Vol. XLI No. 03 January 15, 2017

Anti Demonetisation Protest Movement

Thomas Isaac

THE two months of demonetisation have been marked by unprecedented mass mobilisation in the state of Kerala. Right from the day of announcement, it was criticised as a crazy scheme which would at best only tackle the fringes of black economy. By the tenth day the entire cabinet marched from the secretariat to the Reserve Bank of India office at Thiruvananthapuram on November 18, for a day long protest dharna. Since then, it has become a popular site for numerous protest marches by different mass organisations and organisations of cooperators.  

An all party meeting was convened on November 21 and it was decided that an all party delegation will meet the prime minister on the issue of demonetisation and to submit a memorandum. An emergency sitting of the Kerala legislative assembly was called on November 22 and a resolution protesting the authoritarian manner in which people’s wealth and income in currency was sucked away without providing any alternative to conduct necessary economic transactions, was passed. The resolution focussed upon the plight of the credit cooperatives in Kerala that accounts for 70 percent of the total cooperative credit of the country. It was observed that the centre’s decision would hurt the farmers most and the whole rural economy who were dependent on the cooperative banks, who were denied the right to disburse even Rs 24,000 to its customers. The chief minister gave the assurance that none of the money deposited in the co-operative banks will be lost.

On November 23, the all party delegation was denied permission to meet the prime minister and the state aired its strong protest at the disrespect meted out to the state. From November 24 to 25, in all major centres 24 hour protest vigils were organised by the CPI(M). Finally, the series of protests culminated in the human chain organised by the LDF on December 29, at the eve of the 50th day after demonetisation, extending over 700 kilometres from Kasargod in the north, to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, attracting more than 15 lakh participants.

The Left in Kerala can be proud of the political role it has played in mobilising public opinion and mobilising people for massive street protests. Neverthe less, we have got to answer a simple question; why did such mass protests fail to materialise in vast parts of India. Either, the impact of demonetisation was not as severe elsewhere as it was in Kerala, or there was failure on the part of the opposition forces to come out resolutely against demonetisation and the success of Modi’s narrative of surgical strike against black money hoarders influencing the people. The first position cannot be entertained even for a moment. In fact, Kerala with a better literate, bankable and internet connected society could, at least to a major segment, look for alternative ways for cash transaction. In contrast, throughout India, the population is entirely dependent on cash with only under 14 banks per 1,00,000 people and internet connectivity for less than 10 percent of the rural population. Every media, even those sympathetic to BJP, was forced to publish graphic pictures of people in the queue fighting for the position and even dying without reaching the goal.

The Kharif crop prices declined and many could not find enough cash to purchase input for the upcoming Rabi crop. The small scale and artisan sector found the market for their products shrinking or did not have cash or credit to purchase inputs and make wage payments. Small traders were the worst affected. Over a 100 people have reportedly died in bank queues or out of shock. These are undeniable facts. But for most of the people, their suffering was a sacrifice in the crusade against black money hoarders and for cleansing the society from corruption and terrorism. The common refrain was that the rich are also in the queue and soon justice was going to be meted out to the black sheep among them.

The above was clearly linked to the narrative on demonetisation by the prime minister, right from his speech on surgical strike on black money on November 8, saying that the demonetisation targeted the counterfeit currency, terrorist finance and terrorists from Pakistan. Once, the economy was cleansed of black money there would be dividends for everybody, the rich would cry and the poor would gain. The surgical strike metaphor sought to carry forward the patriotic fervour of the cross border military strikes on September 29 to a new pitch. But even by the time Modi came back from Japan, he must have realised that he lost the gamble, the implementation was not going on as expected. It was realised that it would take a year to complete the printing of notes and whatever was printed would not fit into the ATMs that were in existence and so on. What a bloody mess! It was a monumental mismanagement. Nevertheless he continued the same narrative, with cosmetic changes, like the cashless heaven to which India was traveling, with no mention of counterfeit currency and a little mention of black money. But, he raised two hysterical pitched attacks on the opposition, that they are serving the interests of Pakistan and that they are siding with the black money hoarders.

The entire RSS machinery was on the field talking to people in the queue, shouting down anyone who tried to raise critical questions and storming critical posts in social media. Having writing at least two or three posts a day, I receive a minimum of 100 to 200 hate responses. The recent book I am a Troll by Swati Chaturvedi reveals a telling tale of how the Sangh has bullied people and had its way in social media. She said, “It was a never-ending drip feed of hate and bigotry against the minorities, anyone perceived as anti-Modi.”

In contrast, the opposition was divided. Nitish Kumar welcomed demonetisation. The response of many of the regional political formations in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, though critical, were largely muted. Even those who in the initial weeks led the charge against demonetisation, wavered and seemed to have lost their way. It was the Left which has taken a consistent and determined position of opposition, very importantly, attempting to mobilise people against demonetisation.

Despite his high voltage propaganda, the experience on the ground is exposing Modi’s claims. The rich never cried, they could get whatever currency they wanted. In fact, it would appear that they have laundered even counterfeit currency through the banks. As the deposit collection in the banks inch closer to the total number of 500 and 1000 rupee notes demonetised, a nervous Reserve Bank has stopped issuing any information, giving rise to speculation about the total returned notes being larger than the number of cancelled notes. Modi’s war on black money seems to have created a black market for currency itself. Meanwhile, the poor continue to suffer, the worst is yet to come. 

Every available evidence points to a deceleration in economic growth. Even before demonetisation the growth rate in the first two quarters had declined from 7.6 percent in the previous year to 7.1 percent. With demonetisation playing havoc on market demand and expectations, it is seen that bank lending in November was only 5.1 percent above the previous year’s. The PMI slipped below 50 indicating a contraction. All evidence points to a growth rate more nearer to 6 percent for the year 2016-17. The expected investment in major projects in the current quarter declined to Rs 1.25 lakh crores from Rs 2.4 lakh crores. India’s performance is going to be even worse than the global recession year of 2008. Modi cannot keep the poor permanently on a ration diet of patriotism. Protests and resentment are going to mount and are likely to be reflected even in the forthcoming assembly elections. It is in this context that the slogan put forward by the Left for mobilising people becomes relevant. Mass movement for the unrestricted right to withdraw the people’s hard earned savings from the bank and resist the coercive steps for pushing to a cashless economy has to be built up.