Category Archives: democracy

Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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Russia’s Vote for Sovereignty, 1990

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 87-89:

There was a whiff of cordite in the air as the confrontation with Gorbachev sharpened. Yeltsin and his staff began acquiring weapons for personal protection, helped by sympathizers in the Soviet defense and interior ministries. Within a year, he later reckoned, his security directorate had collected sixty assault rifles, a hundred pistols, two bulletproof jackets, and five Austrian walkie-talkies.

Though leader of a country almost twice the size of the United States, Yeltsin had little power. He could not raise taxes. He had no army. He was unable to speak to the people on state television, which was still controlled by the Kremlin. Glasnost had not advanced to the point at which political opponents of the USSR leadership could command time on the airwaves. The Russian Supreme Soviet remained what it had always been—a decoration, part of a Soviet-era fiction that republics governed themselves, whereas in reality they had no control over people or resources.

Yeltsin and his deputies were determined to change that. They hoped to take some power away from the center and establish enough sovereignty to get Russia out of its economic crisis. He proposed that Russia’s laws should be made superior to Soviet laws and take precedence in the territory of Russia, a popular move even with the conservative Russian deputies. “There were numerous options,” Yeltsin recounted, “but we had only one—to win!”

On June 12, 1990, the parliament adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty of the RSFSR by a vote of 907 votes to 13 against and 9 abstentions. The vote was greeted by a standing ovation. The date would be celebrated in the future as Russia Day. Yeltsin would reflect in time that “as soon as the word sovereignty resounded in the air, the clock of history once again began ticking and all attempts to stop it were doomed. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming.”

All over the USSR in the weeks that followed, other republics took their cue from Russia and proclaimed their sovereignty in a wave of nationalism. In many republics the campaign for greater independence was supported not just by nationalists but by hard-line members of the communist nomenklatura, who fretted about Gorbachev’s reform policies and aimed to grab power for themselves.

Gorbachev’s perestroika had by now created a situation in which the USSR could be preserved only by a new union treaty or by military force.

The immensity of what was happening gave Yeltsin “a bad case of the shakes.” The system could no longer crush him openly, he believed, but “it was quite capable of quietly eating us, bit by bit.” It could sabotage his actions, and him. Gorbachev still controlled the KGB, the interior ministry, the foreign ministry, the Central Bank, state television, and other instruments of control. He was commander of the armed forces, the ultimate arbiter in a physical struggle for power.

But Gorbachev was losing the people. By mid-summer 1990, most Russians had stopped paying heed to his speeches. Life was not improving. After five years waiting for a “crucial turning point” that was never reached, people were dismissing his lectures as mnogo slov (“so many words,” “a lot of hot air”). Behind his back party secretaries were calling him Narciss, the Narcissist. (Gorbachev’s secretaries termed Yeltsin “Brevno,” or The Log, the Russian equivalent of “thick as a plank.”) The shops and liquor stores were still empty.

When Gorbachev made a typically long-winded address to the Twenty-eighth Congress of the Communist Party in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on July 2, 1990, almost nobody was listening.

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Gorbachev Begins His Last Day in Office

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 8-10:

Known by the security people as the wolfichantze (wolfs lair), the presidential dacha is serviced by a staff of several cooks, maids, drivers, and bodyguards, all of whom have their quarters on the lower floor or in outbuildings. It has several living rooms with enormous fireplaces, a vast dining room, a conference room, a clinic staffed with medical personnel, spacious bathrooms on each floor, a cinema, and a swimming pool. Everywhere there is marble paneling, parquet floors, woven Uzbek carpets, and crystal chandeliers. Outside large gardens and a helicopter landing area have been carved out of the 164 acres of woodland. The surrounding area is noted for its pristine air, wooded hills, and views over the wide, curving Moscow River.

For more than half a century Soviet leaders have occupied elegant homes along the western reaches of the river. This area has been the favored retreat of the Moscow elite since the seventeenth century, when Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich expressly forbade the construction of any production facilities. Stalin lived in a two-story mansion on a high bank in Kuntsevo, closer to the city. Known as Blizhnyaya Dacha (“nearby dacha”), it was hidden in a twelve-acre wood with a double-perimeter fence and at one time was protected by eight camouflaged 30-millimeter antiaircraft guns and a special unit of three hundred interior ministry troops. At Gorbachev’s dacha there is a military command post, facilities for the nuclear button and its operators, and a special garage containing an escape vehicle with a base as strong as a military tank.

