Indians are not known to suffer quietly. When a government introduces a drastic measure, if it’s not entirely pragmatic and causes major inconveniences, we are known to walk out on the streets and protest. But the anger against black money runs so deep that this time, a large portion of the population seems to be more accepting in bearing the brunt.
Whether this step, that has caused inconveniences of colossal proportions, will obliterate black money entirely is debatable. It is an answer we can only learn in the future. However, what we do know is this: on November 8, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed the reset button and asked everyone to come clean. He asked all Indians to disclose any additional funds which had remained unaccounted. However, is this a blanket decision that includes the members of political parties, including the BJP?
It’s no secret that during Indian elections, political parties (including Congress and the BJP) rely heavily on cash expenditure. A considerable portion of this money is black, or unaccounted. On a panel discussion this week, senior journalist and news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai asked a BJP spokesperson whether the Prime Minister was willing to go on record and tell the country how much money his party had spent on the 2014 election campaign in Varanasi alone. The BJP spokesperson, who unflinchingly skirted the question, looked affronted and responded by saying that Sardesai was questioning the “integrity” of his “Honourable Prime Minister”. A startled Yogendra Yadav (a leader of the Swaraj Abhiyan), who was also part of the panel, reacted by asking what world we were living in, where we could not even ask questions anymore.
Asking questions, challenging the government or expressing dissent against its decisions are increasingly being characterised as “unpatriotic” to say the least. A country where journalists can no longer ask questions, where questioning a Prime Minister’s party’s monetary exploits for a campaign are deemed as “overstepping”, is a country that terrifyingly begins to resemble a dictatorship.
Anyone who opposes the government or tries to defame it can face serious charges, even imprisonment. In 2014, seven people including four students were arrested in Kerala, when they published Narendra Modi’s photograph alongside Adolf Hitler and George W. Bush, in Government Polytechnic College’s student magazine. This week Abhishek Mishra, a 19-year-old who was posting anti-BJP and anti-demonetisation statements on Twitter was arrested. To consider a 19-year-old with reportedly only 16,000 followers a threat, seems a bit far-fetched. But what’s more disturbing is the government’s inability to face any degree of ridicule – it tellingly describes how thin-skinned it is.
Anyone opposing the note ban is immediately labeled as unpatriotic, anti-national and as potential hoarders of black money. The narrative of patriotism and its shining characteristics have been meticulously sculpted by the central government and it’s intelligently being ingrained into our subconscious. For instance, within the first week of demonetisation, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting promptly released a radio message where a reporter floats from one bank to another to understand the mood of the crowd. He interviews a handful of people supposedly standing in queues outside these banks. Those he speaks to (all actors) convey that while they are facing inconvenience, they are satisfied with the government’s decision and are behind Modi. Not a single voice of dissent is featured. The radio piece conveniently forgets to feature those who oppose the ruling. At the end, the host wraps up saying, “I’ll soon make you meet another honest man like them,” suggesting that those who are with the government are “honest” citizens and those who aren’t are dishonest.
But the country is increasingly skewing towards a more intolerant, nationalistic and a more Hindu nation. Today, the Supreme Court declared that all cinema halls must have the national anthem playing before the screening of a movie. In the ruling, the SC bench stated that the time had “come when people must respect the national anthem which is part of constitutional patriotism. People must feel that it is their country. It is because of the country that they are enjoying freedom and liberty.” That is ironic, because the moment you force someone to do something – in this case, sing the national anthem – you are taking away their right to freedom.
There have also been issues raised regarding the fact that the numerical on the new rupee notes are in Devanagari, which therefore sidelines regional communities that are not familiar with the script. Weeks after this was flagged as a concern, the central government dismissed the charges of marginalising other regional scripts and reasoned that the Devanagari script on the new notes existed only for “design” purposes.
In 2014, reports began to emerge that conveyed that the Gujarat government was introducing new textbooks to academic institutions which were steeped in nationalist ideology and religious bias. Circulated across 42,000 schools in Gujarat, these books were available to children for free. The books narrated an altered history, which informed students that the first airplane – a chariot that resembled a swan – was conceptualised and invented during the mythological time of Lord Ram. Many of these books carried a foreword written by Narendra Modi.
These are a handful of instances, but they are enough to paint a portrait an India we are slowly moving towards.