How Demonetisation Gave the Naxals a ₹30-Lakh Bonfire


How Demonetisation Gave the Naxals a ₹30-Lakh Bonfire

Illustration: Akshita Monga

The meeting held in a jungle hideout, atop a hill, was intense but orderly. Lit by battery-powered lamps on a cold November night last year, the secret meet had been scheduled to discuss ways and means to strengthen the module, but the announcement of instant demonetisation of ₹500 and ₹1000 notes by the Modi sarkar a day before, called for a change in agenda.

The jungle hushed around a gathering of armed men in the silence of the night, as the buzz of animated chatter took over. The top commanders of Bihar’s Aurangabad module of Maoists, stood at a distance, discussing survival in the time of demonetisation. To keep the module flag flying high, was always an important part of the agenda and various means from propaganda to funding were discussed but suddenly, one of the most critical “means” had been turned into nothing but worthless paper. This news had the potential of destroying the module.

Aurangabad borders the Jharkhand forest cover and Jharkhand is the only state in the country, which has 14 Naxal-affected districts in India. The fight of the Naxals in this area has been against the atrocities inflicted on villagers by the police force and security men, and their battle rages on daily. At a larger level, they believe they are fighting against a system of governance that allows for underdevelopment and deprivation.

The Aurangabad module was holding a stash of a little more than ₹30 lakh in high-value currency when Modi announced his latest “surgical strike”. The liquidity was their lifeline – essential to keep the module going with a steady supply of food, fuel, and ammunition for about a month. Just like any other dissident outfit, Naxalites run their insurgency with funds “donated” by interested quarters from India and overseas, and by way of “taxes” levied on people living in and around their strongholds, a euphemism for extortion. Both sources of funding end up in large denomination notes, which were kept in reserve at all times. And now that reserve had suddenly dried up; it had no value.

The top agenda at the meeting was how much of the ₹30 lakh could be salvaged, if at all. The money had been dragged up the hill and lay in gunnysacks in one corner of the hideout, as the furious chatter carried on around it. What would they do with all the money? Until further arrangement of funds how would they survive? From which source could they get some funds for the time being? But first and foremost, what would they do with all this cash at hand?

The district administration and police were on high alert about possible attempts by Naxals to convert the cash.

One set wanted to sit on the stash and see if their sympathisers among the populace could be used to take advantage of the 50-day grace period given by PM Modi to exchange the now redundant notes with new legal tender. The other set was against taking any such risks, advising caution. For them, the caveat that one person could only exchange ₹4,000 of the old notes for ₹4,000 of the new ones in a day was proof that the proposal to keep the stash was dead in water.

The decision now lay in the hands of the wing commander – a slender man with a cropped beard and full mustache. He stood quietly as the debate raged on around him. He had already received orders from his higher-ups – the currency was to be burnt.

A similar diktat had been handed down to all the other modules from the high command. The district administration and police were on high alert about possible attempts by Naxals to convert the cash. One wrong move and the movement could end. They were willing to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term stability. Small amounts would be kept aside as it would not call attention to them, but larger funding would come to a halt for a few days. The money would come through, as it always does; it would perhaps take a little longer this time.

The wing commander knew that this ruthless decision to set the cash on fire would not go down well with the local commandos. The money had been gathered through their collective hard work and was for the collective good of the Maoist movement. There was a buzz in the lower order that the top commanders should wait for few days and chalk out some other strategy.

Half an hour after the meeting started, the wing commander addressed the troops. He explained to them that the decision to burn the cash had been taken after careful consideration. He explained that ₹4 lakh had been kept aside and the villagers would be coerced to exchange it.

Surang Yadav, who heads the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the Bihar region, would be leading “Operation Exchange” in the Jumui, Bhelwa, Sono, Khaira, Chakai, Lakhisarai, and Munger areas. Even this would not be easy, as the villagers had been warned against using their bank accounts for money laundering. In the meantime, the Naxals would also be increasing the “tax” imposed on the villagers to meet their interim shortfall. The important thing, the wing commander said, was to ensure that this move did not break their backs and drive them out of their territories, which was the whole point of the demonetisation drive. That is exactly what the Maoist top brass wanted to prevent.

His announcement was met with silence and resignation. Slowly, the idea of a bonfire of currency descended upon the troops and they stood aside as bundles of notes were brought out from the gunnysacks and laid in a neat heap on the ground. With the strike of a matchstick, the money was set on fire and Gandhi’s face went up in flames.

The smoke could be seen from as far as the district headquarters nearly 25 kilometres away.