October 28, 2016

Crisis in crime fighting

The Minister of Public Security insists “serious crime is decreasing” and spew out statistics to “prove” his contention. But the populace is unmoved, since their experience tells them otherwise. Even outside observers like the former Chief of Staff and the British Ambassador have explained the widespread scepticism by showing why people dismiss “lies, damned lies and statistics”.
All across the country, the cry is: “Why isn’t the Government getting a grip on crime?” After all, this was one of their major planks during the elections campaign. Not so long ago the citizens of Berbice and Essequibo used to see crime as a Georgetown problem, but no more. Anxiety, frustration and fear are palpable across the country. The present crime situation is not only quantitatively different from what prevails in other jurisdictions but possibly also qualitatively so.
Commentators cite Guyana becoming a major trans-shipment point for hard drugs as a reason for the bump in crime. But one spill-off from the drug trade has been the percolation of drug use into our coastal communities. Most policymakers and analysts appear to be unaware of what is going on in the villages. This drug culture has resulted not only in the destruction of the lives of so many of our youths – many not even yet teenagers – but in the creation of an endemic criminal element who prey on their hapless neighbours. And as Brigadier Philips pointed out, these criminals now have guns freely available and are practised in unleashing the most vicious forms of violence on their victims. They are patterning their viciousness from the gunmen who were given political support when they took on the State between 1998 and 2008 – and the drug gangs that took them on and each other. And therein lies a lesson. As crime spreads once again like a dark and malignant cancer across our land, it has grown increasingly virulent. At each stage, the criminals incorporate the older, prevalent modus operandi into their repertoire then go on to devise some new and greater sadistic twist in an ever-increasing spiral of degradation for their victims.
ROAR had identified the nexus between politics and criminality as a constant when it launched in 1999. The “Choke and rob” gangs of the sixties were succeeded by the kick-down-the-door-bandits of the seventies and eighties and they by the “resistance fighters” of the first millennium decade – and they all had connections with politics and politicians. While most don’t see this government having any skin in the present crime crisis, nevertheless, once violence of any stripe is introduced as a tactic to make a political point, it remains as a fixture in the criminal arsenal. If we are ever to get a grip on crime in Guyana, we will have to sever the links between politics and crime. Poverty and destitution have also been identified as breeding grounds for crime and criminality. This statement should not be a point of disputation: all across the globe, the correlation between crime and poverty holds. But there is the riposte from many in Guyana: that there are many communities here that are poor but do not resort to crime. However, this does not sever the correlation but rather suggests there are other factors in addition to poverty that propel some into crime.  The causative factors for criminal behaviours must be identified and tackled. But so must be the constraints on a more effective police force. From this side of the law and order line, we certainly will not solve crime with statistics, nor, God forbids, by claiming our neighbours have greater crime rates. The Police have been equipped and they must now be professionalised, both operationally and compositionally.
How long will the Government ignore the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission (on which the President sat) and Parliament approved?  This demanded the Police and well as all the Disciplined Forces reflect the composition of our country’s population as part of their professionalisation.
Crime can bring down not only our state but each one of us. This is not a partisan issue and it should not be treated as such.

