Amateur Indian Anthropology and a Trio of Dichotomies

From the Series: Demonetization: Critical Responses to India’s Cash(/less) Experiment

Photo by Kamalakannan PM.

In the face of its obvious disastrousness, what allowed for the sustained social support of India’s 2016 notebandi (demonetization; literally, the stoppage of notes)? I suggest that an answer can be found in a trio of dichotomies as refracted through the gaze of amateur Indian anthropology. The three dichotomies are between black and white money; politics and economics; and policy and implementation. While these three splits have long existed in the Indian landscape, a new middle- and upper-class discourse emerged around them in urban India in the immediate aftermath of the November 8 demonetization order. This discourse, with its identification and articulation of the cultural traits of Indians, can be seen to constitute an amateur mimicry of an older Indianist anthropology. Arriving in Delhi a few days after notebandi was implemented, I found myself in the peculiar situation, as both an anthropologist of India and as an Indian citizen, of having anthropological theories of the behavior of the natives (read: all Indians) presented to me. This theorization of why Indians continue to support the blatantly irredeemable notebandi—an emic form of anthropologizing—helped to sustain the measure itself.

The first and foundational split is between black and white money, which permits demonetization to be discussed as something akin to policy. White money is earned legally through regularized channels. Black money, on the other hand, is accumulated (but never considered earned) through nefarious means such as receiving bribes, rent-seeking, and myriad other practices that are glossed as “corrupt.” The rationale given for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s so-called surgical strike on black money was that to eliminate such illicit wealth would be to simultaneously strike at the beating heart of corruption.

The second split is between economics and politics. By late November, everyone was reading opinion pieces by economists of every hue. Barring a handful of (what were poetically called) Modi-toadies, almost all were deeply critical of the measure. Yet while notebandi might make for bad economics, the middle- and upper-class amateur anthropologists I kept meeting in Delhi—especially in the long bank and ATM queues that had mushroomed all over the city—were arguing that it makes for good politics. By “good politics,” they meant that the move would garner more political support for Modi and that this would translate into votes at the ballot box. Good politics, in other words, was about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the 2019 general elections, as well as upcoming provincial elections that included the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh.

Let us leave aside the disturbing aspect of reducing politics in a democracy to the pure instrumentalism of winning elections. Instead, let’s consider the intriguing question of how something like notebandi can be simultaneously considered bad economics and good politics. Reminiscent of functionalist anthropology, this split between the political and economic was ascribed by amateur Indian anthropologists to certain defining cultural and social traits of Indians.

One of these traits can be described as a peculiarly Indic schadenfreude. Indians, the amateur anthropologists informed me, don’t mind suffering if they perceive others—particularly those who are located hierarchically above themselves in economic or social terms—to also be suffering. I have lost count of the number of times someone would relate stories of this Indic schadenfreude by locating it in people they have personally encountered. These would be, most commonly, a domestic worker, like a maid or chauffeur, or someone who works below them in office, such as their secretary or handyman. Take this telling account, related by a middle-class relative:

My maid had been saving money—in cash, as the poor do—for the past twenty years to buy a small piece of land in her village. She immediately went to the bank to deposit X thousand rupees. She was extremely upset as only her estranged husband has a bank account, so she was effectively transferring her life savings to him. She stood for days in the queue, thus losing the daily wages that sustain her entire family. Inexplicably, the bank refused to accept all of her notes, so she ended up losing several thousands. After a panic-filled week spent running between banks, she came to me weeping bitterly at the injustice and horror of notebandi. When she finished sobbing, I asked her, out of curiosity, whether she would still vote for Modi. Wiping her tears, she defiantly said, “Of course I will!”

Again and again, I was told such tales of an adversely affected individual who would, nevertheless, continue to vote for Modi. The victims of notebandi in these stories made constant reference to others—those bigger than themselves (bade log)—who were also suffering. For instance, the maid in the above vignette mentioned seeing many others, including her other employers, anxiously waiting in queues and losing their ill-gotten black money. Seeing those more privileged than she also struggling gave this woman that particularly Indian pleasure, which allowed her to endure her own troubles.

Third, and last, notebandi was said to suffer grievously from a split that has been elevated to the status of a truism in contemporary India: between good policy and poor implementation (see Mathur 2016). The thinking behind notebandi was right but, as always happens with the best of intentions, plans, policies, and laws in India, it was the implementation that destroyed it. Turning the spotlight on the paper tiger that is the Indian state has allowed the blame to be subtly, but vitally, deflected. More than anything else it is this final split, between the noble intentions of notebandi and India’s notoriously shambolic bureaucracy, that served to protect the BJP in the 2017 provincial elections. In fact, the BJP’s resounding victories in these elections proved the amateur anthropologists correct in their assessment that notebandi was poor economics but good, if not great, politics.


Mathur, Nayanika. 2016. Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy, and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. New York: Cambridge University Press.