Indian court strikes down travel ban on Greenpeace activist

Indian laborers load coal into trucks near the city of Jammu on Feb. 4.
(Jaipal Singh / European Pressphoto Agency)

Ruling that a democracy can’t muzzle dissent, an Indian court on Thursday struck down a travel ban against a Greenpeace activist who has criticized the government’s aggressive pursuit of coal-based energy projects.

It was the second significant legal victory this year for the Indian branch of Greenpeace after the same court ruled in January that the government could not block the environmental group from receiving foreign funding for its domestic advocacy work.

In both decisions, the Delhi High Court in the Indian capital dismissed the government’s claims that Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations were acting against “national interests” for opposing its energy policies, which rely heavily on coal-powered thermal plants that generate huge amounts of carbon emissions.

“The state may not accept the views of the civil rights activists, but that by itself cannot be a good enough reason to do away with dissent,” Judge Rajiv Shakdher wrote in the Thursday ruling. Shakdher also ruled in favor of Greenpeace in the earlier case.


The activist, Priya Pillai, was stopped at the New Delhi airport in January while attempting to travel to London to speak to British lawmakers about alleged human rights violations by Essar, a British-registered energy company that has proposed to build a coal mine in the Mahan forest in central India.

Greenpeace and other groups have argued that the project would destroy the livelihoods of thousands of villagers and a wildlife corridor that is home to scores of animal species.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he would protect the environment and invest in renewable energy, but his main priority is to speed up India’s economic development. To bring electricity to the hundreds of millions of Indians who still don’t have it, Modi’s government plans to triple the capacity of coal-fired power plants by 2020.

In court, government lawyers argued that Pillai’s trip to London would have harmed India’s image abroad and jeopardized Indo-British relations. In his ruling, Shakdher described that claim as “completely untenable.”

Pillai said the court had cracked down on an “undemocratic abuse of power” by Modi’s government.

“It’s a big, big victory -- not just for Greenpeace and for me personally, but for the people of this country who dare to have a different view on development,” Pillai said in an interview.

India bills itself as the world’s biggest democracy, but its authorities have come under fire recently for efforts aimed at stifling speech or behavior that they deem inappropriate.

Authorities in Mumbai, the second-largest city, have banned the sale or possession of beef in the surrounding state -- deeming it an affront to Hinduism, which regards the cow as sacred -- and launched a probe into a raunchy comedy show after it was uploaded to the Internet, forcing the producers to take it down.


Indian censors also muted the word “lesbian” from a popular Bollywood film and canceled the theatrical release of even a severely edited version of “50 Shades of Grey,” the hit Hollywood adaptation of an erotic novel.

Most controversially, the New Delhi government banned “India’s Daughter,” a BBC documentary about a notorious 2012 gang-rape and murder in the capital, and told Google to remove YouTube links to the film from its search results in India.

On Thursday, the Delhi High Court declined to lift the ban, saying that airing the documentary could prejudice a decision pending in the Supreme Court on the fate of four convicted rapists, who have appealed their death sentences. But the judges in the case said they had “no problem” with airing the documentary after the Supreme Court decision.

In most instances, technology has thwarted the government’s attempts to muzzle content. The documentary has remained available on various websites in India, where reports indicate that it has been widely viewed, at least in urban areas.


Pillai, the activist, ultimately spoke to the British lawmakers on schedule, via Skype from New Delhi.

“The government has been trying to silence people in the form of bans -- they will decide what you eat, what you speak, what you see,” Pillai said. “That’s totally unacceptable in a democracy.”

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