September 27, 2016

India and the end of Indentureship

It’s an interesting footnote that the end of Indian Indentureship had its genesis in the politics of India rather than any struggle in the countries to which Indians had been shipped since 1834. The governments of those colonies were all heavily influenced by their sugar planters who desperately wanted an uninterrupted supply of indentureds to continue depressing wages. In fact, after immigration ended in Guyana in 1917, the government and planters sent a delegation of Guyanese-Indian leaders to India to solicit support for a new scheme to supply cheap labour.
In India, the Indian National Congress (INC) had been formed in 1885 by British and Indian members of the Theosophical Society to encourage “dialogue” between “educated” Indians and the Indian Government. According to an 1832 policy enunciated by Macaulay, the “education” promised to create “brown Englishmen”. The graduates assumed they would be treated like white Englishmen individually; and collectively, as members of the British Empire. Consequently, they soon argued for “Swaraj” for India along the lines accorded to Australia and South Africa.
The gap between the promise and the reality, however, precipitated a split of the INC in 1905 between “Moderates”, led by Gokhale – who continued to “believe” and “Extremists” led by Tilak who didn’t. Indentured Indians entered the picture through the backdoor when Gandhi, who had gone as a lawyer to South Africa in 1893 in the employ of some Gujrati merchants, was unceremoniously kicked off a train for believing he could travel first class like whites.
It was only gradually after indentureds spontaneously joined Gandhi’s protest that the latter’s eyes opened up to the plight of the former: rather not being treated like whites, their very humanity was denied. As racism was exposed through its extreme “apartheid” form a hundred years later, South Africa helped to make more “educated” Indians in India aware of their naïveté in aspiring to be “British”, through information supplied by Gandhi, who was in touch with Gokhale.
Ironically, Gandhi accepted a system in which white British persons were seen as being “better” than Indians, who were to be loyal “helpers”.
Gokhale initially saw Indentureship as hindering Indians being accepted as British because the “coolies” were not distinguished from “other” (read “educated”) Indians. He sought amelioration of the conditions under which the coolie laboured and only called for the abolition of Indentureship to Natal as a tactical measure after the government of Natal imposed restrictions on the movement of “free” Indians. Abolition there was achieved in 1911.
In 1912 Gokhale extended his call to the entire system of Indentureship and other members of the Congress, such as Madan Mohan Malaviya took up the cause. By this time, the harsh conditions in other colonies, especially in Fiji, were made known in India, and the “ban on Indentureship” became a nationwide cause célèbre.
In fact, it was the one issue that brought together the two factions of Congress and also the Muslim League, under Mohamed Ali Jinnah, which had also withdrawn. For one brief historical moment, Indian Indentured labour brought modern Indians in India together.
On March 20, 1916, after Gokhale had passed away and Gandhi returned to India (both in 1915), Malaviya introduced a motion in the Indian Legislature for the cessation of Indentureship. Governor General Hardinge agreed in principle but the India Office back in Britain, under Chamberlain balked. He insisted that a new method of supplying labour to the colonies had to be found. By this time, however, most ships ferrying indentureds had been commandeered to the (WWI) war effort and the recruitment was also competing with enlistment efforts of the Indian army. Already under fire for a bungled campaign by that Indian dominated army in Mesopotamia, Chamberlain did not want to face further attacks from the Government of India. On March 12, 1917, he authorised the Government of India to issue orders under the Defence of India Act to stop recruitment and the same day an order was made in the Legislative Council. Two weeks earlier, the last ship, the SS Ganges had sailed to British Guiana and Trinidad. On Jan 1, 1920, the system was abolished completely.

Representation of interests


After the Forum of African Guyanese by Cuffy 250, some Guyanese expressed alarm at the frank speech on expectations in an ethnically divided society. They insist that only “multiracial” politics can work for Guyana.

But what is a “multi-racial” party? Is it one in which the leaders are drawn from all or most of the various racial/ethnic blocs that constitute our polity? Is it one that has members drawn from all the various groups? Do the proportions have to roughly mirror the population or will any assorted agglomeration do like with APNU/AFC? Or does it mean that the interests of all the groups must be expressly articulated and represented? Should those interests be subsumed under some notion of a “national” interest? Who defines that “national” interest? And so on.

