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Elitism and the common man

  • Published at 06:27 pm January 6th, 2014
Elitism and the common man

The city-state of Delhi, pompously called the “National Capital Region,” now has a new government. This is the government of the Aam Aaadmi Party (ordinary people’s party). Led by Arvind Kejriwal, an ex-bureaucrat who shot to fame through a Delhi-Mumbai and Hindi-belt centric anti-corruption movement, the government seeks to abolish the distance between the powerful incumbents and commoners.

This is a day I am reminded of things that happened a little more than a year ago that have but a tangential relationship with the Aam Aadmi Party government.

Having been associated with Harvard University since 2006, I have attended many events there. On November 13, 2012, I witnessed an event, which led to some thoughts that I would like to share. At a panel-discussion titled “The Supreme Court of India and the Implementation of Human Rights,” I got to hear Altamas Kabir, then chief justice of the supreme court of the Indian Union, Swatanter Kumar, a judge of the Supreme Court of the Indian Union and Ashwani Kumar, then the freshly minted law minister of the Union of India government at Delhi.

I arrived at the newly built Wasserstein building. There were absolutely no entry bars – precisely what a public event in a university should be like. If such an event were held in Kolkata where I grew up, the amount of frisking that would have gone on can be imagined – apart from the self-appointed managerial positions that young and not-so-young functionaries of the local Youth Congress would have taken up. There were no flower bouquets, no thhali girls.

The event happened in a classroom with a seating capacity of 86. Not all seats were filled. Having studied in an elite college in Kolkata, I could imagine that an event like this would easily fill the huge centenary hall of the University of Calcutta.

But during my six years (1999-2005) in the University of Calcutta (West Bengal’s largest university), I had no opportunity to attend an event where the union law minister and more than one sitting judge of the supreme court spoke. More importantly, there was an opportunity for questions after they were done speaking.

While I am individually fortunate, I come from that unfortunate stock whose ability to interact with their own minister and high functionaries of the government comes easier when they are out of their native land.

In my years at Harvard, I have been in the same room with Pranab Mukherjee (of “fixer hits a sixer” fame), and a host of Indian government honchos like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Kaushik Basu, Kapil Sibbal, Nirupama Rao and others.

In my years at the University of Calcutta, I had no such opportunity. Harvard University’s own funds are about $30.7 billion at present. This figure is close to the total GDP of the states of Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh combined. In 2009, the University Grants Commission of India gave about 12 crores to Burdwan University (awarded a NAAC 5-star status) as its tentative 11th plan period allocation.

Such is the love for elite spaces in America in the mind of the government at Delhi that in 2008, it donated about Rs22 crore to Harvard University. We surely have got our grant priorities right. But I digress.

I heard the minister speak. As I sat hearing the minister, I realised how much like music this accent of the minister must sound to “global Indians,” how much his seamless comfort in suits soothes their nerves.

How proud they were about their own speaking good English among the firing crowd. The event had no surprises except for a brief moment when Altamas Kabir felt thirsty and reached for water that was on the table in front of him.

Someone from the front-row, probably some government functionary, literally leapt to assistance without being asked, trying to get the bottle and the glass to the judge before he could get to them himself. The agile response looked oddly out of place but then most of the spectators were also from the subcontinent. They understood.

Humans from the subcontinent seem to acquire more rights and privileges and access to the eminent, when they are in some elite centre in the USA. They can ask question without intermediaries. They can walk up without being stopped.

However transiently, it feels like the eminent are also fellow citizens. Back in the subcontinent, this is not possible unless one belongs to a certain bubble. This is precisely why the pronouncements of the government on human rights have to be compared with the reports on the status of human rights in India, coming from the United Nations agencies and other human rights organisations.

A good human rights record speaks for itself, and does not need public relations acrobatics from the government. Which is why, even an elite Oxbridge style accent is not enough to sell a positive human rights record to Kashmiri and Manipuri youth. It is easier sold at Harvard, or so the government may think.