Delhi police invoke anti-terror law against green NGO. Their crime? Helping send emails to Prakash Javadekar
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Delhi police invoke anti-terror law against green NGO. Their crime? Helping send emails to Prakash Javadekar

The police issued a notice under the UAPA to block Fridays For Future India’s website because their ‘unlawful activities may disturb peace, sovereignty of India’, only to later claim that it had been sent mistakenly.

By Anukriti Malik

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The Indian government last month censored three environmental advocacy groups that have been raising concerns about the draft Environment Impact Assessment Notification of 2020. Fridays For Future India, Let India Breathe, and There Is No Earth B have had their websites blocked.

Now, worryingly, it has emerged that Fridays for Future India, the country chapter of the climate movement led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is facing action under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, an anti-terror law.

On July 8, the Delhi police sent a notice to Endurance Domains Technology LLP, an internet service provider that hosts FFF India’s domain, demanding that it block the group’s website because their “unlawful activities may disturb peace, sovereignty of India”.

“The website depicts objectionable contents and unlawful activities or terrorist act, which are dangerous for the peace, tranquility and sovereignty of India,” reads the notice publicised by FFF India on Wednesday. “The publication and transmission of such objectionable contents is a cognizable and punishable criminal offence under Section 18 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.”

Delhi Police Notice.pdf
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The notice was prompted by a complaint from environment minister Prakash Javadekar “regarding the incident of getting multiple emails with the subject name similar to ‘EIA 2020’.”

The emails to Javadekar were an outcome of FFF India’s campaign to encourage wider public participation in the consultation on the EIA notification. It’s shocking that such advocacy was construed by the authorities as terrorist activity, legal experts told Newslaundry.

“These are young people engaged in climate activism. One would hope that this would not result in chilling the free expression of speech. It’s just shocking that you have invoked provisions of the UAPA. How is it terrorist activity?” Vrinda Bhandari, the lawyer representing FFF India, questioned. “We believe that there is nothing illegal going on and nothing that justifies shutting down the website. We have asked that the notice be rescinded so that the website could be restored.”

The draft EIA notification, which the Narendra Modi regime is pushing through amid a global pandemic, is facing vehement opposition from environmental activists. They object that it gives the government vast discretionary powers in deciding the environmental impact of projects while limiting public engagement.

Making the notice public, FFF India denied the allegations made in it. Their email campaign “did not level threats and raised no outrageous demands but objectively raised concern regarding India’s environment and climate justice,” they said in a statement. “The blocking of the website is shocking and appalling. It is upsetting and disappointing that the government is digitally censoring the movement and accusing the youth of India of doing completely absurd things.”

Speaking about the draft EIA notification and FFF India’s campaign against it, M Yuvan, a volunteer with the advocacy group, told Newslaundry, “The draft EIA does nothing to protect the quality of the environment. In fact, it removes existing safeguards. It’s bad in law. The notification itself states that it is open to public rebuttal. We generated awareness about what the draft EIA was, what it would lead to if it was allowed to pass. Then, we drafted an email that people could use as a kind of framework to express their concerns if they wanted to. So, the public on their own used the framework and expressed their concerns, which is due process.”

He added, “The Delhi police notice was sent under Section 18 of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act which deals with conspiracy and spreading religious hatred. These allegations are absolutely baseless. We only facilitated due process in policy and public participation in government’s decisionmaking. There is no basis to accuse us of conspiracy and anti-national activity.”

Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation whom FFF India consulted about the notice, said, “Around July 14, we were shown a notice sent to Big Rock, Fridays For Future’s domain provider, by the Delhi police. FFF consulted lawyers. Based on their advice, a representation was sent to the Delhi police which indicates that the notice, which has led to the website being blocked, was completely illegal.”

FFF India’s representation, which seeks the restoration of its website, was sent to Anyesh Roy, the deputy commissioner of police, who signed the notice to Endurance Domains Technology.

“It’s important to note that the domain block is against environmental campaigners who are facilitating citizen engagement in the proposed dilution of the EIA 2020,” Gupta added. “This constitutes a very worrying form of censorship where certain provisions of the UAPA are being cited by the police indicating illegality that just isn’t there in these cases.”

Bhandari, who was one of the lawyers whose advice was sought by FFF India, said, “Fridays for Future had a draft email on their website that any citizen could send to the environment minister and the EIA authority. If you went on FFF India’s website and clicked on the draft email, it opened in your email inbox as a draft. Then, as an individual concerned user, you could decide if you wanted to send that email or if you wanted to edit the context. All FFF did was to provide a template which listed out some of the concerns and objections regarding the draft EIA. They didn’t send out all the emails.”

She added, “It is important to note that this is in line with the orders by the Delhi and Karnataka high courts which have asked the government to give publicity to the notification.”

The police’s notice, Bhandari pointed out, was rooted in the “mistaken assumption that FFF India sent all the emails and flooded the inboxes of the public authorities.”

Newslaundry tried contacting Javdekar for comment but couldn’t get through. This report will be updated if a response is received.

Anil Mittal, a spokesperson for the Delhi police, told Newslaundry that they have withdrawn the notice and that no further investigation was being considered at the moment. Mittal refused to divulge further details, or even confirm if he was referring to the notice sent under the UAPA.

When Newslaundry asked Bhandari if FFf India had been informed about the withdrawal of the notice, she said they hadn’t.

Update: It was reported on Wednesday evening that the Delhi police had withdrawn the UAPA notice sent to FFF India, claiming that it had been sent “mistakenly”. They have sent fresh notices under the Information Technology Act.

Responding to the news, the Internet Freedom Foundation said in a statement that they were still waiting for the police to share a copy of the withdrawal order with the environmental advocacy group. FFF India's website remains inaccessible.

Update on July 24: The websites of Fridays For Future India and Let India Breathe have been restored. The website of There Is No Earth B is partially accessible, though the group said they cannot confirm yet if their website is restored, and the issue is not "completely resolved". None of the groups received official communications or updates from authorities.

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