On 11 November, I reported on how the government’s recent decision to declare notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 invalid had resulted in long queues of befuddled people—waiting at banks for hours on end, and often, without success, to exchange the now-illicit currency in their possession. On 13 November, I experienced first-hand, the mayhem that these queues could result in.
That day, a little after 4 pm, I went to a branch of the ICICI bank—an Indian multinational banking and financial services company headquartered in Mumbai—in south Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave neighbourhood. It had been five days since Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced that notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 would be demonetised. Since then, I had made around ten visits to various ATMs around the area to withdraw money, but each of my attempts had been futile. I took my position in the queue that had formed outside the bank. Those who waited with me were not unlike the people I had met during the course of my reporting a few days earlier—working men and women, senior citizens, migrant workers, students and housewives, all equally tired, confused and irate.
Around ten minutes after I arrived, the bank’s staff locked its glass door. Since there was no announcement of any kind, the people in the queue did not budge in the hope that this was a temporary measure until those inside the bank had completed their transactions. An unresponsive bank official sat on a chair outside the bank, fiddling with his phone and paying little heed to the queries that were being directed his way. An elderly woman, who had been at bank since before I had reached there, became agitated. “Khayal Aapka—Taking care of you—is what they write on their billboard,” she said, referring to an advertising tagline used by ICICI bank. The official did not offer any clarity on whether those waiting outside the bank would be able to withdraw money, only stating that “the server is down” when he was pressed for answers. A middle-aged man retorted by asking why people inside the bank were still withdrawing money if this was the case. The official did not reply. “Fine! There is no cash, you say. But would you take a deposit, please,” said another indignant man, eliciting a glance from the official in response.
The crowd began getting restive. In a bid to catch the attention of the employees working inside, the old woman was now incessantly knocking on the glass doors of the bank. At around 4.50 pm, an official dressed in a white shirt opened the door and stepped outside. Those in the queue started ploughing their way in, but the official blocked the entrance and said that the bank was shut. The middle-aged man said that he wanted to speak to the manager. The official in the white shirt did not relent. By now, the resentment festering within the queue had built itself up to a feverish pitch and it became evident that chaos would follow. The middle-aged man demanded that the manager of the branch provide, in writing, the reasons because of which the bank was shutting down early. As a scuffle between those in the queue and the employees barricading the entrance to the bank broke out, the old woman was caught in between.
This sequence of events was not an aberration. By 6 pm on 12 November, the Delhi police had reportedly received 4,500 calls regarding episodes of violence in similar queues across the city. In an effort to document the tense situation, I started recording the incident with the camera on my phone. Bemused, the official in the white shirt told me to stop shooting. When I did not stop, he rushed towards me—momentarily forgetting the crowd he was supposed to block—his arms outstretched. I asked him repeatedly, to not touch my camera and said that I was from the press. He grabbed me and dragged me down the stairs of the building, onto the road. Subsequently, other other employees and security guards from the bank surrounded me. “Tere ko main batata hun. Tu bach ke nahi jayega”—I’ll show you now. You will not escape unharmed, the man in the white shirt said. “Tu janta nahi mere ko”—You don’t know me, he continued, “Mere upar pehle se case hai. Main khud police hun”—I already have cases registered against me, I myself am the police.
Another male staffer joined in. “Call the police station, take him to the police station,” he said. The official in the white shirt called someone on the phone and hastily summoned them to the bank. Worried, I dialled 100—the police emergency number—and apprised the policeman on the other end of the situation. Soon after, I received an automated text message from the Delhi Police, which said, “PCR Patrol Vehicle EGL-22 Mobile No. 9821002822 is reaching you shortly.” I waited, while the man in the white shirt kept a close watch on me. His colleagues had retreated by this time.