Planning for the future

When my family gets together for our annual reunion, we invariably linger over old photographs and videos. One video goes back to 1988: we’re driving towards Parika and I recorded some shacks built on the swampy reserve adjoining the Zeelugt public road. In my running commentary, I predicted that within a decade those shacks would be transformed into comfortable homes. And so said, so done.
I could be so confident with my prediction because I felt I knew the mentality of the people, who, at the time, were taking a huge risk that the Government would not bulldoze them off the land. They still retained much of the cultural trait brought by their forbears from India that impelled them towards owning a house rather than renting one. VS Naipaul captures the drive in his epic, “House for Mr Biswas”; the house was a trope for a particular view of life. To rent a house was to somehow accept that you did not have the self-control to save in order to build your house: that you assure continuity for your children – your future.
This capacity to save, by people who were at best grubbing out a day-to-day existence from cane cutting, farming or fishing, was sustained by a willingness to delay their gratification. Conspicuous consumption was not a part of their repertoire as immigrants. The old cultural trait to look to the future to ensure that their children lived ‘better’ was reinforced by the newer immigrant mentality adopted after their arrival in Guyana. They were here to ‘make it”.
Today, this willingness to imbibe self-control, plan for the future and defer gratification to ensure that the plan gets accomplished in the face of humble circumstances, is fast disappearing. We are now generally living and consuming for the moment, but still want to see our lives improve over time. We want to “suck cane and blow whistle at the same time”. It can’t be done, so we end up frustrated; sink into despair or demand handouts. Some, of course, use force and take what they want.
From where have we imbibed this new ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude? For one, in any group there will be some that go against the grain. But generally it’s as a result of outside pressures and influences – cultural and otherwise. In the Caribbean, there are aspects of the dominant Creole culture that present some of these pressures and influences. And this has been part of my rejection of the assimilationist imperatives in the present dominant mode of ‘integration’. As Malcolm X said in an analogous context, “Why integrate into a burning house?”
Back in 1984, there was an International Roundtable in Guyana to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Then Prime Minister Desmond Hoyte delivered an address: “Towards 2034: A Deeper View of the Horizon” in which he made some pertinent remarks on the refusal of some to live for the future. Because my assertion about Creole culture can be (and has been) egregiously misinterpreted, I quote rather liberally from Mr Hoyte’s address, who made the same point.
“…one of the most pernicious consequences of slavery was that it bereft the slave of a vested interest in the future by imposing upon him the need to be constantly preoccupied with the exigencies of the moment. Indeed…the African slave on a WI plantation found himself in a world without horizons. His condition circumscribed within very narrow limits not only his physical but also his spiritual being. It deprived of the cohering and creative influences of his social organisation and his culture.
“Uprooted from his natural milieu, no longer able to fulfil his civic and religious duties, he was robbed of his spiritual points of reference. His personality disintegrated and, in a word, he suffered “social death”. It is not to be wondered at, then, that his outlook was little informed by any curiosity beyond the immediate, by any speculation about the distant future.
“And so, lacking a social motive, he developed no interest in, or aptitude for, making long-term arrangements. Moreover, the colonial polity which succeeded the era of slavery did not provide the former slave and his descendants with significantly greater incentive or opportunity for cultivating these pursuits. Thus, there persists in our society, even to this day, a reluctance to focus too intently on the future.
“It is critically important, I believe, that we should analyse and understand this phenomenon of our lack of interest in the future and our failure, generally, to plan in a serious methodical way with respect to it.”

