Identity and politics

Identity and politics

Photo: Ravi Dev

One of the most poignant cries heard in Guyana has to be, “Why do we have to call ourselves “Indian” or “African” or “Amerindian” Guyanese? Why can’t we be just Guyanese?” The cries are always intensified as elections roll around or when there’s a new political party in the offing. The latter, being “real” Guyanese, of course, will resolve our vexed political impasse. The premise, of course, is that our identifications are the source of our long-standing electoral-related miseries and that shedding our ethnic differences would bring peace and joy in our dear land.

There are several problems with that view. Firstly, our history has conspired to deliver us to where we are – a society with very diverse cultural heritages. And it really, in the main, does not matter as to how deep those differences really are in the present. What matters is the perceptions of those differences. We can’t undo that with the snap of a finger or the mouthing of fine sounding platitudes from political platforms. It is the politicians who claim to be “beyond race or ethnicity” who have created the most problems for us - especially with their token “multiracial” representatives.

Our ethnic identification in Guyana is a consequence of the universal human need to have a sense of self – an identity. Developing a sense of self is an essential part of every individual becoming a mature person. Identities are constructed on the basis of various traits and experiences. We are all born into a family that itself is part of a particular group. The group’s world view and way of life is consciously transmitted to the child who as he grows up that he/she (not surprisingly) has more in common with some individuals than others from different cultural backgrounds.

Unfortunately, physical characteristics that comprise what we are told are “races” are given social significance that helps to influence a person’s identity. Nowadays it has become politically correct for some to claim they are “post racial”. This is wishful thinking at best and pathologically self-delusional at worse. Some thought we had arrived at this blessed state in the US following the election of President Obama: the killings and vicious harassment of African-Americans and other coloured peoples have disabused them of this notion. They forgot the Thomas Theorem, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” and especially, if those defining the situations have political power.

But “identity” is not a unitary construct. Each person's self-conception is a unique combination of several identifications as broad as woman or man, Hindu, Catholic or Muslim, or as narrow as being a member of one particular family. Although self-identity may seem to coincide with a particular human being, identities are actually much wider than that. They are also collective; identities extend to countries and ethnic communities, so that people feel injured when other persons sharing their identity are injured or killed.

This exposes the second problem with the Guyanese lament: there is not necessarily any contradiction between a person’s cultural heritage (ethnicity) and his citizenship in a particular country. In our instance, we are all Guyanese, in addition to being Africans, Amerindians, Indians, etc. Some of the many identities people have are nested within each other, usually compatibly, as is the case for geographic identities within a country. For example, I can identity both with Guyana (my country) and the Uitvlugt (my village).

The task for us essentially is twofold. None of our several identities should be ground for us being treated by the state in an unequal or discriminatory fashion. The moment that happens - as occurred, for instance, during the pre-independence era when non-Christians were discriminated against - it will precipitate a counter reaction. From the moment the power relations among the different groups as they define themselves are equal, there will be less reasons for jealously guarding their boundaries. In fact, the reverse will occur as the identity becomes more expansive.

Secondly, the government must pursue policies that support shared overarching identities; in this case to make the identity of “Guyanese” more real and meaningful to all the citizens.


Ethnically Diverse Guyana Police Force Editorial Guyana Times

In March, 85 recruits were added to the Guyana Police Force to join the 203 from last July. While statistics on their ethnic composition were not made available, the optics do not suggest that the recommendations of the Disciplined Forces Commission (DFC) as far as “ethnic diversity” are being implemented. More pertinently, the latter had specified measures to increase the number of Indian Guyanese in the GPF.

The DFC, of which now President David Granger was a member, conducted hearings in 2003 and submitted its 164 recommendations to Parliament in 2004. Seventy-one recommendations concerned the Guyana Police Force. The Commission recommended, with regard to manpower, that the Police Force should aim at achieving greater ethnic diversity without employing a quota system. To achieve this, ethnically-diverse recruitment teams should be employed as openly and extensively as possible.

The Recommendations were finally approved by a Select Parliamentary Committee in 2010. But while two new Police Training Centres had been opened in the meantime in Berbice and Essequibo, as recommended, no further actions have been evidently taken to date to implement its recommendations.

While just before independence, the PPP had strenuously argued for the GPF to be made more ethnically diverse, after the free and fair elections of 1992, they attempted no rectification of  the historically enforced imbalances. During the PNC protests and riots in Georgetown on Jan 12 1998, following the 1997 elections, members of the GPF were conspicuous in their refusal to prevent the assaults against Indians even though the largest police station in the country was only a block away from the epicenter of the violence.

Subsequently, constitutional changes following the Herdmanston Accord were introduced in 2000 and one clause called for a Commission to enquire into, among other things “the composition” of the entire Disciplined Forces, which include the GPF. The changed mandated by the DSC in 2010 were constitutionally sanctioned and there ought to be reasons why they are evidently being ignored.

The British had insisted, as part of the conditions for granting independence to Guyana under the PNC, that the latter rectify the imbalance in the armed forces, including the GPF as identified by the PPP. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), invited by the PNC in 1965 to investigate the ethnic imbalances in the state sector, and offer recommendations towards their rectification, declared in the GPF, Indian Guyanese comprised 20.7%, compared with 71.9% African Guyanese. They recommended that the Police Force should reflect to a greater degree, the composition of the population. More specifically that 75% of recruits and cadets for the next five years be Indian-Guyanese until the goal was reached.

The PNC accepted the recommendations of the Commission and claimed that the very next year, 76 of 102 police recruits were Indians. However, Prof. K. Danns, in his doctoral thesis on the Guyanese armed forces, (“Domination and Power in Guyana “) claimed that the PNC ceased to make statistics available after 1966, but that data collected by him showed that the Government did not implement the ICJ’s recommendations and actually decreased the number and percentage of Indians accepted. He showed that between 1970 and 1977, while the size of the force was being doubled, 92.2% of recruits were Africans with only 7.84% being Indians. Their numbers dropped to less than 10% of the GPF.

After over a hundred years of being excluded from the GPF first by the British then by the PNC, Indians had internalized the myth that they were ‘not fit’ to be policemen. Some of the few who bucked the tide were marginalised. Indians who were accepted after the 1970’s were placed in the Special Branch, (plain clothes) and posted to Indian villages to spy on their fellow Indians. This policy created further distrust of the Police Force amongst Indians.

Armed with the recommendations of the DFC, this Government should rectify this historical anomaly, which has evidently been exacerbated recently.