How the “toolkit” FIR connects the contents of Google documents with the 26 January violence

Praveer Ranjan, the special commissioner of Delhi Police, addresses a media briefing on 4 February 2021, regarding the ongoing investigation into the violence that occurred on 26 January 2021, during the farmers’ tractor rally. That day, the Cyber Cell of Delhi Police registered a first information report against unnamed persons for the violence on 26 January. The FIR referred to a toolkit and two organisations, and alleged that the violence was a direct result of a “global conspiracy” against India. Sonu Mehta / Hindustan Times
20 February, 2021

On 19 February, a Delhi court sent Disha Ravi, a 22-year-old climate activist, to three days in judicial custody, after she had just spent five days in the custody of the Delhi Police’s Cyber Cell unit. The Delhi Police had detained Ravi, a resident of Bengaluru, from her house on 13 February, and arrested her the next day, in a case of sedition and criminal conspiracy, among other offences. The first-information report in the case claimed that a “toolkit” had been “accidentally shared on Twitter which contains a detailed plan of a large conspiracy to wage an economic social cultural and regional war against India.” But a bare scrutiny of the FIR reveals that the police’s claims about the toolkit are tenuous at best.

On 15 February, the Cyber Cell of Delhi Police held a press conference to elaborate on the circumstances that led to Ravi’s arrest. During the briefing, Prem Nath, the joint commissioner of the police’s Cyber Cell unit, presented portions of the toolkit as incriminating evidence that tied the document to the violence during the farmers’ tractor rally in New Delhi on 26 January. Nath said that Ravi, along with a few more people, had “created and sent” this “toolkit” to others.  

The toolkit in question was first tweeted by the Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg at 5.19 pm on 3 February with the caption, “Here’s a toolkit if you want to help,” regarding the farmer’s protest. At 1.22 am on 4 February, Thunberg tweeted an updated version of the document, which was titled “Farmers Protest in India,” and deleted the previous tweet. That afternoon, the Cyber Cell of the Delhi Police registered a first information report, 49/2021, under four sections of the Indian Penal Code, which include sedition, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity and provocation to riot, against unnamed persons. Apart from the toolkit, the FIR also accuses two organisations, the Sikhs For Justice, a banned Khalistani secessionist group, and the Poetic Justice Foundation, an advocacy group, of a “global conspiracy” against India.  

Nath told the media, “The time-bound action points and programme given in the toolkit, when viewed in the context of actual developments in Delhi, clearly showed that the action plan formulated in the toolkit was implemented on ground or executed in a copycat manner.” He quoted terms such as “digital strike,” “Tweet storm” and “physical action” from the toolkit as incriminating evidence that tied the document to the violence on 26 January. But a perusal of the FIR and the toolkits, and the role of the organisations named, belies the police’s claims. For instance, when asked to point out which portions of the toolkit specifically urge or point to criminality, Nath replied that “The organisation which is already behind this toolkit is a banned organisation.” The police has previously claimed that the PJF is behind the toolkit, but the group is not a banned organisation. And while the SFJ is banned, the FIR does not establish any link between SFJ and the toolkit—questions to Delhi Police about evidence linking the two went unanswered. Several other links between the toolkit, SFJ, PJF and the violence on 26 January seem to be ambiguously worded and are unconvincing at best.

Typically used for social-media campaigns, a toolkit is a package of information about specific issues and the strategies that can be employed to resolve them. They are used by activists, companies, organisations and even administrations, including the Indian government. The Delhi Police, however, presented the toolkit as evidence of something more sinister. To begin with, the FIR claims that the original “Google Doc” was shared “accidentally,” and was “confidential.” Considering that Thunberg tweeted the document, and later re-tweeted an updated version—both of which are in the public domain, as toolkits are meant to be as they are often open-sourced—it’s unclear how the police reached this conclusion. Thunberg’s tweets clearly state that it was intentionally shared to publicise the context of the farmers’ movement among those who wish to extend support. After the registration of the FIR on 4 February, she tweeted, “I still #StandWithFarmers and support their peaceful protest. No amount of hate, threats or violations of human rights will ever change that.”

In addition, a comparison between the two versions shows that there are barely any qualitative differences between the two documents. A few references to corporate houses, the Adani Group and the Ambanis, which are the object of the farmers’ ire, had been removed. The plans and strategies for mobilisation of support for the farmers’ protest for the 26 January tractor rally had also been removed. 

