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A tale of two legends: Padmavat and Dodo-Chanesar

Malik Muhammed Jayasi’s Padmavat (c. 1540) is an epic poem which wove together bits of history, fantasy tropes and Sufi ideology. Acutely Sufi themes such as man’s vanity and desire for the ephemeral were overlaid on a historical episode — the Delhi Sultanate’s invasion of Chittor in 1303 C.E..

Today, elements of this mostly fictional poem have been deified into very emotive and politically charged truths. The popular narrative is that of “honorable Rajput men and women triumphing in death over marauding Muslim invaders”. The “martyr queen” is seen as an icon of chaste Hindu womanhood. The Chittor carnage courtesy Sultan Alauddin Khilji, the subcontinent’s favorite bogeyman, is a well-recorded fact. However, the currently enshrined narrative is quite certainly false.

The distortion of true events into legend, and legends being enshrined as the truth are well-observed phenomena. Down the ages, elements and themes from such legends flow across cultures and regions. In this regard, the Sindhi folk legend of Dodo-Chanesar could be observed alongside the Padmavat. Similar themes of Rajput valour (albeit of the Muslim Rajput variety) against foreign imperialism, royal traitors, “purity and honor of our women”, mass suicide, elements of fantasy and the evil Alauddin Khilji are overlaid on a sliver of history — the Delhi Sultanate’s Sindh expedition of 1298.

 

The Sindhi folk legend

The Padmavat’s storyline is too well known to repeat here. However, the Sindhi tale of Dodo-Chanesar, set during the reign of the Soomra dynasty, is not so well known outside the region.

The Soomra dynasty, which ruled most of present day Sindh, were Muslim by faith but followed many Hindu Rajput traditions. It is believed they were one of the Rajput groups which converted to Islam sometime after the Arab Caliphate conquered Sindh in the eighth century. The Soomras had been ruling with the support of other Muslim Rajput groups ever since their overthrow of the Ghazni yoke sometime between 1024 and 1040 C.E..

As there are numerous and contradicting versions of the Dodo-Chanesar legend, we sequence together major elements from the more popular versions:

A Soomra king had two wives, a blacksmith’s daughter and a Rajput noblewoman. The former bore a son named Kamaluddin Chanesar and a daughter named Bilqees “Bhaghi”. Sometime later, the Rajput wife delivered a son, on the same day the king died in a battle. This son was named Asad-ul-Millat Dodo. A regency was appointed to rule till the princes came of age. They grew up wary of each other, amid palace intrigue—but the beautiful and spirited Bhaghi was loved by both. Years later, prince Dodo was chosen as the sultan under pressure from the nobles. Prince Chanesar was elder but lowborn and hence unacceptable to the Muslim Rajput lords.

A seething Chanesar left for Delhi and sought the aid of Sultan Alauddin Khilji. In return, Chanesar would acknowledge the Delhi Sultan as his suzerain and also marry his sister to Khilji. The sultan agreed, and a large army led by general Zafar Khan invaded Sindh. Sultan Dodo and the Rajput lords rebuffed the negotiation attempts; the traitorous pretender (who promised their princess to a “caste-less Turk invader” at that) was beneath contempt. Despite heroic defence, the Sindh armies were destroyed and Sultan Dodo fell, taunting Chanesar even as he was impaled high on Turkish spears.

Most of the noblewomen, including Princess Bhaghi, were evacuated from the capital and placed under the protection of Jam Abro Samma, a prominent Jam (lord) from the Samma Rajput clan. Zafar Khan sacked the capital and planned to capture the princess to present her to Khilji. Then, understanding the vile nature of the Turks, Chanesar turned on them and died fighting.

The sultanate’s army then laid siege to Jam Abro’s fortress in Kutch. The outnumbered Rajputs chose death over dishonour. Being Muslims, they did not follow Hindu twin-ritual of Saka-Jauhar; they instead set fire to the fortress—with the assent of the women inside—and rode out to fight to the death. (Fantastic versions of the legend say that Bhaghi also rode out, disguised as a man, to fight and die. As the women cried out in anguish the earth split asunder and swallowed the fortress and the mountains surrounding it!). The victorious Turks entered the fortress and all they found were ruins and charred bones. The aghast Zafar Khan retreated to Delhi, lamenting the futility of it all and deeply mourning the dead. Some versions end with the remaining Turk invaders dying of thirst in the deserts of Sindh

 

The historical record

History, however, tells an entirely different story. Sources mention that the Soomra rulers had accepted suzerainty of the Delhi Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish (r. 1211-1236). Around 1297-1300, the Soomra dominion, i.e. present day southern Sindh, was ruled by a certain Jam Chanesar. There was apparently no Sultan Dodo in the picture, at that point of time. In fact, Jam Chanesar is the subject of a more famous frontier ballad, the Lilan-Chanesar.

In this period, Zafar Khan, one of the great generals of Alauddin Khilji (r. 1296-1316), did indeed lead an expedition into Sindh. However, the objective was to intercept a Mongol army that had encamped itself in Sindh. The Mongols were defeated and Zafar Khan withdrew from Sindh. It is not known if Chanesar had requested the sultanate’s aid against the feared Mongol scourge—or if Sindh had allied with the Mongols thus warranting imperial intervention. Previously, Zafar Khan had waged war in Multan and Uch in the lower Punjab—and also northern regions of present day Sindh—right after Alauddin Khilji murdered his uncle, Sultan Jalal-al-din Khalji, and captured the throne. Arkhali Khan, son of the slain monarch, was ruling over these provinces. The entire Jalali family and its supporters were destroyed after much fighting in these regions.

Similarly, the historical record of Khilji’s Chittor invasion is very different from the Padmavat. Khilji understood that he had to neutralize his fierce Rajput neighbors. He also had dreams of becoming a great conqueror like Alexander. After the Rajput kingdoms of Gujarat and Ranthambor were successively conquered his eyes fell on Mewar, the most powerful Rajput state of all. Mewar’s capital Chittor fell in a few months. Figures such as Rani Padmini and Raja Devpal do not appear in the contemporary historical sources. Neither does episodes such as the Chetan Raghav’s flight, the daring Gora-Badal mission, the Ratan Singh-Devpal duel to the death—and the much vaunted Jauhar.

In fact, Ratan Singh is variedly recorded to have either fled the battlefield or being pardoned by Alauddin Khilji. Jayasi’s Padmavat ends with the chastened Khilji holding the ashes of the dead and ruminating philosophically, mirroring Zafar Khan’s sentiments in the Dodo-Chanesar legend. However, contemporary sources note that when Chittor fell Khalji simply ordered a complete massacre, and quickly set upon creating a new administration for Mewar.

 

On the creation of legends

Centuries of violence and near-continuous dominance by outlanders probably left a mark on Rajasthani psyche. The Alauddin Khilji juggernaut had ravaged Rajasthan, killed tens of thousands and destroyed many proud Rajput kingdoms. The Rajputs rebounded later, only to fall under Mughal control afterwards. When the Mughal fetters weakened, the Marathas suddenly muscled in. Later, the weary rump kingdoms had to accept the dominance of yet another outlander, the British. Legends of valour and defiance, the hand of fate and crippling betrayals became overlaid on the series of defeats. Besides Padmavat and Dodo-Chanesar there are other epics which contain similar themes—against the backdrop of Alauddin Khilji’s imperialism. For example, the Kanhadadev Parbhand focuses on Jalor’s defiance, and the Hammira Mahakavya narrates Ranthambore’s poignant struggle. In all of these, history was distorted, fictitious people and events were added and extraneous themes were injected. New “truths” became enshrined.

The Padmavat was adapted by numerous authors down the centuries, the first known adaptation was Pema Nama, written in in the Bijapur court in 1592. Widely diverging adaptations were produced all over the subcontinent. The Sufi adaptations were quite allegoric in nature, while other adaptations stressed on fantasy or love and romance. Some of the authors had been patronized by Rajput kings and nobles; these authors naturally highlighted Rajput glory and valor. Also, much artistic license was employed by poets and bards who popularized the story among the people.

