A tribal letter to the prime minister
By Valson Thampu
Sir, our hopes are sky-high!
Dear Prime Minister,
It is now exactly a month since you stunned savasaukarod (1.25 billion) Indians with your note-bandi (demonetization). Both you and we have had enough time by now to look in the face of with what has been unleashed. It is time we told each other what is what.
We have heard from you and your cheer team what this promises. Of course, we are told various and ever-changing things, day after day. It is like the chameleon changing its colour to match the ambience.
-First it was a war on black money and corruption
-Then we were told that it was a blow on behalf of the poor to make them richer.
-Then it was a clarion call to embrace plastic money
-Then it was cutting the lifeline of terrorism, Maoism and Naxalism
-Now it is about widening the tax net.
-Tomorrow? Who knows what it will be.
We don’t despise the laudable goals you propose. We only submit that when a host of motives are advanced one after the other, the whole thing begins to look a bit suspicious. It sounds like looking for justifications and excuses as mere after-thoughts. But that’s not our main concern or distress.
We humbly submit that this surgical attack has really turned out to be an attack on our freedom. We are surprised that this does not occur to you; or, if it does, it does not bother you.
Sir, for us freedom is life itself. (As it is, it is precious little of it that we have.) The degradation or dilution of freedom cannot be compensated with anything you or anyone else may offer. Even if we are offered heaven itself we would say, “No, Sir. Not, if it is at the expense of our freedom.”
Sir, what is the most fundamental aspect of human freedom? Is it not, the freedom to use one’s own little resources as one pleases? We can understand that our freedom on public roads can be compromised. Our right to speak can be regulated. Even our right to work can be restricted. (It is restricted any way indirectly by denying us and our children quality education and basic health facilities.)
But our right to use our own rupee and paise? Taking this away from us, by your deciding what and how much we may use of our own money, is cruel.
We tried hard to convince ourselves that this is black money. We have failed. It is our blood money. We turned our blood into sweat to earn this pittance.
Our most basic form of freedom today stands crippled, nearly abrogated.
It worries us that you seem unconcerned. You ask us to make sacrifices. You applaud us for obliging you and for falling in line. But is there nothing that you need to do for us? Tokens do not help us anymore.
Please don’t mind our asking this one question. What makes you think that all of us are obliged to endorse your goals and priorities? How important are they for us? What difference will they make in our life, even if all of them are fully realized?
For many, many of us, fighting hunger and destitution is more important and urgent than fighting black money. (And we really see no connection between the two.)
Nothing that has happened in the past or in the wake of your note-bandi gives us any reason for hoping that this stunning blow will mitigate our deprivation. It has no bearing on our life and our many woes.
Entering a world of plastic money means nothing to us; whereas our children entering a primary school means a lot to us. But many of us don’t see that happen; even though thousands of crores has been collected through education cess. Very little of that has been used to set up schools and colleges where we live. Please tell us what is happening to that money.
We are beginning to feel, and strongly too, that we are being treated like pawns in a game which has nothing to do with our life or needs.
-Like the tribals who were displaced for the sake of Narmada Dam. It was our pain and somebody’s gain.
-Like all project affected people who are sacrificed to the cause of national prosperity, which they will never share.
-Like, in the days of colonialism, the uncivilized natives who were uprooted so that highways could be built; for what were a few thousand native lives worth in comparison to highways?
-Like the seventy thousand mentally retarded Germans that Hitler got eliminated to ease the economic burden on Germany and to ensure better eugenics.
-Like the 24 million Russians whom Stalin massacred that the Revolution may thrive.
As Lenin (of all people, Lenin!) said, the death of a million people is statistic; but the death of one man is a tragedy.
The eighty-odd of our fellow Indians who died on demonetization queues are, to us, no statistic. There was pain in the last breath they inhaled. Their wives and children wept inconsolably when their dead bodies reached home and then left for good, without waiting for their share of the long-term gain.
Please do not get us wrong. We are not against you. We appreciate your aims and goals. But we are worried that you are too engrossed in your own plans and schemes to see how we are crushed in the process. We feel that we are becoming mere pawns in a game of chess to the benefits of which we are irrelevant.
Sir, we look forward to the forthcoming budget. Will there be something in it that may cheer us and our withered beloved ones? Or, are we waiting and hoping in vain?
We just can’t wait to see this first post-demonetization budget. That will tell everything, once and for all.
For own our sake we wish to believe that you were utterly sincere in saying that you have administered the big bang of note-ban only for our sake.
My five-year old son keeps your photograph in his pocket and talks about going to school. He says you are going to start schools in rural and tribal areas.
My seven-year old daughter takes your name most reverentially and says you will bring piped water to our village. (She is sick with chronic diarrhea because of contaminated water.)
My eighty-year old father, scrawny and emaciated with malnutrition and bronchitis, looks hopeful that you will make medical help available to him and the likes of him so that he does not have to depend on Christian missionaries.
What all hopes and dreams, Mr. Prime Minister!
All because of your note-ban!
Your expectant citizens who are in rural and tribal India.
(Valson Thampu is former principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi)