Anti-Indian racism in Guyana

Last week, we wrote about anti-African racism, which was birthed coevally with African slavery in the 16th century, and, during the European Enlightenment, given an ideological scaffolding that was universalised with the acceptance of westernisation as “modernisation”. The Christian “great chain of being” was secularised, with Europeans at the pinnacle of human evolution and Africans at the bottom. Other “races” were positioned along the “chain” by the Europeans – the arbiters of all things under the sun.
But in the lived reality of the ideology of modernity, with its inbuilt anti-African racism, in Guyana, after the abolition of slavery in 1834, a shift occurred when other “racial” groups – Portuguese, Indians and Chinese – were introduced to perform “slave labour”. In the British racial classification of the “six races” of Guyana, the Portuguese were disjunctured from “Europeans”, with whom they were phenotypically identical.
However, they persevered socially and culturally on the back of their economic success after their indenture to finally be considered by other Guyanese groups as “near whites”, on par with the Coloured strata by the 20th century. The number of Chinese was comparatively small, and they also used business success to blend in with the Coloured strata.
The indentured Indians, however, presented a classificatory challenge to the Europeans. Unlike in Africa, where they were positioned as “middle men”, above Africans, in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, they were relegated to the bottom of the totem pole. In 1832, the “Macaulay Minute” to the Indian Parliament had established the basis of a new form of conquest of those peoples who might believe themselves to be “civilised”. All of their libraries, for instance, were not worth one shelf of European learning, and were to be discarded as they were now to strive to become “Brown Englishmen”.
For the British planters, who imported Indian indentureds, they were initially lauded as docile and willing to work for far less than the ex-slaves demanded. Never mind Indian peasant farming and their cotton industry were destroyed to create famines and joblessness for untold millions, who had no alternative to migration – both domestic and overseas. In Guyana, then, even though the ex-slaves utilised the opportunities available through abandoned plantations to move out of the sugar industry and found the “Village Movement” by 1848, Indians were blamed and derided for “undercutting” wages in sugar.
It was at this stage of our history that anti-non-African immigrant racism was birthed, which sedimented as anti-Indian racism. It is a historical irony that more indentureds came from Africa and the West Indies (55,867) to undercut sugar wages than Portuguese and Chinese combined (44,874) – but the former blended in, unremarked, with the freed slaves. After anti-Portuguese riots in 1848, 1856 and 1889, their economic success eased their social constraints, and anti-Indian racism by African/Coloured Guyanese became the predominant social cleavage. On account of their sheer numbers, which facilitated their cultural retention on the sugar plantations where they were sequestered, Indians presented a visible social group that could be “othered” by African and Coloured Guyanese, who had previously been placed at the bottom of the social ladder.
In addition to the earlier mentioned willingness to perform “slave work”, Indians were scorned by the latter groups for not being “civilised” – i.e. not practising “British” culture; for being “pagans and heathens”; for being “dirty” and “unkempt”; for being “misers”; and for being “shifty” and “cheating” as they entered commerce by selling milk, vegetables, and eventually rice. By the beginning of the 20th century, as the majority of Indian immigrants decided to remain in Guiana, their numbers were seen as an incipient threat to the political aspirations of the African/Coloured leaders, even though, under the restricted franchise, as late as 1910, only 188 Indians qualified for the franchise out of a total of 4,104 (4.6%).
Anti-Indian racism expanded from the social and cultural spheres to the political in the 1920s, when the sugar planters attempted to recruit additional Indian labour following the abolition of Indentureship in 1917. African organisations insisted that recruitment be conducted from both African and Indian; and in the end, though the numbers were small, more labour came from Africa.
The PPP attempted to address this inchoate fissure in 1950, but Burnham’s split, in 1955, to form the PNC rekindled it by explicating the African Security Dilemma. Anti-Indian racism ensured that the PNC was allowed to exclude the PPP – supported by Indian Guyanese – between 1968 and 1992.
And which is once again being attempted today.