The role of Charan poetry and Bat narrative accounts in the propagation of Rajasthani legends is well known: the Padmavat passed through these mills also. Poems such as Gora-Badal Padmini Chaupai (c. 1589), Padmini Carit and Gora-Badal Ki Katha added new elements and vignettes and popularized the story further. The Vamshavalis (genealogies) and Khyats (panegyric histories) commissioned by royals also latched on the popular narratives to gain legitimacy—and to paper over not-so-flattering incidents of the past. The influential works of James Tod, an admirer of past Rajput glory, also helped propagate the mythologized story across India. And during the Indian national movement, the narrative of Rajput defiance and the stoic bravery of Indian women against foreign marauders was propagated all over India.

Similarly, the Dodo-Chanesar story developed into a rousing ballad contrasting Muslim Rajput valour against Turkish villainy. Unlike the Padmavat, the Sindhi legend was not written down. It was not adapted and propagated by medieval and pre-modern authors. Itinerant bards and rural performers played a major role in the propagation of this legend across Sindh. Consequently, many versions of unknown authorship exist. Due to these factors most scholars classify the Dodo-Chanesar story as mere folklore.

Nevertheless, the themes and the trajectory of legend-formation mirrors the Padmavat. The Soomras, Rajput sons-of-the-soil, are icons of Sindh ethno-nationalism due to their victory over the Afghans and their defiance of invaders. The caste and regionalism factors notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear why the Delhi sultans were portrayed as “vile Turks”. The Khilji ascent was in fact a Bhumiputra revolution against the highly racist system run by the Turkish clique. Many non-Turkish groups long settled in India (the Khilji tribe themselves were one of these), and Indian converts to Islam staged this coup against a system fixated on Turkish blood and noble pedigree. The Zafar Khan expedition against the Mongols was not described as being particularly bloody. Also, the previous campaign against the Jalalis also did not affect most of Sindh. Zafar Khan himself was a well-respected general, commanding even many Hindu forces, and he definitively did not die of thirst in Sindh (in 1299 C.E., he fell in battle saving the subcontinent from a great Mongol host that advanced as far as Delhi).  However, Muhammed Tughlaq and Firuz Shah Tughlaq did wage terrible wars in Sindh a few decades after Khilji’s death. Such involvements and campaigns by the Delhi Sultanate during Soomra rule must have made an impact on the Sindhi psyche.

 

On legend-making today

While Dodo-Chanesar is largely unknown outside Sindh, the Padmavat was recently at the heart of pan-Indian controversy. The recent eponymous movie unfortunately follows the mythologized narratives. It highlighted some regressive aspects and resorted to negative stereotyping.

The impetus behind the original legend-formation was not malevolently regressive and anti-Muslim, but it nevertheless enabled subsequent toxic interpretations and adaptations. The politics of caste and religion also played its part. The violence and agitations unleashed by the Rajput Karni Sena and other organizations have subsided, but it has also set a fresh precedent for groups obsessed with real and imagined pasts.

This is the Information Age—the age of smartphones, of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Factors such as pervasive social media campaigns, viral content, targeted ads, sophisticated video/picture editing software, echo-chambers (where one can find kindred spirits from half-a-world away), and online anonymity are very powerful. Recent events, from Tahrir Square to the US presidential elections and beyond, have shown how quickly ideas, rumours and lies can spread like pandemics—sometimes with detrimental impact. Distortion of the truth and creation of alternate truths would definitely not require the centuries it took for the medieval tales.

 

References

  • Advanced Study in the History of Medieval India (1986) by J.L. Mehta
  • The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen (2007) by Ramya Sreenivasan

 

PS: This is a slightly edited and expanded version of my article in The Mint, published on February 25, 2018. Here’s the link to the original article.

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When Jerusalem changed the world

A hundred years ago Jerusalem surrendered to the British, and the world would never be the same again.

