Home Letters Enforcing the Racial Hostility Act: Seeing things through the prism of those...
Racial stigmatisation, and the violence that often follows, are not unique to Guyana. Racial terms such as “Coolie” and “Blackman” have been spewed out over and over since the country achieved Independence, nay, even before that period. There is no doubt that the way these terms are used to refer to Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese respectively is nothing but racist and derogatory. No wonder racial hostility is a perennial problem in this country. On certain occasions, such as when there are elections in the country, racial hostility could reach a level that surfaces the worst in some of the Guyanese people.
To militate against these eventualities, the 1964 Racial Hostility Act was amended in 2002 to make “it a criminal offence to excite hostility or ill-will against persons by reason of their race and prohibits incitement to racial hatred, punishable if one wilfully excites or attempts to excite hostility or ill-will against any section of the public or against any person on the ground of their race.” Those in breach of this comprehensive provision could face both fine and imprisonment. However, despite the clear and forceful language of this provision, this deplorable practice, nuanced in normal circumstances, was rife on social media during the last election.
Social media was laced with racial characterisations that reflect both the racial underpinnings of some of the major political parties and the product of lies and unruly political ambitions on the part of APNU. As mentioned before, the intersectionality of race and politics is a salient feature of the political landscape of Guyana. However, history will show that this unfortunate reality has always been far more definite and pronounced in the PNC than in other major parties. This historical fact was once again borne out in the last election by the downright lies APNU sold to its supporters and the reaction on social media to those lies on the part of APNU’s supporters.
During the five-month period between the election and the certification of results, Indo-Guyanese were subjected to all manner of racial insults, both verbal and physical, on account of the narrative that their party – the PPP – had stolen the election. In turn, Indo-Guyanese convinced that APNU and its mostly Afro-Guyanese supporters were determined to stonewall and subvert the rightful transition to power, retorted with the most despicable portrayal of their Afro-Guyanese brother and sisters. The dept of despicability on the part of these two main ethnic groups took the reality of racial polarisation in the country to a level that arguably it had not reached before.
While APNU’s pervert conduct was the catalyst for the unhinged racial overtones during and immediately after the election, lots of this could be attributed to the monumental failure of both the Police and the Guyana Ethnic Relations Commission. As was seen during the last General Elections, the Police made a travesty of professional service when they condoned the egregious attempts of APNU to intimidate and bully those fighting to safeguard the ballot boxes from being hijacked by APNU’s surrogates. In fact, the Police were not simply passive in the wake of the attempts to undemocratically return APNU to power; they were directly involved in some cases in the rigging of the elections. The Guyana Ethnic Relations Commission is no less culpable in the proliferation of racial tensions.
In the context of this discussion, three things need to be brought to the forefront: (1) APNU is fundamentally a party for Afro-Guyanese despite claiming otherwise; (2) the Police are overwhelmingly Afro-Guyanese with a historical affinity to the PNC party; and (3) the Guyana Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) has been acting seemingly either at the behest of APNU or has been behaving in a way that is tantamount to endorsing APNU’s racial policies. As a result, the ERC did very little to preempt the racially-motivated violence directed against Indo-Guyanese after the elections or to rectify the situation where thousands of Indo-Guyanese had been fired from the sugar industry before the elections.
As the last General Elections saga showed, obstinate racial problems will remain intractable when those commissioned to discharge their function with utmost impartiality and professionalism, especially in environments fraught with racial overtones, are themselves complicit in racial practices. GECOM, a hallowed body constitutionally created to determine the elections outcome based on actual votes cast, made a travesty of the concept of suffrage when some of its Afro-Guyanese Commissioners, all APNU acolytes, constantly engaged in lies and distortions to prevent the rightful party from being sworn into Government. It is inconceivable to think of another election without serious discussions about aggressively reforming GECOM.
The same rationale must also be applied to the two other institutions, the Police and the ERC. In security and law and order parlance, Police reform is a preeminent topic in Guyana. The failure of the Police to be above race and ethnicity in the discharge of their duty has been a constant source of anxiety for most Guyanese and must therefore be a top priority of the Government. Similarly, whatever is inhibiting the ERC from fulfilling its duty, whether it is racial in nature or is simply pure incompetence, cannot be sustained for much longer.
In addition to the reforms, the way forward is to reorient the people so that they will abandon the racial ideologies upon which they interpret events in the country. They must begin to see things through the prism of who is best fitted to serve the country, irrespective of racial background.
Sheik M Ayube