Every previous Soviet leader but one left their dachas surrounded by wreaths of flowers. Stalin passed away in his country house while continuing to exercise his powers, and those who followed him—Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—all expired while still in charge of the communist superpower. Only Stalin’s immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer like Gorbachev, had his political career brought to a sudden end when he was ousted from power in 1964 for, as Pravda put it, “decisions and actions divorced from reality.”

Today Gorbachev will suffer the same fate as Khrushchev. He will depart from the dacha as president of the Soviet Union. When he returns in the evening, he will be Gospodin (“Mister”) Gorbachev, a pensioner, age sixty—ten years younger than Khrushchev was when he was kicked out.

At around 9:30 a.m. Gorbachev takes his leave of Zakharka, as he fondly calls Raisa (he once saw a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Venetsianov of a woman of that name who bore a resemblance to Raisa). He goes down the wooden stairs, past the pictures hanging on the staircase walls, among them a multicolored owl drawn in childish hand, sent to Raisa as a memento by a young admirer. At the bottom of the stairs was, until recently, a little dollhouse with a toboggan next to it, a reminder of plans for New Year’s festivities with the grandchildren, eleven-year-old Kseniya and four-year-old Nastya; the family will now have to celebrate elsewhere. He spends a minute at the cloakroom on the right of the large hallway to change his slippers for outdoor shoes, then dons a fine rust-colored scarf, grey overcoat, and fur hat, and leaves through the double glass doors, carrying his resignation speech in a thin, soft leather document case.

Outside in the bright morning light his driver holds open the front passenger door of his official stretch limousine, a Zil-41047, one of a fleet built for party and state use only. Gorbachev climbs into the leather seat beside him. He always sits in the front.

Two colonels in plainclothes emerge from their temporary ground-floor lodgings with the little suitcase that accompanies the president everywhere. They climb into a black Volga sedan to follow the Zil into Moscow. It will be their last ride with this particular custodian of the chemodanchik, the case holding the communications equipment to launch a nuclear strike.

With a swish of tires, the bullet-proof limousine—in reality an armored vehicle finished off as a luxury sedan—moves around the curving drive and out through a gate in the high, green wooden fence, where a policeman gives a salute, and onto Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway. The heavy automobile proceeds for the first five miles under an arch of overhanging snow-clad fir trees with police cars in front and behind flashing their blue lights. It ponderously negotiates the frequent bends that were installed to prevent potential assassins from taking aim at Soviet officials on their way to and from the Kremlin. Recently some of the state mansions have been sold to foreigners by cash-strapped government departments, and many of the once-ubiquitous police posts have disappeared.

The convoy speeds up as it comes to Kutuzovsky Prospekt. It races for five miles along the center lane reserved for official cavalcades, zooms past enormous, solid Stalin-era apartment blocks, and hurtles underneath Moscow’s Triumphal Arch and across the Moscow River into the heart of the Russian capital. The elongated black car hardly slackens speed as it cruises along New Arbat, its pensive occupant unseen behind the darkened windows.

The seventh and last Soviet leader plans to explain on television this evening that he dismantled the totalitarian regime and brought them freedom, glasnost, political pluralism, democracy, and an end to the Cold War. For doing so, he is praised and admired throughout the world.

But here in Russia he is the subject of harsh criticism for his failure to improve the lot of the citizens. Few of the bleary-eyed shoppers slipping and sliding on the dirty, compacted snow outside food stores will shed tears at his departure from office. They judge him through the prism of empty shop windows.

Gorbachev knows that. He has even repeated to foreign dignitaries a popular anecdote against himself, about a man in a long line for vodka who leaves in frustration, telling everyone he is going to the Kremlin to shoot Gorbachev, only to return later complaining, “There’s a longer line there.”

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Pres. Grant vs. the Ku Klux Klan

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 706-708:

On April 20, 1871, Grant returned victorious to Capitol Hill to sign the third Enforcement Act, commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. He had planned a California trip that spring, but canceled it in the belief that he couldn’t sidestep this historic moment. The strong new measure laid down criminal penalties for depriving citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including holding office, sitting on a jury, or casting a vote. The federal government could prosecute such cases when state governments refused to act. The law also endowed Grant with extraordinary powers to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and send in troops. To halt night riders, the act made it illegal “to conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway . . . for the purpose . . . of depriving any person . . . of equal protection of the law.” However loathed in the South, the law stood as a magnificent achievement for Grant, who had initiated and rallied support for it, never wavering. To further strengthen it, he issued General Orders No. 48, allowing federal troops to arrest violators of the Ku Klux Klan Act and break up and disperse “bands of disguised marauders.”