Introduction:

The present day territories of Israel and Palestine has been the epicenter of religious conflict for centuries. Down the ages the desire to possess this sliver of a Holy Land had led the followers of a dozen gods and their countless aspects to slaughter each other. Locations central to the lore of all three Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, lie in this territory – and for the believers no price seems too high to pay for possessing it. Within these religions themselves numerous denominations jostle for control over shrines and sites of significance, each convinced that their way is the truth. The lives of billions are tied to contentious debates over who owns what in the Holy Land. The holy city of Jerusalem lies at the heart of this conflict.

A watershed event occurred exactly a hundred years ago during World War I, when Ottoman Jerusalem ignobly surrendered to the British under General Allenby. Seven centuries after recapturing it from the Crusader Christians, Muslims had once again lost Jerusalem.  The third holiest city in Islam, Jerusalem’s takeover by the Kufr is perceived as a great transgression by many Muslims. The inflection point of the West Asian conflict may be traced to this event and the events surrounding it. The waves of Jewish immigrations, the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the formation of Israel, and the current situation in West Asia are a result of this British campaign. The road to the British capture of Jerusalem was quite eventful and has lasting ramifications – and Indians also played a role here.

 

The Ottoman Problem and the Great War:

The Holy Lands had been held by the Ottoman Turks since the early 16th century. The possession of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem enabled the Ottoman Emperor to title himself “Caliph of all Muslims”. In World War I (1914-1918), Ottoman Turks aligned with Germany against Britain and her allies. By early 1917 the British were in trouble: in the early phase of the war the Turks had mauled them in Europe and Iraq. Also, the Ottoman Emperor in his capacity as Caliph called on Muslims under British yoke to rise against their overlords. Though Indian Muslims, especially the thousands serving in the army, did not take up the call to Global Jihad en masse, a few mutinies and insurrections did break out. Many Indian revolutionaries and Pan-Islamist movements latched on to this and commenced numerous operations such as the Ghadar Mutiny, Christmas Day Plot, the Kabul Mission, etc.

The British in response utilized the talents of Lawrence of Arabia to aid the Arab rebels against their Turk overlords. British aid to the erstwhile ill-equipped but fanatical tribes of Arabia invigorated the Arab Revolt. By the end of 1916 major cities such as Mecca, Aqaba and Aden had fallen and the Ottoman hold on the Arabian Peninsula was weakening. In January 1917, the British attacked Gaza and Palestine from Egypt, a British protectorate since 1882. For six months the Ottomans and their German allies managed to defend, but then the capable General Allenby took charge.

 

Allenby’s brilliance and Lawrence’s success in Arabia had tipped the scales. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF – “E”) now smashed into the Holy Land. This force was nearly one fifth Indian, many of them Muslims. At this point the well-reported “Jerusalem Syndrome” set into many Christian soldiers. The men could identify each city, town and geographical features as these names were part and parcel of their religious life. The feeling that they now walk on lands where Jesus and other Biblical figures walked was overwhelming. This instilled religious fervor and even hysteria in many soldiers and officers. Purely military objectives started to get tainted with other considerations. Since the Allenby campaign began, the Western press had also contributed by drawing real and imagined parallels from the Bible, and foraying into apocalyptical millenarian (“End Times”) themes. Soon the feeling that this campaign was a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims took root. Ministers, top bureaucrats and generals were not immune to such emerging zeitgeist. Moreover, the situation in France was bleak: the victories in the Holy Land seemed portentous and were a welcome respite.

 

A home for the Jews in the Holy Land:

In this environment Zionists such as Herbert Samuel, the Rothschilds, and Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first President of Israel) were able to influence politicians and swing support for a Jewish home in the Holy Land. Zionism, the movement which sought the return of Jews to Palestine had gained steam in the late 19th century with the worldwide rise of Jews in science, arts and business. Zionism also had support of powerful Christian denominations which believed that a Jewish state in the Holy Land was a pre-condition for Biblical prophecies. The slaughter of tens of thousands in The Great War fed apocalyptical millenarian views among Christians and Jews – this also hastened the development of the project. The American President Woodrow Wilson and the British Prime Minister Lloyd George supported the Zionist cause. In fact, most British cabinet ministers were evangelicals who supported Zionism. Efforts of Zionists also created a Jewish Legion in the British Army, veterans of which would later ascend to great heights in the nation of Israel.