During his press conference, Nath stated that Ravi created the original document, sent this toolkit to Thunberg on the messaging app Telegram, and “coaxed her to act on it.” In what seems to have become a pattern in high-profile investigations, a day after the press conference, several media outlets carried leaked WhatsApp chats, allegedly between Ravi and Thunberg, regarding the toolkit. Ravi has now filed a petition with the Delhi High Court against at least three media houses—India Today, Times Now and News 18—for “violative reporting” and subjecting her to a “media trial.” On 18 February, the court issued notices to the concerned media houses and  directed the Delhi Police to remain true to an affidavit it filed, stating that it not leaked anything to the media.

The FIR opens with the mention of the SFJ, claiming that there is a “concerted campaign” by the group to disrupt the Republic Day ceremony and “precipitate unlawful acts” in the guise of the farmers’ protests. The SFJ is based in the United States and in July 2019, it was declared an unlawful organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and in 2020, the central government designated SFJ’s founder, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun as a terrorist. The home ministry has been on a relentless pursuit of SFJ even though, as The Caravan reported, the organisation and its aims hold little influence in Punjab, among the Sikh diaspora, or even among Khalistani secessionists.

The FIR states that SFJ “had declared a reward of USD 2,50,000 for waving secessionist flag at the India Gate on Republic Day, 2021 which also contributed to the violence which happened as a result of the said tractor rally.” It is unclear from the FIR how the reward is being connected to the events that ensued on Republic Day. The very next sentence says that the rally turned violent because of the “instigation by the elements behind this document and its ‘Toolkit.’” But the FIR does not establish a direct link between the SFJ and toolkit or how the police came to the conclusion that SFJ helped create the toolkit. Questions to Delhi Police on the SFJ, and its link to the violence on 26 January, the toolkit and the PJF were unanswered at the time of publishing. The FIR just states that the “contents” of the “mentioned documents” prove that there is a “global conspiracy” to incite hatred, enmity and disaffection with the Indian state, and instigate riots.  

Exactly a week before Ravi’s arrest, the global conspiracy theory was already being built up when the prime minister Narendra Modi was on a visit to Assam. “The conspiracy to defame the country has reached such levels that they are not even leaving Assam tea alone,” he said, addressing a public event in the state. “The conspirators are saying they will sully the image of Assam tea all over the world. Some documents that have come to light reveal that there are foreign hands that want to damage our connect with the world through the tea industry.”

At the press meet, Nath echoed this point. Referring to the toolkit, he said, “The second part of the same document mentions tasks such as disruption of India’s cultural heritage such as yoga and tea.” Both the toolkits do not contain a single mention of Yoga or tea. However, the toolkits contain a link to a website created by the PJF, named Ask India Why, which has highlighted several issues concerning the present political scenario in India, such as the enactment of the CAA, clampdown on free press and activism, the repeal of Article 370 and the subsequent communication lockdown in Kashmir. The police charge about the “disruption of India’s cultural heritage such as yoga and tea” may have stemmed from Ask India Why’s homepage, which states that “India is not just all about spirituality, yoga and chai.”

PJF is a Canada-based organisation that “challenges structures of oppression and discrimination through intersectional grassroots advocacy.” The foundation’s present major focus is to mobilise a campaign in solidarity with the farmers’ protest against the three agriculture laws enacted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government in September 2020. One of its co-founders is Mo Dhaliwal, who has been characterised by some sections of the Indian media as “pro-Khalistani.” This stems from a September 2019 tweet and a recent speech in Vancouver on the farmers’ protest. In a report in Indian Express, Dhaliwal explained that he had referred to Khalistan “as an expression of solidarity with Sikhs at a time when Sikhs in Canada were being maligned as terrorists. Cover the whole Facebook post, not just the cropped top half.”   

 However, during the press conference, Nath characterised PFJ as a “pro-Khalistani” group. The FIR states that PJF deliberately shares social media posts that “tend to create disharmony … enmity.” There is no content on the organisation’s website and its allied activities which make any reference to Khalistan. Delhi Police did not respond to questions on how PJF was identified as such or it’s supposed links to the SFJ.

According to the FIR, “a perusal of the said toolkit also revealed that it was promoting campaign material by Poetic Justice Foundation.” The updated toolkit tweeted by Thunberg has a section titled “#AskIndiaWhy & Via Campesina Digital Campaign,” which suggests that those who wish to offer support to the farmers online, may post with the hashtags #StandWithFarmers and #FarmersProtest. The Google document also suggests tagging the Twitter accounts of the prime minister’s office and United Nations Twitter handles. It clearly stated that the social-media campaign is aimed at disseminating basic information about the farmers’ movement for those who are unaware of it. “This is a document meant to enable anyone unfamiliar with the ongoing farmers protests in India to better understand the situation and make decisions on how to support the farmers based on their own analysis,” the toolkit states.

