A SALUTE TO INDIAN GUYANESE
May 15, 2019 , Kaieteur, https://www.kaieteurnewsonline...-to-indian-guyanese/
By Donald Ramotar, Former President
May 5, 2019 marked the 181st year since Indian indentured labourers set foot on the soil of the then British Guiana. It was a Saturday, but I am sure that when they saw the conditions that they had to dwell and work in, their hearts must have been heavy.
Slavery was just about to be officially ended and Indian indentured labourers were brought in to fill the vacancy that was being created by the freed African slaves.
It should be recalled that slavery ended due to the coming together of many factors. Firstly, the resistance, reflected in the revolts by the enslaved against the system; secondly, the work of the Humanitarians in the UK, the Anti-Slavery society, which produced people like Buxton and John Edwards Jenkins, among others.
The combination of those struggles made slavery as a system too expensive to continue. Therefore, it had to be replaced with a system that would be cheaper. The colonial power struck on the scheme of indentured labour.
True, the indentured were not completely owned by the plantations forever. They were contracted for five-year periods. However, they had to live in the logies, and they had to find their own food and clothing.
In reality they were owned by the plantation for a specific time.
A new form of slavery
The colonial power did not only exploit their labour in the cane fields, but set-up shops to sell them food, clothing and whatever else they could afford. The plantation owners were freed from supplying these necessities, which they had to during slavery. From their meagre earning stores like Bookers Stores flourished.
Indian labourers, like the enslaved before them, were beaten in the backdams. Jenkins, in his book ‘The Coolie’ and other writers in that period, described the dehumanisation that those people had to endure.
Tied to post, stripped naked, male and female, were flogged with the whip often.
The ‘Coolie’ according to narrative of the period, was either at work, in hospital or in jail. While in jail he was often forced to work for free on the plantations.
Like the slaves before them, the Indian labourers did not only cut and load the canes, but had to dig the canals. Walter Rodney, in one of his epic works “A history of the Guyanese Working People 1881 – 1905” noted that, “When Indian indentured labourers were added to the Guyanese population… they had to face up to the steady work diet of mud and water in the maintenance of dams and the cleaning of trenches.
“For a long while, Africans remained the specialist shovel men, but a report on the digging of the new canal aback of the Plantation Annandale in 1895 drew attention to the…fact that the task was accomplished by Indian immigrants…”. In the process they had to move hundreds of thousands tons of water logged clay with shovels.
At times of low prices of sugar on the international market, the planters solved the problem at the expense of the bound Indian indentured labour. Wages to them were cut.
In the same book, cited above, Walter Rodney brought attention to a notice signed by the attorney of Non-Pareil plantation, Harry Garnett, informing the workers that their wages were being cut.
Here is how it read in part “Owing to the exceedingly LOW price of SUGAR…it is absolutely impossible for us to pay the OLD RATE OF WAGES and carry the estate on; I am aware that even the Old Rates were a reduced rate, but under the circumstances there is nothing for it but to still further reduce all round…” (September 1896).
Obviously those repressive conditions forced the Indian labour to resist and resist they did. In 1872 the Indian labourers at Plantation Devonshire Castle on the Essequibo Coast went on strike and protested against low wages.
The police opened fire on them; seven were severely wounded. Those described as “ring leaders” were punished. They were whipped and jailed.
In 1873 workers at Skeldon, Uitvlugt and other areas struck, protesting low wages and the importation of cheaper labour from Barbados. For this, three of the leaders were given five-year jail sentences, of course with hard labour, inevitably in the cane fields.
In 1879 riot broke out at Plantation Skeldon, again protesting low wages. Sixteen workers were badly injured and were hospitalized.
In 1894 strikes and protests occurred at Plantation La Bonne Mere, Success, Leguan, Farm and Skeldon. Once more, they were brutally suppressed. Identified leaders were fined, flogged and jailed.
In 1896, the cut in wages due, as noted above, to the fall in international price led to disturbances at Non-Pareil. Police shot and killed four workers and wounded eleven others.