Weizmann in particular was very important to the war effort due to his inventions in armament production. His friendship with Lloyd George and the Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour led to the Balfour Declaration in November 2, 2017, which promised a home for all Jews in the Holy Land – albeit in joint ownership with Palestinian Arabs. The declaration was also timed in response to the ongoing October Revolution in Russia which threatened Russian participation in the War. The declaration could gather support of influential Russian Jews and perhaps break the revolution.

The Balfour declaration caused widespread condemnation from Muslims worldwide, including leading Indian clerics and politicians. Lord Curzon and Montagu, who had experience governing millions of Indian Muslims remarked that they expect much bloodshed in future in the Holy Land. Deeper intrigue was afoot. The British, Russian Empire and the French secretly decided one year previously under the “Sykes-Picot Agreement” to partition West Asia between themselves. The Jews could surely be accommodated in the Holy Land under this top-secret arrangement. This agreement also negated all assurances made to the Arabs. The Balfour declaration was anyway momentous – the Jews who were exiled by the Romans in 70 C.E. could now return to the Holy Land under the aegis of another empire!

 

The Battle for Jerusalem:

In November 17, the British struck at Jerusalem: Indian units fought admirably in these operations. The defense crumbled and the Ottoman and German forces fled. Jerusalem was governed by a decadent and corrupt regime. When the defenders retreated the leadership sought to surrender as fast as possible, leading to farcical situations. The first offer for surrender was presented to two British cooks foraging just outside the city gates. To avoid the parallels to conquerors, or Christ riding into Jerusalem, Allenby was ordered to walk into the city to accept the surrender.  Jerusalem and adjoining areas now fell under British control. In the coming years the Empire managed to get a mandate to govern the Holy Land – which they did for 30 years with much trouble.

Meanwhile the communists and their allies captured power in Russia. One of their first acts was to expose the Sykes-Picot agreement, on 23rd November. Reactions to this revelation from all Arabs and non-Arab Muslims were severe, but the ongoing war prevented serious opposition. The mood in Jerusalem was charged as news of western perfidy spread. Also, many could not accept the loss of the holy city to infidels – or the greater freedoms that Jews and Christians minorities now enjoyed.

 

Amidst such tension the British were holding on gingerly. Due to the large Muslim population and their Arab allies in the peninsula the British had to safeguard the Islamic shrines. The British also had to guard Christian and Jewish shrines and sites from Muslim zealots (and also zealots of opposing denominations within these two faiths). Moreover, the Ottomans and the Germans were regrouping to the North. Diplomatic gaffes, triumphalism and religious exhortations could set off the tinderbox at any moment. An avalanche of protocols and regulations flowed from London to avoid this. In fact, the surrender ceremony itself had ended in a bad note when Allenby himself declared that “The Crusades have now ended”, to which the Arab dignitaries stormed off from the ceremony.

Indian troops were used for important guard duties: The Muslim units would guard the Islamic shrines and Hindu/Sikh units would keep the peace in other areas. Contemporary reports point out to the professionalism of Indian troops in such a charged environment. It was also to their credit that they were not swayed by religious fervor and propaganda in the heart of the Holy Land. Indian troops guarded sites such as the all-important Al Aqsa mosque, Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb. The reaction of Indian Muslims to the fall of Jerusalem was quite muted, despite the decades-long support for Ottoman-sponsored Pan-Islamism by many Indian leaders. However, the embers of this loss remained. The emotions would flare up as the Khilafat Movement when the British and their allies attempted to annex remnant Turkish lands and abolish the Caliphate in 1921.

 

Aftermath: 1918 –

Jews around the world saw a chance now that Jerusalem was in British hands: over 500,000 would trickle into Palestine over the next 21 years in five waves of emigration called Aliyahs. Once the civil administration was set up in early 1918, the British embarked on further campaigns. The Indian component of the British force was increased in strength and it would take part in major operations till the end of the war. In total, over 100,000 Indians served in this theater and nearly 12,000 had fallen. Thousands more were maimed or wounded.

