A BIT MORE OF AN OVER VIEW. Will write more as soon as I get half an hour of continuous time block to concentrate on it.
To address any problem, you first have to recognize it. Unless, as a nation, we are prepared to recognize the truth that political power in Guyana has derived its strength from playing the game of racial politics, we shall never confront, never mind overcome, the problem.
Our new government, has taken the first critical step. It has created a Ministry of Social Cohesion, it seems, in recognition of the problem. The Roundtable to address “Social Cohesion for Lasting Unity and Peace” to be launched on Thursday by the ministry is, it appears, with the admirable intention of publicly confronting the problem.
In1994, Kampta Karran asked me to contribute my views on the subject of Race & Politics in Guyana for a series he published in Offerings on Race and Ethnic Studies. Almost all that I wrote then, some twenty one years ago, is relevant today. Perhaps, you can find the space to share it with your readers.
On the 31st October, 1963, at Lancaster House in London, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr Duncan Sandys, at the end of a Constitutional Conference discussing Guyana’s Independence with the leaders of the PPP, PNC and United Force made this assessment of our country which holds true to this day:
“All that you have told me at this conference and all that I saw in my visit to your country last July have convinced me that there is one problem which transcends all others ‒ namely the growth of racism
“That is the curse of British Guiana today; the whole life of the country is poisoned and weakened by mutual suspicion and fear between the two predominant racial groups, the Indians and the Africans. This state of tension has become acute in the last few years and has led to racial murder, arson and violence.”
Duncan Sandys was simply describing the reality of Guyana at that time. He went on to give his opinion as to the reasons for it with which many people may disagree, but which in the main I still accept as accurate.
“There is no deep-rooted or historical enmity between the races, nor is there any basic clash between them; nor is there any animosity between the religious groups ‒ Christian, Hindu and Muslim. The root of the trouble lies almost entirely in the development of party politics along racial lines.”
Sandys was essentially right though not entirely so. Politics has exploited inherent differences between community interests that have, since we were a colony, defined themselves along a racial divide. In fact British
colonialism itself encouraged this and used it to its own end. ‘Divide and conquer,’ was very much a British method for expanding its empire and enslaving its colonies.
Duncan Sandys went on to describe how, in his view, racism became entrenched in our political life:
“The root of the trouble lies almost entirely in the development of party politics along racial lines. In its present acute form, this can be traced to the split of the country’s main political party in 1955. It was then that the Peoples Progressive Party, which has previously drawn its support from both the main races, broke into two bitterly opposed political groups, the one predominantly Indian, led by Doctor Jagan and the other predominantly African, led by Mr. Burnham. Both parties have, for their political ends, fanned the racial emotions of their followers with the result that each has come to be regarded as the champion of one race and the enemy of the other.”
Those were harsh words and indeed offensive from the British Colonial Secretary to our leaders on the eve of independence, but they were true and they were prophetic.
What of course Sandys conveniently omitted to say was that his government, led by Winston Churchill, had precipitated this division by suspending the British Guiana Constitution and by expelling the PPP government from office on October 9th 1953, just 6 months after it had been newly elected by the great majority of the Guyanese people.
The reasons the British Govern-ment gave at the time were:
“What emerges from British Guiana is a coherent picture of Ministers largely dominated by communist ideas… they are unfortunately all part of a deadly design to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian state.”
At the time, both Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham criticized the immorality of the British decision and pointed to it as the root cause of the subsequent division of the national movement in British Guiana along racial lines.
When Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnhan did split, they did so both for ideological reasons and in a contest for power, but the popular political basis upon which their separate parties developed was, unfortunately, defined by racial allegiance and it has continued to this day.
We have, of course, come a long way since those days when we were actually killing each other along the racial divide and when Mr Eusi Kwayana was driven to seriously argue for racial partition of our country as a solution to the problem.
It is, too, fair to claim that, since 1964, when Duncan Sandys made his assessment, at least in our everyday lives and social contacts, we are progressed as a people to the point where we have learnt to live in peace and even friendship with each other, regardless of our ethnic origin.
The question is, however, have we yet as a people learnt or even recognize that we share a common destiny and a joint responsibility for the stability and development of our own country while retaining the right as a democracy to elect the government of our choice, however irrational the basis for that choice may be.
A simple demographic analysis of our recent election held, now 62 years after the PPP was first returned to office in 1953, underlines the reality that the coalition government received a mandate unrepresentative of almost half of the population and of one ethnic group.
Yes, we have a government which was democratically elected. Yes, the last election was internationally endorsed as free and fair and, yes, sadly, it did nothing to save us from the plague of racial voting and politics based on racial allegiance. Our new government campaigned on the basis that it is dedicated to reform. But Walter Isaacson writing in Time Magazine, published shortly after the US election which followed ours in 1992, pointed out that: “in a democracy successful reformers must have above all the backbone to convey brutal facts.”
If our government of today or any government whom we elect truly wishes to reform our political reality in order to get rid of racism, then it must recognize, first, the brutal fact that we remain a dangerously divided nation. When, the Roundtable meets, we must hope that it will address this reality.
Both of the two political parties in government remain, no matter their campaign promises, trapped in ‘real politics’. It is the politics of having to recognize and reward your hardcore, hardworking supporters who have delivered the government to you. It is the politics of having to distribute the spoils of office. This is particularly so in a coalition government forced to cater to the priories of its separate party interest in order to survive. It is almost impossible to escape from this reality. The APNU/AFC coalition has not escaped it.
So, can we change all of this? Maybe. It will largely be up to a new generation of Guyanese who are dedicated to the idea that we have a mutual obligation to our survival as a people and our development as a nation and that we will only achieve it through mutual respect by reaching beyond and rising above our separate racial origins to be Guyanese.
After all, though we come from different racial and national origins, as a people called Guyanese, we share a common truth, that, excepting our Indigenous Amerindian population, Guyanese, whether from Africa, China, Madeira or India, did not come here of their own free will. We came, either, as slaves or indentured labourers, brought here by the British to work in the plantations. We came as servants of other men’s wills and purposes.
We did not come as a politically and culturally independent people. The circumstances which brought us here were beyond the control of our ancestors. We were thrown together in a strange land to work it and develop it, not for ourselves, but for the British. But the British have long gone. Guyana is our land. Guyana is our home.
We have only one legitimate claim to a national identity. It is that is that we are all Guyanese. Maybe we can begin to change and escape the curse of racism ascribed to us by Duncan Sandys and begin to recognize who we really are as a people and lay claim to our real identity. Maybe then, and I believe, only then, will we achieve social and national cohesion.