In Guyana, all of the parties before ROAR claimed that they were “multi-racial”. They took special pains to have individuals from all the major race groups in their executive and courted votes from across the spectrum. They constructed “national” manifestos. Yet when it came to elections, the majority of the people invariably voted for one of the two major parties, which were firmly identified with specific ethnic blocs – the PPP with Indians and the PNC with Africans. Some assert that the WPA was the only authentic multiracial party. This, of course, begs the question posed above as to what is an “authentic multi-racial” party.

The question harks back to the roots of what constitutes “representation” in our “representative democracy”. The favoured approach, from both the old Liberal and Marxist ideologies was the “representation of ideas”. That is, once the interests of the group are articulated, then anyone could “speak” for the group. By constructing “national” platforms in personnel and content, both the PPP and the PNC claimed to be capable of speaking for “all”. Yet, based on the results of election after election, it is obvious that there was some way the people were getting signals as to which party better represented their interests – which turned out to be racial/ethnic every time.

These ethnic signals were encapsulated in the ethnic identity of the top leader of the party and conveyed during the “bottom house” meetings and by the use of code words that the people understood. Our insertion into Guyanese politics occurred in the immediate pre-1992 years, by that time the Indians saw the PPP as capable of winning on its own in a “free and fair” election and the Africans had no faith that a possible vengeful PPP would protect their interests. Both sides returned to huddling under their own perceived tent. And here we have remained – with some cracks last year.

In 1992, as articulated in our 1990 paper, “For a New Political Culture”, we proposed “Shared Governance” and eventually, Federalism, to share power in the country equitably. Our theory predicted ethnic violence, which unfortunately came to pass, with its increased polarisation. So, how do we arrive at “multi-racial” politics that can involve all the groups to their satisfaction?

We thought it was self-evident that the parties that the various groups selected via their votes should come together and work on a programme that combined their several platforms. We still believe that this is the way to begin and then work towards a federal approach, which would need the trust engendered during a period of working together. But there remains the evident distaste by the major political parties to acknowledge that they are “ethnic” parties.

The greatest irony is that this acknowledgement, coupled with the acceptance to work together, would result in the formation of a “multi-racial” government, which, after all, is what the goal of all their politics is supposedly all about. The “multiracial” party was supposed to only be a way-station to the “multi-racial” government, wasn’t it?

But the distaste for acknowledging that one has an ethnic party goes deeper than mere opportunism in some. A multiracial/multi-ethnic party must explicitly articulate the interests of the several constituent groups it purports to represent. This is done, as in the Democratic Party in the US, by having specific “caucuses” for African and Hispanic voters. It is now conceded that in addition to the old “representation of ideas”, there is the need for “representation by presence” especially for those who have been excluded or have experienced unique situations.


Suicide and Culture

I’ve written so many columns about suicide since 1997, I’ll just adapt one from 2011. We might as well be spitting in the wind to get official action.

“Tomorrow Guyana will observe World Suicide Prevention Day. Yes, suicide is a worldwide problem and we are Number 1. In 2011, the theme for the commemoration activities was “Preventing Suicide in Multicultural Societies” and in this innocuous statement there is much food for thought. When suicide is discussed by policy makers, they usually toss out figures on the national rates prevalent in their respective countries.

In Guyana with its 200 suicides annually, our rate comes in at 26 per hundred thousand (pht). But over the course of the last few decades as statistics were collected, it became apparent that within countries there were striking differences in suicide rates among different ethnic groups. For instance in the US, Blacks committed suicide at only half the rate of Whites and the suicide rate for the latter group is actually 17.6 pht. This is more in line with the global suicide rate of 16 pht.

This suggested that efforts to mitigate suicide rates had to be directed to the affected communities. In Guyana, working in the Indian community since my return to Guyana in 1988, I could not help being struck by the high incidence of suicide among Indians in general and Hindus in particular. In 1997, working along with Swami Aksharananda among Hindu youths, we organised a seminar on suicide at the Cove and John Ashram.

As part of that exercise, we conducted a pilot survey of suicide in several communities on the West Coast Demerara. It confirmed our anecdotal evidence of suicide occurring in epidemic proportions among Indians as specifically Hindus. From that time we began to make annual calls for a national suicide programme to be initiated.

The Ministry of Health (MoH), through its Minister, candidly acknowledged the existence of the Suicide problem in our country and (very) gradually the bureaucracy swung into action. But evidently impelled by their rules and tradition, their response was measured. The release of a study in 2001 commissioned by Dr Frank Beckles, a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, whose son – himself a doctor, had committed suicide – was salutary.

In addition to garnering publicity to highlight the suicide menace, it provided concrete data that could guide the policy makers. It confirmed the high suicide rate but just as significantly it confirmed our early findings of the ethnic specificity of the problem.

Three out of every four suicides were by Indian Guyanese and it was therefore not surprising that Regions 6 and 2, dominated by Indians suffered the highest suicide rates: Berbice alone had 52.7% of all cases. Another finding that jumped out was that eight out of ten suicides were committed by males – and young males at that. Two thirds of all persons that committed suicide in Guyana were also below the age of 35. When the numbers were disaggregated it suggested that the suicide rate for Indians was 41 pht and for Indian males, a staggering 66 pht.

I remember being at the launching of the Beckles study and the subsequent discussion that honed in on the ethnic specificity of the phenomenon. It was pointed out by one interlocutor that while there was a high correlation between Hindus and suicide in Guyana it could not be assume that Hinduism was a causative factor. The predominantly Hindu village in India that the Indians had left had an extremely low rate of 6.3 pht. High suicide rates were found in all of the Indian “diaspora” countries ever since the beginning of Indentureship and this suggested a line on inquiry.

Of the programmes introduced to deal with suicide, in my estimation the initiative that holds the greatest potential for reducing the incidence of suicide is the Gatekeepers Programme. Here, individuals from communities concerned about the scourge are trained by professionals so that suicidal persons will have culturally compatible persons to whom they can turn. All communities must become Gatekeepers.

Unfortunately most of these programmes have faded. And we simply wring our hands even as there has been renewed calls for action, especially by the CaribVoice.”


Unfree labour

There is this movie starring Bill Murray. He’s up in Pennsylvania reporting on “Groundhog Day” and every morning he awakens to experience the exact events from the day before, in a seemingly infinite loop.
Ever so often I get this same feeling during the 28 years I’ve returned to Guyana. Take this claim just made by some in the run-up to Emancipation Day that Indian indentured labourers undercut the bargaining power of the freed slaves after 1838 and that is what pushed them off the plantations. “It’s like déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra was alleged to have quipped.
In vain, I’ve pointed out over the years that it’s futile to play the “blame game” when, in the development of capitalism, after constructing its base on the back of African chattel slave labour (following genocide on the indigenous peoples), it went on to appropriate the very form of unfree labour they had used before slavery – indentured labour (of Europeans). There is no question the planters did intend to undercut the bargaining power of the freed slaves after Emancipation – but the new 19th Century indentureds were also contributing to what Marx dismissed as “primitive accumulation” in the drive of capitalism to create what he ironically called “doubly free labour”: free to sell their labour-power to anyone they choose, and freed from any ownership over the means of production.
But I was just as unsuccessful in pointing out that the details of their claim were so blatantly incorrect, it suggested that more was at play than careless historiography. In 1998, I noted in my paper, “Aetiology of an ethnic riot”: “It was not Indian labour that broke the back of African attempts to wrest higher wages from the planters. Rather, if labour were to be “blamed”, it was more the Portuguese and, ironically, fellow Africans from both the WI and Africa, who played key roles.
The ex-slaves called the strike of 1847 at a point of financial crisis for the planters who, encouraged by the indentureship of 15,747 Portuguese, 12,897 Africans from the WI and 6957 Africans from Africa – a total of 35,601 – compared with only 8692 Indians, held off the demands for higher wages. After 1848, by when more than half of them had moved into villages and towns, the unskilled ex-slaves, by and large, decided to make their living off the plantations because, even though Indian indenture was suspended between 1838-1845 and then again in 1849-50, there was no movement back to the plantation by the Africans, nor was there any increase in the wage scale.” Available land was the pull factor for the move.
What is also overlooked is that eventually there were more indentured Africans arriving from the Caribbean (40,783) than the Portuguese (30,078) from Madeira and from Africa (13,355). In fact between 1835 and 1838 exactly 5000 ex-African slaves had been brought from the smaller islands into Guyana. Somehow, these African indentured servants – mostly from Barbados – have been forgotten. Ironically, there were several instances recorded of Indian indentureds protesting that the West Indian indentureds were undercutting their wages!
I wrote to one interlocutor in 2004, “The point I have been making is that we are going against the analyses of history made by eminent West Indian historians such as Williams and Rodney (among others) when we lay blame to the immigrants – whether Portuguese, Indian, Chinese, West Indians or Africans who were all indentured. It was the working of the systems imposed on us by the British, whether political (imperialism), economic (pre-capitalist) or cultural (cultural hegemony), that kept us all in thrall. Today, we are still busy blaming each other for our mess and not questioning whether those bequeathed systems are not still contributing to our problems. And that we should get busy, as a first step, in modifying them to assist in leading to greater equity and justice for all of us.”
Twelve years later, after capitalism’s latest globalised financialised phase has imploded, the travails of “doubly free” labour continues as Britain, Europe and the US blame immigrants who “took away their jobs”.
What will I wake up tomorrow to?