The man who implemented this bold agenda was Akerman, who thought Reconstruction best served the long-term interests of the enlightened South, properly understood. To those who protested its severity, he responded that nothing was “more idle than to attempt to conciliate by kindness that portion of the Southern people who are still malcontent. They take all kindness on the part of the Government as evidence of timidity.” For Akerman, the Klan’s actions “amount to war, and cannot be effectually crushed on any theory.” The metaphor didn’t seem excessive, for the Klan resisted by force any effort to restrain it, reflected in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bloodthirsty injunction to his followers: “If they send the black men to hunt those confederate soldiers whom they call kuklux, then I say to you, ‘Go out and shoot the radicals.’”

On May 3, Grant issued a proclamation containing a ringing defense of the Ku Klux Klan Act, calling it a “law of extraordinary public importance.” Never mentioning the Klan by name, he alluded to “combinations of lawless and disaffected persons.” To those who bridled at the enhanced use of federal power, denounced “bayonet rule,” and brandished the states’ rights banner, he implored them to use local laws to suppress the Klan and obviate the need for federal troops. If that didn’t happen, the inaction of local communities “imposes upon the National Government the duty of putting forth all its energies for the protection of its citizens of every race and color.” If states abdicated responsibility, Grant was prepared to use the full panoply of federal power in response. At the same time, he issued orders to federal troops in South Carolina and Mississippi “to arrest disguised night marauders and break up their bands.” In countering the Klan, Grant found himself back in familiar territory, operating as general in chief. Whenever he returned to war-related issues, Grant showed a sure grasp of both his values and methods. He knew that the Klan threatened to unravel everything he and Lincoln and Union soldiers had accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure.

When a joint congressional committee traveled to South Carolina to gather testimony on the Klan rebellion, many of the witnesses were threatened. They made it abundantly clear that the Klan’s word was law in many counties. As one witness from Union County testified, “The county was in effect under Ku-Klux rule; that no order issued by the Klan would be disregarded.” Grant received the same message from petrified citizens, such as Javan Bryant of Spartanburg County, who assured Grant that “it is a common thing for men to say in the country that they will kill anybody who reports them as Ku Klux.”

To aid the anti-Klan effort, Akerman fielded a vast array of resources, including federal marshals and attorneys of the brand-new Justice Department. Members of the nascent Secret Service pitched in with undercover detective work. On September 12, Akerman left for South Carolina to take personal supervision of the campaign, Grant placing federal troops at his disposal. The following month, Akerman sent him a sobering report on Klan activity in South Carolina that portrayed the Klan not as bands of isolated, wild-eyed ruffians but as a comprehensive movement that spanned the entire white community. It embraced “at least two thirds of the active white men of those counties, and have the sympathy and countenance of a majority of the other third. They are connected with similar combinations in other counties and States, and no doubt are part of a grand system of criminal associations pervading most of the Southern States.” Bound by secret oaths, Klansmen perjured themselves to escape prosecution and terrorized witnesses and juries. Akerman estimated that the Klan had committed thousands of criminal acts during the previous year.

On October 12, the anti-Klan assault entered a new phase when Grant, at Akerman’s bidding, issued a proclamation calling upon “combinations and conspiracies” in nine South Carolina counties to disperse and retire peacefully to their homes within five days. Five days later, when the groups did not disarm, Grant suspended habeas corpus there. Akerman explained to Grant the legal rationale for doing so: it was impossible to prosecute Klan members if witnesses dreaded reprisals. With habeas corpus suspended, those threatening reprisals could be held in custody long enough to protect witnesses and obtain convictions. Akerman greeted Grant’s move, saying blacks can “sleep at home now.” By late November, he informed the cabinet that he had taken two thousand prisoners in South Carolina for violating the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Under Akerman’s inspired leadership, federal grand juries, many interracial, brought 3,384 indictments against the KKK, resulting in 1,143 convictions. The conviction rate was even better than it sounded. The federal court system was burdened with cases and many federal judges, appointed before Grant, didn’t sympathize with the anti-Klan crusade. Furthermore, the act that created the Department of Justice had reduced the federal legal staff by a third and curbed its ability to hire outside lawyers as needed. With witnesses offered protection, Klansmen began to name other Klansmen, stripping off the secret veil that cloaked their activities. Many Klansmen, facing arrest, fled their states. Several hundred pleaded guilty in exchange for suspended or lenient sentences. Sixty-five Klansmen wound up in the federal penitentiary in Albany, New York. The goal was not mass incarceration but restoring law and order. To his district attorneys, Akerman made plain that more than convictions were at stake: “If you cannot convict, you, at least, can expose, and ultimately such exposures will make the community ashamed of shielding the crime.”

