Guyanese narratives and Independence

Another May 26; another Independence Day. But are we any closer to becoming a nation than on that day in 1966 when we received all the symbols of “nationhood’ – flag, national motto, national hero, pledge of allegiance; etc.? I say not and this is so for so many reasons: not least of all because we have been unwilling to craft a national narrative on which we all agree.

Guyanese narratives and Independence
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Another May 26; another Independence Day. But are we any closer to becoming a nation than on that day in 1966 when we received all the symbols of “nationhood’ – flag, national motto, national hero, pledge of allegiance; etc.? I say not and this is so for so many reasons: not least of all because we have been unwilling to craft a national narrative on which we all agree. Benedict Anderson said nations are “imagined political communities” and every nation that has amounted to something has a narrative that captures its essence and holds the people together. Americans, for instance, have their “American Dream” narrative – their firm belief that if they work hard and play by the rules, the sky is the limit as regards their upward mobility. They are a “can do” nation in which their constitution defines and protects their equality. All of which leads to their “exceptionalism” as “God’s country”.

To say that the nation is “imaginary” is not to assert that the narrative is a tissue of lies but, as the historian Ernst Renan noted, it is about what we choose to remember as well as to forget. Fifty-three years after Independence, each group still holds on firmly to its own narrative which, ever so often, clash. And it is these contending assertions we have to re-examine and arrive at some sort of modus vivendi over what to remember and forget if we are too ever become a nation.

Invariably, these nodes of disagreement have to do with one or the other group proffering reasons why they are exceptional and therefore must be exempted from the universal norm of equality to the national patrimony guaranteed to all citizens of the state. Some of these clashing claims are about “who suffered more”, “who arrived first” or “who did more to build Guyana”. Such assertions buttress claims of preferential treatment that create tensions among the several groups in Guyana. Take, for instance, the recently reiterated claim by ACDA that African Guyanese should receive 18% of Guyana. They point to the fact that our Indigenous Peoples have been allocated 13.8% of our land mass as precedent for their claim.

In the African Guyanese narrative, their justification for land – one is not sure where the 18% comes from - is that during slavery their labour was expropriated without any compensation to develop Guyana and as such is morally appropriate as “reparations”. They have also suffered more than other groups and have even challenged the claim of the Indigenous Peoples to have arrived first. The frisson occasioned by that narrative is that, as pointed out by the Indigenous Peoples, they had negotiated treaties with the European powers which had asserted sovereignty over Guyana, allowing them rights over lands they had occupied “from times immemorial”. At Independence, Stephen Campbell, representative of the Indigenous Peoples, was a party to the team negotiating the terms of devolving power from Britain and had those rights incorporated in Annex C of that agreement.

The two claims are therefore not equivalent and ought not to be linked in any narrative. Then again, on the matter of “Reparations”, the Caricom Committee headed by Sir Hillary Beckles has explicitly made claims against the European powers, primarily Britain and Holland, which unconscionably benefited from the exploitation of African slave labour. The local Guyana Committee is the only one in the Caribbean that is seeking to simultaneously extract reparations from its government. On a quite mundane level, doesn’t the local reparation claim undercut the larger moral and inchoate legal claim against the European nations?

But the danger in this kind of narrative is that it raises the issues of arrival, suffering and contribution by other groups in such a manner that can lead to conflicting claims from other groups. For instance, during the period of indentureship, the Portuguese, Indian, West Indian and Chinese immigrants were all severely underpaid and suffered greatly under the plantation regime. Should they also start claiming reparations against the Guyanese state in the form of land grants?

My suggestion is that we have to craft a narrative which accepts that we have all suffered and contributed to the creation and building of Guyana and, with new horizons opening up from the coming oil revenues, we should all be rewarded based on merit. Affirmative action, of course, can be taken for groups that we all agree were discriminated against.