Category Archives: democracy

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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Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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Grendel the Revolutionary

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle pp. 35-36:

Other days I gave them writing assignments; for Beowulf we talked about point of view, and they wrote about the story from the perspective of Grendel, the monster. Almost without exception the boys wrote about what it was like to eat people, and how to do it properly; while the girls wrote about how cold and dark the moor was, and how monsters have feelings too. One student named Grace wrote:

The warriors said I am a monster, I can’t agree with them, but on the contrary I think the warriors and the king are indeed monsters.

You see, they eat delicious foods and drinking every day. Where the foods and drinking come from? They must deprive these things from peasants.

The king and the warriors do nothing but eat delicious foods; the peasants work hard every day, but have bad foods, even many of them have no house to live, like me just live in the moor. So I think the world is unfair, I must change it.

The warriors, I hate them. I will punish them for the poor people. I will ask the warriors build a large room and invited the poor people to live with me.

In college I had been taught by a few Marxist critics, most of whom were tenured, with upper-class backgrounds and good salaries. They turned out plenty of commentary—often about the Body, and Money, and Exchange—but somehow it didn’t have quite the same bite as Grace’s vision of Grendel as Marxist revolutionary. There was honesty, too—this wasn’t tweed Marxism; Grace, after all, was the daughter of peasants. She didn’t have tenure, and I had always felt that it was better if people who spoke feelingly of Revolution and Class Struggle were not tenured. And I figured that if you have to listen to Marxist interpretations of literature, you might as well hear them at a college where the students clean the classrooms.

The truth was that politics were unavoidable at a Chinese college, even if the course was foreign literature, and in the end I taught English Literature with Chinese Characteristics.

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Japan’s First Commoner Army Unit

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 243-245:

On 6/6, the day after the humiliation by French warships at Shimonoseki [in 1863], Takasugi was summoned to Yamaguchi Castle, his ten-year sabbatical over in just two months. He had been conspicuously absent from the fighting at Shimonoseki—during the initial attacks on the foreign ships and the retaliation by the Americans and French. One might suspect that the man who, in the previous months had burned down the British Legation in Edo and verbally challenged the shōgun on the streets of Kyōto, misread his countrymen, and did not believe that they would actually fire upon the foreign ships. But he had not misread them. Rather, as symbolized by his cropped hair, he had evolved beyond most of them, throwing off their xenophobia—and with their outdated ideas many of their outdated values—because, like his friend Sakamoto Ryōma, he had finally realized the futility of the Expel the Barbarians movement. Rather than fight the foreigners, Takasugi, with Ryōma’s help, would utilize them—that is to say, their guns and warships—to bring down the Bakufu. And so, while his countrymen fought the foreigners at Shimonoseki, Takasugi spent a quiet time at his home in Hagi.

But after the bombardment of Shimonoseki, and the occupation by French troops, Takasugi had had enough. On the same day that he reported to Yamaguchi Castle, he formed Japan’s first modern militia, the Kiheitai (“Extraordinary Corps”). The Kiheitai was extraordinary for its superior fighting ability, and as Japan’s first fighting force in which men of the merchant and peasant classes fought alongside samurai. Until then Chōshū’s military, like the militaries of all the han, consisted entirely of samurai, whose sole purpose for hundreds of years had been to protect their domains. But as the Chōshū samurai had demonstrated against the French, many of them had forgotten how to fight during the two centuries of Tokugawa peace. Takasugi solicited the service of all able-bodied men with the will to fight, regardless of caste. His objective: the creation of a “people’s army” that valued ability over lineage—resembling Katsu Kaishū’s vision of a national navy. He established the Kiheitai at Shimonoseki and equipped it with modern weaponry, including rifles and cannons. He would later lead it in a revolutionary assault on the foundations of the antiquated Tokugawa system.

A couple of months after the Kiheitai was formed, animosity broke out between the new militia and the Senpōtai (“Spearhead Corps”), a traditional samurai unit of the regular army that had fought poorly against the foreigners. Takasugi’s men, peasants included, looked down upon the Senpōtai. One of Takasugi’s officers, a samurai by the name of Miyagi Hitosuké, verbally abused men of the Senpōtai who had fled from the French. The men of the Senpōtai resented Miyagi and the Kiheitai. They were jealous of the special attention given to the Kiheitai by the daimyo’s heir. On the night of 8/16, after heavy drinking, some men of the traditional samurai corps threatened to kill Miyagi. Fearing for his life, Miyagi sought the protection of his commander. Takasugi, irascible as ever, proceeded immediately to Senpōtai headquarters at a Buddhist temple called Kyōhōji. Others from the Kiheitai followed. All but five men of the Senpōtai fled for their lives. One of the five was killed, the others wounded. The Chōshū authorities, including the daimyo’s heir, became involved. The so-called Kyōhōji Incident was finally settled when Miyagi took responsibility by committing seppuku—but as a result Takasugi was relieved of his command just three months after establishing the Kiheitai.

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What Surprised Japanese POWs

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 144-145:

Traditionally, Japanese have lived in a society that highly prizes the reciprocal giving and receiving of favors, including those exchanged between superior and inferior. Once drawn into a “human” (that is, emotional) conversational relationship with their interrogators, the prisoners realized that they had already received many favors from their captors. They had generally been treated decently. Of particular importance to the Japanese, they had not generally been insulted or humiliated. These Americans did not generally look down on them with contempt.[…]

In addition to all the material benefits they had received, some prisoners mused, the Americans had given them their life, if only by not killing them. For the Japanese, this huge imbalance of “favors” granted and received represented a serious problem. Many solved it by giving the Americans the only thing they had to give—answers to seemingly innocuous questions.

While Japanese prisoners were impressed by the material things the Americans shared with them, they were deeply affected by the more personal touches. They could not easily cast these aside saying the “rich Americans” could afford such things. It was not only that the Americans readily took out a cigarette from their own pack; more significant for them was that they were prepared to do so within plain sight of others. A few former Japanese POWs noted in their memoirs that they might have had the chance during the course of their military service to slip an American POW a cigarette. Now that the roles were reversed they were ashamed that they had lacked the courage to overcome the Japanese convention of the time, that all POWs of any nationality properly deserved total contempt. Prisoners so badly wounded that they could not even light or hold a cigarette were overcome with inexpressible gratitude when an order lit the cigarette and passed it from his lips to theirs.

Of all the many unfamiliar things the Japanese encountered in the prison camps, probably the most astounding was their medical treatment. They could hardly believe that prisoners received treatment identical to that accorded their captors. They would find themselves in hospital beds adjacent to beds occupied by their “enemy.” Even more astounding, American medical orderlies deigned to lift them up with their own hands and even clean them when they soiled their bed. That Americans gave officer status to nurses often amazed the Japanese. That these nurses would not only treat lowly enemy enlisted men but also at times give them a smile astounded them even more.

Discovering that they received the same food and in the same quantities as their captors surprised them as well. For a status-conscious Japanese prisoner who viewed himself as beneath contempt, such recognition of common humanity left an abiding impression. In this sense, the whole atmosphere of the prison camp became conducive to maintaining a civil, personal relationship with the Americans. While not designed for the purpose, in some instances this could only further American efforts to gain intelligence.

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Samurai in San Francisco, 1860

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 119-121:

The International Hotel stood on the corner of Jackson and Kearney Streets in the center of the city. When the samurai alighted in front of the lobby, their strange appearance attracted crowds of spectators, who must have watched their every move. “One wore a light blue gown and trowsers the colors of the sky at sunset, spangled, starred and barred with gold and crimson,” reported the Daily Evening Bulletin on March 20. Each man displayed on his jacket his family crest in white “circular, oval, or square patches,” which were “of an import quite unknown to us.” And each wore his long and short swords in the polished scabbards at his left hip, “almost horizontally.” One of them “carried a fan [in his right hand], in his left a walking cane… Almost every man wore sandals, generally [made] of grass.”

The Bulletin reported on March 19 that the Japanese “through the interpreters kept up such sort of conversation as they could. Fortunately, [California] Governor [John] Downey happened to be in town, and was early at the door. The Japanese could hardly believe that such a modest, unassuming, quiet little man could be a governor.” “It was necessary for … Brooke to explain repeatedly that this was the real Governor, before they could believe it,” reported the Daily Alta California on the same day. “They surveyed him from head to foot, and looked at the door again and again to see the retinue of attendants whom they thought ought to be following him.”

Katsu Kaishū, for his part, made a grand impression on the San Franciscans, who discerned in him a likeness to the former explorer, Gold Rush millionaire, California senator, Democratic candidate for president of the United States, and one of their greatest heroes. “The Captain of the corvette is a fine looking man, marvelously resembling in stature, form, and features Colonel [John Charles] Fremont, only that his eye is darker, and his mouth less distinctly shows the pluck of its owner,” the Bulletin commented on March 19.

By all accounts, the samurai entourage savored their sojourn of nearly two months in the burgeoning silver metropolis by the bay. Certain scenes come to mind. Katsu Kaishū posing for a tintype portrait at William Shew’s photographic studio on Montgomery Street—the two swords and family crest prominently displayed on his person, the hair tied back, the noble expression complemented by dark, determined eyes. The Japanese touring the waterfront, observing with keen interest a convoy vessel of San Francisco Bay and merchant ships from Panama. Kaishū noting that while the larger merchant ships are commanded by military men, captains of the smaller merchant vessels are civilians. Kaishū and Brooke visiting the “gorgeous redbrick” home of a certain naval officer, “the owner of the largest merchant ship, which he commands.” The samurai entourage visiting the San Francisco Baths on Washington Street, because, as the Daily Alta California reported on March 21, they are “desirous of trying the American style” of bathing. Riding the sand cars on the Market Street Railway, “a sight, which being new to them, they [view] with much interest.” Browsing in Kohler’s spacious piano warerooms and bazaar on Sansome Street, where they observe musical instruments, toys, and opera glasses, and inspecting the sewing machines at the Wheeler and Wilson’s store; Kaishū taking note of the gaslights that illuminated the streets after dark so that one may walk about town without a lantern.

And Kaishū marveled at the industrialization of the town—the clamor of steam-powered windmills from the factories; the mechanical saws; the newspaper printing presses; the San Francisco branch of the United States Mint, comprising a three-story red brick building on Commercial Street; the iron foundries where great hammers and iron plating were manufactured; the gas works on First Street; the “Vulcan works, where,” the Daily Alta reported on March 21, “luckily, castings were being run, and the trip-hammer, planing, and other machines were successfully set in motion.” And if Kaishū was enthralled by modern technology, imagine his astonishment at the sight of a factory worker openly engaged with a prostitute during break time, and his perplexity at being offered “the wife of a Mr. So-and-So for a certain amount per hour.”

Keeping to more practical matters, Kaishū later wrote:

All of this machinery was run on steam power, eliminating the need for manual labor and vastly facilitating [production]. Japan [meanwhile] had shunned foreign commerce. As long as we had the means to produce commodities sufficient for our own domestic consumption, we had no need for [such] machinery, but rather depended on the labor of our highly skilled artisans and craftsmen.

In the spring of 1860, then, as Katsu Kaishū walked the streets of San Francisco, he was poignantly reminded of the urgent need to “conduct international trade,” mechanize Japanese industry, and “change Japan’s antiquated ways.”

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Not exactly Emperor vs. Shogun

From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 92-94:

The Imperial Loyalists hailed from samurai clans throughout the country. Most prominent among them were Mito in the east, Fukui in the west, and Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Kumamoto in the outlying southwestern regions. Many of them were low-ranking samurai from the bottom rungs of their respective clans—and therein lay their superiority as leaders and as men. Generally, the lower-samurai did not have a voice in the policies of their han. They had to struggle, and often risk their lives, just to be heard. As a result, they were naturally more capable than the spoiled, privileged, and, more often than not, inept sons of the upper-samurai—a fact of which Katsu Kaishū was acutely aware. During times of tranquility and peace, the lower-samurai had been willing to accept their humble positions; but after Perry they demanded attention. Some left their han without permission to band together with Loyalists from feudal domains throughout Japan. In thus abandoning their han they became rōnin. (The term rōnin was used interchangeably with the less derogatory rōshi. The of both terms means “wave”—the gist being “wandering aimlessly.” The nin of rōnin simply means “person,” while the shi of rōshi means “samurai.”)

In former times, rōnin were merely lordless samurai—men of the warrior class who had become separated from feudal lord and clan. But after Perry, the term rōnin took on a much different connotation. Most of the latter-day rōnin were renegade samurai, political outlaws, who had intentionally quit the service of their lord and clan. Far greater in number than their predecessors, these men did not necessarily derive from the samurai caste. Some hailed from peasant households, and some from merchant families. And some samurai who technically became rōnin did not really abandon their daimyo; rather they quit their lord’s service in order to protect him from being associated with their own seditious activities. Imperial Loyalism encompassed a wide sphere extending beyond the anti-Bakufu and anti-foreign parties, and even the samurai class itself. Morals in Japanese society were based, in part, on the relationship between the sovereign and his subjects. The Emperor was sovereign. His ancestors had ruled in ancient times, long before the advent of the shōguns or, for that matter, any of the feudal lords. The people were the Emperor’s subjects—and counted among the Imperial subjects was the shōgun himself, who had merely been commissioned by the Emperor to rule.

The coming revolution, then, would not simply be a struggle between Imperial Loyalists on one side and the Bakufu and its supporters on the other. As already noted, most of the people who supported the Bakufu also revered the Emperor, and among those who swore absolute loyalty to the Emperor were some of the most devout Bakufu supporters. This dichotomy existed among individuals and groups alike.

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