My radical leftist friend is jubilant over the demonetisation process. It is not because she takes delight in the discomfort of the wealthy desperately trying to convert their stash of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes into legal tender. Nor is she rejoicing at Prime Minister Narendra Modi having brought India’s class contradiction to the fore. Even before the media began reporting it, she simply knew that the class hatred every poor supposedly nurses will have them support, at least temporarily, any policy that deprives the rich of their wealth.

My radical leftist friend is rejoicing because Modi, through his demonetisation policy, has unmasked the state for what it has always been: brutal, imperious, presumptuous, and prejudiced against those on the margins.

Yet, the true nature of the state was concealed from us because it wore the mask of just arbiter of competing interests. Its conduct wasn’t questioned, nor its decisions challenged, because it justified them in the name of the greater good of the people of India. Even the harshest policy was turned into a morality play, which had as its themes development, progress and nationalism.

It has taken 70 years for the state’s spin to be exposed. Three cheers for Modi, she said!

For the greater good

Because I looked puzzled and worried (over her mental stability), resembling in every way those who form queues to get into banks early in the morning, she remarked condescendingly, “You just don’t get it.”

She then took off: For 70 years, the state has been expropriating land from peasants and indigenous people, gently explaining to them at first that they must suffer inconveniences (actually, hardship) to enable the nation to develop. We need big dams to control floods and irrigate land, and factories to manufacture goods and generate employment, and mines to supply raw material.

Some have to make sacrifices for the benefit of many, the state would argue. It would say that it was compensating them for their losses anyway, while promptly notifying which plots of land were to be alienated from whom.

In her element now, she said those marked to be dispossessed would point to the sheer injustice of being deprived of their land – which they had sowed for years or where they have been living for generations – and of being denied access to the forests over which they had customary rights.

The about-to-be-dispossessed would ask: Can the state extinguish our rights summarily, not even caring to secure our consent and manipulating, even forcing, us to give approval for our own dispossession?

I could see how all that she was speaking about linked to demonetisation. But it was impossible to make my radical leftist friend pause.

In response to the arguments proffered by the about-to-be dispossessed, the state would tinker with the compensation package.

Grasping the state’s obstinacy, the people would organise protests and dharnas, declare that they would not vacate their land. They would wonder how the state could not understand that it wasn’t just about eviction or compensation, but also about terminating a way of life to which they were accustomed.

But the state’s fiat can neither be rescinded, nor disobeyed. And so the police would be ordered in, the protestors beaten brutally, their families evicted. The state always triumphs, she noted bitterly, even in its idiocy.

Wherever the state versus the people is a perpetual battle, as for instance in Chhattisgarh, there are also others to be tamed or silenced, pointed out the radical leftist friend. Activists are dubbed Maoists, tagged anti-national, terrorised by mobs, at times made to disappear or compelled to leave the area. Don’t you know what happened to a writer in Chhattisgarh?

Through all these 70 years, the urban middle class, seemingly the nation’s conscience, lined behind the state, either shutting their eyes or approving the expropriation and its accompanying barbarity. They rationalised the state’s conduct, saying it was for the greater good of the nation. Some inconveniences must be endured in the nation’s march toward glory and greatness.

The radical leftist friend chuckled and said defensively, “Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take delight even in the discomfort of supporters of the state.”

She said she was cheering Modi because he has inadvertently stripped the state of its mask, for displaying to its supporters what it can be, what it might still be.

Forced into the future

There they are in queues that move ever so slowly, denied access to their bank deposits, summarily told what the limits of their withdrawals can be. They must use credit cards for their purchases, learn to use digital wallet apps, even those who are elderly and paranoid about technology or don’t possess smartphones.

It is an economy transiting from cash to cashless mode. And the prime minister is singing Bob Dylan’s The times they are a-changin’ because he has brought the future upon us, suddenly, without our consent. Unless people are compelled, they don’t drift into the future, or so the state thinks.

Sure enough, she said, it is the poor who will be hit harder than the middle class and rich. Starved of cash, factories are closing, workers are losing jobs, sales are dipping, small and medium entrepreneurs might be run out of business, and rural India will likely find its distress magnified.

Well, these cruel consequences will drive people towards a cashless existence. To fast-forward the present into the future, the radical leftist friend said, the state is consciously destroying a way of living.

They can’t express their outrage because demonetisation, too, has been rationalised in the name of the greater good of the people. It will counter terror finance, punish black-money hoarders, and enhance tax collection. It will make the nation secure and prosperous, for which, as the prime minister said, we must experience inconveniences.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, the radical leftist friend asked.

She said that such transitions under duress have been happening in India since Independence, in pockets, even under Jawaharlal Nehru. It has always been dressed as a morality play.

But never before has an entire nation been commanded to switch overnight to a new way of living. Now that the urban middle class has been pinched, however slightly, it just might stop viewing the state as a just arbiter working selflessly for the greater good of the nation.

For this alone, the radical leftist friend said smugly, we must thank Modi. Demonetisation has changed forever our imagination of the Indian state, for proving to us that it too can turn mad or become a monster, for making us doubt its sagacity and competence.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid