Begum Sar Khan, a woman deserted by her husband, who lives alone with her baby son in a camp near Nangloi flyover, was so overcome with anger and despair at the attitude of Reserve Bank of India officials and security guards, who manhandled her and called the cops to forcibly drag her and her toddler out of the RBI branch in Delhi that she did the unthinkable. On Wednesday, when she saw that neither her tears nor her curses would work and there was no hope in hell she could convince the RBI to help her change her demonetized notes, she suddenly tore off her clothes at the RBI gates in a moment of desperate madness in front of spectators, leaving her upper body completely naked to the shock of passers-by. And the fault for which she was brutally manhandled by the police?
She was under the mistaken belief she could change her raggedy notes of Rs 1000 and Rs 500 (totaling Rs 4000) at the RBI office in Sansad Marg in New Delhi. The RBI and the government had not bothered to clarify to citizens that they were again changing the rules mid-stride and only NRIs and those who had travelled abroad could exchange old notes till March 31, and the rest of us common folk could take a hike. They would have to trash their precious money no matter how compelling their reasons for not depositing the notes by December 30. Is this the gulag and are we all the RBI’s bonded labour?
Begum Khan was repeatedly humiliated and turned away by RBI’s brutish security guards as she has been going to the RBI every day since Monday to exchange her old notes but when she insisted on entering the bank on Wednesday and arguing with bank officials on why she was being denied the right to change her meagre savings, and her nervous child, on seeing the threatening behaviour of the bank officials towards his mother, also urinated in the bank premises, the cops were called and she was hauled away like a common criminal. To add insult to injury, several policepersons tried to restrain her in the police jeep by almost lying on top of her while her baby was left crying on the road, till she finally broke free of their clutches, located her son and then decided to commit this desperate act of disrobing in full public view. ‘I am disappointed at the misbehaviour of RBI security personnel. When I was cursing the RBI for not allowing me to exchange my savings, the RBI security personnel called local police to take me away," Begum Khan said. "I asked them why I was not being allowed to exchange my hard-earned little amount of money, then the policewomen separated me from my child and forced me into their vehicle. But I somehow came out of the police vehicle and removed my clothes to mark my protest against this misbehaviour of RBI officers, the central government and police administration for separating a mother from her child," she said.
Begum Khan says she was picked on because she protested loudly and cursed demonetization and the Prime Minister. She said she has not dressed like the rich folk and her two old Rs 1,000 notes and four old Rs 500 notes were in a bad shape because rats in her jhuggi chewed on them. Also, she did not have any ID proof. She was unable to come earlier because of her job as a part-time ayah (maid) and cleaner and also because of her baby son since she had no one else to look after him. Her neighbours claim she is quarrelsome and so they avoid her.
As a woman, I was moved to tears by her courage. If there is no one else to protect would you not have to be a feisty and aggressive woman who takes on all comers so people don’t see you are weak and try to destroy you. Perhaps it was this warrior spirit which made her take a last defiant stand against this powerful bank and remove her clothes to show them that they could not cow her down. After she took off her clothes and sat outside the RBI office with her little boy watching helplessly, policewomen tried to move her but she held on valiantly for a while. Police then bundled them into the car again and took them to Parliament Street Police Station. It reminds me of the WhatsApp joke, “It took only 50 days for the RBI to move from ‘I promise to pay the bearer’ to ‘I promise to arrest the bearer.’ Later, the police took pity on her in spite of her combative mood and dropped her near the Nangloi flyover. She was too afraid to let them see her house and now neighbours say she has locked up and fled with her child, probably lying low until the tamasha dies down. The Prime Minister of the country should apologise to Begum Khan and thousands like her for hoodwinking them and telling porky pies.
Something about the actions of Begum Khan, struggling against numerous odds, who forgot her shame and modesty as a woman, so violent was her rage and despair, brought home to me the full horror of demonetization being suffered by the most helpless, marginalized sections of our society, who have been betrayed by those who are entrusted to protect and help them the most --- our government, our judiciary and our police. There are many hundreds like her clamouring at the gates of RBI branches across the nation.
