Silencing and Erasure of Indians in the Caribbean
Photo : Ravi Dev
ROAR of Ravi Dev
Over the last two weeks we have discussed the refusal of leaders in the Caribbean in general, and those in Guyana, in particular, to acknowledge the legitimacy of the descendants of the Indians who were brought in as indentured servants after the abolition of slavery, to be a Caribbean people entitled to the patrimony of their respective countries as citizens of those countries.
We illustrated this position in their refusal to acknowledge as rational and valid, the concerns of the Indians of Guyana about being swamped in a federation of the West Indies, which those same leaders had worked to define as part of a “Pan-African” nation. One of them, Arthur Lewis, who worked assiduously to create and then save the Federation after Jamaica and Trinidad pulled out, could without irony, condemn “democracy” in plural societies a “zero-sum game” and ask in reference to elections in Guyana - where Africans were a minority: “Are we, on counting heads, to conclude that…The Indians of British Guyana may liquidate the Negroes?” The Guyanese Indians however, with even less dire concerns, were dubbed “racialists” not only by the Caribbean Leaders of African descent, but Cheddi Jagan, their leader. After splitting hairs on the federation due to local politics he was also dubbed “racialist”!!
Indian Arrival Day, which falls on May 5th in Guyana; May 12 Jamaica; May 30th in T&T and June 5th Suriname, allows us to examine genesis of this denial of legitimacy to West Indians of Indian descent, especially Guyana. Black scholars and leaders have taken great pains to insist the Indians immigrants after 1945 entered into an already formed “Anglo-African Creole society”, with a “white bias” in terms of its value system. But they refused to give enough credence to the salience of those values and their evaluative reach vis a vis Indians up to the independence era, even as they fought to recuperate African culture.
The British hegemonic discourse on one hand informed the Indians they were “industrious” and hard-working people as opposed to the freed Africans who were “lazy and shiftless”. But at the same time, the British efforts to proselytise and “civilise” the Indians gave the Africans the message that they, having imbibed that “civilising” influence for hundreds of years, were socially higher than the Indians. They were uncivilised, “coolies” who were performing menial tasks for wages the slaves had refused.
The history of Guyana is replete with the latter evaluation. In 1963, addressing his party Congress in the midst of a critical general strike against the PPP government, Burnham offered his analysis on what he called the “race question”. Indians, he said, were belatedly adopting the values of Guyanese society but because of their late entry, ”…retained much more than fragmentary traces of their native culture…It must also be recognised that in spite of the new values now becoming part of the Indian repertoire there is a lag between the forward group and the rest.”
It is this view that the Indian’s “necessary assimilation” into Creole society demands his jettisoning his “backward” culture that has led to a continued and studied effort to silence and erase that culture even though the Caribbean government’s pay lip service to “multiculturalism”. At Guyana’s Independence, the national symbols of flag (Garveyite and Ethiopian colours) National Hero (Cuffy) were ostentatiously of African origin with the National Motto declared the cultural goal explicitly: One People; One Nation; One Destiny. By 1970 “Ujaama Socialism”, was adopted from Tanzania after Burnham’s tour of Africa as our philosophy of development when the country became a republic.
Republic Day became commemorated by Mashramani, which was simply an imitation of the Trinidadian carnival under a completely made up “Amerindian” name. Pan African activists in Trinidad had taken much time and effort to prove the African origin of carnival - even as the PNM adopted it as T&T’s “national” festival. In 1970 there was also the Caribbean Writers and Artists Convention – with less than a handful of Caribbean Indians invited. Many of the attendees had been at the October 1968 “Montreal Congress of Black Writers of 1968”, which had led to Jamaica Rodney’s Black Power riots. A flavour of the times can be gleaned from the play staged at the Theatre Guild: My Name is Slave. A “Caribbean Festival of the Arts” (Carifesta) was proposed and launched in 1972.
Representation of Indian culture in the West Indies has always been, at best, a token gesture. And the silencing and erasure of a people continues unabated.