In 1899 strikes were widespread at Melville (Wakenaam), Golden Fleece, Blairmont, Goedverwagting, De Kinderen, Mon Repos, Cane Grove, Success, Cornelia Ida and Nismes. The main cause was low wages. Those strikes also occurred widely in 1900. In 1903, the strikes assumed widespread proportions affecting all the estates once more.
In 1905 sugar workers from the East Bank walked towards Georgetown to give solidarity to striking waterfront workers, while raising their own plight of low wages and terrible conditions of work and living conditions.
They were stopped at Ruimveldt and police opened fire on them killing eight and wounding fifteen others. One hundred and five were convicted of rioting and punished in various ways.
In 1912 the Manager, R. E. Brassington shot and killed a worker at Plantation Friends. Later that same year during a protest, a shot fired from the Manager’s house at Lusignan injured Nankoo, a worker on the estate.
The next year, 1913, police shot and killed fifteen workers and seriously injured fourteen. This occurred at Rose Hall, Canje.
In 1924, sugar workers from the East Bank once more marched towards Georgetown to join striking workers in Georgetown and once more they were stopped and shot at Ruimveldt. This time thirteen sugar workers were killed several others injured.
From 1935 to 1939 the dissatisfaction with wages and working conditions led to the struggle for the recognition of a union. The MPCA, then led by Ayube Edun, a distinguished Trade Unionist, won recognition for that union to represent them.
In 1948 the strike which began as a protest against the changing of the system of work evolved into the demand for the recognition of the union of the workers choice, GIWU. By then the workers had lost confidence in the MPCA which was recognised after the strike of 1939 after four workers were shot to death and four others seriously injured at Leonora.
In 1964, many workers died in a general strike in the industry fighting for the recognition of the GAWU. Kowsilla, a female sugar worker, was run over by a tractor driven by a scab. She was cut in half. Many others were injured.
Mr. Harry Lall and Philomena Sahoy rose to prominence as President and General Secretary of the GAWU.
That recognition did not come in 1964. It took many other struggles to force the sugar lords and the government to hold a poll in 1975. The GAWU won with more than 95% of the votes cast. Recognition was finally wrested from the Sugar Producers Association and Government in 1976.
The struggle of Indian Guyanese since the first arrival in 1838 benefitted all the peoples of our country. While many of the protests began due to local issues, they quickly developed national characteristics and made a hefty contribution in advancing the cause of the nation as a whole.
The strike at Leonora in 1939 that saw the unionization of the workers was of great importance in the evolution of our trade union movement as a whole. It was the most important event in promoting Trade Unionism since the 1905 Water Front movement that gave birth to Trade Unions in Guyana.
The strike and struggles of 1948 developed into the call for political independence. The workers and the masses recognized that the brutality would continue and get worse while colonialism existed. Sugar workers were in the forefront in the fight to end colonialism and for freedom for all our people.
The battles from 1948 to 1976 for union recognition were not only for sugar workers benefit but for industrial democracy in Guyana.
The 177 days strike in 1977 was for the protection of a fundamental trade union principle; the right of collective bargaining. Here the cause of workers as a whole was being taken up by sugar workers. The PNC government had reneged on their argument to pay public servants $14 per day. The sugar workers fought courageously for 177 days to defend this principle.
The struggles from 1905 and 1924 were for the unity of the working class. It was Indian indentured labourers at the time with no central leadership, that took the initiative to push for working class unity, crossing all artificial barriers of race etc.
The fight for democracy began long before the advent of our present day political parties. Those positions were ably represented by people like Ayube Edun and others as they tirelessly worked to wrestle concessions from the hands of the colonial powers.
The British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) was the first organisation to raise the call for universal adult suffrage. At that time the ordinary working people of all races in this country did not have the right to vote.
This was a demand to get working people involved in the establishment of the government. It was an important early call for workers and farmers to influence political developments.
That struggle was won by the PPP in 1953 under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan, a son of Indentured labourers.