Indian involvement did not end with the war. In the late ‘30s to early ‘40s the threats of the Indian Muslim League and leading clerics were one reason the British withdrew support for Zionism. Jinnah reminded senior British officials that “one in three soldiers who won the Holy Land for the Empire were Indians, and many of them were Muslims”. He warned that continuing support for the Jews and the influx of Jewish immigrants would antagonize Muslims worldwide – including the millions in British India. Muslim League leaders worked closely with the Arabs to prevent Jewish consolidation in Palestine. The British did pull support for the Jewish home in the ‘40s following a bloody Jewish insurgency and Arab insurrections. However, by then 600,000-plus strong highly organized and militarized Jewish community was well-established. World War 2 and the Jewish Holocaust followed: in its wake the British relinquished its mandate sparking off the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The rest is history.

 

The bloodletting continues in these lands as a result of these events during World War I. Other conflicts across the globe, even in faraway places such as the Americas and Philippines, also stem from the British decisions regarding the Holy Land during the Great War. In fact, ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi specifically referred to the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot agreement in one his videotaped messages. India’s national security is also indirectly tied to the situation in West Asia. Though we did not start the fire, Indian blood had also primed the West Asian conflict a hundred years ago.

 

References:

  • Jenkins, Philip. (2014). The Great and Holy War. HarperCollins.
  • Monetfiore, Simon-Sebag. (2011). Jerusalem: The Biography. Orion Books.
  • Grainger, John D. (2006). The Battle for Palestine. Boydell Press.
  • Fromkin, David. (2010). A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Holt Paperbacks.
  • Woodward, David R. (2006). Hell in the Holy Land. University Press of Kentucky.

 

PS: This is my article in The Mint, published on December 23, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.

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A Ne Win situation: Burma’s three demonetizations

Burma’s colonial experience was bitter. The British hurt Burmese pride and occupied their beloved ‘Suvarnabhumi’. The nature of Burmese society and religion, and the comparatively short period of its colonial experience, prevented the Burmese from integrating with the British Empire. Consequently, imperial Burma saw Indians (and a few Chinese) flood the colony to grab opportunities in this resource rich but under-developed and restive land. The booming population of Indians, and their role as money-lenders and financiers, led to indigenous rebellions from as early as the ‘30s. A largely non-violent but chauvinistic political movement arose, and from this emerged the founding fathers of Burma such as Aung San, U Nu, Ba Maw and Ba Swe. Yet there were millions of ‘foreigners’, ethnic minorities in Burma, serving the Empire, and slowly appropriating the land and forest resources.

The Japanese invasion in 1942 saw many ethnic minorities flee but there were still remnants. Independence led to a self-professed modern, socialist regime which tragically denied entry to returning refugees and formally cast remnant ethnic minorities as second class citizens. This did not lead to a consolidation among ethnic Burmese though—political conflicts erupted repeatedly and culminated in a chaotic split in the Anti-Fascist Peoples Freedom League, Burma’s reigning umbrella alliance, in 1958. Besides the national polity, even institutions such as the armed forces and the Buddhist Sangha were affected. The military, under a grim general named Ne Win who first rose to prominence in the Burma Independence Army during the imperial control, stepped in as a caretaker when the split occurred. Within two years, the army went back to the barracks, handing over power to the elected party. However, Ne Win later launched a coup in 1962 when the new government seemed to be making compromises with minorities, insurgents and communists, in return for eschewing violence. Despite a self-professed ideological core of socialism, one espoused publicly by the leadership, Burmese society had multiple fault lines with a strong strain of paranoid conservatism running through its heart. A mosaic nation was not to the liking of many—this was one reason behind the longevity and strength of the military Junta.

