Burnham’s PNC nation excludes Indo-Guyanese
Forbes Burnham’s death anniversary a couple of weeks ago, offered the opportunity for some seriously surreal revisionist accounts of his “legacy”. This is a corrective to the contention that Burnham was positively benign to Indo-Guyanese.
During his 21-year illegal regime, Burnham promoted the African element of Creole culture as the national culture, even as he made some innocuous gestures towards Indian Guyanese. In this transformist hegemony, Indo-Guyanese culture was defined as “ethnic” – outside the nation. Yet his acolytes insist Burnham had a “multicultural” approach just because he introduced two Muslim and two Hindu festivals as national holidays.
However, in Burnham’s secular rather than religious view of nation and culture, that move was a feint in his quest for total control over the state. The colonial state had privileged the Protestant Church and retained great influence over state matters, which Burnham would not brook. State acknowledgement of Hinduism and Islam simply helped dilute the externally connected, old-line Church influence. In 1976, he nationalised the schools of all the religious bodies and quickly moved to control the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim Anjumaan so these new kids on the bloc offered no challenge. In 1972, against the opposition of all Indian organisations – secular and religious, Burnham had commandeered the Indian Repatriation Fund to build the “National Cultural Center” in Georgetown rather than three Indian Cultural centers in the three counties. Carifesta, which launched the Centre, had only token Indo-Guyanese participation by Rajkumari Singh’s troupe.
National flag has Garveyite Pan-African colours
Burnham accepted the asssimationalist premises of the European “nation-state” ideal and fervently opposed “multiculturalism”. His motto summed up his position: “One People, One Nation, One Destiny”, which of course he would “mould”. The symbols of a state signal its cultural orientation since these are expected to ensure that the people can identify with the state at an emotional level. The colours of our flag, chosen the National Arts Council, were the Garveyite Pan-African colours black, green and red (which was already the PNC’s colours) along with yellow from Ethiopia’s green, yellow and red, which most African countries had chosen as their pan-African colours.
The National Hero was Cuffy – the African slave who had fought the Dutch in Berbice almost seventy years before Berbice became part of a unified Guyana. The National Anthem has no hint of an Indian raga, much less any words. Mr. Burnham also balked at the Indian cultural fare over the airwaves. He mandated that even the privately sponsored Indian music radio-shows were to include an equal number of English-language songs. There was no TV under Burnham and we may now possibly surmise why. Mr. Burnham also demanded that “ethnic clubs” change their names – for instance the “East Indian Association Cricket Club” to “Everest Cricket Club”. He offered refuge to a large number of Afrocentric US cultural activists who played an influential role in establishing the National Service that was supposed to be the vehicle for moulding youths into “Guyanese”.
However, Mr. Burnham accepted the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) as its de facto cultural arm. Its head, Eusi Kwayana was made Chairman of the GMC and played a critical role in conceptualizing, launching and sustaining the Co-Op movement which was to empower grassroots African Guyanese in this “African” mode of production. Mr. Burnham had gone so far with his valorisation of African culture that he risked ridicule from orthodox Marxist quarters (“utopian”), to declare that Guyana’s economic model would be the co-operative – based on the Ujaama socialism of Tanzania. Mr. Burnham introduced Mashramani as the defining festival for Guyana, with its Creole Caribbean Carnival ethos hardly masked by the standing libel that it was about “cooperation” and adopted from our Indigenous Peoples.
In May 1970, Mr Burnham had embraced the ASCRIA – invited Stokley Carmichael, the founder of Black Power, even after he declared that Indian Guyanese must be kept separate. Never mind the aspiration of the just declared “national” motto. While today there is a “National” Museum there is also an African Museum and an Amerindian (WALTER ROTH) museum – but none for Indians. The National School of Dance is bereft of an Indian repertoire. As for whether he was “racist” towards, he deflected Jagan’s accusation in 1977 by asking, “What is the socialist content of race?”
The point, of course, is that those who are defined outside the nation have no legitimacy to its patrimony – including the opportunity to democratically form a government. These Guyanese are just 3/5 human.
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