Roots of Competition

In Guyana, the question of an equitable distribution of economic goods has always loomed large in the minds of the populace. This should not be surprising in light of Guyana’s origin as a colony founded on slave and indentured labour.
As a non-settler European colony, the Guyanese economy was structured to produce primary products in agriculture and mining at the cheapest possible labour cost, for export to the metropolis countries. There, the goods would be manufactured for resale to the very same labourers in the colonies, at a huge profit by the designated agents of the Imperial power. In a word, we were “underdeveloped” – a structural condition – rather than undeveloped which suggests, at worst, a benign neglect.
The movement for the abolition of slavery and the agitation (in Guyana and in India) for humane working conditions for the indentured labourers left a legacy of sensitivity to the exploitation – economic and otherwise – of labour. In fact, the trade union movement, conceptualised to agitate for economic justice on behalf of workers was launched by Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow in Guyana as far back as 1919, long before political parties appeared on the scene.
The ethnic organisations formed not long after by mostly middle-class elements, were also concerned about the economic status and progress of their members. The nascent Indian middle-class had a greater number of members from the world of business than the more established African/Mulatto Middle-class that had sought improvement of their lot through education for jobs in government services and the professions.
The historical development of the colony, by and large, led to ethnic economic specialisation and this was to have far-reaching consequences. Within a decade of the abolition of slavery, the majority of Africans left the plantation and were channelled into becoming an urbanised workforce of lower civil service clerks, messengers, transport workers, dock workers, shop assistants, artisans, masons etc. The unbroken wave of internal migration, continuing to the present, soon created a large African urban underclass that could be used to depress urban wages. Many Africans went into the hinterland to prospect for gold and opened up a new industry. Those Africans who remained on the sugar plantations constituted the major of factory workers who were then locationally separated from the mostly Indian field workers.
When the bauxite industry was developed following WWI, the workers recruited were primarily Africans. The Portuguese and Chinese, small in numbers, also gravitated to the urban centres directly after serving their indenture contracts, with some remaining as shopkeepers in the newly formed villages. The majority of Indians, even after Indentureship, remained on the plantations or formed rural settlements near the plantations – focusing primarily on rice and vegetable cultivation and cattle rearing.
Economic competition was sustained with the rural-to-migration continuing as a constant feature of the colony’s development, since the towns were promoted as the centre of “civilised” life and higher standards of living. This rural African migration precipitated severe contradictions in Georgetown as the newer arrivals depressed wages – producing an African underclass that grew sharply as economic opportunities stagnated. The early success of the Portuguese migrants in business, which squeezed out many Coloured/African entrepreneurs, led to several African–Portuguese riots, notably in 1848, 1856 and 1888.
On the sugar plantations, the interminable flood of new immigrants depressed plantation wages. Contrary to what some ideologues in the present are preaching, there was no significant economic competition between Indians and Africans in the 19th Century.
It was the beginning of the movement of Indians into the elite, urban-centred occupations after the end of Indentureship in 1917 however, that precipitated the greatest stresses in the society – some of which are still to be resolved.
The Indians, building on their successes in rice, cattle rearing and petty retailing began to open businesses in Georgetown by the 1920s and also to enter the independent professions of medicine and law. These were very highly prized occupations in colonial society that helped to define status and when some Indians began to percolate into the Civil Service by the 1930s, the Coloured/African elite began to feel threatened.

