cis, trans, intersex, socio-economically privileged, less privileged, representing ethnic and religious majorities or minorities, heteronormative or non-heteronormative, to name but less than a handful of intersections] – deserve and require the fullest endorsement of everyone who believes in fundamental rights, gender, social economic and environmental justice. This younger generation of citizens – especially women who are prepared to take a bold stand against repressive policies, state-sanctioned campaigns of hatred and injustices – is the best hope for progressive change that we have. Their voices should be amplified and strengthened, in every possible way. It is not a question of expertise. It is not a question of age. The South Asian region’s tendency to pursue ageist, uptight, and many other misogynist ways of shutting down women’s voices, especially those of younger women, need urgent unpacking and outright condemnation. The existing ‘systems’ and power structures, where middle-aged cisgender menfolk rule, where gender-based hierarchies thrive and fuel many other vices [such as ethnonational/ethnoreligious hatred and caste-based discrimination] imperatively need to be dismantled. The world we leave for the generations to come should be one that is equipped with a stronger understanding and praxes of equality and justice.
The inspiring climate change advocacy of Disha Ravi and Bhagya Abeyratne shine a light on the tremendous potential of the younger generation, and on the vital importance of believing that meaningful change is indeed possible. To quote Dr Elizabeth Kerekere MP, a leading human rights activist academic from Aotearoa, “Why do we get up in the morning, if not to change the world?” In that spirit, suffice to note that falls upon each and every one of us who believes in progressive change to do everything within our means to endorse, support and strengthen the critical perspectives that the younger generation, especially Gen-Z women, bring to the table.
*Disclaimer: The writer writes in a strictly personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do NOT represent the views of any other individual, organisation, natural or juridical person.