“This RBI is a cheater. They do not want to take responsibility or accountability. Why did you not declare before December 30 that demonetised notes will not be accepted here? Its officials are not accepting old notes despite the direction from the prime minister. How can they deny that? They are showing gazette note. We have been waiting in the queue,” said Beejal Chowksi, who came to deposit Rs 10000 in old 1000 notes at the RBI’s Mumbai office. She said she had been working in Gujarat and was only able to arrive in Mumbai on December 30. The money had been kept in her locker in the Bank of Baroda and she had even shown it to the bank manager after opening her locker and he had promised to vouch for the fact if she needed his statement to show to RBI officials. See full report on P-9
Sahira, a maid from Saraipalya, did not know she had old currency till she opened her cooker and found Rs 1,500 that she had kept there when shifting to a new house. This was the case with most gathered at the RBI, who had recently discovered old currency in their possession.
Ramesh Kartikeyan (he asked for his name to be changed), came from Kolar Gold Fields with Rs 14,000 in old currency and an affidavit to show that he needed the money exchanged for his sister’s medical treatment. “My wife used to keep some money every month in a box. We had forgotten about it but when we were shifting house on New Year we found it,” he said. The savings amount to a month’s salary said Kartikeyan, who works as a security guard in Bengaluru.
Many citizens on Monday also queued up at RBI’s office in Ahmedabad to exchange their old notes. But they were in for a shock as they were turned down and shown a handwritten notice, pasted on the gate of the RBI's office, stating "From today, old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 will not be exchanged." They were unaware that even for NRIs exchanging old notes, only five offices had been designated by the RBI – its branches in Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, and Nagpur.
"We read in newspapers that demonetized notes would be accepted at RBI offices until March 2017 on declaring valid reasons. I still have old currency notes worth Rs 5,500, which I could not deposit due to a wedding and some medical problems in my family. I came to exchange the money here but we were told that these notes are not being accepted," said Chirag Chaudhary, a resident of the city.
Many people had come all the way from towns such as Mehsana and Nadiad, up to 90km away from Ahmedabad. "I took a few days' leave to move my home to Nadiad as I live in a rented house. I am a soldier of the Indian Army posted in Jammu and Kashmir. When I returned to Nadiad, I found that my family still had invalid notes. So, I came all the way from Nadiad to get the notes change. All my efforts were in vain," complained Jitendra Prajapati from Nadiad.
When people confronted security officials at the gate, RBI officials calmed the restive citizens by saying that they should approach RBI again after a few days as there were no directives from their head office. People were also given a local enquiry number.
Many people were also seen arguing with security guards at the RBI branch in Bengaluru and their anger may soon force many to take the law into their own hands. It seems Bengaluru and Ahmedabad were being made to pay for the sins of a few people from whom large amounts had been recovered in IT raids and police checks. Again, the Narendra Modi government was making the fatal error of punishing entire cities and even the whole country for the misdeeds of a few tax evaders, tarring everyone with the same brush of criminal intent. Their only fault had been that they had taken the Prime Minister and RBI at their word.
How was Begum khan to know that this rogue ‘Reverse Bank of India’ and the callous government of India had done another volte face and cunningly changed rules without informing the public with complete disregard of its own proclamations and brazen flouting of all rules and norms that any civilized nation should be governed by? How could she know that she could not trust her own Prime Minister whose word should be his bond, and whose image of honesty and decency was the basis for people patiently and stoically enduring all the hardships of demonetization?
How could she know that the country’s central bank had surrendered all its independence and responsibility to maintain fiscal stability simply because it wanted to protect its own back and breathe easy by becoming a servile tool of government, throwing all notion of integrity to the winds?
The utter contempt displayed by the RBI and the Prime Minister of India for the naivety of ordinary people and trust we place in the pronouncements of these pillars of our establishment is enough to make one’s blood boil. It is this same contempt that one saw in Delhi BJP Chief Manoj Tiwari’s sarcasm when he showed how people standing in a bank queue nodded like sheep after he sang a song proclaiming that those who were patiently waiting in line were great patriots.
