Ravi Dev Column Kaieteur News May 20, 2007
It is trite to observe that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Our present political conflict can be traced to several historical contingencies.
Take the ending of Indian indentureship in 1917. The event marked the beginning of a new era in more ways than one, and not only for Indians. Up to this juncture, while there had been opposition from Africans and Coloureds to the introduction of Indians into Guyana , the opposition had focused on the inequity, to the Creole population, of bringing in competition in labour - and partially at their expense. Now the opposition would be pitched at much higher stakes – the highest - political control of the country.
After the cessation of Indian indenturship, the planters still desired new Indian immigrants – for all the same reasons that had “justified” the old system. However, in 1919, to preclude criticisms based on the old excesses, they proposed a system of indentureship that would involve settling large numbers of Indians immigrants as independent farmers, after they served a three-year contract.
J.A. Luckhoo, (solicitor and first Indian member of the Legislature) and a group of Indians re-launched the BGEIA in Georgetown in April 1919, after it had lapsed since its formation in Berbice in 1916. Mr. Luckhoo and Dr. Hewley Wharton, the first Indian doctor in Guyana , were authorised, on behalf of the BGEIA, to convince the Indian authorities of the feasibility of the scheme.
They reached India in 1919-20 but opposed by Gandhi and others, they failed. However as part of the rationale to convince their Indian audience, they offered that their aim was “to induce more Indians from the motherland to join our ranks, increase our numbers and so help us make British Guiana an Indian Colony."
In reaction to this assertion, which precipitated the inchoate concerns of the African/Coloured leadership, the Negro Progress Convention (NPC) was formed on Aug. 1st 1922.
Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow, the noted labour leader, was a founding member of the Convention, which took an aggressive stand against the Colonisation Scheme. But since they advocated that if necessary, workers should also be imported in equal numbers from Africa, it was obvious, even if they did not state it explicitly, that they were concerned about the strategic implications of the Africans and Coloureds becoming a minority in Guyana.
The question of local political control of the state – tilted in favour of the non-Indian middle class by the 1890 Constitution - was now rising on the agendas of the two major ethnic groups. In 1921, the Indians were just about 42% of the population while Africans were 39% and Coloured – 10%. Even though universal franchise was not even on the horizon, an Indian majority would have meant profound changes for those who expected to inherit power – the Coloured and African elite.
In 1923-24, J.A. Luckhoo and Nunan (Attorney General) visited India once again to get the Scheme approved and this time they were successful. The NPC and BGLU, however, were determined to derail this initiative.
Francis Kawall, President of the BGEIA at this point, and some others in the BGEIA, were now also bitterly opposed to the scheme.
The record shows that from 1919 to 1924 the sugar workers on the East Bank had been in touch with Critchlow (and in 1924 with both Critchlow and Kawall) about their labour grievances. The NPC had petitioned the Colonial Office on the Colonisation Scheme with their concerns about any increased Indian population. The petition adumbrated most of the arguments that would be used against Indians in the following decades, down to the present, about the African Ethnic Security Dilemma.
The Scheme was a “distinct act of discrimination” against Blacks who were entitled to ‘first consideration' since they were the ‘pioneer settlers' of British Guiana . Additionally, the scheme “would tend to rob (Blacks) of their political potentialities, as they would be the minority in any voting contest – the Indian vote would become more than or equal to the votes of any two of the other sections of the community; it would be detrimental to good government and the preservation of the peace…”
“At the celebrations to mark the 5th anniversary of the BGLU, in Jan 1924, A.V. Crane, a Black lawyer…asserted that ‘if the colony was flooded with thousands of people of one race the vested interests of the other races would be affected.” “A.A. Thorne, a prominent Headmaster and Black leader, in a memorandum to the Colonial Office (a month before the Ruimveldt Tragedy) argued that the Colonisation Scheme had produced ‘much friction and aroused racial feeling in the colony'. He saw also saw it as injurious to Black interests, and expressed fears that ‘the introduction of labourers of any favoured race at the expense of the others is both undesirable and dangerous.”
