“We don’t need to be told what to do on democracy,” Indian Ambassador to the United Nations Ruchira Kamboj told the press in New York on December 4. “India is perhaps the most ancient civilisation in the world.”

The diplomat was sternly responding to questions on India’s low press freedom ranking – 150 out of 180 countries according to the World Press Freedom Index released in May.

To buttress the claim that all was well, Kamboj, taking cue from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches, reached back to the ancient Shakya and Licchavi eras:

“In India, democracy had roots going back 2,500 years to the Shakyas and the Licchavis.... And, coming down to very recent times, we have all the pillars of democracy that are intact: legislature, executive, judiciary and the Fourth Estate – the press. And, a very vibrant social media. So, the country is the world’s largest democracy.” 

We had the earliest republics, so our democratic credentials cannot be questioned, Kamboj reminded the international media, most of which represented freshly minted democracies.

Israeli film director Nadav Lapid, the head of the jury of the International Film Festival of India, may have found this logic to be strange. Lapid witnessed the full force of India’s vibrant democracy when he failed to see the artistic merit of The Kashmir Files, a movie enthusiastically supported by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Despite the storm over his November 28 remarks that the film was propaganda, Lapid asked Indians calmly, “Do you want to live in the kind of a place where you cannot open your mouth and express an opinion about a film without being attacked and threatened? Is that where you want to live?”

There was a refusal to understand that Lapid was not denying the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits but merely commenting on the vulgar manner in which director Vivek Agnihotri exploits their suffering.

The Indian diplomat’s comments at the United Nations similarly defy logic.

Human beings give birth to humans. But democracies do not necessarily beget democracies. They can lead to dictatorship, fascism and other forms of autocracy – as the world has seen happen in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Poland and several other countries. Accepting the diplomat’s contention that the land we know as India had in ancient times territories with republican and democratic features, does not explain away the fact that the same place also witnessed the growth of monarchies.

Home Minister Amit Shah on November 25 encouraged historians to find and write about 30 empires and 300 great warriors to rectify the historical vision of India. Needless to say, all of them need to be Hindu empires or one should not expect the Indian Council of Historical Research nor the government to support them.

The diplomat’s assertion about the freedom of expression flourishing in India brings to mind an account from the past few days on the campus of the University of Delhi where I teach Hindi. It is a dull account of how freedom is achieved in our campuses.

A student from a neighbouring department, who had made an appointment to see me, turned up with a person I immediately recognised as Shiv Kumar.

Kumar and his fellow labour activist Nodeep Kaur were arrested by the Haryana police in February 2021 for mobilising support for the farmers’ movement and organising workers to demand fair wages and better working conditions. Kumar was also assaulted by the police, leaving him with permanent disabilities.

The student, who I will call P, is part of a campaign seeking the release of political prisoners, especially Professor GN Saibaba, our colleague who has spent nearly eight years in jail. Saibaba is serving life term for what authorities claim is aiding terrorist activities. He was charged under the stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

In October, the Bombay High Court acquitted him after it found that the police had not followed the process stipulated for such cases. But the Indian state immediately moved the Supreme Court, which, in a most extraordinary Saturday sitting, stayed the High Court order, arguing that process is not very important. Saibaba, even if 90% physically disabled, is after all a dangerous mind.

Noticing that Kumar was slumping to one side of the chair, I asked if he was alright. He had lost vision in one eye and his legs keep hurting, he said. Doctors said the physical assault by the police has caused irreparable damage to his limbs. Even if one does not agree with Kumar’s ideology, how can one disregard the injuries that he has to carry all his life; injuries meted out by the protectors of the law in the world’s largest democracy?

As part of the campaign, P and Kumar were trying to mobilise funds and support for a public meeting to push for their demands. The hall alone cost Rs 45,000, they said. Why choose such an expensive place, I asked. They said that they could not get a hall anywhere. The police had paid a visit to the Gandhi Peace Foundation after the last time it announced that such a meeting would be held there. Another venue had canceled the booking when Saibaba’s name was mentioned.

Why couldn’t we have it on the university campus? P smiled and asked if I knew about a circular by the Delhi University proctor that said police clearance would be required to hold any events on campus.

I recalled a conversation at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad four years ago. Students had told me that the authorities wanted them to get police clearance before asking the university for a space to hold an event. At that time, I had thought such things happened only in Gujarat.

P returned the next day for the donation I had promised and asked if I would attend a protest meeting to be held outside the gate of the arts faculty. What was it about, I asked. He told me about what had happened to him and Kumar after our meeting the previous day.

P and other students, who were part of the campaign, were having tea at the Patel Chest Institute when they were attacked by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student wing. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad has taken upon itself to defend the government and Hindutva on campuses and elsewhere – by any means necessary, it appears.

Kumar and others had been injured. The police had registered their complaint but applied sections that were not serious. A protest was now going to be held to defend the right to protest.

A protest against the attack on Jawaharlal Nehru University students, in January 2020. Credit: Reuters.

When I arrived at the gate, I saw a police bus and scores of police personnel but P and his friends were nowhere to be found. Someone pointed to a banner that the police had hung up, announcing the enforcement of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure under which any gathering could be outlawed.

I went back to the faculty ground thinking the protest had been called off. But while speaking to some colleagues, there was the sound of slogans being chanted. There was a commotion and I saw the university security staff trying to lock the gate. Some students fought with the security guards to keep the gate open. They managed to enter the ground with flags of various colours.

The group assembled near a statue of philosopher Vivekanand. His eyes looked into the distance, arms folded in a firm resolve. Was he concerned about what was happening at his feet? Did he know that those who have made him their brand ambassador keep assaulting people in his name?

The security guards formed a ring near the statue. I could see them making calls and feared the police might be called anytime. Slogans were still being shouted. I saw a teacher, who was close to some of the organisers, come by. I told him the slogans were a waste of time. They should tell us and the non-partisan students why they were here.

After the slogans subsided, they began talking, telling bystanders about Saibaba’s arrest and the fight for the rights of Adivasis. But I am at an age where I get impatient with such rhetoric. I wanted them to talk facts, explain the court order and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. But I was asking for too much.

A young girl with a bandaged forehead appeared on the scene. She demanded to know why she and her friends had been attacked. Why were they barred from talking about these issues on the campus? If the university did not want students to talk facts and air their opinions, why was it running a journalism centre?

I could sense the non-partisan ears trying to listen to the activist students. But someone punctured the explanation with laughter. It stopped when I looked back. By now, I was getting anxious. The chief of security told me exasperatedly that the discussions should end soon as the other side was about to confront these protesters.

“Will you speak, sir?” I was asked. “No, keep it a student only affair,” I said. I saw injuries on his cheeks. Was I afraid or was I being strategic? Was I trying to distance myself from the protestors? Was I being a coward, I wondered while walking to my department.

Someone asked if he could discuss his presentation with me. It was the student I had silenced with my stare. “Why were you laughing when they were talking about their injuries?” I snapped. He mumbled an embarrassed explanation. Regaining my composure, I talked about his presentation.

I entered the cold building. Students, teachers and others were passing by freely. The gate to the faculty was chained but people could pass through. Birds were chirping freely. A dog was wandering freely. Students were talking freely on the phone.

Freedom. So much freedom, freedom everywhere. What is the worry?

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.