Indian Arrival Day in Guyana – May 5 – is just two weeks away, and as has been the case since 2004, it will be officially commemorated as “Arrival Day”; meaning that the arrivals of all the other groups – Portuguese, Chinese, West Indians, “liberated” Africans – who were brought as “indentured servants” after the abolition of slavery on Aug 1834 to work on the sugar plantations, are supposed to be subsumed under a date that really has no significance for them.
Ironically, this is contra to the recommendation of the Select Parliamentary Committee which conducted hearings from Dec 2003 to April 2004 “To Review The Public Holidays Act”. As a member of the Jaguar Committee for Democracy (JCD) and ROAR, I had long agitated for the recognition of Indian Arrival Day, and was a member of the Committee.
In the introduction to the Act, the stated rationale was: “Guyanese of Indian origin, who form a large portion of the country’s population, had, for a period of in excess of the past forty years, been calling for 5th May to be declared a statutory public holiday, in observance of the arrival of the first batch of Indian indentured labourers who came to the then British Guiana in 1838.” Yet the resolution that was passed in Parliament by the PPP majority gave the Committee as its remit to consider “Arrival Day; that is to say, the 5th May”, as a Public Holiday. “Indian Arrival Day” had been changed to the generic “Arrival Day” over the protest of the Opposition, including me.
During the public hearings, written and oral submissions were made by 9 organisations. Of these, 5 agreed to have 5th May, “Indian Arrival Day”, being declared a National Holiday. These were the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT); Guyana Indian Foundation Trust (GIFT); Rise Organize and Rebuild (ROAR) Guyana Movement; Indian Arrival Committee (IAC); Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA). They represented the widest gamut of Indians in Guyana. None of the nine organisations agreed, or even suggested, that the arrival day of all indentureds should be lumped together.
After the hearings, the Committee announced its decision with the rationale: “The proposals and counter proposals supporting 5th May must be seen in the context of Guyana’s realities. Having regards, therefore, that:- the call to designate 5th May as a National Holiday was made over 40 years ago, with increased support over time; Indians constitute the majority of the population of Guyana; they have made significant contributions towards the development of Guyana; while there were different assessments as to the nature of, or meaning of, Indian Arrival, all respondents accepted its landmark status as a seminal event that had permanent consequences for all Guyana.”
The decision, however, was crafted to fit its Procrustean remit: “Arrival Day, that is to say, the 5th May, or, if that day is a Sunday, the following day, be included in the Public Holidays Act as a public holiday.”
To its credit, the Committee offered a “Caveat: While the aforesaid recommendation is in keeping with our mandate, the Committee wishes to note that all the submissions favouring 5th May as a Public Holiday recommended that it be designated “Indian Arrival Day”, as is the case in Trinidad and Tobago.”
As was the practice before 2004, all commemorations following the declaration of May 5 as a public holiday continued to observe it as “Indian Arrival Day”, with no noticeable acknowledgement or participation by the descendants of other ethnic indentureds. However, after the APNU/AFC coalition assumed office in 2015, on January 6, 2017, President Granger issued an executive order designating January 12 as Chinese Arrival Day, and, on 27 February 2017, issued a public notice proclaiming 3rd May each year as Portuguese Arrival Day. At the commemoration of the latter, he offered his government’s rationale based on their policy of “social cohesion”: “Social Cohesion recognizes that Guyana is now, and always will be, multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural.”
From my understanding of the PPP Government and Pres Ali’s articulation of their “One Guyana” vision for Guyana, they have a similar vision for the unabashed celebration, rather than conflation, of our diversity.
I recommend that Government officially recognise May 5 as “Indian Arrival Day” for all the rationales offered by the Select Parliamentary Committee of 2004.