On 23 January 2014, when the United Progressive Alliance was in power, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued a notification stating that all banknotes issued prior to 2005 would be withdrawn from circulation. The RBI clarified in its notification that the pre-2005 notes would continue to be legal tender, and could be exchanged at bank counters for new notes. (It did not specify a deadline for this exchange.) The move was widely reported as an effort on the part of the RBI to curb fake currency notes, as well as black money, because the new notes had additional security features. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the opposition party at the time, criticised the move as “anti-poor,” alleging that it would not curb black money, and would instead hurt those who did not have access to banking services.
Similar criticism has been levelled against the BJP government since 8 November 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the high-denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 would be demonetised. The decision caused millions of people across the country to rush to banks and ATMs over the next few days, and stand in lines for hours on end in order to exchange or withdraw cash. Various others, especially those in rural areas, experienced a severe cash crunch, as they were unable to procure new currency. Arvind Kejriwal referred to the move as a “surgical strike on the common man’s savings.” Rahul Gandhi tweeted that Modi had showed “how little he cared” about ordinary people such as farmers, small shopkeepers, and housewives. However, on 18 November, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said he didn’t think the move “could have better executed.” On 19 November, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), the farmer’s wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the BJP, wrote to Modi and Jaitley seeking their intervention into the problems being faced by farmers due to lack of new currency. On 21 November, the government announcedthat farmers could purchase seeds with the demonetised 500-rupee notes. The RSS had, until then, maintained a silence on the demonetisation. On 24 November, the RSS issued a statement hailing the move to be in “national interest” and a “noble endeavour.”
On 18 November, a day before the BKS wrote to Modi and Jaitley, I met senior members of the RSS’s farmers’ wing, labour wing, and economics wing, and enquired about their views on demonetisation. When I questioned them on the implementation of the move, they appeared to unanimously support the government’s decision, but shifted blame for any problems in various directions—including politicians, crop buyers, and the media.
Virjesh Upadhyay, the general secretary of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the labour wing of the RSS, told me that the queues forming outside the banks and ATMs following the demonetisation were fake. “Ye sab fabricated report aa rahi hain. Sahi jankari nahi hai”—these reports that are coming in are fabricated. It’s not correct information, he said. Upadhyay alleged that the labourers were picked up from the labour adda—hub—of every city and paid to stand in queues. “Ye neta log, chhut bhaiyye log la rahen hain unko. Kuch 100-100 rupaye, 500-500 rupaye de rahen hain”—politicians and their sidekicks are bringing labourers to stand in the queues. The labourers are given Rs 100 or Rs 500. “Kya hai, inko bheed dikhana hai”—the thing is, they have to show that there’s a large crowd, he said.
I asked Upadhyay who he thought would hire labourers to create a false impression of long queues. He said, “Politicians log hai aur ye bhains khane wale log hai”—the politicians and those who eat beef.
On 11 November, in a story for this publication, I had written about my meeting with Vali Muhammad at a branch of the Bank of India, in Green Park. Muhammad hails from Barabanki, in Uttar Pradesh, and at the time of our meeting, he was working in a garment factory in Delhi. He received his salary on 8 November, the day the demonetisation came into effect. He told me that every month, he would send half his salary— around Rs 5,000—to his family in Barabanki, through a bank transfer. The day I met him, he had neither been able to exchange his money nor send it to his family due to the long queues at the bank.
When I asked Upadhyay about reports of labourers suffering because of the move, he responded, “Yaar, majdoor ke pass kitna paisa hai barbaad hone ke liye?”—my friend, how much money does a labourer have that it could be destroyed? “Koi majdoor nahi hai jiske pass itna paisa jama hai, ruka hua hai, ki wo barbaad ho jaye”—there is no labourer who has accumulated such a large amount that it would be destroyed.
Upadhyay said that factory owners and contractors had a hand to play in the long queues as well. According to him, they were using labourers to convert their black money into white. “Majdooron ke account mein advance salary daal di gayi hai”—advance salary was transferred into the labourers’ accounts, he said.
