Indians and the Independence Jubilee

Now that the Jubilee Independence Celebrations are over, I suspect many like myself who were here for the inaugural event would have had thoughts from fifty years ago rise to the fore. I was a Third Former and distinctly remember my friends and I being quite sceptical anyone would refer to our country by its new name “Guyana”. Wasn’t “B.G.” our name from time immemorial?

After the ethnic disturbances between 1962 and 1964 that preceded independence in 1966, another clear memory was the event being seen as a “PNC” thing. The elections of 1964 was a most polarising one and pulled an astonishing 97% of the voters to the polls. If there ever was an ethnic census, this was one. My grandfather who raised me, had always been a supporter of Jang Bahadur’s Singh and was quite sceptical of the “radical” Cheddi Jagan. Yet he unhesitatingly voted for Jagan in ‘64.

In my village of Uitvlugt, the predominantly African section – “Cashbah” – settled as far back as the abolition of slavery – had become even more uni-ethnic; as had the other sections with their Indians. I doubt there were many Indian Guyanese who attended the independence celebrations in Georgetown. But I know none from the village went to the function that unveiled the Independence Arch on the Main Street in Casbah.

The selection of May 26 as the date for Independence by the PNC/UF government struck a raw nerve among Indians and I remember most adults agitatedly discussing the “provocation”. The date was the last of three days of “ethnic cleansing” in what is now called Linden – when three Indians were killed, dozens injured, 200+ homes razed and 3000+ Indian men women and children evacuated to Georgetown. A month-and-a-half later, a ferry from Georgetown to Linden was blown out of the water and almost 40 Africans perished. In 1966, “both sides” still nursed their grievances.

But what was it that caused the paltry participation of Indians in last week’s Jubilee Celebrations, at the National Park? I’m sure it’s not lingering resentment over “Wismar”. Even though a 2008 survey by Red Thread on the effects of the then Buxton-based violence on women on the East Coast showed that several relocated Wismar-victims still remembered the 1964 events (as did persons in Linden), this memory was not widespread.

While some suggest the PPP might have told their supporters to stay away from the festivities no one has really taken this seriously. And this leaves us with two other possible explanations: Firstly, after 1966, the PNC downplayed the commemoration of Independence in favour of Republic Day after the success of the first Mashramani celebrations in Linden in 1970. Mashramani was brought to Georgetown and promoted annually by the Government there and in the Regions. Indians were not culturally attracted to the activities of the Carnival “imitation”.

In 1980, Burnham fused “Mass Games”, that was inspired and facilitated by North Korea, into Republic Day celebrations. Most Indian parents resented the compulsory mobilisation of their children in school to participate in what they saw as the further glorification of Burnham. His massive portrait formed by thousands of children holding synchronised coloured cards convinced them the probably apocryphal story of emphasising Republic Day because it was only three days after Burnham’s birthday, was “true”.

Ironically, after its initial demurral, the PPP objected to the PNC’s shift of national celebrations away from Independence Day to Republic Day. And it was on the initiative of the PPP that May 26 was declared a National Public Holiday in 2004. But after some initial objections by its Minister of Culture Dale Bisnauth, the PPP pulled all the stops out from the 1990’s to get their supporters to come out and support Mash. Their success was spotty and more Indians came as spectators than participants.

In my opinion, if the government had included the Opposition PPP in the planning and execution of the Jubilee Celebrations, there would have been greater participation from this segment of the populate. Especially since it might have been less “Afro-Centric”, as even supporters of the government pointed out.