Protecting East Indian Rights in Guyana
by Moses Seenarine, (Published by Saxakali.com on September 1 2000)
It was most interesting and rather ironic to sit in an audience with Ravi Dev and members of the Indo-Guyanese community in NY, listening to many denunciations of the ruling PPP in Guyana as being anti-Indian. During the last five years, as I was writing about the Jagans and the PPP’s anti-Indian stance, many of the very same people in the room treated me as a namakaram (ungrateful). Now, former rabid PPP supporters are beginning to see the light, thanks to the work of Dev and others, however there is no joy in me saying, “I told you so,” as once again I find myself isolated in the discussion of protecting East Indian rights in Guyana.
Dev points out the PPP’s refusal to accept the everyday realities of the ongoing ethnic conflict in Guyana. I should point out that this stems from the fact that it is the PPP who did most to foster this conflict in the first place, in the Jagans’ inclusion, then exclusion, of the African leader, Burnham, from their party. Dev rightly states that since they came to power in 1992, the PPP has consistently refuse to condemn violence against Indians in Guyana, and even goes so far as to deny that such a problem exist.
In the racially charged atmosphere, Dev argues that many Indians are targeted on the streets and wealthy Indians are forced to leave the country for their own security. Dev suggest that over the last seven years in office, the PPP have used profits from the exploitation of mostly East Indian sugar workers to fund a program of appeasement by buying off the mostly African police, military and other public service workers, with wage increases of 300 percent.
Dev’s solutions to the complex problems of racial conflict in Guyana are political and education based. He wants a racialized, federalist structure, and for Indians to have dignity, respect and glory. He feels that arguing for Indian economic and cultural development is not necessarily racist. I will now attempt to critically engage Dev’s solutions in the hope of furthering the debate on this important issue.
Following the English model of giving Scotland and Wales their own parliaments, Dev suggest that Guyana should have four autonomous states: Rupernuni, Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. Supposedly, Africans will have control of Demerara, and Indians the rest. Assuming that Afro-Guyanese will go for this deal, (and there is no reason why they should as there is not much in it for them), there is still a lot of problems with this racialized, federalist approach. For example, it will lead to increased Indian insecurity and financial losses in Demerara; to rolling back the many advances Indians have made in public and professional service, in the accumulation of property, etc.; and to continued lack of minority rights in each federation.
Africans, Arabs, South Asians, and other immigrant groups are being discriminated in Wales and Scotland as a result of racism, which points to the fact that the federalist model does not ensure minority rights. So too will minority groups be discriminated in each of Dev’s federalist state, be they African, Indian, Amerindian, Mixed or other. Most dangerous of all, the federalist model could lead to eventual partition and large scale violence in Guyana as each ethnic group is forced to relocate to their “own side.” The horrors of partition in India and Pakistan, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere, should remind us of the dangers of following the federalist solution.
It is a fact that Indo-Guyanese cannot obtain security in Guyana unless and until Afro-Guyanese obtain security also in regards to their economic and political status. I have written earlier that an effective way to protect minority rights in Guyana and elsewhere, is through a system of reservations or affirmative action at all levels of the society, from the bottom to the top. Then, regardless of who is in power, the country would provide all ethnic groups with fair and equal representation in government, civil service, government contracts, land distribution, education, etc. Widespread gender and class imbalances can also be addressed by setting aside additional quotas in education, employment, and political office, for women and the poor. This will help to prevent further domination by the rich and privileged of each ethnic over their own kind, and open up opportunities for all Guyanese, regardless of race, class, gender or location.
Through reservations, the police and military will become ethnically balanced, however it is important to point out that this still does not solve the problem of the fox guarding the hen house. Many of the robberies and violence in Guyana are committed by members of the police and military, or with their complicity, which proves that an underpaid police state will only result in increased lawlessness. So to obtain security, we must de-militarize the police state, not increase policing. The same is true for eliminating the rampant political corruption in the country. To this end, local control and autonomy over environmental and economic resources can serve to increase accountability, decrease political corruption, and build alliances among various ethnic and class groups to fight corruption. However, when local autonomy is reduced to and defined exclusively in racial terms, it can only lead to increasing tensions, inequality and corruption. Rather than promoting racial federalism, if we support affirmative action, local teachers, community leaders, and farmers, we will go a longer way towards decreasing ethnic insecurity and de-escalating economic and racial violence in Guyana.
Regarding the issues of Indian dignity, respect and glory, the first step any concerned group should take is to determine exactly who Indians are. Is there such a thing as an Indian group, or are there in fact several Indian groups, each with their own separate agendas and interests, who are divided and in constant conflict with each other? Burnham did not create the divisions between Hindu, Muslim, and Christian castes and sects, but he exploited them to his advantage. How do we prevent these real and profound differences from escalating into future conflict in a new federalist structure?
Do Indo-Guyanese women and men even have the same interests? It is often assumed that Indian women have the same views as Indian men, but do they? Issues important to Indian women such as those relating to female honor, mobility, sexual abuse, domestic violence, dis-inheritance, and personal freedom, are rarely, if ever, discussed by Indian men, much less considered as relevant. Protecting Indian women from Afro-Guyanese is one thing, but who will protect them from their main tormentors, Indian men? We should, therefore, speak of Indian women’s rights and Indian men’s rights as two separate issues, and work to realize the separate need for Indian women’s dignity, respect and glory inside and outside of the Indian community. We must be very careful to not allow Indian men to determine the terms of this debate, as this will be akin to the fox guarding the chickens.
Rather than addressing these important differences, Dev and his group, ROAR, like the PPP before them, speak of an imaginary Indian community with a common identity shaped to reflect their own male, elite, upper caste/class bias, not those of the vast majority of poor Indian women and men. For example, Dev speaks of protecting the Indo-Guyanese business elite and wealthy Indian nationals, who exploit Indo-Guyanese workers and even refuse to socialize with them due to casteism and classism. Internal exploitation among Indians is never addressed by ROAR or the PPP, since this would anger their rich supporters and expose contradictions within the group.
Like the PPP, leadership within Dev’s group is male dominated, clannish and very undemocratic. There is no attempt to engage the Indian masses in a meaningful discussion of the people’s interests and solutions. ROAR’s racialized federalism is equally dogmatic as the Jagans’ quasi-marxism, as no attempt is made to include what Indo-Guyanese people may actually feel, think and want for themselves and their country. Like food from heaven, ROAR and the PPP agendas are fixed and spoon-fed to an Indian public assumed to be totally lacking in any meaningful ideas or solutions of their own.
Given the similarities in leadership and dogma, it is not surprising to learn that Dev’s group is planning to form an alliance in the 2000 elections with the very same PPP they are now calling anti-Indian. They argue that this will ensure ROAR don’t split the Indian vote, and rule out any possibility of forming any alliance with the PNC. This strategy gives little incentive to the PPP to reform itself, if all they have to do to collect ROAR’s votes is to include a few of its leaders in a ruling cabinet. The ethnic conflict and plight of Indians will continue unabated, and ROAR will become complicit in the anti-Indian PPP’s strategy to hold on to another term in office. ROAR’s position, based on racist ideology, is similar to the PPP’s critical support of the PNC regime during the 1970s and 80s, based on marxist ideology, and can only lead to similar results for Indians.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that protecting Indian rights in Guyana must entail the protection of the rights of all peoples in the country. To entertain a discussion of Indian rights, separate and apart from African and Amerindian rights, is not only selfish and immoral, given the continued exploitation of both groups, but short-sighted and doomed to failure, due to these very same inequalities.
The author is an assistant professor with CUNY.