The tragic events at Ruimveldt made the Colonisation scheme moot – and addressed, for the while, immediate concerns about the African Security Dilemma. While some such as Rodney and the PPP had hailed the “multiethnic” nature of the protest of 1924 at Ruimveldt, others such as Prof Clem Seecharan have a different perspective:
“The evidence suggests that the NPC (Negro Progress Convention) used its influence on Critchlow and the BGLU to capitalise on the grievances of predominantly Indian sugar workers on the East Bank Demerara in April 1924…. The disaster at Ruimveldt strengthened Indian fears of the motives of Black leaders.”
Indian support for the BGLU and Critchlow dried up after this tragedy and betrayal and there were no more strikes recorded in the sugar belt until four years later.
While the Colonisation scheme lapsed and the NPL faded, the Coloured and African elite continued to organise themselves in seeking to protect and increase their gains in the power relations. In the zero-sum arrangements of the political system (in 1928 the British had imposed a Crown Colony government on Guyana ) this meant organising against Indians who were making comparatively rapid economic strides in the 1930s.
The United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) of Marcus Garvey out of the U.S. had formed several branches across Guyana by the thirties. The London-originated League of Coloured People (LCP) however, became the most established organisation and had the most impact in Guyana from the thirties up to the fifties. They were in the forefront to confront what was seen as Indian encroachment on the Coloured preserve during that time. In the words of Ashton Chase, “They were already envious of the economic strides the Indo-Guyanese had made and considered them a threat.”
The threat was not only felt economically, but politically: socially, the Indians were still seen as “backward”. “When power was gradually seen to be passing from the colonial government to local groups in Guyana, a process commencing in the 1930s but not really getting under way until after WWII, a great deal of attention became focused on ethnic or racial associations. For the Africans the League of Coloured Peoples provided this outlet while for the Indians the Guiana East Indian Association, an organisation in existence since 1919, served to promote their interests.”
The Coloureds, because of their White forbears, preferential recruitment into the junior bureaucratic positions of the Civil Service and their greater emulation of ‘English culture', had conferred legitimacy upon themselves as the inheritors of the colonial mantle, with all its pretensions and privileges. The African community had conceded this presumption, and in fact, buttressed it in seeking elevation of their status by entry into the Coloured section through marriage, education, life style and money, which state jobs provided.
The arrival of an Indian middle class in the late thirties; the enlargement of the franchise to include more Indians in 1947; the arrival of the universal franchise in l953, and the political mobilization of the East Indian masses by Dr. Cheddi Jagan from l950, threatened that presumption and precipitated the Ethnic Security Dilemma of the Africans.
The British Guiana Constitutional Commission (1954) noted that the Indians', “very success…has begun to awaken fears in the African section …and it cannot be denied that since India received her independence in 1947 there has been a marked self-assertedness amongst Indians in British Guiana.” By 1950, with universal franchise on the horizon, this assertiveness included competing for political power by leveraging their demographic advantage to address their security concerns.
The potential for ethnic conflict, in Guyana or elsewhere is stimulated when there are changes in the society that cause one or more ethnic groups in the given society to feel threatened by other groups. There were changes aplenty in the thirties and forties.
Compounding this psychological insecurity was the demographic factor and the implications for participating in and eventually controlling the government: by the nineteen-forties, the East Indians had a much greater birth rate than Africans and Coloureds.
Combining their newly acquired economic strides with an imminent majority of voters, in a political arena to be governed by majoritarian rule and universal suffrage, it was now quite clear to both Indian and African thinkers that as the leaders of the NPC had feared, the Indians could deny the Africans control of the Government in perpetuity.
This structural condition created what we have labelled the “Ethnic Security Dilemmas” in the both the African and Indian sections. For the African section, which felt that others who it had categorized as “backward” were bypassing it and that that group may also rule them in perpetuity under the rules of the political game; the situation was untenable. It was rational that Africans would utilise whatever resource would help to equalise the playing field. Their trump card would be their serendipitous domination of the armed forces.