Group comparison and politics

Preparing to return to Guyana in the late 1980s, I literally stumbled over a text that was most seminal to my later interventions here: Donald Horowitz’ “Ethnic Groups in Conflict”. Long before then, I’d rejected the prevalent reductionist Marxism of the major local theorists and was looking around for some explanation that had a better fit for our political realities. Horowitz’ voluminous work comprehensively did that then and still does that today.
Ethnic politics, he proposed, begins with the various ethnic groups in plural societies comparing themselves to each other. Inextricably linked to the comparison process is an evaluative component. The psychologist Leon Festinger had postulated a “Social Comparison Process” as a human drive in individuals, to evaluate our abilities by comparing them with the abilities of others. When discrepancies are manifested by performance, efforts are made to reduce discrepancies by either improving performance or by controlling the superior performance of a competitor.
In these states we find that between groups the process of comparison is a constant and ever-present reality. This becomes a source of conflict as the comparisons are inevitably evaluated from the standpoint of the “inalienable right of equality” or from whatever standard each group decides is “just” – not just in reference to power. This is not to imply that questions of power differentials are obviated: the “worth” of a group is itself indicia of the group’s position on the power spectrum. Much of the heat in ethnic interactions is generated from questions of self-worth, which is inextricably tied up with group worth as was mentioned before.
In Guyana this comparison between the ethnic groups started from the founding of the colony in the 17th century. The Europeans evaluated themselves as infinitely superior culturally to the Amerindians and later to the African slaves they brought to work on the plantations. In fact there were serious debates amongst Europeans as to whether the Africans could be said to have possessed any culture or even “souls”: the conclusion by the white masters was that they did not and this conclusion, of course justified slavery, during which “culture” could be imparted and souls saved.
From the period of “seasoning” of the slaves as they were brought from Africa, to the end of their lives, the denigration of the native African culture was never to let up. Most of the slaves and moreso the Mulatto, accepted the idea of the superiority of European culture and all worked valiantly to master its forms, if not necessarily its substance. The conquest of the minds of the slave was an economically conscious enterprise since the hegemonised slave was more pliant and in fact begged for and treasured his mental chains.
This hegemonising process accelerated after the abolition of slavery in 1834 when schools were opened to “educate the Africans” and churches expanded their reach in tandem with the schools they ran. The Mulattos were mostly illegitimate offsprings of white males and African slave women and were treated favourably by their fathers and given their freedom. They were a schizophrenic group, defined as “Mixed”, rebuffed by white society but holding themselves above the Africans. They kept themselves aloof from Africans up to the anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s. Through education and occupation some full-blooded Africans were allowed to join their ranks. The Mulattos generally despised the black blood in themselves and made sure Africans knew it. The hybrid culture formed, where everything was evaluated with the white and his culture deemed to be the standard, was dubbed “Creole Culture”.
Thus when the other groups were introduced into the colony to replace the slaves, they were quickly evaluated by the latter through the values they had inculcated from the Europeans. The Portuguese and Chinese were derided mercilessly but as soon as they reached the towns, towards which they gravitated after their indenture, they quickly joined the rush to acculturate according to the standards of the White/Creole society. Even though the Portuguese kept their Roman Catholic practices, in all other ways they fitted in, as did the Chinese, who became staunch Protestants.
(To be continued)

Writing history

With the Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Arrival of Indians as Indentureds coming up next March, I’ve been re-looking at some of what I had written about history in general and our one-sided history in particular. We can start with my agreeing with Hayden White that all historical writings are narratives with one of four types of emplotment – romance, satire, comedy, and tragedy.