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Gen. U.S. Grant vs. Pres. A. Johnson

From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 570-571, 580-581:

Grant returned to a capital preoccupied with the civil rights bill introduced by Radical Republicans to nullify Black Codes in the South that prevented freedmen from owning property, making contracts, and filing lawsuits. Though silent on voting rights, the bill sought to bring the full blessings of citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including blacks, protecting them by the “full and equal benefit of all laws.” (Native Americans were excluded.) This landmark legislation defined citizenship rights in a new manner that made the federal government, not the states, the guarantor of basic liberties.

On March 27, Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill, denouncing it for trespassing on states’ rights. Instead of viewing it as a brave attempt to remedy historic injustice, he denigrated it for surpassing anything the federal government “has ever provided for the white race.” Perversely, he interpreted it as a case of reverse discrimination “made to operate in favor of the colored and against the white race.” He heaped further insults on the black community by stating that immigrants had superior claims to American citizenship because they better understood “the nature and character of our institutions.” The veto was a reckless move by Johnson, the original bill having passed both houses by overwhelming margins. In a stunning rebuke, Congress dealt a resounding defeat to Johnson by overriding his veto. Johnson had damaged his standing, leading even moderate Republicans to distance themselves from him. “The feud between Johnson and the ‘Radicals’ grows more and more deadly every day,” observed George Templeton Strong, “and threatens grave public mischief.”

Grant was caught in the dispute as both sides worked hard to lay claim to his incomparable prestige. Thinking it improper for army officers to take public stands on legislation, Grant had kept a punctilious silence on the civil rights bill, but Johnson was bent on enlisting his support whether he liked it or not. When Grant threw a glittering soiree at 205 I Street, President Johnson ventured outside the White House to stand between Ulysses and Julia Grant on the receiving line, and Radical Republicans were taken aback by his presence.

Grant’s team of commanders in the South enforced the new Civil Rights Act. General Daniel Sickles abolished South Carolina’s Black Code, stating that “all laws shall be applicable alike to all inhabitants,” while General Alfred Terry barred Virginia’s vagrancy law as an effort to restore “slavery in all but its name.” A backlash arose among white southerners, producing stepped-up vigilante activity as robed, hooded figures beat and murdered blacks. White northern teachers working with the Freedmen’s Bureau faced death threats and black schools and churches were burned with impunity in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama. Grant continued to present Johnson with statistics documenting racially motivated violence against blacks and added two new categories of coercion: driving off blacks “without compensation for labor” and “retaining freedmen without compensation.”

On September 22, Grant performed an act that spoke volumes about his secret sympathies: he quietly ordered the chief of ordnance, General Alexander Dyer, to empty surplus weapons from five southern arsenals and send most of their small arms to New York Harbor. He also spurned a request from Virginia to furnish ten thousand weapons for white militias to confront a supposedly better armed black population. In addition, he opposed rearming former Confederate states. Writing confidentially to Sheridan, Grant warned that few people who fought for the North exerted any influence over the pro-southern president. Johnson, he feared, would declare Congress as a body “illegal, unconstitutional and revolutionary. Commanders in Southern states will have to take great care to see, if a crisis does come, that no armed headway can be made against the Union.” The outside world may have wondered about Grant’s sympathies, but his private statements leave no room for conjecture about his inexorable drift toward Radical Republicanism. Welles later speculated that by fall 1866, Grant “was secretly acting in concert with the Radicals to deceive and beguile the President.” Grant didn’t regard it as deception so much as adhering to bedrock principles, telling Badeau he had “never felt so anxious about the country.”

As it happened, Grant swam in a strong political tide. Johnson’s “swing around the circle” [election campaign tour] was such an indescribable fiasco that Republicans registered stunning gains in the fall elections, winning substantial majorities in both houses of Congress. The election also resoundingly endorsed the Fourteenth Amendment. These electoral gains prompted speculation about whether Johnson would seek by force to block the new Congress from meeting. Taking advantage of their election mandate, Radical Republicans planned to initiate a period of Congressional Reconstruction, helping blacks and white Republicans in the South and supplanting Presidential Reconstruction, with its heavy bias toward southern white Democrats.