For equality in Guyana

With last year’s change of government, the call for “equality” reverberates in the air once again, just as it did in 1993 from “the other side” when I wrote the following:
One challenge in securing “equality” is inherent in the protean nature of the word itself. While we may agree with the statement, “we are all equally human”, what does it mean? We are not equally tall, strong, intelligent or beautiful. So whither equality?  Equality, from this perspective, has therefore to be contingent on the context or criteria wherein we speak.
For instance, government-sponsored initiatives promoting equality should be concerned that all the state offers should be done equally to its citizens. The state was founded to secure the rights of all citizens, so when discussing equality from a national perspective we should ask in which way are the citizens of a country equal. Here I think there would be broad agreement that if we are all citizens, we should be equal in the possession of the rights guaranteed by the state. Ideally, it follows then that if particular citizens do not have rights or equal rights, then the state has failed.
From a group standpoint, this equality of rights by each citizen translates into a proportionate share of the power in a society. This is a very important connection because ultimately it is the power exercised by the competing groups that shape the contours of the political and other struggles in the country.  Power is ultimately grounded in the possession of rights.
But citizens classify themselves by any number of criteria – gender, class, ethnicity, etc. If rights were equally distributed to all citizens then no matter how we categorise groups, each group would have equal rights and thus equal power.
However, if the rights were denied to members of a particular classification while others enjoyed those rights, the deprived group is said to be oppressed in that it does not have an equality of power. In human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts: thus a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously on the basis of her gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion, and race.  This is called “intersectionality”.
Each of these forms of oppression is ultimately debilitating, in that they cause pain, suffering, and stifles the humanity of the victims; societies have to prioritise their activities since resources are limited.  In Guyana there is a general consensus that the racial cleavage is the most salient in terms of actual potential demand of rights of groups.  It is for this reason that while we support efforts to eliminate all forms of oppression, we believe that we must get a jumpstart on the goal of racial equality.
“Discrimination” is the selection of an individual or a group for treatment not accorded others equally situated. It is commonly described as a form of oppression but sometimes when the treatment is positive, to correct past discriminatory behaviour, it is called “affirmative action”. This can be used to ensure effective “equality of opportunity”.
Even if we are to limit our field of endeavour to the rights of all citizens, this leads us to other problems. For instance, since men are not endowed equally – physically or mentally – equality of rights will lead to material inequalities as those who are better endowed with the badges of societies’ success forge ahead.
This dilemma has led some to extend their definition of equality to mean, additionally, equality of results, but this has proven chimeral and contentious.
Between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results” lie the efforts of the individual, conditioned by their culture to make their dreams become real.
In Guyana there are expectations that “equality” means equality of results. In addition to rejecting the intrusive utopian state, since we know that will fail based on our own history, leaders have to be brave enough to confront and overcome the cultural challenges at the individual and group levels.
There is, after all, the inevitability of group comparison. Are we prepared for five years down the line when some groups own “all the big houses and big cars and big businesses”?  How equal is equal?

British induced famines and Indian Indentureship

Between 1838 and 1917, 239,000 Indians were brought as “indentured labourers” for the sugar plantations of Guyana – and a like number to the West Indies. The question arises as to why these persons left their country when their custom forbade “crossing the “Black Waters” (Kala Pani)”. The short answer is structurally, it was ultimately a matter of life and death.
While indentured labour might be seen as a transitory passage of human labour from chattel slavery to the so called “free labour” of today, the conditions that herded Indians into that option were man made. The sugar planters had no faith free Africans would sell their labour at a rate to make sugar profitable. They therefore actively sought a new supply that would guarantee such cheap labour on demand. But where would such rates that could not attract freed slaves be a “pull factor” for indentureship? The answer was British India.
The story begins in 1757 when the troops of the British East India Company captured Bengal from the Moguls and completed their inexorable conquest of the legendarily rich India within 50 years. Less than a decade later – between 1768 and 1771 from Bengal and

Photograph of a South India family during the 1878 famine by W W Hooper, a Colonel in the British Army

Photograph of a South India family during the 1878 famine by W W Hooper, a Colonel in the British Army

eastern Bihar (from where most Guyanese immigrants originated) – more than 10 million persons: one third of the population – died from a “famine”. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, the farmers that supplied the bulk of the population with foodstuffs were forced by the British into producing cash crops for export – even while they were forced to pay onerous taxes at the threat of death and violence.
We quote the words of then British Governor, Warren Hastings who boasted to the home office: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the nett collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of I768… It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.”
The cash crops the farmers were forced to grow included cotton, opium, indigo and, as described above, this was simply to keep paying off the extortionate demands of the British who exported rice and wheat even during the famines. Millions were also thrown out of work when the British forbade Indian weavers from producing cotton yarn and the cotton fabrics that had enthralled Europe. Henceforth, only cotton woven by British looms could be sold in India! Where were the weavers to get the money to buy food much less clothes? Incidentally, Britain became the largest drug dealers up to the present where the opium – up to 800 tons annually – were shipped to China so that the British could buy Chinese tea.
Between the Bengal famine of 1768 and the end of Indentureship in 1917, conservatively, over 54 million Indians perished from famine. In the book Late Victorian Holocausts (2001) Mike Davis describes how Viceroy Lord Lytton, insisted that wheat be exported to England. In 1877 and 1878, at the height of the famine when 10.3 million persons perished, grain merchants exported a record 800,000 tons of wheat and 1.9 million tons of rice. As the peasants began to starve, officials were ordered “to discourage relief works in every possible way”.
And this is why the upsurge of indentured Indians correlated with the British-induced famines.