The military Junta declared a “Burmese Way to Socialism” and promised to fundamentally recast Burma. Ne Win ‘graciously’ allowed deposed democratic leaders to run powerful-sounding advisory committees but ultimately the whims of the generalissimo prevailed. In 1974 the junta instituted a sham democracy through a one-party government, headed by Ne Win. Fear of Ne Win’s authoritarian streak made democratic leaders flee or silently acquiesce. As the reins of the country were held by generals who knew little of running a country, ham-handed and ad-hoc decisions became the norm. As with nearly all authoritarian regimes, Burma printed money endlessly to finance their political goals and some showpiece projects—without instituting a proper financial system. This caused money supply and inflation to rise uncontrollably. To grab resources and prove socialistic credentials, the regime executed total nationalization and instituted mindless, debilitating control on all economic sectors. Waves of nationalization broke the back of ethnic minorities as they were historically involved in small business, trade and finance.

 

The demonetisation of 1964

The economy, unsurprisingly, plumbed and black markets grew exponentially. The Junta, however, did not pause to reflect. They could not slow down their drive to nationalization everything without losing face and revealing their administrative naiveté. Since they jealously guarded power they could not delegate responsibilities, install a proper financial system, or curtail policies that drove galloping inflation. Something had to give. And the dictator’s mind, molded by years in the military, now seized upon on a blitz-like move. In was meant to be a masterstroke large denomination notes, with which the “evil capitalists and deviants” obviously hoarded their money, would be swept away. The reasoning was as follows: The Indians and the Chinese would be the first casualties and inflation would be halted. Therefore, the people would welcome the move. All deviants who had the gall to live outside the control of the state would be broken. The coterie around Ne Win concurred.

The Demonetisation Act of 1964 declared that all Burmese kyat notes of denominations of 50 and 100 ceased to be legal tender overnight. These notes were to be surrendered to Receiving Centres established all over Burma. Reimbursement would be provided if notes were surrendered within a week. For small amounts, spot reimbursement was promised. For amounts between 500 and 4,200 kyats, ‘timely’ reimbursement was guaranteed. Any amount over K4,200 would warrant further scrutiny and the application of an escalating tax. The Junta’s narrative was wrapped in conflicting themes of divisiveness and social justice. The official declaration of the Central Bank proclaimed that this revolutionary move was designed to remove social evils: “The purchasing power of the vast sums of hidden money which could be used to embarrass the Government and the economy, by unsocial acts of hoarding and speculation of essential commodities (by foreigners and evil capitalists).”

Drawing upon popular perceptions and memories of Indian moneylenders and financiers, the Junta claimed that foreign capitalists (meaning ethnic minorities who were never given full citizenship) had historically accumulated money that belonged to the real people, thus hindering the Burmese Way to Socialism. Ethnic Indians and Chinese, already reeling under nationalization, suddenly found themselves destitute. Most of them decided to leave Burma for good. An overwhelming majority of Burmese Indians were small financiers and businessmen—a far cry from the rich and powerful community of pre-war Burma—and now they were even more wretched. It would take the concerted effort of a number of Indian ministries to bring them to India. The Junta on their part did everything to hasten the emigration of their fellow countrymen.

However, the demonetisation did not impact just the ‘evil capitalists’ targeted by the government. In a predominantly cash economy, demonetisation ruined many ordinary people and small businesses. The Junta had, of course, thrown in sops such as partial or complete amnesty (with punitive taxes) and light sentences. This was done to ameliorate the losses of military political elite and regime supporters who had also entered the money-lending and financing business following independence. All these measures came to nought as agencies tasked with managing the demonetization quickly found themselves floundering. These agencies were never brought into confidence in the first place. Consequently, the spot reimbursement limit was halved within a day of the original announcement. The following day spot reimbursements were stopped altogether. The weak central bank suddenly had to oversee the process, but also had to examine surrendered notes and scrutinize returns.

As the whole circus started to break down, the Junta claimed that the small weaknesses and delays were temporary and for the ultimate benefit of bona fide citizens. The redemption deadline was repeatedly extended and when it finally ended four months later, about 78% of notes was returned. Fear of scrutiny kept away some hoarders but the logistical breakdown meant that many people in rural Burma were unable to change their notes. In the end the 1964 Burmese demonetisation was a dismal failure. The state’s endless hunger for funds resulted in a huge quantum of new denomination notes soon matching the demonetized money. Inflation continued unabated. The greatest consequence was the loss of confidence in the kyat. People returned to holding wealth in the form of precious metals and stones. Coins were hoarded and there was soon an endemic shortage of small change. The atmosphere was rife with rumors of further demonetisations.