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Retrospective on Akihito & Michiko

As the end of another Japanese imperial era approaches, Philip Brasor in The Japan Times looks back on how the outgoing emperor and empress have redefined their roles. Here are a few excerpts.

Among the hundreds of recent articles about the impending end of the Heisei Era was one Asahi Shimbun opinion piece by Yukiya Chikashige, who has covered the Imperial family for the past 30 years. He wrote that women’s weekly magazines invented the modern image of the Emperor and Empress starting in 1958, when the publication he works for, Josei Jishin, was launched during the “Michiko boom.”

It would be a year before Michiko Shoda became the first commoner to marry a future emperor and, initially, says Chikashige, Josei Jishin didn’t devote many column inches to her. However, sales of the fledgling magazine were poor, so the editors decided to devote substantial resources to the Empress. Circulation subsequently increased and other women’s weeklies followed suit.

What was different about the weeklies’ coverage was their focus on the private lives of the Empress and the Imperial family, purposely avoiding matters such as religion and the ideology of the Imperial system. They concentrated on how the Empress raised her children and spent her leisure time. The consequence of this kind of coverage was to make Empress Michiko and Emperor Akihito representative of the ideal postwar lifestyle, which was much more Western than what the average Japanese person was familiar with. Previously, the Imperial family was an object of reverence and mystery. It was now an aspirational archetype.

He and the Empress made a point of traveling to as many World War II battle sites as they could in order to pray for the souls of those killed, and not just Japanese souls. NHK pointed out that the Emperor was doing this of his own accord and the government was not entirely comfortable with it, but the broadcaster avoided saying what was implicit in the Emperor’s actions — that it was Japan who was responsible for all the lost lives he was honoring.

When the Showa Emperor made personal appearances, he simply stood in front of a crowd. Emperor Akihito, both as Crown Prince and Emperor, met with individuals and talked to them on their level, and the media loved it.

Our family happened to be spending a week in an old Quaker missionary’s cabin at Karuizawa during the summer of 1957 when Akihito and Michiko first met on tennis courts there. The fact that she was a commoner was a big deal at the time.

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What to Do about Squatters in Calcutta

From The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta, by Kushanava Choudhury (Bloomsbury, 2018), Kindle Loc. approx. 2595-2615:

Slowly, I realised something about the squatters. Unlike the millions who lived in slums, these were people who had not been organised by any political party. No one had arranged their birth certificates or ration cards. No one had got them voter cards. The census-takers did not come to their door. Along the canal, on the Maniktala side, the squatters were Hindu. On the Rajabazar side they were Muslim. But otherwise they were precariously the same. No one knew how many people were going to be evicted because no one had bothered to count how many people lived there in the first place. They were people unaccounted for, people who were not people at all.

The settlements along the canal stretched several miles. Taken together, they were as many as 50,000 people. If they had lived in one dense patch and formed a great slum, some leader would surely have come along and got them fake birth certificates and arranged their voter cards, turned them into a constituency and championed their cause. But they were stretched thin across several city wards, and so they did not count as a voting bloc, and hence did not count at all.

All the politicians I called, the ministers, municipality officials and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said something had to be done, of course. A local MLA met me at Flury’s, the gaudy bakery on Park Street, to discuss his grand vision for the canal. Over pastries and tea, he showed me plans that looked like a fantasy from a children’s colouring book. In his plan, an elevated highway would rise above what was now a row of toilets upon a river of shit. In the drawings, there were of course no shacks nor workshops, and no plans for the people who lived and worked there. They had been wiped out of the picture.

What I saw was this: a democratically elected Communist government was following a colonial law that denied its people a basic foothold in the city. The Communists had even stopped working with the World Bank, because it had a policy of providing resettlement to all affected squatters on its projects while the government did not. In my Princeton days, I had supported the anti-globalisation protests, which targeted the World Bank as the very symbol of capitalist exploitation in the Third World. Now ‘capitalism’ and ‘Communism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘development’ all seemed like terms whose meanings had been unmoored from their original forms. They were just empty words used by politicians with which we filled the pages of our newspapers and stuffed our brains.

What mattered was power, the power of having bodies you could put in the street to block traffic and votes you could stuff in a ballot box. Who got what was determined by who could make the most noise, who could block the most roads, who could show the most power. Each would be compensated according to their nuisance value. The meek would lose their hearths.

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