February 10, 2017 12:02:35 am
The Indian economy has not yet collapsed, even after some three months of demonetisation. The Indian public has refused to rebel, despite being told by economic experts and an ever-eager opposition that demonetisation was an uncalled-for tragedy heaped on the poor. Even the media has given up on stories documenting the people’s troubles because of demonetisation. Critics of the government have lapsed into a sullen silence. But everyone failed to notice that there was a connection between demonetisation and the slap that recently assailed filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali, as he was trying to direct his movie Padmavati, coming from a handful of local hoodlums.
A very strong undercurrent in the debates generated by demonetisation of the Indian economy has been that the government had no business to convert all non-legal cash transactions into legal ones. Such debaters were in quite good company; Indians distrust government. Over a century ago, Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901), one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress and a judge of the Bombay High Court, railed against the government in words recorded in Miscellaneous Writings: “No government has the right to close the mints or to say that the currency of the country was either deficient or redundant. That is a question solely for the bankers, traders and merchants to consider. If they do not require money, they will not purchase bullion to be coined. The duty of the government is merely to assay all bullion brought to the mint for coinage and to return the value of the bullion in money”.
Ranade was angry that the government had decided to intervene in the working of mints and systematise the issuance of money. The English expressed surprise at this advocacy of freedom to coin one’s own money. They were already surprised enough that there were mints in most of the principal towns and that the right to coin money was vested in no particular body of individuals. All you had to do was to apply to the government for the right to coin bullion.
Till the recent demonetisation, Indians were fast lapsing back to that 19th century behaviour. Often in the past, when faced with a shortage of coins, people had resorted to an informal “chit” system. Using chocolates and toffees as a replacement for change was a widely accepted practice. With almost a quarter to half of the economy being in black (guesses have varied with time and the estimator), it was but a small step to claiming that the Indian state had dissolved itself.
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The trouble is that such behaviour undermines the foundations of the modern state system. The uniformity of currency, the control over money supply, the regulation of illegal activity; all these are basic tenets of the state system. And the one major objective of the state system is to protect the citizen — black money is merely a symptom of a weak state that is unable to protect its citizens. The Bhansali slapping incident was just another addition to a long list of sorry episodes that have demonstrated that the state in India has been, by and large, helpless in controlling anything that harms the civil rights of citizens.
We only need to look at two recent measures of the state attempting to exercise its authority and notice how strong the opposition there is in India to any sort of regulation of sharp practices in business. The Real Estate Regulation Bill and the Clinical Establishments Act were attempts to regulate rampant exploitation of the weak individual in the real estate and private hospital sectors: Till date, neither bill has been translated into reality in most of the country.
A film like Khosla Ka Ghosla, that documents the travails of the individual fighting a corrupt builder, or the film Gabbar Is Back, that showcases the expropriatory behaviour of corporate hospitals, have till now only evoked mirth and a sense of happiness at the vigilante behaviour they advocate. People’s troubles because of demonetisation were soothed by their imagining the even greater troubles of black money-holders whose stash of cash lay exposed, they felt, by demonetisation. No wonder there was not a whisper of protest from the public against demonetisation.
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