Indians & Emergence of the concept of Guyanese Diaspora

Indians & Emergence of the concept of Guyanese Diaspora

The University of Guyana and the government of Guyana hosted a diaspora engagement conference last week -- to discuss ways to tap into the resources of the diaspora (Guyanese or their descendants residing abroad or outside of Guyana) for the country's development. The concept of "Guyanese diaspora" is relatively new and it was introduced by New York-based Guyanese involved in the struggle for the liberation of their country from the dictatorship.

The term diaspora was not widely used by people; its usage was widely restricted to or among Jews who were scattered through the Middle East and Europe and later to Latin America and the Caribbean. Much has been written on the Jewish diaspora which means dispersion of Jews. Other ethnic groups have also found themselves dispersed or scattered, but the term diaspora was not widely used to refer to the migration of people of other ethnic groups outside of their homeland. The term diaspora became popular during the 1990s when national or ethnic groups in America began to refer to themselves as the diaspora of their former homelands.

So the term diaspora is relatively new among Guyanese in America. It is also new even among Indian nationals who have been in the US long before Guyanese. Ironically, diaspora was introduced in the vocabulary of Indians by Indo-Guyanese and other Indo-Caribbean people in New York City in our meetings with nationals and government officials from India during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indian nationals had used NRIs to describe overseas Indians, but the term was not meant to include Indo-Caribbeans since we were not born in India. Indo-Caribbeans like Ravi Dev and myself coined the term PIO to refer to people of Indian origin regardless of nationality. We introduced the term PIO to Indian nationals and politicians, and later we introduced the term Indian diaspora to them; we had recognized that both terms would include Indo-Guyanese and other Indo-Caribbean people.

Other groups in the US have emulated the usage of the term diaspora from the Indian diaspora in America to describe nationals of their homeland now scattered abroad. So now there is El Salvador diaspora and Brazilian diaspora and diaspora of almost every country. The Jews, Indo-Caribbeans and Indian Americans are to be credited for the popularity of the term diaspora among the many ethnic groups in the US.

The term diaspora was not in the vocabulary of Guyana -- its government or Guyanese at home or abroad -- until about a decade ago. Prior to that, Guyanese who have migrated or have been living abroad were referred to as overseas based Guyanese similar to the term overseas based Indians. The term Guyanese diaspora was first introduced in regular discussions among a group of us in New York City during the mid1980s in the heydays of our struggle for the restoration of democracy in our former homeland; we used to organize seminars and symposiums in NYC on Indo-Caribbeans and Guyanese issues. The term was even used in the name of an Indo-Guyanese or Indo-Caribbean organization formed in 1986 -- East Indian Diaspora Steering Committee-which was officially registered as a non-profit organization in 1987.

In late 1986, a group of Indo-Caribbeans met with Prof. Brinsley Samaroo (UWI History Department at St Augustine) at CUNY Graduate School on 42nd Street to establish and launch a planning committee to commemorate the 150th anniversary since the first indentured immigrants landed in Guyana. Dr Samaroo was a minister in the NAR government in Trinidad & Tobago and made a special trip to NYC to meet with academics specializing on Indian migration to help plan and organize what would be the fourth conference of Indians in the Caribbean. We met at CUNY doctoral center where I was a student. Ravi Dev was also at the meeting. Dr. Prem Misir was invited but he was teaching and could not make the meeting. We (Dev and myself) introduced the term diaspora for the first time among Indo-Caribbean people.

The three (1975, 79, 84) previous conferences (all held at UWI St Augustine) were almost exclusively on Indo-Caribbeans. We suggested the title should be Fourth Conference of Indians in the Diaspora. We felt the 1988 conference should be more broad-based to include the global Indian community and their linkage. We came up with the term diaspora conference borrowing it from the Jews to include all Indians (regardless of region or nationality), and, hence, the coinage of Indians in the diaspora or the Indian diaspora which we would introduce to nationals from India.

This term was introduced in interactions we held with academics and activists from India in the US as well as with government officials of India when opportunities for meetings availed themselves including at an Indian conference in 1989 at the Sheraton Center in Manhattan. The term Guyanese diaspora or Trini diaspora or Jamaican diaspora or Caribbean diaspora would similarly be used to refer to Guyanese (and other nationals) abroad in meetings we held among Indo-Caribbeans. It was through our usage that term came to be used by other Caribbean people.

At that CUNY meeting, a formal name of our group was not taken. But Prof Prem Misir (LIU and St John) was nominated by myself and Dev to be President of the planning committee. I also nominated Prof Mahin Gosine (Fordham and CUNY) as Chair of the Academic Sub-Committee. Both nominees were elected. I was elected General Secretary. And Gors Singh was Chair of the Cultural Sub-committee.

At a subsequent meeting at the Research Institute for Study of Man on 5th Ave in Manhattan, two names for the planning organization were proposed -- Asian Indian Diaspora Steering Committee or East Indian Diaspora Steering Committee. Dr Misir was present at the meeting. The acronym of the first -- AIDSC -- was not acceptable with the objection being that it was too close to the new epidemic disease AIDS which had just arrived on the health scene. The acronym of the second organization -- EIDSC -- was considered more acceptable and it was unanimously carried in a vote. My preference was Asian Indians as that was how Indians were being referred to in the US. I thought East Indians was a more restrictive term referring to Indian people in the Caribbean. Democracy ruled! Some Professors from Columbia University attending the meeting offered their university as host of a week-long conference. The generous offer was accepted. EIDSC was subsequently registered as a NGO co-hosting the Indian diaspora conference at a hotel in Queens under the Presidency of Misir. There was a conflict in the organizing committee. Another conference was held on the same dates under the Chairmanship of Dr Mahin Gosine at Columbia University as planned.

It was through the 1988 conferences that the term diaspora was widely introduced to Guyanese Americans and would gradually be used in the vocabulary of Guyanese in NYC. It frequently appeared in my voluminous writings on Guyanese in the USA in our ethnic publications from then onwards. The term would gain wider acceptance over the next decade. The Guyana government would also embrace its usage.