When the Prime Minister addressed the nation on New Year’s Eve, his decorum, gravity and humility, so different from the tone of levity and mockery in earlier speeches as he cast aspersions on various sections of the populace (aamir, beimaan, kaledhanwale, etc) during the entire demonetization process, had really made me believe that he had truly understood the hardships and sacrifices people had made in aid of his campaign and he now wanted to be an inclusive Prime Minister, showing empathy for all the people who had suffered, especially the poor and marginalised. But recent events have convinced me this was just a charade, in response to the TV anchors speculating on the content of his speech and predicting the Prime Minister could never display humility or acknowledge mistakes. Otherwise, he would never have taken such a retrograde step immediately afterward and colluded or been instrumental in the RBI’s decision to overturn his solemn promise on November 8 that people who could not exchange their demonetized notes by December 30 due to unavoidable circumstances would be able to do so at RBI branches until March 31. This was also implicit in the ordinance issued by the Government on November 28 allowing the exchange of demonetized notes at RBI branches until March 31.
No one realized the ordinance was a cunning and vengeful ploy to punish our own citizens, similar to the RBI decree on November 19 that ordinary citizens could not deposit more than Rs 5000 in banks without explanation, as most people should have made their deposits by then, implying that all those who didn’t must be black money hoarders. Again, they are now implying that those who didn’t deposit money in banks by December 30 are criminals with malafide intent. The RBI, in Section 4 (1) of the Specified Bank Notes (Cessation of Liabilities) Ordinance, 2016, has slyly inserted the clause that now only two classes of Indian citizens can avail of currency exchange at select RBI bank branches: Resident Indians who were abroad during the period from November 9 to December 30, 2016, and Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who were not in India during the period from November 9 to December 30, 2016. It unlawfully excludes all other Indian citizens from availing of the exchange facility by not making any mention of them in the clause.
At no time did the RBI before issuance of the ordinance ever come out and clearly announce to citizens that everyone should read the ordinance clearly as it overturned RBI’s own announcement of November 8. This nightmare of unethical and unlawful decrees that the RBI has unleashed on the nation at the behest of the Prime Minister and which it overturns at his every whim and fancy, has eroded the very foundations of monetary stability that citizens rely on when they put their trust implicitly in the currency issued by the government, in the belief that it will be honoured to the last rupee.
Now it seems like the RBI and the Prime Minister of India may also be responsible for sending many of our innocent citizens to jail. Yes, you heard me right. The same ordinance that duped citizens and denied them the last chance to make good on their own hard-earned money also promulgates that holding of demonetised Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes after 31 March a criminal offence. As per the ordinance named the Specified Bank Notes Cessation of Liabilities Ordinance, holding these notes after 31 March deadline would invite a Rs 5000 penalty, and a jail term. So the RBI’s refusing to accept the remaining bank notes from our suffering citizens means they will have them in our possession after March 31 and could, unless they trash, burn or drown them, as the Prime Minister had seemed to urge black money hoarders to do initially, possibly land them in jail.
Henry Ford is supposed to have remarked that it was a good thing that most Americans didn't know how banking really works, because if they did, "there'd be a revolution before tomorrow morning." The government has forcibly taken away the public’s money to pay for the sins of our bankers and politicians who encouraged a lending spree in the name of growth, only for it all to go to the dogs when the overreaching ambitions of bankers, politicians and industrialists saw the economy held to ransom and the banks threaten to go under from the weight of bad loans.
If ours was a banana republic people would be breaking down the bank doors and beating the bank officials to within an inch of their lives for not only punishing them for legitimately trying to exchange their hard-won money but also for refusing to pay out as much as they need as and when they need it. But fortunately or unfortunately, our people have turned out to be more law abiding and civilized than our government and quietly borne all the hardships and humiliations thrown at them, be they lathi charges, insults by bank officials and empty ATMs, with barely a murmur. The government has much to learn from our people on decency, tolerance, empathy and fortitude. But it is repaying these very people for rescuing our banks and giving our politicians extra brownie points to fight the elections, by treating them like common criminals and vermin.
Most amazing of all is the nonchalant attitude of the Finance Minister, a man many of us had respected for his knowledge of jurisprudence, at the way he has summarily ridden roughshod over concerns and questions from the public and the press. We certainly expected more of him as he does not seem like a dyed-in-the-wool politician, desperate to score political points and only win elections, with utter disregard for the law of the land.
Clarifying the government's about-face of making December 30 the deadline for the deposit of banned notes, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had specifically said in his Nov 8 speech that the central bank RBI will fix "terms and conditions" for the same. "People in large number have already exchanged notes. The RBI has fixed their own criteria...I will respect that..." he added. This respect for the RBI was not evident when he and his Economic Affairs Secretary usurped the role of the RBI and made all announcements on its behalf.