Gandhi and the end of Indentureship

October 2 is Gandhi’s birthday. When you can refer to someone by just his last name and yet most people in the world know who you are referring to, there has to be good reason. Most know Gandhi because of his introduction of “civil disobedience” – he called it “satyagraha” or “truth force” – as a form of struggle for justice. He is also associated with the struggle for India’s independence, which was a seminal event for all the other British colonies, including the then British Guiana.

But not so well known is that Gandhi was also associated with the events that led to the abolition of indentureship as was alluded to in an earlier article. Gandhi had been hired as a lawyer by a wealthy businessman in South Africa, part of a 5000-strong mostly Muslim community that had migrated there from Bombay. This community stayed aloof from the “indentured Indians” who were recruited to work on plantations –- or in the case of South Africa – also in the mines – except to sell them “goods”.

These two sets of Indians occupied separate worlds – socially, culturally and politically – and it was only when the two intersected through personal experiences of Gandhi that their commonality of interests was briefly glimpsed. We have recounted how Gandhi was thrown off a train at the insistence of a white Britisher shortly after his arrival in South Africa. The newly minted London-trained lawyer insisted as a “British subject”, he had the right to the first class seat he had bought. These and other actions problematised Gandhi’s assumptions about what he had been taught about the “benefits” of India being in the British Empire.

Shortly after the train humiliation, Gandhi encountered the indentured world. As he recounted it: “A Tamil man in tattered clothes, headgear in hand, two front teeth missing and mouth bleeding, stood before me, trembling and weeping.” And elsewhere the “hat in hand” anecdote is repeated – clearly as a trope for his shaken premise on “Britishness”: “…Balasundaram entered my office, headgear in hand. There was a particular pathos about the circumstance which also showed our humiliation. I have already narrated the incident when I was asked to take off my turban. A practice had been forced upon the very indentured labourer and every stranger to take off his headgear, when visiting European, whether the headgear was a cap, turban or scarf wrapped round the head. A salute even with both hands was not sufficient.”

Balasundaram’s case exposed the inequities indentureds endured even though they were supposedly protected by a contract – the “agreement” they tried to uphold from their side scrupulously. Eventually after a great effort Gandhi gets Balasundaram transferred to another employer but now understood how SA’s institutions such as the magistracy were stacked against indentureds. In 1896 on a visit to Bombay, Gandhi produced a 15,000 word tract on the problems of Indians – merchants, free and indentured in South Africa. He complained bitterly that the Bombay merchants are called “Coolie Traders” and not treated much better than the indentureds.  He earned some notoriety from the Whites when he returned to SA but at the same time much goodwill from the indentured Indians.

Between 1907 when Gandhi launched his first “satyagraha”campaign to 1914 when he left South Africa, even though most of the issues were peripheral to their plight, Indentured Indians formed the bulk of the protesters. As recounted before, he provided his mentor Gokhale in the Indian Legislative Council with information on the conditions in South Africa. In 1912, the latter called for the complete abolition of indentureship. When this was finally achieved in 1917, Gandhi suggested that satyagraha had “hastened the end”.

These has been a steady stream of revisionist accounts of Gandhi’s life – including his 21-year stay in South Africa – especially as they relate to Gandhi’s relations with both Indentured Indians and Native Africans. But we have to remember that while Gandhi was ahead of his times on human rights in many regards – we cannot judge him totally by present standards.

He was a “Mahatma” – a great Soul – not a “Paramatman” – the Supreme Soul.

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.