The document also recommends organising solidarity protests in the vicinity of Indian embassies, government offices and media houses. The FIR, and Nath, insinuated that this particular action point mentioned in the toolkit directly resulted in an incident of vandalism at the Indian embassy in Rome, Italy’s capital city, on 26 January. It was widely reported that a group of pro-Khalistani people vandalised the walls of the embassy, carried Khalistan flags and chanted anti-India slogans.

The FIR further alleges a plot to defame Indian companies. “There is a call for economic warfare against India and certain Indian companies. Their assets in India and outside are to be made targets for physical as well as coordination actions,” it states. This is perhaps with reference to a portion of the introduction in the toolkit. “A majority of farmers are increasingly being subjected to the control of large corporations and international institutions whose sole focus is profits, and necessarily involves increased exploitation of nature,” the document said. The allegation of economic warfare is also important in the context of the politics of the farmers’ protests which have persistently criticised Adani and Reliance groups, even going so far as to shut down Jio mobile towers in some areas of Punjab and a boycott of products and services produced by these companies. However, it’s unclear how the toolkit’s exhortation to “stand up against unregulated corporatisation of the farming sector,” has been translated as a call to economic welfare.

In addition, the FIR categorically states that “the documents specifically mentions targeting certain regions of India to instigate enmity and divide.” A thorough perusal of both the versions of the toolkits showed that there is neither a single mention of any specific region in the country, nor any strategies to target any region in any manner. The Delhi Police did not respond to questions about the same.

Initially, when the FIR was filed, several news outlets reported that Thunberg was named in the FIR but Praveer Ranjan, a special commissioner of police, later clarified to the media that the FIR does not name anyone. Nine days later, Ravi was picked up from her home in Bengaluru and brought to Delhi by the capital’s police. Even the procedure followed during the arrest sparked controversy.

A Delhi Police team had arrived at Ravi’s house at around 12 pm on 13 February. “She was alone there with her mother. The local police wasn’t informed,” a close friend of Ravi alleged. Her mother, the only witness to the arrest, has so far refused to speak with the media. At the press conference, Nath said that the arrest took place in the presence of the mother and the station house officer of the concerned area, adding that due procedure was followed. Calls to the Soladevanahalli police station, under whose jurisdiction Ravi’s house is located, went unanswered. A report in the Indian Express quoted an inspector from the station, who said he was present while Ravi’s neighbours refuted is claim.

Ravi was flown from Bengaluru to Delhi by the Delhi Police team on the same evening. Lawyers have questioned whether the police could have taken Ravi across state borders without a transit remand order issued by a court of law in Bengaluru. A directive issued by the union home ministry in 2012 states, “According to section 80, a person arrested must be produced before the Executive Magistrate or the Deputy Superintendent of police or the Commissioner of police within whose jurisdiction the arrest was made. It is emphasised that section 80 CrPC must be complied with, in every case.” A December 2019 judgement authored by Justice S Muralidhar upholds this directive. “Endeavour should be made to obtain a transit remand unless exigency of the situation warrants otherwise,” the order reads, with reference to the 2012 circular.

When Ravi was produced before the Patiala House Court on Sunday, her lawyers were reportedly not informed about the remand hearing and Ravi was sent to five days police custody—her remand was extended to another three days of judicial custody on 19 February. Instead, an advocate Pramod Singh appeared for her in his capacity as a legal-aid counsel. When I contacted Singh, he confirmed that he had appeared virtually for the hearing. However, he refused to discuss anything. When I asked him if he could at least confirm whether he made any arguments for Ravi, he responded, “Humaare order mein humaara appearance hai toh argument kiye hi honge kuch na kuch?” “The order has mentioned my appearance, so obviously I must have made some argument.”

Contrary to Singh’s claim, news reports on Ravi’s court appearance on Sunday state that she had to make her own submissions. “I did not make toolkit. We want to support the farmers. I edited two lines on February 3,” she is reported to have told the court. Members of Ravi’s legal team declined to comment.

The magistrate, in its order, noted that the police sought Ravi’s custody to conduct a detailed interrogation to get information about the active members of Poetic Justice Foundation and “to recover the deleted WhatsApp group having vital information.”  The next day, during the press conference, Nath claimed that the police had recovered “highly incriminating information” from Ravi’s phone. “This information made it clear that Disha, along with her colleagues Shantanu and Nikita, created and sent a toolkit document to others,” he said. Nath was referring to Maharashtra-based activists Shantanu Muluk and Nikita Jacob, who have since been granted transit anticipatory bail in connection to the same FIR.

