Parable of Demonetization and the Optical Illusion of ‘Class War’


a devastating flood or a famine, cyclone or an earthquake suddenly wrecks the
serenity of a village. Habitats are destroyed, food stocks washed away, crops
lost forever and so on. The saviour be it a government agency or a benevolent
king from the neighbouring territory arrives to rescue the dispossessed. They
start a camp to provide food and water to the wretched. The
zamindar and the proja or malik
and the
mazdoor stands in the same queue to receive a bowl of khichri
and a pot of water. In my childhood I heard of a similar story. It happened
way back in the late sixties. Teesta river flooded its banks and Jalpaiguri
town in the North of Bengal was completely out of grids. The hearsay that
remained in public memory for long was that one of the richest tea garden owners
was seen standing in a queue in front of the relief camp for some food. In such
situations suddenly society appears to be more equal even though it is actually
not so! 

In a feudal milieu people who are exploited
and tortured when find their masters in a similar condition of distress
restrain their vengeance and have the rare opportunities to show sympathy to
their dispossessed king. It is capitalism now. Exploitation is not driven by
individual relations. It is more systemic, more anonymous and hence appears to
be ‘objective’. The worker, the shopkeeper, the farmer or the domestic help now
finds their respective
babus and sethjees in the same queue in front of
the ATM or bank. It appears that demonetization has gifted us a more
egalitarian regime. People with some amount of unaccounted cash had suddenly
become more sympathetic to their subordinates offering them advanced wages for
coming three or four months or a cut against depositing their master’s money in
their own account for the time being. A sympathy of convenience with the intent
to park their illicit wealth, a trust that has to be paid back. Suddenly the
poor has become important to them!

It is
nothing new for the poor to be denied of something which is their due, it is
nothing new for them standing for long hours in queues for bare minimum human
needs, say for drinking water, for kerosene, for PDS entitlements and so on.
Every need is procured by them as favour and with lot of pains. They are tamed
to be habituated with doors being shut at their face most of the times in their
life. And so the distress of the rich becomes visible while the agony of the
poor has been internalized as natural as deserving. The distribution of pains
seems to be more egalitarian in shock moment at least compared to the unequal
society we live in. This creates an optical illusion. As if it pulls down the
elite on the streets from the citadels of power and wealth, make them feel the
pain which the plebeians have to swallow every now and then. No one bothers to
question the wealth amassed by the rich, some are even courageous to display
their dirty wealth through pompous extravagant marriages, no one would ask why
Adanis, Maliyas and Ambanis are given huge subsidies using public money, why
didn’t the government disclose the names who have parked illicit wealth in the
Swiss banks, the amount of which is far higher than the sum total of all
illicit wealth held in cash. Instead be happy with a small candy…see we are
all equal in the ATM queue and no one, not even the big people would be allowed
to jump the queue! We are rule abiding citizens and the queue makes us equal!
It is the rarest mockery of a class war where poor feel relatively empowered
having a ‘withdrawal coupon’ while the well-dressed babu is rationed out if he is late. It is really a surgical strike
that would neither unearth any black money, nor it would make India a
cashless society and I believe people are gradually realizing how painful it is
being dislocated from regular transactions. But it is the pleasure of seeing
someone at pain who had never bothered to recognize my existence. It is a ‘class
war’ indeed but an inverted one, a mystified, distorted caricature of the real

All in
the name of nation! It is the moment of practicing nationalism. So the
individual standing in the queue resonates with the soldier standing at the
border. A pain for two hours wait is acceptable for the good of the country. It
gives a feeling of sacrifice for the collective good. Here nationalism assumes
a concrete, perceivable and participatory nature. Here comes the politics of
demonetization. It is about mobilizing people around some idea, make them
participate for a cause which in any case is not going to change their life. It
is like everyone carrying a brick for the Rammandir
where the individual accepts pain for a goal. The goal earlier was to build a
temple and now it is about building a nation, may be a temple-nation. And by
practicing hardship the individual immediately identifies himself with the
cause. It perhaps has a deeper psychological effect than supporting the nation
in a war from a distance. Here you are a soldier directly contributing in the
crusade against corruption. And the beauty of the project is once you
internalize the pain for a cause that you justify for some or no reason you
hardly bother about the success of the project. I think very few today believe
that this move is going to really unearth the larger chunk of the illicit
wealth unless one is stuck to the Bollywood films of the sixties where the
typical smuggler used to be caught red handed in the airport with a suit case
full of cash or diamonds! Gone are the days of holding unaccounted income in
cash. Only 6-7 per cent of black wealth is held as cash and the 90 percent is
amassed over the years by evading tax safely parked even today as benami
assets, gold, jewellery, land and so on (see Surajit Mazumdar’s article in
vikalp). Unfortunately the 90 per cent of the population are not aware of this
art of systematic cheating. The real part of the black wealth therefore remains
safe beyond the reach of public sight. And this is precisely the trick of this
gala show of collective pain.

the miniscule share of unaccounted wealth, make the honest citizens suffer, let
them feel the pride of making the nation just as you feel triumphant when you
reach the holy shrine of a temple or a darga after a painful long walk.
The arrogance of the elite allows them to believe that these poor folks because
of their sheer honesty and simplicity will never get to know how secured the
larger 90 per cent of the unaccounted wealth is and therefore would wilfully
accept the torture of not being able to withdraw even their own hard earned
income. They would not even question what happened after all these sufferings
and sacrifice just as you do not question what you get after visiting a holy
shrine! It is a question of faith beyond reason, of course it is a different
kind of faith, something agnostic and secular but a faith indeed.

