Are People Really Not Protesting Against Demonetisation?

 

Published in The Wire

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly claimed the support of 125 crore Indians for his decision to demonetise in one fell swoop 86% of Indian currency. The decision has led to widespread hardship for the poor, disabled and elderly, lakhs of job losses and at last count 115 deaths. However, legitimate criticism of this arbitrary and disruptive decision and demands for accountability have been rebutted with the apparent absence of protests and violence, which has been parlayed into not just acquiescence but endorsement. While this may, as a tactic, suffice to silence superficial critics, it is not reflective of the situation on the ground and betrays lack of political understanding and/or a desire to paper over people’s grievances and dissent through propaganda.

First, demonetisation has led to protests and violence. Reports abound of angry crowds resorting to talabandi (locking up) of banks and jamming roads to protest the non-disbursement of cash. Mobs have attacked banks and it is likely that many more such incidents would have happened in the absence of police presence outside banks. Scuffles have broken out in the large crowds outside banks with people getting injured. There have also been reports of lathi charge by the police to control agitating crowds. Pushed into a corner due to the inability to meet vital necessities, multiple people have committed suicide in the stressful aftermath of demonetisation. Farmers have dumped their produce on streets due to the collapse in prices post demonetisation. In at least two separate incidents, a man and woman have disrobed themselves in sheer frustration at the inability to access their own money; the man holding the national flag while completely naked. Moreover, conversations on the ground reveal real hardship, anger and helplessness among those already on the margins with the collapse of both production (trade, transport, jobs) and consumption. Unorganised workers spoke of having to exchange their demonetised notes at a hefty commission because of the tedious and exclusionary process of conversion.

Ignoring dissenting voices

Why are these grievances, protests and violence disregarded by the government and its supporters in their post-demonetisation analysis? One reason, of course, is that the prime minister has repeatedly chosen to bypass the institutional checks and balances of a democracy by bombastically asserting the support of “125 crore Indians”. However, after being internationally panned by experts coupled with the blowback due to the grossly incompetent implementation, any acknowledgement of people’s dissent will remove the last fig-leaf of democratic mandate from his decision. Moreover, the nature of protests – wherein people’s visible anger has often been directed at immediate irritants with the protests thus localised instead of coalescing into a larger expression of anger and protest against the government – has helped the government dismiss them as small eruptions because of “minor inconveniences”.

It is remarkable however for any government – especially one ostensibly democratic – to conclude that there is no need for course correction in the absence of large visible street protests. This logic would lead one to argue that there was no resentment against the authoritarian governments of the Middle East just because the Arab Spring protests had not yet erupted. It is evident that a more nuanced analysis of the ground sentiment and its expression is required.

Simmering frustrations have been systematically overwhelmed by fake nationalism and intimidation. There are reports of people shouting “Bharat mata ki jai” outside banks to intimidate would-be dissidents. A man sustained head injuries after he was beaten up for criticising Modi for demonetisation. I asked a high school teacher in Jhalawar, the constituency of Rajasthan’s chief minister, about why there weren’t larger protests when people’s lives are so disrupted and his immediate response was that people are scared of criticising this government because “inke karyakarta bahaut dabang hain (their cadre members are hooligans)”. This is not vacuous partisanship – BJP MLA Kanwar Lal Meena, caught on video beating up activists taking out a yatra, has remained unscathed despite widespread media coverage. Delhi BJP chief and Lok Sabha MP Manoj Tiwari has been captured on camera laughing at how he quelled a line of people outside an ATM by singing “deshbhakt hai katar main (patriots are standing in line)”.

Misinformation campaign

There has also been a concerted campaign of misinformation by the government, which has obfuscated people’s understanding of the true facts of the situation. Consider, for instance, that bank officials have borne the brunt of people’s anger over non-disbursement of cash. While it is true that some bank officers are exercising unfair discretion at the ground level, the blame for the shortage of cash rests squarely with the government and the RBI, which hasn’t provided adequate replacement currency in the first place. Moreover, reports suggest that even the allocation of the meagre replacement currency is being done to suit the partisan interests of the government instead of transparent allocation based on objective criteria such as economic activity in different states and regions therein. However, conversations with people have revealed a poor understanding of this reality, due to which their anger has remained confined to the immediate wielders of power. There is also poor comprehension of the negligible amount of counterfeit currency in circulation and the complete irrelevance of demonetisation to capture the source of counterfeit currency or those propagating terrorism. Moreover, in a market economy where money is the predicator of both access and autonomy, people have been understandably preoccupied with first shoring up their daily needs.

There is, of course, some measure of support on the ground. For some it is schadenfreude that that those who reaped profits through corruption or unfair advantage would see their ill-gotten wealth rendered into worthless pieces of paper. Feeding this myth in the initial days were multiple reports of trashed or burnt demonetised notes, which magically faded as it became apparent that virtually all the money is coming back to the banks. There was also hope, since belied, that the exercise will culminate in redistribution through cash deposits in the bank accounts of the poor. Yet in many of these instances, a simple inquiry into relevant facts such as the amount of money which has come into the banks, the Rs 1.14 lakh crore worth of bad debts waived by the government in the last three years and the ostentatious display of wealth by BJP leaders post demonetisation significantly altered people’s mood.

Some have indeed been swayed by the radical nature of the decision and the subsequent PR blitz, without necessarily being able to substantiate the reason for their support. Yet this group is unable to defeat people’s disenchantment in the face of facts and reasoned arguments.

In the ultimate analysis, large and visible protests are an outcome of mobilisation. The lack of visible protest is thus by no means an expression of support for the government’s decision. For the Modi government to insist otherwise is a repudiation of democratic accountability and responsiveness.

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