Then there’s the question, “What are the uses of history?” I concluded it all has to do with the present in which we are forced to make choices every second of every day. And every choice ultimately is a moral choice. We have to begin from our Foucauldian “history of the present”, in which we interrogate intensely our “problem space” – the threats and opportunities that confront us at a sociohistorical conjuncture – that defined the context of an issue in the past.
The concept of “problem space” is from the historical theorist Reinhart Koselleck. Histories, he insists, are always written within a particular “space of experience” – the ways that the past is remembered in the present and a “horizon of expectation” – the anticipation of the non-yet-known future beyond the horizon.
In the tradition of RG Collingwood’s “Q&A” methodology, we have to engage in a rigorous practice of inquiry that demands us to formulate and present questions, assemble, evaluate, analyze, and interpret evidence, and to articulate and defend an argument based upon the relationship between the questions posed and the evidence gathered. In a word, we problematise the past.
The questions, we have to remind ourselves constantly, are from our own present and framed within our horizon of expectations. The question for us is, what choices are we trying to make TODAY (out of the cornucopia of infinite possibilities) in our present problem space and what are we trying to achieve? What traces of the past questions and answers linger in our present? And most importantly, how relevant are they in today’s problem space? It is not that some of the answers to questions posed in the past might be “wrong” but they just might be “irrelevant” in the present? It is only in this manner that exemplary history can help us deal with current problems rather than just beating up on old leaders or foes.
What then should be our “horizon of expectation”? Criticism is always strategic. What is it we want as a consequence of our criticisms, narratives, actions and exhortations? What is the “Good”? While there will never be – for the simple reason that it just cannot be – a single horizon of ends for all of us, I am pretty sure that among the various possibly competing ends that of a more harmonious society would be there in common in all formulations. With the privilege of hindsight, we should connect the past with the present in a broader narrative that is healing rather than destructive. We cannot change the past but we can certainly change the future.
Our horizon of expectation must generate strategies that speak to those normative ends rather than further dividing Guyana. So in the evaluation of our historical narratives, I would first of all ask whether the particular narrative or any narrative that seeks to connect our past to the present and envision a more positive future, fits the bill. As Nietzsche’s noted historical truth is effectively defined by fitness of purpose.
Crucial to the formulation of a constructive historical narrative would be what Hayden White labelled the “content of the form” of the narrative – particularly its plot to link past, present and future. Hegel’s famous interpretation of Antigone as the paradigmatic Greek tragedy might be particularly apt to our situation. In this narrative both “sides” are morally right: the conflict is not between good and evil but between “goods” on which each is making exclusive claim. Isn’t this the situation that our mutually exclusive narratives of victimhood with its facile binary oppositions have delivered us into?
Such an emplotment within a narrative, I am suggesting, should suggest compromise rather than a battle of one side overcoming. That would be a constructive narrative for our time, place and circumstances.

Abolition of Indian Indentureship

March 2017 will be one hundred years since the Indentureship scheme that brought 238,907 men, women and children to this land was brought to an end. Since the 1970s there have been commemorations of the arrival of the first batch that landed on May 5th, 1838. After a sustained campaign by the community around the turn of the millennium, a Public Holiday was declared in 2004 to mark the event.

As one of those who played a role in that campaign, the groups with which I was associated always stressed the need for reflection by the community on the holiday, as to whether they had actually “arrived” to where or what their foreparents had been seeking. Whatever might have occurred during the 79 years of Indentureship, just as the 50th year of our achieving independence forced all Guyanese to examine our present circumstances and what we might do to improve the lot of our country going forward, the same can be done by Indian Guyanese, come March 12-20, 2017.

“What is the state of the Indian Guyanese community today and what can they do to create a more harmonious and prosperous country?” might well be a broad theme to be addressed. There is the foremost, the question of “identity” that inevitably keeps popping up. No one would claim that there have not been radical changes in the conception of who is an “Indian Guyanese” over the years. Have we become part of a “Calloo Nation”? Creolised? Hybridised? Or part of a “Rhizomatic identity” that encapsulates “multiplicity”? If so, to what extent have there been reciprocity in the rest of society sharing in the “Indian” part of our identity?

When Indians were first “contracted”, brought and placed to work on the sugar plantations, they were on the “bottom of the economic ladder” by whatever measure the society was using at the time. Economically, the last Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) conducted at the turn of the millennium showed they were at the same dismal level economically as African Guyanese – the other large group in the society – and both were doing better than the Amerindians. Has anything changed since? Some analysts have claimed that with a PPP Government “favouring” Indian Guyanese that situation has changed? To what extent, if any, is this true?

