Indians in the Armed Forces

 Indians in the Armed Forces

Photo : Ravi Dev

Roar of Ravi Dev

Last week, I discussed the exacerbation of the “Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma” – originally formed by Indian Guyanese’ majority numbers catapulting them into office, but then checkmated by the 90% dominated Armed Forces – with the loss of its majority since 2012. The PNC, as Desmond Hoyte did after 1997, when he brought its supporters into violent street protests which then segued into the “slow fyaah; mo fyaah” strategy, could always count on its “kith and kin” in the armed forces, as its Georgetown street elements rampaged against Indian Guyanese.

A friend wrote that while he appreciated the point, “if Indians were to enter the Armed Forces, especially from Berbice, he was worried about the impact on their culture.” In truth he was really talking about Hindu culture – so this will be the premise in this piece. I found his concern to be a rather ahistorical, since he knew no culture is ever static. To begin with, the 165,000 Indians who decided to remain in Guyana, were removed from their cultural moorings and tossed into sugar plantations, which, for very good reasons was called a “total institution” – like mental hospitals, for instance - designed to reshape their inmates’ identity into prefigured forms: here, servility.

While Indians like to believe they “recreated” village India in Guyana, the reality is much more nuanced. Let’s look at their presence in the Police Force, for instance. In India, the army and police formed by the British to rule the 300-million populace were comprised of Indians from all castes…just like the ones brought here. For instance, in 1894, the agriculture caste, Kurmis, of Lucknow protested new regulations that reduced their numbers in the Police Force.  Today, India has the second largest standing army in the world and no one has complained about its effects on Indian culture.

In Guyana, way back in 1855 a number of Indians were recruited en block into the Police Force – which has been formed in 1839 – and they performed very credibly. The governor, however, felt the massive number of Indians on the sugar plantations with cutlasses represented a threat that would be exacerbated by having their “kith and kin” in charge of maintaining order. It was for this reason that in the beginning, Bajan immigrants were preferentially recruited into the force, to quell expected revolts by the newly freed slaves. Physical requirements like chest measurement and height etc were afterwards used to discriminate against Indians into the 1970’s – by which time Indians were convinced policing “was not their thing”. 

But back to “Indian culture” in the total institution where the immigrant was expected to be “in the fields, in jail or in the hospital”. Take religion: since Hindus only got Sunday off, they started going to their mandirs on that day…and initiated congregational worship, which was not the practice in village India. Rum drinking became standard because rum shops were allowed to be set up opposite the pay offices, so that the labourers would fritter away their earnings on Saturdays and needed to show up for work on Mondays.  Rum drinking wasn’t part of Indian village culture – ganja, as “Bhang”, was. In 19th century village India, even during the famines, the suicide rate was 6.3 per 100,000 but jumped to 100 per 100,000m during Indentureship. Not part of “Indian Culture”- even with all the noise made by the West about “Suttee”, which is more akin to “honour” like the suicides of the Japanese Samurai warrior caste.

The point my friend should have made, was how could the police force, as an institution, been made more receptive to the culture of Indian Guyanese. Training centers were opened up in Berbice and Essequibo and the menus were supposed to be tailored to those recruits who had specific dietary requirements. Even though the congregation in mandirs are 90% women, we are sure that the armed forces wouldn’t look askance if Pandits – like Chaplains – are requested. Was the request ever made?

Finally, there is the duty of Indian Guyanese to play an equal role to defend their country and to assist in keeping law and order. We are sure if they are reminded regularly that Vishnu took incarnation in the ‘soldier” caste, maybe they will appreciate that being in the police and army are also part of Indian culture.