Historian Romila Thapar, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, senior Congress leader Salman Khurshid, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, and senior advocate Kapil Sibal were among the key speakers.
The objective was to collectively express distress and propose solutions to safeguard constitutional rights, promote social justice, and address pressing issues such as unemployment, communalism, and the erosion of democratic values.
“I felt lonely, like many people here, because we think differently from the overall government narrative,” Kumar told EuroJournal.
Another common phrase that cropped up regularly was “aggressive policies of the current regime”.
The short-term end goal of the convention was to present a set of policy recommendations to political parties—to showcase the civil society’s commitment to fighting “authoritarianism” in the country. The list includes recommendations for civil society and media as well.
Some of the key proposals were to seek a review of recent legislations allowing arrest on suspicion and expanding the definition of terrorism, repealing draconian laws such as UAPA, and advocating for a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for farmers. The proposals also called for strengthening institutions like the Election Commission of India (ECI), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and Enforcement Directorate (ED), and repealing regressive amendments to various Acts.
The topics were discussed exhaustively and enthusiastically at various sessions, but there was an undercurrent of cynicism as well.
“Too little, too late,” said a member of the audience.
Old and restless
The intention of the Democracy Convention was to bring diverse voices, but it remained a meeting of old friends—Delhi’s English-speaking elite whom Modi mocked as the “Khan Market gang”. But Kumar is hopeful that going forward, the convention will not be an echo chamber. She would like to see it rolled out in other cities as well.
“This is a self-funded event, so I got together with my contacts and set it up. All people at the panel are here because they have worked for years on the ground,” she said. “This is just a small beginning. We need to make it a regular event and take it to other states, including tier-two cities as well.”
In her opening remarks, Thapar spoke about “directing attention to the youth”, but they were not represented in the audience. The number of people below 40 years of age was in single digits when the conference began.
“Everybody here is grey-haired. And, some with dyed hair,” said one audience member. But another male member seemed comfortable with the demographics. “I don’t wish to be ageist. Of course, we need youngsters for their energy, but you should leave discussions like these to us.”
As the day progressed, several PhD students swung by to attend the sessions, but they were still in a minority. One of the reasons for the absence of young voices was that the convention was not advertised on social media for security reasons. Kumar later explained that participants did not want it publicised for fear of inviting disruption.
“Young people need to be told in the language they understand,” said Ajay Shankar, a former IAS officer.
The conversations covered a wide spectrum of issues—fundamental rights, information dissemination, discussions on which political party is better among the two evils, and empathy or the seeming lack of it.
“I was thrown out of Manipur and when I came to Delhi… there was no support,” one of the speakers Babloo Loitongbam told EuroJournal. Loitongbam is a human rights activist and lawyer from Manipur. His house was attacked in the ongoing clashes in Manipur and he calls himself living in “exile” in Delhi. “We are fighting two wars in Manipur—one with the Ak47s on the ground and another war of narrative,” he added, stressing on the importance of empathy for people on the other side as well.
(Edited by Prashant)