Guyana’s Indian Arrival Day should remind us of leaders in the Caribbean in general, and those in Guyana in particular, who are refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the descendants of the indentured Indians as a Caribbean people, entitled to the patrimony of their respective countries as citizens of those countries.
Early on politically, there was their refusal to acknowledge as rational and valid the concerns of the Indians of Guyana about being swamped in a Federation of the West Indies, which those same leaders had worked to define as part of a “Pan-African” nation. One of them was Sir Arthur Lewis, who worked assiduously to create, and then save the Federation, after Jamaica and Trinidad had pulled out. Without irony, he condemned “democracy” in plural societies as a “zero-sum game” and asked in reference to elections in Guyana, where Africans were a minority: “Are we, on counting heads, to conclude that…The Indians of British Guyana may liquidate the Negroes?”
The Guyanese Indians, however, with even less alarmist concerns, were dubbed “racialists”, not only by the Caribbean Leaders of African descent, but by Cheddi Jagan, their leader. It was perhaps poetic justice that, in splitting hairs on the Federation due to local politics, he was also dubbed “racialist”!!
Indian Arrival Day should compel the examination of the genesis of this denial of legitimacy to West Indians of Indian descent, especially in Guyana. African Caribbean scholars and leaders have taken great pains to insist that Indian immigrants after 1945 entered into an already formed “Anglo-African Creole society”, with a “white bias” in terms of its value system. But they refused to give credence to those values and their evaluative reach vis-a-vis Indians up to the Independence era, even as they fought to recuperate African culture.
The British hegemonic discourse, on one hand, informed the Indians that they were “industrious” and “thrifty”, as opposed to the Freed Africans, who were “lazy, shiftless and improvident”. But at the same time, the British efforts to proseletyse and “civilise” the Indians gave the Africans the message that they, having imbibed that “civilising” influence for hundreds of years, were socially above the Indians. The latter were uncivilised, backward “coolies”, who were performing menial tasks for wages the slaves had refused.
The history of Guyana is replete with the latter evaluation. In 1963, addressing his party Congress in the midst of a critical general strike against the PPP Government, Burnham offered his analysis on what he called the “race question”. Indians, he said, were belatedly adopting the values of Guyanese society, but because of their late entry, ”…retained much more than fragmentary traces of their native culture…It must also be recognised that in spite of the new values now becoming part of the Indian repertoire, there is a lag between the forward group and the rest.”
It is this view that the “backward” Indian’s “necessary assimilation” into Creole society demands the jettisoning of his “backward” culture that has led to continued and studied efforts to silence and erase that culture, even though Caribbean governments pay lip service to “multiculturalism”.
At Guyana’s Independence, the national symbols of flag (Garveyite and Ethiopian colours) and National Hero (Cuffy) were ostentatiously of African origin, while the National Motto declared the cultural goal explicitly: One People; One Nation; One Destiny.
By 1970, “Ujaama Socialism” was adopted from Tanzania, after Burnham’s tour of Africa, as Guyana’s philosophy of development, when the country became a republic. Republic Day became commemorated by Mashramani, which was simply an imitation of the Trinidadian carnival under a completely made up “Amerindian” name.
Pan African activists in Trinidad had taken much time and effort to prove the African origin of carnival, even as the PNM adopted it as T&T’s “national” festival. In 1970, there was also the Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention – with less than a handful of Caribbean Indians invited. Many of the attendees had been at the Oct 1968 “Montreal Congress of Black Writers of 1968”, which had led to Rodney’s Jamaica Black Power riots. A flavour of the times can be gleaned from the play staged at the Theatre Guild at the time: My Name is Slave. A “Caribbean Festival of the Arts” (CARIFESTA) was proposed and launched in 1972. Representation of Indian culture in the WI has always been, at best, a token gesture. And the silencing and erasure of a people continues unabated, economically, culturally, socially and politically.