On 18 November, the Huffington Post India reported that 55 people had died due to causes allegedly related to demonetisation. On 21 November, Satish Sharma, a 49-year-old vegetable vendor, reportedly collapsed while standing in a queue outside an Oriental Bank of Commerce’s branch, in Najafgarh, Delhi. When he was taken to the hospital, Sharma was declared brought dead, according to a report by the channel News18.
Upadhyay, however, dismissed all such deaths as having occurred due to natural causes without any links to demonetisation.“Iss desh mein roz kitne log mar rahen hain, iska koi data hai? Demonetisation ke pehle bhi mautein ho rahin thi. Fir inko sath jodna politics hai”—is there any data on how many people die in this country every day? People were dying even before demonetisation. To then link the deaths to demonetisation is politics, Upadhyay said.
He told me that an RSS karyakarta—worker—died in a bus, on 18 November, while coming to join an RSS rally in Jaipur. “Bus mein baitha tha, heart attack hui, mar gaya. Kya kahenge isko ki rally ke karan death hui hai kya?”—he was sitting in the bus, suffered a heart attack and died. Would we now say that he died because of the rally, he asked.
Prabhakar Kelkar, the general secretary of the BKS, said that demonetisation had affected the crop market but called it a temporary effect, adding that demonetisation would benefit farmers in the long run. Echoing what has also been one of the government’s arguments in favour of demonetisation, Kelkar said that the demonetisation would incentivise more farmers to open bank accounts and make the transactions in the crop market cashless.
“Jo vyapaari hain wo keh rahen hain aap purane noton mein paisa lijiye”—the crop buyers are telling farmers to accept the old notes as payment, Kelkar told me. He said small lenders and crop buyers were to blame for difficulties that farmers are reportedly facing in selling harvested crops. He recounted an interaction he had with farmers the same day as my conversation with him, on 18 November, in Jabalpur, in Madhya Pradesh. The buyers of mutter—beans—had lowered the prices and were insisting on paying the farmers in demonetised notes. The farmers are at a disadvantage because the beans would rot if they waited any longer, Kelkar said. So, he said, the farmers were compelled to ask the buyers to pay them by cheque instead of demonetised tender.
Kelkar argued that it was not demonetisation that created the difficult situation for farmers, but old ways of business transaction in the crop market, which depends on cash flow. As a solution, he suggested that cooperative banks should come to the farmers’ aid and accept old notes from them. “Aaj kai kisan hai ki unke khate nationalised bank mein kam hai, aur cooperative bank mein hi jayeda”—the farmers who have accounts in nationalised banks are fewer compared to those in cooperative banks, he said.
According to Kelkar, only five percent of the farmers would not have bank accounts, as the country has 12.5 crore krushi joth—farmland holders—and 20 crore bank accounts in all. “Toh isme ye kehna ki unke pass khate nahi hain kehna sahi nahi hoga”—so to say that they don’t have bank accounts would not be correct, he added. However, a study conducted by the InterMedia, an international research consultancy, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that, in 2015, only 63 percent of India’s population had a registered bank account, and only 42 percent had an active bank account.
Ashwani Mahajan, the national co-convenor of the RSS’s economic wing Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), also firmly supported the demonetisation. According to Mahajan, the move would have two positive effects: one, it would bring down prices of several commodities because of the decrease in money supply. As a result, he argued, small industries would benefit in the long run. Secondly, Mahajan continued, it would decrease rates of interest for loans because of increasing liquidity in banks. “Rate of interest ghatane se bhi gareeb aadmi ko fayeda hoga”—a decrease in rates of interest would benefit the poor, he argued.
On 12 November, the Hindustan Timesreported that between 1 April and 31 October 2016, black-money holders accepted having stashed Rs 7,700 crore worth ill-gotten assets, of which the cash component was only Rs 408 crore, or 5 percent. When I quoted the report to him, Mahajan did not address its contents, but instead criticised the media. “Mujhe lagta hai, media jo hai, turant jo cheezein ghatith ho rahin hoti hain ussey jyada prabhavith ho jata hai”—according to me, the media gets more influenced by anything that occurs in the moment, he said.
Mahajan added that demonetisation was a measure against the money of “the big sharks.” He said he would go a step ahead, and suggested the government publicly shame black-money hoarders by playing dhols in front of their houses.