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.