The real reason for the disturbances in the 1960s which culminated the ethnic cleansing of Mackenzie, now Linden is often masked by some historian still infected with a colonial mentality as a racial problem. It was not.
The attack on Indians and the violence meted out against them at that time was a colonial project in which the PNC collaborated to create conditions to prevent Guyana from becoming independent.
An examination of that period would show that the police, headed by a colonialist, Peter Owen, was used to protect those who were creating the riots and not the victims of the violence. The record would show from 1962 to 1964 very few arrests were made during the riots in Georgetown and Mackenzie. However during the strikes on the estates hundreds of workers were jailed. Indeed so glaring was the partisan nature of the colonial police that they made it illegal for anyone to have and expose the PNC terrorists X13 plan that was discovered when a raid was made on the hotel room of a PNC terrorist.
In the post-independence period the PPP at first, later joined by other forces, fought for the restoration of democracy at the heart of which was ‘one person one vote’. That was necessary because it was lost due to rigged elections practised from 1968 until 1985.
Today, the signs are that this behaviour of rigged elections is being prepared by the APNU/AFC once more.
We can go on listing the contributions Indian indentured labourers and their descendants made to agriculture, industry, business commerce and culture as being very significant and laudable.
While we recognize these sterling contributions, we must not ignore the desperate plight which Indian Guyanese have had to confront from the time of their arrival 181 years ago.
From that time Indians have been the most discriminated against in Guyana. This was first done by the colonial powers who treated them as second class citizens. Later they became objects of abuse by the undemocratic PNC regime and now by this PNC-led regime.
The PNC was first supported and protected by the Colonial powers to prevent Independence. When the PNC took power in 1964 they adopted the positions of the old Colonials and ruled in a similar manner. While all our working people suffered greatly Indian Guyanese suffered doubly, as working people and because of their race.
Under successive PNC and PNC-led regimes racial and political discrimination against Indian Guyanese continued unabated. This was again evident in May 2015 when the APNU/AFC took power. The public service has been systematically cleansed of Guyanese of Indian origin.
The vast majority have been dismissed simply because they are Indian Guyanese. They are the victims of a vicious regime that promotes and practices racism as a political weapon.
The APNU+AFC regime has trampled on the Constitution and the fundamental human rights of all Guyanese but of Indian Guyanese in particular.
The shutting down of sugar estates in which some 70% of the employees were Indian Guyanese, with no real justifiable reason, is a reflection of the way all Indians are treated in our multi-ethnic society. The leadership of the Government has made a mockery of our national motto.
Since the arrival of Indians on our shores they have been deliberately barred from some sectors of the society. This is in the public service and in the security sector. This is not an accident but a deliberate, racist policy, continued from the time of colonialism.
They were denied places in the security forces in the colonial times because they worked in the most important section of the economy, sugar. The colonial masters did not want them there since they were brutally exploited in the fields and factories in the sugar industry.
Today they continue to be excluded because the colonialist before and the PNC now, succeeded in creating fear in the African-Guyanese population. The message is that Indians are a threat to their jobs and well-being.
It is the old tactic of divide and rule. A small elite, in colonial times a white elite, and now a mainly Black elite live the ‘good life’ at the expense of both Africa and Indian working people.
All Guyanese, including the Afro-Guyanese population, must fight against all forms of racial discrimination. This is necessary, not only because racism is morally wrong but also because in the final analysis the whole country will suffer the negative consequences of such a policy.
There is no way that any government can discriminate against one section of the population without hurting all people, including those they claim to represent. Fighting to end all discrimination is in the interest of all oppressed, unemployed, underemployed and poor people in Guyana.
Racism robs our nation of the skills of almost half of our country’s population. It condemns us to poverty and is a great waste of human resources.
Now is the time for all decent minded and democratically inclined people to take a stand to rid our country of this great scrooge, this impediment to progress.
On the occasion of the 181st anniversary of Indians’ arrival we should redouble the efforts of making the slogan, coined by the then Minister of Education Brindley Benn, of One People, One Nation, One Destiny a reality!