Opinion

Demonetisation should have triggered huge protests against Modi government. Why didn't that happen?

Making sense of the failure of the opposition to organise protests against economic disruption.

The relative absence of protests against demonetisation has puzzled analysts because of their own flawed assumption – that an outpouring of popular anger against state policy is spontaneous, a veritable volcanic flow of passion. It sweeps through towns and villages, they seem to think, wreaking havoc on what it resents or, at the very least, instigating dharnas disrupting road and rail traffic.

The spontaneity of public display of anger is largely a myth spawned by our experience of communal and caste riots for more than a century. Typically, narratives of riots trace their origins to the outrage experienced at the occurrence of unforeseen events, such as the discovery of beef in temples and pork in mosques, or stone throwing at a religious procession, or marriages between boys and girls belonging to different castes or religions.

But what is perceived as spontaneous is often planned. This is why political scientist Paul Brass says India has an Institutionalised Riots System. It has three phases – activists are trained and assigned roles to craft a riot, often even rehearsing it. Once the need to consolidate a social group is felt, often to achieve electoral goals, rioting is triggered and fury unleashed.

It is at the third stage that the myth of spontaneity is spawned. An attempt is made to project the mayhem as a consequence of the outrage spurred by a provocative action of another social group, against which the mobilisation had been planned, anyway, beforehand. The narrative of spontaneity justifies criminal actions of actors in the public eye.

There are three key elements in the Institutionalised Riots System. One, riots are crafted to achieve a specific goal, which is often electoral. Two, there must be an organisation to train and distribute roles among individuals for lighting the communal fire. Three, an organisational apparatus is kept in a state of readiness because a situation conducive to rioting is anticipated.

File photo: Marathas on a silent march. Image credit:  PTI
File photo: Marathas on a silent march. Image credit: PTI

Recent protests

In India, these elements are required not only for rioting, but also for giving immense visibility to public anger. Take the reservation stirs in recent times in different states. In Rajasthan, the Gujjars burnt down public property and disrupted rail traffic to mount pressure on the state for shifting them from the category of Other Backward Classes to Scheduled Castes. The Jats in Haryana, the Patels in Gujarat and the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh took to streets to demand reservation for themselves, either resorting to violence of their own volition or in response to the crackdown on them by the state.

The Marathas have held silent public marches in several cities of Maharashtra. They want, among other things, to be granted reservation and changes in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Atrocities) Act. The Dalits of Gujarat undertook a 350-km Long March in August last to protest the flogging of Dalits for skinning a dead cow in Una, and then subsequently widening their agenda to demand land rights.

Each of these protests had a community-based organisation leading it, a leadership structure, however incipient, and a clearly identifiable concession it sought to wrest from the state. These community-based organisations either articulated the angst of its followers who fear they would lag behind social groups in the reservation pool or seek the state’s protection from the wrath of hegemonic castes.

The difference

By contrast, what should be the demand of those who feel aggrieved because of demonetisation? They know, intuitively at least, that invalidation of currency notes can’t possibly be rolled back. They are also aware that the supply of cash in the economy is likely to normalise in a few months. It is difficult to trigger and sustain protests against an issue which can remain contentious for six months or so at best.

However, should the economic slowdown not reverse despite the flow of cash becoming regular, and if the agrarian distress compounds and labourers in the informal sector don’t find jobs, the dissatisfaction of people could grow and morph into protests. But even this would remain a mere possibility in the absence of an organisation solely expressing economic discontent.

Such an organisation won’t be easy to create, build and sustain, either. This is because caste, linguistic and religious identities enjoy a premium over class solidarity in India. Identity-based organisations, active or dormant, have more than a century of history in India. They are easy to form because of the factor of vertical solidarity – rich and poor Marathas, for instance, are united because of the commonality of their caste. The rich bankroll the organisation and the poor or less-than-rich bring in the numbers.

By comparison, it is a gargantuan challenge to build an organisation on class solidarity or, alternatively, on inter-class support. No doubt, demonetisation has had an impact across India’s class spectrum, leaving none untouched.

Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee at a joint press conference. Image credit: PTI
Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee at a joint press conference. Image credit: PTI

But some sections continue to bear the brunt of it – the labour in the informal sector, farmers who didn’t have savings to bankroll the sowing of rabi crop and, therefore, took loans at high interest rates from moneylenders, small industrialists lacking in liquidity to run their business, and traders witnessing a depression in demand.

It requires tremendous dexterity to bring together a medley of these classes of people on the same platform. For one, caste and religion militate against achieving a vertical solidarity of those most affected by demonetisation. Nor do their interests coalesce beyond the bitter experience of demonetisation. Will employees in the informal sector support their employers in their demand for, say, enhancing the withdrawal limits on the current account to kick start production?

No less a daunting task is to fashion organisations reflecting horizontal solidarity, given the decline of peasants and workers unions in recent times. Nor is it possible to cobble an alliance of the poor in a few months – they have been dislocated from their places of work or too desperate to earn their daily wages than to spend time at barricades. They hope the disruption of demonetisation would be temporary and are willing to bide their time.

Given the severity of demonetisation experienced by traders, they could employ their enviable financial clout to bankroll protests, as they have in the past. They haven’t because they are vulnerable to the retaliation from the state, which could entangle them in tax evasion cases for instance. And traders and industrialists, anyway, always nurse a fear of subaltern radicalism.

Political reasons

Some say the economic disruption is tailor-made for the Opposition to trigger protests against the Modi government. If they haven’t, it is largely because of India’s political map – most states are either ruled by regional entities or the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Congress has just one large state under its belt – Karnataka. Its autonomy in Bihar is restricted to the decisions of its regional partners who call the shots there.

For a regional party in power, it makes little sense to organise protests against demonetisation, easy though it would be. They can’t possibly craft a situation in which they stoke the fury of people only to end up controlling or capping it through state action, thereby alienating them. This is why Mamata Banerjee chooses to breathe fire and brimstone against demonetisation outside West Bengal.

The absence of protests in BJP-ruled states testifies that the Congress has perhaps become a moribund organisation. By giving voice to the widespread misery, the Congress stands to gain – for instance, in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, each of which go to election between 2017 and 2018. It hasn’t. Some would say the party is inclined to behave responsibly, but it is more likely that the Congress no longer has the appetite for street politics nor the creativity to launch socio-political movements.

Role of media

No less significant has been the role of media in the demonetisation days. There have been reports of people who committed suicide because they couldn’t secure cash. Over 100 deaths have been reported as directly related to demonetisation. But these deaths were buried in inside pages or simply glossed over.

This is quite inexplicable for a media which during the anti-reservation (or anti-Mandal) agitation of 1990 front-paged, under banner headlines, every incident of self-immolation. It undeniably fanned the popular resentment against Mandal among the middle class, to which journalists also belong.

Some might say the media’s decision of downplaying deaths during demonetisation reflects its maturity, or that it lacks in empathy for a class of people whose capacity to withstand the impact of demonetisation is far less than its own members. Or that media-owners are apprehensive of a blowback from a regime intolerant of those singing a tune in opposition to its own.

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In much the same way, protests always have an unseen hand guiding them. But silence in face of hardships has many meanings – and reasons. Who knows it better than the BJP, which is inclined to exploiting an inter-religion marriage, or meat suspected of being beef, or change of religion, to create a cacophony which masquerades as protest?

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

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