 

Demonetisations of 1985 and 1987

The worst, sadly, was yet to come. In 1988, the military junta was essentially rebooted after mass riots and much human tragedy. This crisis, called the “8888 Uprising” was due to two bizarre demonetisations in 1985 and 1987. Once again, the stated main motivations were to curb money supply, and end profiteering and the black market. Inflation, of course, was a perennial bugbear. But this time the narrative also included a new objective: widening the tax base. The Finance Minister stated: “… (the objectives are) to collect taxes from those who engaged in the unscrupulous economic activities…..” Moreover, there were comments that this act would cripple insurgencies such as the Karen Movement. The November 1985 demonetisation struck at the K100, K50 and K20 notes (K100 and K50 notes had been quietly brought back a few years before). Similar to the previous demonetisation an exchange limit and deadline were set.

History repeated itself. The deadline was postponed time and time again, and the exchange limit was decreased. Shockingly, only 25% of the value of surrendered notes was ultimately reimbursed. This demonetisation order also introduced new K25, K35 and K75 notes. The basic nature of the regime had not changed. Therefore, they printed these new notes so fast that money-supply rise rebounded quickly. Even more destructive was the 1987 demonetization. Announced out of the blue by Ne Win on 5 September—apparently without the knowledge of senior officials—K25, K35 and K75 notes, issued just two years earlier, were pulled.

Not even a semblance of an official reason was given this time. Sixty to eighty per cent of notes became worthless overnight, but no exchange or compensation was provided. The Junta soon allowed reimbursement for up to K100, only so that restive students (who were now penniless) would have enough money to leave the cities and return home, instead of rioting in the cities. The affair became even more bizarre two weeks later: strange denominations of K45 and K90 were issued. The choice of these denominations became subject to much speculation. It is widely believed that the extremely superstitious Ne Win believed that the number 9 was lucky for Burma and him personally.

Once again the 1987 demonetisation did not arrest monetary growth nor rein in inflation. There was a sharp contraction, but with the heavy issue of K45 and K90 notes inflation bounced right back again. For the people of Burma, the kyat was no longer a currency they had faith in. Also the argument that the demonetization crippled insurgents soon proved to be false. Insurgents simply carried out transactions in Thai and Chinese currencies. Not to forget that they had their own stable economy based on narcotics, border trading-posts and extortion.

 

The reckoning

The prospects of further demonetizations resulted in economic chaos. Barter economies based on paddy and commodities boomed. There was a steep demand for smuggled consumer goods which inadvertently strengthened the criminal elements. Rumblings against the regime began right after the third demonetisation order but exploded in March 1988. By August, the whole country was engulfed in violence and disorder. Ne Win suddenly resigned in September, but any hopes of true democracy died when the army executed a coup on it’s puppet government. Thousands would die in the streets but Ne Win held effective power through a succession of military rulers, till debilitated by advanced age.

Despite a name change to Myanmar in 1989 and through relentless suppression of dissent, the socio-economic situation remained bleak for over a decade. After all, root causes of social and economic woes were never addressed. The death of Ne Win in 2008, the reign of the comparatively enlightened General Thein Sein (2011-2016), and now democracy ushered in a host of structural reforms in the Burmese economy.

Though endemic problems in Myanmar’s society remain, economic prospects for the country seem positive. With control of inflation and slightly better discipline in monetary policies, perhaps the citizens of Myanmar will not be subjected to another demonetisation.

 

References:

  • Brown, Ian. (2013). Burma’s Economy in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.
  • Taylor, Robert. (2015). General Ne Win: A Political Biography. Singapore. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
  • Turnell, Sean. (1999). Fiery Dragons: Banks, Moneylenders and Microfinance in Burma. Copenhagen. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Press.

 

PS: This is my article in The Mint, published on October 29, 2017. Here’s the link to the original article.

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