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The lure of collective suffering: Why India's poor are embracing the pain of demonetisation

From vegetable markets to barber shops, they are willing to put up with hardship in the nation's interest.

A sabzi mandi is an important place for thinking about the most significant aspects of social life. It isn’t just a place where the vitals of life are delivered and distributed to the wider population. A mandi is the site where thousands of transport nodes merge, the country’s precariat (the workforce with the most insecure conditions of life) finds employment, street-side vegetable vendors further their own precarious livelihoods, large and small farmers bargain for their living, wholesale traders influence the supply chain, and the state keeps an eye on the most fundamental processes of sustenance. The mandi is a market of lives. It is a great place to get a sense of the warp and woof of daily existence.

Khandsa sabzi mandi in Gurgaon is one of four such markets in the district in Haryana. It is different from the other three in that it is now only a fruit and vegetable mandi, whereas the others also deal in grains. Rakesh Kumar and Ramchand (not their real names) own a potato and onion wholesale dealership here. A few days after the Great Event of November 8, they told me that business was substantially down. Vegetables are perishable commodities, so they have had to sell at lower prices to whoever has the proper notes to buy. At the mandi, cash has always been king. But, Rakesh quickly added that “in the interest of the nation”, he and his partner were willing to put up with the losses to their business “for the few months it will take things to stabilise”. As we sat in the company storage shed, the potatoes and onions were starting to go slightly off, but the thoughts of the owners gave off a peculiar fragrance of purity.

Even on weekday evenings, my barber’s shop has a queue. But on my visit last Thursday, I eased myself into a chair without any wait at all. There were no other customers in the shop, but the room was full with voluble conversation about the Great Event. The owner and his two employees were discussing how they had had to spend days in bank queues without much to show for it, and how their business was suffering because it was difficult to provide change for Rs 2,000 notes. The owner said that he had heard that a South Indian businessman had recently spent several hundred crores on his daughter’s wedding and that black money played a big role in elections. How come “these people are never caught”, he added. But, despite personal experience of hardship, there was clear reticence in condemning the Great Event at this barber’s shop. The owner said that it might help in reducing the number of illegal transactions in real estate and one of his employees added that some good might come of it after all.

It is not difficult to account for the rosy accounts of demonetisation by those whose lives are unlikely to be deeply affected by the event, others who have different ways and means of accessing acceptable money, the group with unshakeable political loyalties, and those among whom patriotism is a middle-class pastime. But how to account for the opinions of that proportion of the population for whom neither personal contacts nor patriotism are adequate to cover for the palpable economic harm that the Great Event has caused (and will continue to generate in the future)?

Ramchand from Khandsa mandi told me that he had had to employ his son in the business since the college degrees obtained from small-town Harayana are worthless in the job market. And barber shops across India are one of the many sites of informal labour that has been deeply affected by the magic trick of the state. These are sites of a great deal of precarious livelihoods, deeply affected by the most minor of economic events. And what happened on November 8 was hardly that.

The optimism at the announcement of one’s hanging requires explanation. How is it that the most vulnerable are happy to join cause with the most powerful?

In it together

The most significant narrative that has gathered around demonetisation is that of the need for collective suffering on behalf of the nation. Collective suffering. The rich and the poor, those with the wherewithal to shift large amounts of money across national borders and those who sell vegetables and peanuts within it, are all asked to sacrifice for a greater cause. Suffering makes you free. Leiden macht frei.

In recent times, there has been a persistent effort to make suffering a part of the Indian collective consciousness. This has borne fruit and there are many, already burdened with substantial amounts of misery, who do not want to be part of a national shame and not suffer. The key aspect in all this is to be able to convince those at the bottom of the socio-economic pile that further suffering is the route to personal and collective salvation. Put another way, the material economy – actually existing inequalities – has been cast in the mould of a spiritual one. In this spiritual economy, there is the blood of martyrs, water reserved for our own people and the everlasting blessings of the mother figure. Within a spiritual community, actually existing distinctions are effaced through veiling the human-made inequalities of the world with ideas of a unified spirit, an undifferentiated people.

Is it not an odd thing that at a time when – as the latest Credit Suisse Group AG report points out – 1% of Indians own around 58% of the country’s wealth, so many appear to share a feeling of togetherness? The key question is this: does it make any sense to focus on the economic when matters of economy are expressed in the language of the social and cultural? This is where critics of demonetisation, particularly the Left, have failed to grasp the meanings that move people. Cultural arguments can only be countered through an equally vehement recourse to culture. It isn’t money that makes the world go around. It’s being convinced that the way the world goes around is the right way.

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