Politics and identity in Guyana

ROAR of Ravi Dev

Politics and identity in Guyana
Photo : Ravi Dev

As we stagger fitfully towards general elections between bouts of engaging the Courts to interpret what were once thought to be pellucid road signs, the discourse is seemingly inevitably becoming dominated once again by “race talk”. It would appear that the announcement of the demise of such an orientation in our political campaigns with the emergence of another generation of voters have been rather premature.

 Sadly, the questioning of the right of Indian-Guyanese, through their preferred party the PPP to seek national power – has reappeared. I am reminded of the observation of iconic Barbadian writer George Lamming, who observed in his foreword to Dr Walter Rodney’s, “A History of the Guyanese Working People”: “This perception of the Indian as alien and a problem to be contained after the departure of the Imperial power, has been a major part of the thought and feeling of Black West Indians and a very stubborn conviction among the Black middle layers in Trinidad and Guyana. Indian power, in politics or business, has been regarded as an example of an Indian strategy for conquest.”

The irony is that after 181 years in the Guyana, Indian-Guyanese have become “Guyanised” to such an extent by the plantation system and the post-colonial experience that they are as distinct from the present day “Indian Indians” as African-Guyanese are from “African-Africans”. While the first part of our hyphenated designation may signify our “motherlands”, are we not all bound by the common second part, being Guyanese?  Of course, there is always the problematic associated with “the narcissism of small differences”.

The Jamaican poet, Olive Senior, of mixed heritage, used the activity of “gardening” as an extended trope in her book “Gardening in the Tropics” to analyse well the brutal colonisation all of us in the Caribbean by the Europeans and their influence in the formation of all our identities. Gardening does involve “rooting out”, discarding” “cultivating”, “nurturing”, “grafting”, “hybridity” and so many activities that are also at work in cultures and relationships in the construction of identities. All of us have been and continue to be “cultivated” whether we like it or not and are to a lesser or greater extent been “hybridized”.

Even when we were uprooted from homelands in Asia, Africa and Europe, we were all already “hybrids” that had been variously constituted. For instance, the North Indians of the Bhojpuri belt were the product of continuous invasions for thousands of years, of which the Moghul invasion and its Islamic world view was only the most extensive. Ditto for the West Africans with different tribes and Islam.

In the Caribbean, the Indians, Portuguese and Chinese indentures would encounter the Africans who had been subjected to hundreds of years of European imposition of culture and religion – forcibly and later hegemonistically. While against all odds, the Africans retained elements of their cultures in West Africa, it was into their “creolised” culture that the new arrivals would be thrown into.

The Africans were expected to inculcate “English culture”, even though their humanity was denied and by definition could never be “English”. This was interesting since most of the overseers they interacted with were Irish and Scottish. The indentured servants inevitably imbibed much of their new culture from the African creoles who preceded them on the plantations, and who were expected to “season” them into the new dispensation.

However, in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, people of African origin sought to counter the European hegemonic cultural imposition with the ideologies of “Black Power”, “Negritude” and “Pan Africanism” all of which privileged the African culture as the “root” of the tree of “national culture” here. There was never a comparable Pan-Indian movement, but with independence we were told that we were “One people; One Nation; One Destiny”.

Reviewing the broad sweep of Caribbean history, however, Senior sought to make the point that there are no “pure” origins and no “one root” that we can discover on which to construct our Caribbean identity. She borrowed the metaphor of the “rhizome” – with its multiplicity of roots that privilege no one root for Caribbean identity from the Martiniquean Edouard Glissant. He was consciously reacting against the construct of “negritude” and of “hybridity” that been proposed to describe French Antillean identity. The first excluded all others such as people of Indian origin and the French and the latter that still privileged the “African root”.

We are all equally Guyanese with the right to all our country offers.