National and Regional Cultural Policy

Ministers of Culture from across CARICOM have just finished “deliberating” on a draft cultural strategy during the 36th meeting of the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) at the CARICOM Secretariat, Liliendaal.

National and Regional Cultural Policy
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Ministers of Culture from across CARICOM have just finished “deliberating” on a draft cultural strategy during the 36th meeting of the Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD) at the CARICOM Secretariat, Liliendaal. Their focus was “culture is our business” and geared towards “Developing cultural and creative industries”, which would include music, audio visuals, visual arts, publishing, festivals, fashion, performing arts and craft. But what is troubling was there was only talk of “culture” – implying a single monolithic entity.

Whither, then, our claim to “multi-culturalism” which all political parties insist they are committed to facilitating, even though they have retained Article 35 which speaks “to develop out of (our various cultural strains), a socialist national culture for Guyana”? While the ‘socialist’ qualification might have been discretely dropped in the last few decades, the goal of creating some sort of unitary ‘national culture’ as part of a “West Indian Culture” still appears to be the overarching goal of our state, which did not raise the issue with Caricom. The National Motto - One nation; One people; One destiny – emphasises the assimilationist imperative of the old British imperialist model. We are all now expected to jettison our respective distinctive cultural identities/practices and hark to a putatively ‘higher’ West Indian ideal.   

And we can begin to discern the problems most Indian-Guyanese have with Mashramani as the ‘national’ celebration of Republic Day and now the putatively “private” Carnival associated with our Independence celebrations. While Independence and Republican status promised equal participation as citizens, the commemorative events demanded they fit into a ‘cultural’ festival defined by the Carnival ethos of T&T. Earl Lovelace, among others, has delineated how that ethos was transmuted from the African cultures the ex-slaves had brought from their homeland into the Carnival tradition of the French planters fleeing the Haitian Revolution.

Thus, while the official rhetoric of the Guyanese state after independence suggested it was interested in ‘multiculturalism’, at the very best the form it took was that some cultures were more equal than others. And the less equal ones - notably Indian and Indigenous - should go along with the ‘standard’ to get along. Calls for Indian-Guyanese, for instance, to participate with their festivals in Mash and Carnival, arrogantly take for granted that the premises of the former are in consonance with the latter. And this appears to be the premise of the Caricom initiative.

The irony, of course, notwithstanding their protestations to the contrary, is the PNC has vigorously promoted Mash, and now Carnival but with no discernible accommodation for Indian and Indigenous Guyanese cultural participation. With the PNC once again having control of the state and the influence to encourage norms and, by definition, a reordering of social hierarchies, also has not seen it fit to initiate a national discourse on the contour of our multiculturalism. The official ‘Guyanese’ culture is still to a large extent disdainful of the Indian and Indigenous components of the ‘multicultural’ reality. Just examine the content of the introduction of “culture” into our educational curriculum – steel-pan, masquerade, etc.  

               Mash and Carnival, therefore become simply tropes for displaying the mono-cultural foundations of our so-called ‘multiculturalism’. The danger, of course, is in multicultural polities such as Guyana, excluded groups will inevitably resent and challenge their silencing on the national stage – or their token representation – in the name of the universal standard of equality. Because such silencings are always a consequence of a lack of power, the challenges are ultimately political in that it calls for a more equitable distribution of power, even though the PPP takes great pains to avoid contesting the cultural premises.

Ironically, such open contestation should not be seen as threatening once it is accepted as necessary and it is dealt with through national dialogue and discussion. It’s also positive because it not only addresses dissatisfactions with the status quo but reduces the potential for demagogic manipulations that have become standard in Guyana. And this occurs not only at Mash and Carnival.

               One point that we have emphasised in arguing for an equitable national policy on multiculturalism over the last three decades is that it will make available such a wider array of knowledge and practical wisdom to our nation. Such wisdom can then be shared with our brothers and sisters of Caricom and then the world.