• 07 Feb, 2023

Fears of Indo-Guyanese success as early as the 1920s

Fears of Indo-Guyanese success as early as the 1920s

Fears of Indo-Guyanese success as early as the 1920s

Budgets in Guyana always presage a season of discontent. They exacerbate the proclivity of groups in plural societies to compare their situation against other groups, signalled by budget allocations. Invariably, the actions of the “other” are perceived negatively, and theirs positively. Even before the 2023 Budget presentation, this was demonstrated in the demolition of the homes of the holdout African-Guyanese Mocha squatters who, supported by the Opposition, refused the Government’s year-old offers. In the context of our politics, what is revealing is not only the tone-deaf Government’s use of a massive excavator, but the Opposition’s reflexive dismissal of the Government’s legal explanation to the charge that Government’s action was “racially” motivated.

 

This ignored the PPP Government’s identical tone-deaf action, immediately upon assuming office in 2020, of driving out Indian-Guyanese squatters at Success on the ECD by flooding the land. They claimed the land was needed to reopen the East Coast sugar operations. Eight persons were subsequently injured – one woman crippled – when a tree under which they sought refuge fell on them. The Opposition also ignored that, when in Government between 2015-2020, they used the identical legal argument to demolish squatters’ homes in Sophia.

 

But this invidious group comparison arises not just from economic, but also psychosocial, imperatives springing from the inextricably interlinked group and individual “worth”. Primal fears damage the individual’s self-esteem if their group perceives it is falling behind. For us, the late George Lamming observed, “This perception of the Indian as alien and other a problem to be contained after the departure of the imperial power has been a major part of the thought and feeling of the majority of Afro-Guyanese, and a stubborn conviction among the black middle layers of Guyanese society. Indian power in politics and business has been regarded as an example of an Indian strategy for conquest.”

 

PPP refuses to initiate Ethnic Impact Statements   

 

When, as in Guyana, this sense of loss is coupled with the group’s claim of greater legitimacy to the national patrimony – buttressed by arguments such as “greater suffering and contribution to national development” etc. – we suffer the classic “politics of entitlement”.

 

The international norm of equality of all citizens in modern states, guaranteed by their constitutions, is jettisoned as the aggrieved groups demand preferential entitlement to the national patrimony.

 

Usually, such groups demand a greater share of valued “goods”. But a deeper problem arises when they may even jettison the majoritarian principle of democracy and impose minority dictatorships. This was the PNC’s rationale for rigging elections after 1964 on behalf of the African community, and it resurfaced with their 2020 attempt. In “the politics of legitimacy”, groups do not judge their position in absolute terms and by intrinsic criteria, but by how well or not their opponents are perceived to be doing. And “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.

 

In Guyana, fears of Indian-Guyanese ascendancy arose as early as the 1920s with the formation of the Negro Progress Convention. Even though under colonial rule, the PPP Government’s agriculture-oriented Budgets exacerbated those fears between 1957-1964. The PNC’s post-1964 Budgets attempted to “rectify” matters by extracting profits from Indian-dominated rice, sugar and retailing, while shifting expenditure to African-dominated professions and providing employment in the 80% nationalised economy and a slew of GUYSTAC manufacturing companies.

 

The PNC also massively augmented its control of the power bases in Guyana: The Disciplined Forces, the Bureaucracy, the Judiciary, and control of the capital Georgetown. Yet, by 1992, when they demitted office, African-Guyanese were marginally worse off than Indian-Guyanese. Lamming had identified a possible reason: “For the Afro-Guyanese… education was a means of escape from the realities of labour, a continuing flight from the foundations of society.” The PPP’s subsequent policies and Budgets were criticised as racially biased, even though income and expenditure studies showed otherwise. Unfortunately, the PPP studiously refuses to initiate recommended Ethnic Impact Statements (EIS) to address the inevitable comparisons.

 

Part of the problem also is African-Guyanese leaders stressing the politics of entitlement rather than exhorting their constituency to make the most of any situation they find themselves in; as Indian-Guyanese did post 1964 and Afro-Guyanese and WI first-generation immigrants to the US do, to outperform African- Americans. The PNC can now win elections with our new demographics, by vigorously seeking crossover votes and using more evidence-based claims and less incendiary rhetoric. But they cannot ignore the challenge identified by Lamming for their constituency, in our neo-liberal, market-based economic system.