Entering an already formed “Creole Culture”, Indian culture (with a small “c” or capital “C”) – and religion played a dominant role in defining their “cultural” responses and practices – Indians were derided as uncouth and card-carrying members of the great unwashed. Have their Cultural expressions – in song, dance, theatre, art, etc – been given an “equal place”? If not, why not? Is their everyday culture still seen as “backward country coolie”?

Politically – and this is the big enchilada in the room – Indians swung from just a handful qualifying for the franchise by the end of Indentureship – and consequently being out of the mainstream of politics – to becoming a majority by the middle of the twentieth century when Universal franchise arrived. Denied political office for the first quarter of a century after independence through rigged elections, and the legitimacy of their political vehicle challenged for the same period afterwards, Indian Guyanese have now seen their numbers amount to below 40% and shrinking. Exactly what form will their political participation take henceforth – and to what end?

Since the “end of Indian Indentureship” affected all the countries that received the “Girmityas” as they are called in Fiji – people of the “agreement” or “bound paper” – a central “Indian Diaspora Council” (IDC) is coordinating the “Commemoration of Centennial of Abolition of Indian Indentureship (CCAII)” in a host of countries – Fiji, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Jamaica, Malaysia, Martinique, Mauritius, South Africa, Suriname, and Trinidad and other West Indian islands.

A Guyana Chapter of the CCAII is being formed and we welcome the widest possible participation. At this time it is envisaged that there will be activities organised in all three counties to facilitate such participation.


Removing Post-emancipation systemic barriers

A few years back, Dr David Hinds proposed and defended the thesis that African Guyanese were suffering from the effects of “marginalisation”. In the face of widespread opposition, this writer agreed with Dr Hinds and wrote several articles explaining his position.

One reason why the charges of “marginalisation” were contested was by and large its articulation had been disjunctured from its roots of racism and African slavery. What was being ignored was, as articulated by Cornell West, “the lingering effects of slavery and past discrimination in the continued attack on black humanity and racist stereotypes which are designed to destroy black self-image,” and in the process keep Africans on the “margins” of society.

In Guyana, the promise of emancipation was also subverted. In economic terms, of course, most famously was the undercutting of the bargaining power of the freed slaves to sell their labour when the sugar planters were authorised and facilitated by the state to import cheap labour from, in order, Madeira, West Indies/Africa, India and China.

As to whether the ex-slaves could have actually extracted greater wages in an environment of plummeting sugar prices is another issue but the fact remains that the agency of the freed Africans to struggle directly against their oppressive conditions was weakened. They were marginalised.

Laws were enacted to compel individuals who wanted to purchase land to do so in plots of at least one hundred acres. This was clearly intended to discourage Africans from purchasing land since it demanded a substantial capital investment that could only be met by persons pooling their resources together. In those instances where the challenge was met – and in several instances where even whole plantations were purchased – the viability of the endeavour was frequently challenged by the refusal of the authorities to integrate the drainage and irrigation system to that of the nascent village movement. Today, we all appreciate the imperative of a functioning D&I system for our survival. Steered into the resultant growing urban centre of Georgetown, the efforts of enterprising Africans and Coloureds to break into petty retailing by supplying vegetables and ground provisions to the urban population, was nipped in the bud when the authorities favoured the newly arrived Portuguese, who quickly decamped the plantations for the retail trade.

Africans who had “gone into the bush” to try their hand in gold mining remained as petty “pork knockers” since the onerous land rights question were not lifted until the 1890s when the Portuguese were in a position to take advantage of the newly discovered goldfields in the Essequibo.

In all urban centres of the 19th century, an underclass developed with its distinctly picaresque orientation – this was true of Dickens’s London as with Rodway’s Georgetown.

In Georgetown the lumpen element just happened to be African. In the countryside, refusing to be driven back to the sugar plantations (excepting for the well-paid artisans who never left), the Africans were driven into subsistence agriculture.

