Over the past two weeks, Nigel Westmaas and I have been discussing an event from the mid-19th century (The Angel Gabriel Riots) and its possible lessons for us in our present. We both agree that, in “looking back”, we are seeking to answer questions generated in our present. Especially when, as Faulkner said, sometimes “the past is not dead; it’s not even past.” From his last response, it appears that Nigel was focusing on addressing a contention that African-Guyanese are more prone to riotous behaviour, while I was worried about the possibility of ethnic riots being precipitated in that same present.
While I use the term “present”, I see it as a “problem space” which comprises two states – the initial one we are in (the present), and the goal state that we want to get to. To move from the first to the second, we use heuristics that are based on a theory or theories. Living in Guyana for the past 30 years, I consider our present state to be still dominated by the possibility of ethnic conflict between African- and Indian-Guyanese. The goal state I aspire to is one in which that conflict is managed, so that the various groups in Guyana can live more harmoniously.
Nigel sounds a bit dismissive about the heuristic/theory I have been testing over the past thirty years to explain, and therefore the initiatives proposed to address the problems in the present in order to achieve a more peaceful future. He remarks, “Dev’s concentration appears to lie solely with Indian-African ethnic conflict and his well-developed pet thesis…” On the other hand, Nigel’s concern about which groups are more or less prone to riotous behaviours is an empirical one that will have to be explained by whatever heuristic/theory we use.
It is regrettable that SN excised my concluding sentence, “Substituting “Indian” for “Portuguese”, the parallels with our present ethnic dilemma hopefully needs no belaboring”, when they published my reply to Nigel. The sentence followed Prof Brian Moore’s quotation of statements expressed by the rioting Creoles during the Angel Gabriel Riots against the Portuguese. “The Portuguese have come to take over our country”; “the Portuguese take away all our money”; “we poor Creoles have no chance”; “the Governor favours the Portuguese”.
The “parallels” I alluded to in Guyana today are the exact sentiments expressed by my erstwhile friends from the WPA, on a daily basis on their now ubiquitous social media platforms, for African- Guyanese against Indian- Guyanese and the PPP Government. This comparison is straight from Donald Howoritz’s theory of ethnic conflict (my “pet theory”) that proposes “group comparisons” are inevitable in our plural societies, and are based on perceived or real “relative deprivation”.
This process also operated among Indian-Guyanese when the APNU/AFC coalition was in power. When the group that feels relatively deprived also believes they have greater legitimacy to the national patrimony, they are more easily mobilised by the “politics of entitlement”.
From this heuristic, we had proposed “Ethnic Impact Statements” to address whether the disparities (inequality of results) were generated by inequality of opportunity or by other mediating factors. For mediating factors, such as past discrimination by the state, as occurred against African-Guyanese after Emancipation, we proposed “Affirmative Action Programs”. We also proposed the same for Indian-Guyanese because of the same discriminatory behaviour against them for the Police Force and Civil Service by the Colonial State, and later by Burnham and the PNC.
I have known Nigel since I returned to Guyana in the late 1980s, and frequented the WPA Headquarters on Croal St. He would know I had used my “pet theory” as the basis for a paper calling for “A New Political Culture”, which introduced the African and Indian Ethnic Security Dilemmas. I suggested a conference in 1990 to discuss the “race question” based on the paper. The PPP and PNC agreed, but it was scuttled by the WPA, which held their “multicultural base” had resolved the race question. I used, in 1995, my “pet theory” to predict violence by African-Guyanese, which erupted on Jan 12, 1998 and continued for a decade.
I hope that by stressing possible incidents of cooperation between African- and Indian-Guyanese, as Walter Rodney did in the past, and Nigel now, we do not ignore the possible consequences of the present group comparison based on perceived relative deprivation, stoked by the WPA.