One of the challenges facing the Indian-Guyanese community is a stereotypical, essentialised perception by other groups. One often wonders who is it that is being addressed in some exchanges. Take the charges of “backward” Indian-Guyanese use in their “exclusivist categories of caste” to denigrate African-Guyanese.
It is forgotten that” Indian Guyanese” are not monolithic. The records of Indentured Labourers show about 14% were Muslims – who certainly had rejected notions of caste, even in India. The remaining Hindus were broken down into roughly the same percentages of caste that were then prevalent in India – about 12% “upper castes Brahmins and Kshatriyas; 39% agricultural/artisan “middle castes”, and 33% Labourer “low castes”. The majority of non-upper castes certainly had no incentive to perpetuate caste distinctions. These distinctions, however, had started to disintegrate in the depots while a shipload was accumulated. This disintegrating process intensified during the three-month journey on the ships (Jahaj) as bonds of “Jahaji Bhais and Bahins” (ship brothers and sisters) were forged. These lifelong ties across castes and genders were maintained during their sojourn on the plantations: their children, for instance, were not allowed to marry each other.
On these plantations, all persons – irrespective of caste origins – were compelled to perform the same types of labour. “Low castes” assigned as “drivers” over other castes further erased caste distinctions. Then, again, even before the end of Indenture, the Arya Samaj Hindu reform movement had spread across North India and influenced some of the immigrants. The 10 principles of Arya Samaj rejected image-based worship, rejected the caste system, encouraged education for women, and accepted them as Panditas (Priestesses), along with other social reforms.
In Guyana, starting from 1911, several Arya Samaj missionaries spent time in Guyana – especially Professor Bashkaranand between 1937 and 1945 – and initiated a trenchant debate on caste and the position of women in the Hindu community. By the end of his mission, fully 10% of Hindus had become Arya Samajists – with several high profile “Brahmins”, especially from the East Coast Demerara, being among them. But, more importantly, the remaining traditional “Sanaatani Hindus” were given a vocabulary to reject the remnants of the hereditary caste system that had been retained by some “Pandits”. They had benefited in the diaspora from the expansion of the traditional role of the Purohit, the Brahmin who performed the sixteen sacraments from birth to death. Today, the vast majority of pandits are “non-Brahmins”, with no incentive to retain the traditional caste system.
The work of the Arya Samaj also gave a new impetus to Hindu girls fulfilling their potential in the modern world by embracing education, which opened up new vistas for them. During indentureship, because of the mandated need to recruit women, a fair percentage came of their own volition for any number of reasons, but, in each case, demonstrated an agency for which they are not generally credited. On the plantations, they were much sought after because they greatly outnumbered men long after the end of indentureship.
My maternal great-grandmother, Sanichari, for instance, born in 1873, had a son named Banka with an immigrant who has not been identified. She separated from Banka and married my great-grandfather Rambishun in 1895, and my Nana who raised me was born in 1896. But she refused the life of unremitting work Rambishun embarked on after finishing his re-indentureship in 1898, which included a farm in Canal, a farm at De Willem, and “rice beds” at Zeeburg. She left Rambishun with their three sons and lived alone in the logies at Uitvlugt with her grandson from her first son, Banka. It is family lore that “she wore shoes and liked to dress up”. She certainly displayed agency.
But while there was a reinstitutionalisation of some paternalistic structures with the equalisation of numbers between the sexes, progress continued to be made by Indian women through their own efforts. Women were involved in every strike on the plantations where workers were shot and killed. Unilateral, parental-arranged weddings became a thing of the past, and Indian women started to chart their own course in the world on their own terms. Yet, in deploying caste as a weapon, the stereotype of the passive Indian-Guyanese woman who were even more “backward” than her male counterpart remains, just because they have retained some aspects of Indian culture.
That there can be multiple modernities is rejected.