The economic marginalisation of Africans that was the hallmark of slavery was therefore transferred into the “emancipation” era. As I have tried to explain so often, once a pattern of activity is transferred into habit by the workings of the institutions (both formal and informal) the individual becomes socialised into accepting it as ‘the way the world is’ and it becomes extremely difficult to alter – especially if the habits have been transferred across generations as it has been in Guyana. Witness Indians and the Police Force.

Most Indians and other individuals including many Africans – and that’s another story – look at the present situation of Africans and assert, “Hey! My foreparents came here with nothing on their backs and worked hard, saved as did my parents and so we’re doing better. Why can’t “marginalised” Africans do the same?” They ignore the possible “lingering effects” of the economic system and its echo in the psyches of individuals which may affect their ability to compete within the present system.

As it necessarily addresses this marginalisation of African Guyanese, the government must be careful it does not marginalise other groups such as Indian-Guyanese, as was charged by the Opposition Leader.


End of African Security Dilemma

I submit the following to reinforce a point to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) which I had made to partisans of the People’s National Congress (PNC) back in 2009 on the need for political mobilisation that reaches across the ethnic divide. With the last of the Buxton gangs taken out the year before, and in anticipation of the elections scheduled in 2011, I wrote in, “Ballots not bullets”: “The hard line, and eventual violent strategy, of the Opposition PNC in the post 1992 era was reinforced by even more violent extremists that sought to protect the interests of the “minority” African section. There was action and reaction.
“The tragic irony of Guyana was that the Opposition politicians were locked into their real-politik past and refused to acknowledge that demographic changes were inexorably altering the premise of their ethnic security dilemma. Because of persistent migration by the Indians and Africans from the coast, Guyana was becoming a nation of minorities, with the Amerindians in the hinterland increasing both absolutely and relatively to form a critical “swing vote”. The African Security Dilemma had been solved and the once irrelevant liberal premise now offered a way out of our morass.”
Since then, not only have two elections – in 2011 and 2015 – confirmed by implication the thesis of the built-in majority in the Indian section of the population being long gone, the census of 2012 has now produced empirical evidence for it. In a population that has remained fixed at three quarters of a million, Indian-Guyanese had dropped to 39.8 per cent, African-Guyanese followed at 29.2 per cent but the “Mixed” populace jumped to 19.9 per cent and the Amerindian to 10.5 per cent.
In response to the thesis, one well-meaning African Guyanese leader asserted categorically: “Neither the [People’s National Congress Reform] PNCR nor [Alliance For Change] AFC or any combined Opposition will defeat the PPP electorally – at least not in 2011.” This is because, “The sad reality is that the vast majority of PPP supporters will not allow themselves to vote for any other party…If Indians did not vote for Desmond Hoyte who was very pro-Indian and who engaged the REFORM to bring about fundamental change in the PNC…why would they vote for the PNC or AFC now?”
I replied, “Well for one, time and circumstances have changed and the Opposition could have changed their tactics and strategy to exploit those changes. The fact of the matter is that the Opposition do not need “the vast majority of PPP supporters” to vote for them to create seismic changes in 2011…The major problem with the Opposition is that they have not been able to get out their voters to the poll. In 2006, only 69 per cent of the 492,369 eligible voters went to the polls. This means that the PPP’s 54.6 per cent winning percentage only translates into 37.7 per cent of the total electorate – even less than the likely total percentage of Indian voters.”
Fast forward to the present. It is a fact that the majority of voters identifying as ethnically “Mixed” has generally gravitated to the PNC and if this trend continues, Indians are now in danger of being locked out of power in perpetuity. The danger is exacerbated when one considers that the reservoirs of State power – the bureaucracy and the Disciplined Forces – are still dominated by African Guyanese.
But there is a great opportunity presented to the PPP to move more of them into a “swing vote” bloc if they are not forced to cast their ballots because of hardening of ethnic divisions. Since they have already favoured the PNC, it will be up to the PPP to promulgate policies and programmes that push a “Guyanese” agenda to which this group is more inclined, rather than an ethnic agenda that alienates them.
For the 10.5 per cent Amerindian voters now forming another segment of the possible “swing votes”, some of them will remain because of inertia with the PPP but as I pointed out in “Ballots not bullets” – “as with minorities the world over caught between competing larger blocs, the Amerindians tend to go with the group with the purse-strings and power.”
And then there is always the possibility of “power sharing”.