It is a
violence on the life of ordinary people. The short lived exhibition of equality
tends to subside. The immediate shock stabilizes. Realities of life once again
raise its ugly heads. Hegel’s owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the
falling of the dusk! The flood continues and water reaches at the necks. The
rich man is being rescued by his relatives. He flew to safe place once normalcy
restored in air transport. The poor continues with the pain, they are now
destitute, dependent on the alms of relief camps. The upper
middle class and the rich now also has very little to lose. They have means to
negotiate with the changed situation. Demonetisation does not affect their
income, their pain is only limited to changing modes of transaction on the
expenditure side. Less cash more online transactions, more cards and so on. But,
what about the poor? They are really bearing the brunt of this nationalist
project not because they own black money but because they reside on the darker
side of capitalism. It is the providence of daily wage labour who hardly saves
and so hardly feels the need of a bank account, of the marginal farmers who
survive without access to ATMs, the domestic workers, home workers, the migrant
construction workers who are seen as parcels of labour power without having any
identity in the eyes of the state. It is the dark underbelly of booming
capitalism that is condemned for ever. Now the employers are forcing them to
receive old notes. They possess black money or no money at all! Four lakh
workers have lost their jobs, daily wage earners have to remain half-fed for
the nation; leather, garments, construction sectors are hardly hit, migrant
workers are pushed back to their villages. They have to wait to resume
employment till India
becomes white! Farmers have to accept low prices of crops in this holy season
of ethical cleansing, they may not be able to recover their costs, small
shopkeepers face a dull market due to all pervading cash crunch. It once again
shows nationalism means different things to different people. The costs are
different to uphold the tricolour. The jawan from the lower middle class
family dies at the border, the elite takes a deep breath while watching media
bites or empathize by singing national anthem with a bucket of popcorn in his
hand before the film show begins. For the poor demonetization means loss of
income, employment, distressed selling of belongings, indebtedness, deep
uncertainty about future and for the rich it is only about reorganizing  transactions.

familiar unequal world that was camouflaged for few weeks as a land of equal
distress once again comes into being. Is it a collateral damage that people
have to accept for a greater cause? But who would be the real beneficiaries of
increased bank deposits. Floods settle fertile soil as gift of nature only to
landowners not to the landless, for them it is only loss for ever. Banks
currently overflowed with cash would offer loans to big corporates who would
reschedule their debts. They would actually plough the fertile soil as the
flood settles. The poorest of the poor who were sacrificed as collateral damage
in this swatch abhijan would be denied of any kind of loan because they
do not possess assets to be shown as collaterals to the banks.

is a common evil. It cuts across caste class religion gender and all structural
divisions of the society. A rich can be corrupted so can be a poor, a man or a
woman, a Brahmin or a Dalit and so everyone would find it worthy to fight
against corruption. Notably, the enemy of all, in this case, is diffused amongst
all. Degrees hardly matter, corruption is corruption and so don’t raise your
fingers to someone, it is a systemic evil, mystic enough to camouflage the
system itself.

Say for
instance cheating in exams need to be stopped. No one would disagree to that, not
even the cheaters! But this common evil does not explain the more fundamental
problems of our education system. It does not explain why the number of
illiterates is so high in India,
why drop-out rates increase, why children of school going age work in tea
stalls or beg at traffic signals, why a girl child is discouraged to pursue
higher education and so on. These are important questions which would never be
raised leave aside answered in the midst of this cacophony if our sense of
concern about education remains limited to the idea of stopping cheating in
exams. And this is the advantage such common evils offer to the elites, it
hides the fissures within the structure, it rescues the elite from being
questioned and hence subverts the class conflict by a hegemonic discourse.
Fight against corruption also bears a similar advantage. Corruption is a class
neutral evil, it submerges divisions that are real and more permanent in nature.
Why India is the second most unequal country in the world, why and how rich 1
per cent of the population in India owns 60 per cent of the total wealth of
this country, why our Human Development Index is far lower than many of the
similarly placed developing countries, why not paying tax according to
government rules is considered to be an act of corruption while not paying
wages according to the stipulated minimum norm is conveniently ignored? Corruption
obscures these more fundamental questions into a maze where you perceive an
evil while not being able to detect the enemy.

in not so distant future………in a similar evening at 8 pm…..the prime minister of
new India once again appears in the television and declares on behalf of 95 per
cent of Indians:

land beyond a ceiling would be confiscated and distributed to the landless.

factories would be owned by workers because they produce all wealth.

property is not a virtue by which one can earn without doing work.

and health care would be free for all.

and exploitation is a crime.

are expropriated!

would be a land where everyone would be equal not only for a few weeks in ATM
queues or in emergency relief camps but forever! Let the violence be inverted
this time for the cause of the majority of our nation!

The Author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi