Some people, mainly friends and family, have repeatedly wondered if there was a police state in India. I disagree, of course. Not a police state. No. Rather, it’s life under a supreme central leadership like in North Korea, Syria or Russia. Few may call it dictatorship. Those to their views, I argue.
Nowadays, it’s mandatory to stand like a zombie when the national anthem is played in cinemas across India. Did you hear? Anything you utter, say, ‘The price of onion is too high or it’s so hot’ is met with ‘but our soldiers are fighting on the borders’. Well.
‘Like the government, the army needs to answer too..’ I begin only to be countered with, ‘You are an anti-national’. Yeah, right.
On November 8, the present government announced the withdrawal (demonetization) of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes. As you know we only have notes of Rs 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 in India, so it was bound to cause a ripple effect. The Prime Minister declared proudly, rather like a peacock, on national television that there was no need to panic as the country had time till the last week of December to exchange the notes. Simple.
As the queues outside the banks grew, so did the misfortunes of the people. More than seventy people, mostly older citizens, lost their lives in the hustle and bustle of serpentines queues[i]. Where were the rulers? The Prime Minister, who is a vagabond, was basking in Japan. To be fair, he didn’t have to stand outside a bank to exchange money. He may have changed notes a long time ago, you know.
My brother told me, ‘Listen, don’t rush. You have plenty of time’. His skeptical sister argued that it was a government that had short and long term memory loss. Lo, people who went to the banks were marked with indelible ink on their finger as if they were the criminals. Then one fine day, the government abruptly stopped over the counter exchange of the old money. You know the story of strong leadership and all that.
It’s the narrative that’s increasingly seen all over the world, the legitimacy TV grants people. Look at the election results in the US. The popularity of Imran Khan and Anupam Kher. Check the twitter feed of the virus named Abhijeet Bhattacharya. Likewise, when the Indian Prime Minister declared on TV that demonetization was against corruption that was the narrative that was taken up with enthusiasm. When I went to the bank what did I see: The aunty who earns her living working as a daily laborer clutching ten Rs. 1000 notes to exchange. That was her third straight day at the queue as banks kept running out of money. The local dentist’s assistant standing along the sidelines helplessly gaping at the frenetic rush. Curiously, I didn’t see any rich person on the queue. Perhaps because they had their electronic cards and money safely tucked in assets and banks outside the country.
As days passed, there were more restrictions with new rules every day. One person could withdraw only Rs. 2000 from the ATM in a day. And, the new Rs. 2000 notes in a splendid pink color was gorgeous to look at. Except, no one had change for the pink note- twenty 100 notes, you must be kidding. On top of that, most of the atms weren’t recalibrated for the new notes. What was the central Reserve Bank of India doing? No idea. An incompetent government with an incompetent RBI, it was.
Now the government says that married women can hold 500 gms of gold while unmarried women can’t go beyond 250 gm. Wait, what about the men? They can have 100gm, it seems.
Tomorrow, the government will install CCTV cameras in all our homes and the Prime Minister will appear on TV saying that it was for the security of people. After all, the neighboring countries, themselves struggling under terrorism, can be blamed. And the people of India will sit and applaud. We all agree, nothing beats security even if it comes at the cost of freedom.
Merlin Flower is an independent artist.