Within five minutes, a constable arrived on a motorcycle. Assuming that he had been sent as a result of the request I had placed on the helpline, I went to him to tell him about what had happened. The constable exchanged niceties with the official in the white shirt before he told me to follow him and the bank official inside the bank. I did, and narrated my account. When the bank official attempted to contradict my story, I tried to show the constable the video I had recorded. Although he did not watch it, he told me that he agreed that the bank official should not have acted in the manner that he did. The constable advised me to leave before the senior police officers arrived. Determined to prove that I was not in the wrong, I decided to wait.
I was under the impression that the constable had come because of my call. I was mistaken, I realised, when I received a call from a policeman in the PCR van, asking for my location. I gave him the details, and added that one of his colleagues was already at the bank. Around fifteen minutes later, at close to 5.15 pm, two policemen came into the bank. Sumer Singh, who appeared to be the senior-most among them, approached me with a diary in his hand. Since he was wearing a jacket, I was unable to ascertain his rank through the stars on his shoulder strap. Nevertheless, he proceeded to demand proof of my credentials once I identified myself. “Dikha bhai, card dikha. Kya press hai dekhtey hain”—Show me your card, man. We will see what press it is, Singh said.
He was unconvinced when I showed him the press card I have been issued by The Caravan. “Ye koi press nahi hai. Le chal thane isko”—he is not from press, take him to police station.
My attempts to convince him did not work. “Thane le jaake tehikakat karenge, sab samajh aa jayega tujhe”—I’ll interrogate you in the police station and then you will understand, Singh said.
Confused by this threat, I told him that I was the complainant in this case. “Thane mein bolna ab”—Tell me in the police station, he said. Upon being told that I had recorded a video, Singh said, “With whose permission did you shoot the video?” Bewildered, I asked him to elaborate on the nature of the permission he appeared to think I needed. (As the Times of India had noted in an article that was published on 17 January 2016, “in matters of public photography, the law is silent and there are no definitions.”) Singh repeated, “Kisne permission diya”—who gave you the permission, without elaborating on whom I should have sought this permission from.
“Kanhaiya ko humne andar kiya tha, yaad hai. Tu kya hai” —We arrested Kanhaiya you remember, what are you, he said, before adding, “Sarkar badal gayi hai. Aise kahin video mat banaya kar” —The government has now changed. Don’t shoot videos anywhere just like that.
Singh then turned to the bank official against whom I had made the complaint and asked him for advice on what to do. “Aap kahoge toh thane le jayenge, magar fir tehkikat hogi. Nahi toh jane dunga”—If you tell us to, we will take him to the police station, but then there will be an investigation. Otherwise, we will let him go, Singh told the official.
The official said he did not want to take the matter further. “Delete the video,” Singh told me, and did not let me go until I showed him that I had done as instructed. By this point, I had already sent a copy of the video to my colleagues.
At 6 pm—after I had provided the police officials with my name, my father’s name and my address—I was allowed to leave, not as a complainant but as a culprit who was being let off because of the benevolence of the policemen who had apprehended me.
I collected my press card and moved towards the door. Singh said, “Bharat ke nagrik hai, chor rahen hain”—You are a citizen of this country, so I’m letting you go. He continued, “Choti moti toh jhadap hoti rehti hai, toh video banaoge”—small scuffles break out every now and then, are you going to record a video each time.
As I walked past the policemen, out of the bank, I was overcome by the feeling that I was not free anymore. I vaguely registered that I had been intimidated, and could have been arrested for trying to document an instance of violence. I was left shaken and shocked, additionally distressed because of the details that the policemen had asked me to furnish. I was worried that they would call me again and that they would harass my family if I did not toe such arbitrary lines in future. I was afraid that I would not do my job as a journalist without the fear that these hours had left me with. Before driving back home on my motorcycle, I took a walk in the market to to restore a sense of calm, and to remind myself that my actions could not be dictated by the police. The world did not look very different, but I was looking at it differently.
The Caravan attempted to reach out to Alok Kumar Verma, the commissioner of the Delhi police, and Ishwar Singh, the deputy commissioner of police for south Delhi, for their comment on this incident. Neither Verma nor Singh have responded so far.