03 Sep 2017 15:45 IST

Saffron, white and green

What is sacrifice in the context of a nation? Whom do we call to account when the leadership fails its people?

Now that the Government has released figures pertaining to demonetisation, throwing fresh kindling to the debate on the pros and cons of an ill-timed, unnecessary action, let’s talk about what our government may have meant when it suggested that sometimes the people have to make sacrifices for the greater common good.

I have to admit that, initially, I too was taken in by the ‘get them blackmarketeers’ discourse, the ‘get them terrorist-funders’ argument. Propaganda, I now realise. Misleading the people. Worse, guilting us. Making us feel that somehow we were less than patriotic if we didn’t toe the government line. Driving a big word like ‘sacrifice’ into our coffins.

So, let’s try and understand the word. What does it mean? What does it mean to make it?

Ritualistic sacrifice

The dictionary offers various meanings. Among them it could be an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to a deity. Clearly, it has religious and ritualistic connotations. Else it could mean giving up something valued for the sake of other considerations.

For instance, the commemoration of Bakrid involves sacrificing a goat. It’s a ritual, recalling the story of a dream Prophet Ibrahim is believed to have had in which God asks him to sacrifice his son Ismail. With a heavy heart he makes preparations for this but on the day of the sacrifice, God gives Ibrahim a reprieve, and a sheep is slaughtered instead. That’s sacrifice in worship. That, less rather than more, is the story. In Nepal, wedding rituals in the royal family include animal/bird sacrifice. That’s sacrifice in celebration.

Letting go

It can also take the form of renunciation. The eminent writer, philanthropist, social worker and chairperson of Infosys Sudha Murty has talked in a recent book about how her grandfather told her that if she ever visited Kashi (Varanasi), she should give up something she loves. Many people believe, although there are others who swear they’ve never heard of such a custom. So when she finally visited Kashi some 21 years ago, Sudha Murty told a PTI reporter, she “gave up shopping, particularly sarees, from thereon. I now only buy the essential items”.

A report published in the Bangalore Mirror a few years ago talked about an NRI techie who gave up his Facebook account upon visiting Varanasi. Aripirala Naga Srinivas told the newspaper: “I have removed my Facebook account. This way I will save a lot of my time to spend on more important matters… I spend most of my time on it, posting or commenting on others’ posts or liking or searching for friend. Though I realised that the addiction was taking up a lot of my time, I could not resist logging back on the moment I sat in front of a computer.” Now, these are personal sacrifices, calling for stoicism and bravery. They cost the person making the sacrifice some pain or discomfort, but that’s the way it works.

Paying for consequences

When India won independence from the British, people made many sacrifices. Families were torn apart, many contributed all their jewellery to the national cause, industrialists gave over their properties to be used as political meeting places and headquarters, thousands faced the wrath of the British police by not retaliating when they were lathi-charged or fired upon, still others fought on the side of the British during the world war… the list of sacrifices people made and the concomitant suffering they endured is endless. This is another kind of sacrifice, the one that entails paying for the consequences.

Takeshi Miura and Miki Endo were government workers in Minami-Sanrikucho, Miyagi prefecture. Their job was to broadcast public warnings and direct them to safety in the event of disaster. When exactly such a moment struck Japan in 2011 in the form of a mighty tsunami, they stuck to their posts sending out warning after warning, direction after direction, until they themselves were washed away. Their bodies were never found. That’s sacrifice in the line of duty.

There are countless such stories about wartime and peacetime, individuals and communities, and they will continue to be told and written as long as life-forms survive on earth.

Sacrifice versus sacrilege

Is this what our leadership was counting on? Is this what it expected of us when, overnight, it demonetised currency notes of a certain denomination. The people sure paid the price. They were stunned but they stood in line to turn in small and big stacks of notes, they scrambled to collect in order to pay wages, they lost jobs, businesses ran out of steam, some even lost their lives. In the biggest show of cooperation in recent times, people waited patiently as new currency notes took their time being printed and then when they were parsimoniously distributed, they continued to wait, silently, suffering.

But this was not the people’s battle to fight. Black money, terrorist-funding, counterfeit currency — these are problems the leadership must tackle. These are economic and administrative concerns. Forcing the people to give up the right to their own hard-earned money and making them suffer as a consequence can never be justified as ‘sacrifice’. This is sacrilege.

Dictatorship, political manoeuvring, massive blunder, total miscalculation… call it what you like, it does seem like oppression, doesn’t it? How can numbers be used to trivialise people?