Minutes after the Banke Bihari temple in Vrindavan shuts for the afternoon, the main hall is abuzz. This is the time the deity is supposed to sleep but 15 uniformed guards troop in and sit in circles atop a wide alcove. There are a few armed policemen around.
Four lawyers, in black coats, take up positions on chairs arranged in front of the guards and sit among two members of the temple trust. Another guard drags a heavy strong box and places it in front of the lawyers and trustees.
All is ready now. The lawers and trustees nod in approval. Seconds later, five locks — sealed and marked — on the strong box are opened and out tumbles a cascade of currency notes. One of the guards gives a gentle shake to nudge out more notes and coins — of all denominations. The notes are piled on a blanket and passed on to the guards sitting above, who begin counting and stacking them.
This is Vrindavan post demonetisation. With banks running out of currency notes and money in short supply from treasury chests, the government has directed the biggest temples in Vrindavan to deposit the money they receive in donations into their bank accounts every day.
The Banke Bihari temple alone has contributed Rs 1.2 crore in five days. And given the short two-hour duration in the afternoon when it is closed and when these boxes can be opened, the temple has got around to sorting just six of its 15 donation boxes so far.
“Many of these boxes have not been opened for two months, so we don’t know the effect of the withdrawal of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes on donations. However, we have noticed a dip in the number of visitors to the temple, which means donations may also decrease,” says a temple official.
Almost 70 km away in Aligarh, there’s a similar trend, except there’s not enough money in donations to warrant government directions to make bank deposits.
Mohammad Naseem, the imam of the Barchi Bahadur Dargah, says, “Today is Thursday, the busiest day of the week here and you can see the crowds. There wouldn’t be space for us to stand and speak on any other Thursday. This move by the government has caused hardship to many, particularly the poor.” It’s the poor who mostly visit the dargah.
“How or why will a person who has to feed a family waste money in these times on donations? Currency in hand is most important at this point,” says Vrindavan Bihari, the head priest of the 173-year-old Nimbark Kot temple.
The temple has also curtailed its Nimbark Jayanti Mahotsav, held for one month every year starting October. “It includes a yatra across the city, a sammelan where priests discuss a particular topic, and food and prasad for the devotees on the last day,” says Vrindavan Bihari.
The programmes were reviewed minutes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech. “We had to cancel the sammelan and decided to reduce the number of tickets we hand out for the food and prasad,” he says. From 2,000 tickets last year, the number was cut to 700.
In Aligarh, small businesses have been forced to extend their credit lines or stop supplies all together. Noorjehan, a flower and chaddar seller outside the Barchi Bahadur dargah, says, “I set up my shop every Thursday. But today, I have barely made enough to pay my suppliers. I will have to pay them from my pocket this week and that means standing in the bank for several hours. Next week, I may not put up the stall, there is no point in buying goods for customers who don’t want them.”
With Uttar Pradesh heading into arguably its most polarised elections ever, the shock of demonetisation is also manifesting in contempt for the media across this area. Naseem says he has stopped watching TV and reading most newspapers. “They do not show the truth; it’s very frustrating. TV news says the lines have lessened and the cash crunch is over, but when I rush to the bank, the line is longer than ever. How can they show such lies?” he asks.
Mehmood, a dargah trustee, and Abdul Jabbar, the owner of a clothes shop that adjoins Aligarh’s Jama Masjid, speak of TV reporters pushing microphones into their faces for reactions to the demonetisation. “They moved the microphone away when I started to narrate my troubles, and went to someone else who said it’s great for the country. It may be great for the country, but the poor implementation and troubles it has caused cannot be ignored,” Jabbar says.
Jabbar adds that he doesn’t have money to replenish his clothes stock. “I saw the demonetisation in 1978. Then, life was unaffected. This is traumatic,” he says.
A woman customer listening to the conversation jumps in. “Most TV channels only show lies and only the men. It’s the women who keep money at home and use it to run the house. Where are our voices? Nobody asks us anything. We are also voters. Let the elections come,” she says.
Anshuman Sharma Gopaljee, a Ram Kathavachak in Vrindavan, says what TV is doing is “wrong”. “I have stopped watching the news. Nowadays it’s blatant lies. There is an ATM outside my house and they were showing visuals of just a few people in the queue. I looked outside the window and there was a long line and even a small quarrel between customers.”
A senior photographer in Vrindavan, who didn’t want to be named, says, “There are times when reporters do this on their own and times when they have orders to do so. Who can tell what happens? The media is deeply divided along party lines. On demonetisation, depending on which channel you watch, there are absolutely no troubles at all or the world is ending.”
On the border between Vrindavan and Mathura is a small temple, with no devotees this morning. The head priest, Ashok, was once a stringer with three TV channels. So why is he a priest now? “Once upon a time, it was great work. Our stories genuinely brought some change. Ab mazaa nahin aata hai (It wasn’t fun anymore).”
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