Nath had also cited another piece of evidence linking Ravi, Jacob and Muluk and PJF to the toolkits—a Zoom meeting that is supposed to have taken place on 11 January, where Ravi, Jacob, Muluk and Dhaliwal, the co-founder of the PJF, were present among around sixty other participants. Nath told reporters that one Canada-based woman named Puneet had put Ravi, along with Jacob and Muluk, in touch with PJF. The police have now written to Zoom seeking information on all those who attended the meeting.

Jacob, a lawyer and Muluk, formerly an engineer, both volunteer with the UK-based global group of climate activists named Extinction Rebellion, or XR India as it is called here. “On 11 January, Nikita and Shantanu attended a meeting organised by Poetic Justice Foundation in which the modalities of the Global Day of Action were worked out,” Nath said. As per the FIR as, “the document contains a detailed plan by the title: ‘Global Day of Action. Protesting for Farmers on India’s Republic Day January 26, 2020.’”

The FIR refers to the contents of this “plan” as “ingredients” for the various allegations, such as economic warfare, targeting of embassies and the violence. The updated toolkit has no such plan, and the original toolkit has several references to the word “global.” These references are in relation to a tweet storm, an Instagram live event, an email, a map, and calls for protests outside embassies, media houses, government offices and offices of Adani and Ambani—all of these together have been referred to as “a major day of globally coordinated actions” to show support “at local physical locations, wherever you are.”

In the aftermath of Ravi’s arrest, her friends and associates are visibly cautious; requesting anonymity, speaking in carefully weighed sentences and preferring to have conversations on Signal rather than WhatsApp. Ravi works with a Bengaluru-based start-up company that produces vegan milk and is also a volunteer with the Indian chapter of Fridays For Future. FFF is an environmental movement that began in several countries in August 2018, inspired by Thunberg’s three-week strike in front of the Swedish Parliament against the lack of policy action to contain the global climate crisis.

An environmental activist associated with Ravi told me, “Disha has become the face of FFF India for a number of reasons. One is because she started FFF Bangalore. She has represented India on international platforms for FFF.” The activist was dismissive of the charges against Ravi. “It’s a normal document. I don’t know what she edited but she maybe made the grammar better,” the activist told me. “Blaming her for being a mastermind of the whole farmers protest, that cannot be more ridiculous. It blows my mind that people do not understand that the toolkit is a common thing that is in use.” The activist added that they had always been wary of facing trouble in the field of climate activism. “When I had first started out, I did think that they would come after environmental activists because it’s threatening corporations who are a little pally with higher-ups.”  

Yuvan Aves, a volunteer with FFF, said that Ravi’s arrest has already caused many parents to pull their children out of the movement. “Large number of volunteers are school children, college students between ages 12-18. People are pulling out of the movement saying enough of being concerned about the environment,” he told me. Referring to the growing solidarity in favour of Ravi, her colleague said, “I hope it will garner much more support. And that this tactic backfires.”

On 19 February, Ravi was produced in court after five days of police custody. There were at least fifty police officials, some of them holding riot shields, stationed at the court for the court appearance of the 22-year-old activist. Her lawyers had been waiting at the court for over an hour before Ravi was finally brought to court. Irfan Ahmed, an additional public prosecutor who appears in Delhi Police Special Cell cases, and one inspector Manoj Kumar, the investigating officer in the case, appeared in court for the police. They were joined virtually by the additional solicitor general, SV Raju. Siddharth Aggarwal and Abhinav Sekhri appeared for Ravi.

Ahmed submitted in court that under police custody, Ravi had “shifted her stance” on Jacob and Muluk, and provided information that sought to “blame them.” The police counsel added that Muluk had been summoned as part of the investigation on 22 February, and that Ravi should therefore be sent to judicial custody until then—for three days. Aggarwal argued for Ravi that the police had submitted a case diary that was not properly paginated, in violation of criminal procedure, and that the judge could not extend custody without being provided the proper documents. Ultimately, the judge Aakash Jain accepted the police’s contentions and sent Ravi to judicial custody.

When she was brought to court, she was surrounded on both sides by a wall of police officials. She was rushed into court, ushered by police officials. Ravi was wearing a mask, and only her eyes visible as she scanned the crowd of lawyers and journalists gathered outside the court. She looked terrified. She will now spend three days in jail.