But here is what the PM actually said on November 8. "There may be some who for some reason, are not able to deposit their old 500 or 1,000 rupee notes by December 30, 2016. They can go to specified offices of the Reserve Bank of India up to March 31, 2017 and deposit the notes after submitting a declaration form."
The RBI, in its notification dated November 8, had said, "any person who is unable to exchange or deposit the specified bank notes in their bank accounts on or before December 30, 2016, shall be given an opportunity to do so at specified offices of the Reserve Bank or such other facility until a later date
as may be specified.’
In contradiction to its earlier statement, the RBI reiterated through a statement only AFTER the December 30 deadline for depositing notes when it was too late for people to act, that only Indians who were abroad during November 9 to December 30, 2016, had been given a 3-month grace period till March 31 to deposit the junked notes, while for the rest, the RBI simply couldn’t care less. Neither did it have the decency to come out publicly and declare through repeated advertisements on TV like the Income Tax department has been doing that no money would be accepted from people after December 30. RBI knew it would cause a hue and cry as it would again be seen to be going back on its word. IT department spends crores on advertising to threaten everyone that they should declare all their unaccounted money by March 31 to RBI through the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana scheme, but RBI has no money to place a single ad anywhere that it is revoking its Nov 8 announcement and no one except NRIs and those travelling abroad can exchange money after December 30? All it had to do was send a notification to the banks well ahead of time and banks would have conveyed this to the media.
RBI is still unable to print enough notes to bring enough liquidity back to the system in spite of using our army jawans as movers and packers at its various printing presses and the air force as money transporters. Such a large organization cannot keep to any deadline in returning the people’s money but it expects the harassed citizens to deposit money within its arbitrary and ever-changing deadlines at any cost. It is now showing new levels of ineptitude by putting defective notes into circulation again, printing Rs 2000 notes without Gandhiji's face on the currency! This is brazen hypocrisy by the RBI. It will defraud honest people of their meager savings simply to prove that it is acting against corruption and to ensure that not all money returns to its books so as to prove demonetization was a partial success, even though almost 97 per cent of the money has already been returned. What harm can a few more crores do?
It is not as if anyone is coming in with millions to deposit, most individuals are coming with between five to 25000 rupees, and if some crorepatis do come with their crores, RBI will immediately take them through the back door into a special room and treat them as VIPs so it can confiscate 50 per cent of their wealth for the Prime Minister’s Garib Kalyan Yojana. But fifty per cent of five or 25000 rupees cannot be deducted and would not be worth a pittance, hence it is of no interest to the RBI. However, they seem to have left a strange loophole open, allowing people to send cash for exchange through the post, with no specification if this too is restricted only to NRIs.
Most civilized countries with even very small populations give their citizens enough time to exchange the notes. The European Union gave its citizens three years to change over to the Euro. Pakistan gave its citizens more than a year and a half to exchange old notes. The UK has not set any time limit for its citizens to exchange old notes. Anyone can exchange old pound notes for the new ones in perpetuity with no questions asked. I went to exchange five fifty pound notes four years after they were discontinued, and unlike the RBI who keeps demanding ID proof from the migrant labourers who have no documents to their name, even though I was a foreigner, the Bank of England did not even bother to check my ID or my passport, they just checked if the notes were genuine and I was given new notes within minutes.
And we have 125 crores of people, so even if 0.0001 per cent of people turn up at the RBI branches now to deposit money, they may seem like a lot but they are just a miniscule fraction of our population caught in the Narendra Modi riptide which might threaten to wash away their humble fortunes.
While there is no limit on deposit of defunct notes by an Indian national who was abroad when the 50-day window was in operation, NRIs can deposit Rs 25,000 as per FEMA law restrictions up to the end of June. However, this facility is not available for Indian citizens resident in Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The only group exempt from the Prime Minister’s desire to make everyone as honest and decent as himself seem to be people who live or travel to the developed world because the Prime Minister knows his image abroad has taken a beating due to the draconian measures imposed through demonetization, and as he is much enamoured of developed nations where he would one day like to be considered first among equals by emulating their ways, and making India, though we are still firmly a third world nation, corruption-free and cash-free, the emperor must be seen to have on some clothes, even it be a mere fig leaf.