There seems to be no easier way to damn something than to call it "elitist". That is the veritable kiss of death. Political elite. Liberal elite. Media elite. Academic elite. Lutyens elite.
Anti-elitism works wonderfully to incinerate the opposition, whether wielded by Narendra Modi, or even the gilded manor-born like Donald Trump. Everyone loves to hate the elite.
Perhaps that is why when the government went to the Supreme Court to argue against privacy being a fundamental right, they branded it with the E-word. Attorney-General of India, KK Venugopal, said the right to privacy had more credibility in countries that are socially, economically and politically developed, not a poor country like India.
"It is not fair and right to talk about right to privacy for such poor people," Venugopal said.
In India where millions are below the poverty line, the government contended privacy concerns just got in the way of the government getting them roti, kapda, makaan.
Privacy was thus rendered elitist. In India where millions are below the poverty line, the government contended privacy concerns just got in the way of the government getting them roti, kapda, makaan. If they cannot have bread let them have privacy instead?
At that time Justice Chandrachud said, "You say the right to privacy is an elitist concept. But this right will apply to all. You cannot impose sterilisation in a slum area because there are too many kids there."
Now the Law minister is saying what the Attorney General said was just "court banter" but the Supreme Court took it very seriously. Section O of the 547 page judgment hammers the government on exactly that issue. Its headline?
"Not an elitist construct".
The court writes, "The refrain that the poor need no civil and political rights and are concerned only with economic well-being has been utilized through history to wreak the most egregious violations of human rights."
What must particularly gall the government is that its uses its bête noire Amartya Sen to buttress that point. Sen had said the Bengal famine of 1943 was "made viable not only by the lack of democracy in colonial India but also by severe restrictions on reporting and criticism imposed on the Indian press, and the voluntary practice of 'silence' on the famine that the British-owned media chose to follow."
The court refused to believe that privacy and social welfare had to be either-or. And tainting privacy with the E-letter did not make that false dichotomy any less false.
It showed that the elitism slur is not an all-purpose weapon that can be used to shut down all inconvenient arguments.
While we discuss the many aspects of this groundbreaking ruling, let's not forget this part as well. It showed that the elitism slur is not an all-purpose weapon that can be used to shut down all inconvenient arguments.
That's what has been happening over and over again.
Those who return awards are elitist. Those who talk about freedom of speech are elitist. Those who talk about gay rights are elitist. Those who complain about demonetization's real objectives and achievements are elitist. The real India does not care about any of this. Rahul Gandhi calls the BJP "anti-poor, elitist".
The BJP says Priyanka Gandhi's jibes about Narendra Modi's "neech rajniti" showed her elitist attitude and bias against the poor. It is the insult du jour and the elitist is fast becoming the new anti-national.
It's not that elitism is not a problem in India. Or anywhere else for that matter. The entitled elite, whether in India or America, can be clueless and obnoxious. US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's wife Louise Linton's recent Instagram tirade against those who are less rich and less labeled than her is clear proof of that.
Elitism is regressive, controlling, patronizing and intent on preserving the status quo that benefits them. Shekhar Gupta wrote a trenchant critique of how Indian liberalism had to be saved from the left-liberal elite which shut out "tens of crores of rising, aspirational, we-don't-owe-nobody-nothing Indians" whom Modi embraced.
The point is not whether elitism is good or bad but that the charge of elitism cannot be an all-purpose all-weather weapon. It cannot be used willy-nilly to shut down any debate the government does not approve of. The court just told the government that this time at least that familiar elitism bugbear would not scare them off.
And in the process it said some things that have been lost in the attention being paid to the comments about privacy and LGBT rights.
It worries about a Big Brother state which can have a "stultifying effect on the expression of dissent and difference of opinion, which no democracy can afford."
Democracy, it says, "accepts differences of perception, acknowledges divergences in ways of life, and respects dissent."
Liberty, the court says, "enables the individual to have a choice of preferences on various facets of life including what and how one will eat, the way one will dress, the faith one will expouse and a myriad of other matters on which autonomy and self-determination require a choice to be made within the privacy of the mind."
That might seem obvious but it is important to reiterate at a time when the majoritarian is strong.
That might seem obvious but it is important to reiterate at a time when the majoritarian is strong. At a time when vigilante gangs want to inspect what we are eating or who we are loving, and mobs burst into a house to inspect a refrigerator, the court seems to be sounding a warning bell.
"I do no think that anybody in this country would like to have the officers of the State intruding into their homes or private property at will or soliders quartered in their houses without their consent," writes Justice J. Chelameswar.
A court ruling will not hold back a lynch mob. But it at least draws that line in the sand. "Discrete and insular minorities face grave dangers of discrimination for the simple reason that their views, beliefs or way of life does not accord with the 'mainstream'. Yet in a democratic Constitution founded on the rule of law, their rights are as sacred as those conferred on other citizens to protect their freedoms and liberties."
When creeping majoritarianism demands that the mainstream it identifies is not just the main stream but the only stream (Dissenters, go to Pakistan) the court is standing up for the ones who don't fit into that mainstream.
This is bigger than Section 377. Or even the Aadhaar. When creeping majoritarianism demands that the mainstream it identifies is not just the main stream but the only stream (Dissenters, go to Pakistan) the court is standing up for the ones who don't fit into that mainstream whether on grounds of what they eat, or what faith they practice, or how they dress or who they love. It is putting the private back into the private citizen and reminding the government that standing up for that right cannot be dismissed as an "elitist" construct.
This is not a victory for elitism or a reprieve for the elites. Not at all. But it certainly just blunted the use of elitism as a weapon.
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