The 180th Anniversary of East Indians’ Presence in Guyana: Was not a Time for Celebration but Rather for Reflection

The 180th Anniversary of East Indians’ Presence in Guyana: Was not a Time for Celebration but Rather for Reflection

It was sugar that brought our fore-parents to Guyana to build a better life, and it's the politics of sugar that is destroying the lives of their descendants. In the 1970s sugar was king; local politicians used to say that Bookers, which had owned about 80% of the sugar estates was taking out punt-loads of money from the country. When the PNC Burnham government nationalized the sugar industry in the mid-1970s, the cane-punts of money could not be located; they disappeared from the radar. Many critics believe that nationalization of sugar marked the beginning of the decline of that industry. Today, the APNU-AFC government has ensured that the number of grinding sugar estates has been reduced to just 3.

That was a terrible policy decision by the Granger administration which claimed that they cannot subsidize the sugar industry by about $(G) 5-6 billion annually. They tried to make the sugar workers believe that they are dependent on the state's handouts, claiming that they (sugar workers) are raiding the public treasury. They forget that they were the first ones to raid the treasury by giving themselves an exorbitant salary increase of 50%+ just after taking office in 2015. Not to mention the continual raid on the treasury through so-called "legitimate" channels, like making frequent and often non-productive overseas trips as well as breaking the procurement rules by awarding contracts to party supporters and friends. For example, the coalition awarded a pharmaceutical storage contract to one of their supporters the cost of which is over 4 times the market value. It costs tax payers a whopping $(G) 14 million a month. It is believed that a portion of that money is going into the PNC re-election campaign.

These and other thoughts were expressed at the GADP (Guyana America Democracy Project)  program at the concert hall, Maharishi Dayananda Gurukula in Queens, New York in Saturday May 12, 2018 on the occasion of the 180 anniversary of East Indians' presence in Guyana and on the 101st anniversary of the end of labor recruitment under indentureship. The program was designed with 4 objectives in mind, namely: (1) to express solidarity and support for the displaced sugar workers, and also the rice farmers; (2) to reflect upon the hard work, sacrifice, achievements and challenges of our fore-parents and their descendants; (3) to motivate the Guyanese people to conduct research into their family history, in particular; and (4) to reinforce the role of Indian culture and identity in conditions of pluralism. 

Recognizing the importance of all religions, an opening prayer was rendered by a representative each of the Hindu, the Christian and the Muslim faith. A formal welcome speech was delivered by Pt Ram Hardowar, spiritual leader of the Shri Surya Narayan Mandir. Pt Ram urged the audience as well as East Indian advocates to use civil language when presenting their view points. A Surya Mandir youth group rendered a beautiful song for the occasion. That was followed by a patriotic song, "Oh Guyana" that was penned years ago by visiting Vedic missionary Shri Bhattacharya and sung by the famous Neville Kalicharran. This was facilitated by another music icon Taffazul Baksh of the Indian Hot Shot Orchestra fame. Taffazul still plays the mandolin and guitar.  

Sevika Subick of the Gurukula rendered a Lata Mangeshkar’s classic, "Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo." She was followed by another brilliant singer Amrita Singh who also rendered a patriotic song. A riveting patriotic poem written by Professor Anand Rambachan was read by Banmattie Ram. Taffazul Baksh  rendered a song that he wrote. As part of GADP’s efforts to foster and reinforce ethnic pride and cultural identity, the famous Sanasani cultural organization, headed by Akash Krsna Kanha, performed two sets of pulverizing dances that captivated the hearts of the audience. The costumes and choreography were spectacular. The students performed with distinction as well as with panache. They are indeed our prized cultural ambassadors.  Over 80% of the performers/presenters were our youth. This is the way forward!  

Professor Baytoram Ramharack of Suffolk Community College enlightened the audience with some significant pieces of information on the immigration experience indicating the trials and tribulations of indentured laborers, including the indignities they suffered. Pt Ram Hardowar also spoke of the long hours of work from 7am to 7pm and for 6 days a week during indentureship (1838-1917). “The sugar industry that they have worked to save and build, has now dishonored their sacrifice, as thousands of their descendants have been cast onto the breadlines.” The government’s goal has been to break the support base of the PPP in the sugar belt. As a consequence, the government has created a humanitarian crisis in many sugar estate communities. Had it not been for the help of NGOs, the situation would have become explosive.    

Pt Mochan Persaud of the Vighneshwar Mandir made a plea to help the displaced sugar workers and suggested the setting up of “soup kitchens” in various communities. Political analysts and Indian Rights activist Ravi Dev responded that while that is a good gesture, what we need most is to build institutions like colleges and cultural centers. Ravi blasted the government for its treatment of East Indians and Amerindians, in particular. He said that it was the East Indians who were at the leadership of the independence movement and it was the East Indians who saved the sugar industry during its crises. It was also the East Indians who pioneered the rice industry.

Ravi Dev, like other speakers, gripped the attention of the audience when he referred to the great drought in the late 19th century Guyana when animals and crops were badly smitten.  One Indian immigrant pleaded with the estate management to allow him to pray in solitude to the Almighty beseeching Him to bless the people with an abundance of rainfall. Surprisingly, the management agreed to this request and a hole was dug where he (immigrant) planted himself and began his supplication. In a few days’ time the heavens bust open and the rains came splattering on the cane fields and restoring energy onto other plants and living things.  There was tremendous revelry among the people for this divine act of nature. That was a cultural practice that Indian immigrants had brought with them from India. Whenever there was drought in India, Indians would perform rituals, including prayers  to invoke rainfall. Ravi also indicated that a Shivala has been built upon this site at Pln Port Mourant, Corentyne.  

Taking a brief journey into our history, Rev Seopaul Singh narrated the heart-breaking story of the Jaikaran's family massacre in 1964 in which 10 members were brutally killed, including a baby allegedly by members of the PNC-indoctrinated volunteer force. A surviving member of that horrible incident, Girley Jaikaran, who was 14 years then, was introduced to the audience at this event. She was overpowered with emotions and could not  speak. For Girley and other family members, there could be no closure to that onslaught. There are many other examples of massacres and killings that are contained in Rev Seopaul Singh’s book, “Anatomy of Race Politics, Economics and Violence against Diaspora Indians.” 

Notwithstanding the miseries and hardships in the plantation and post-plantation systems, Pt Edward Motiram passionately recalled a few good moments, too. He stated that at one village on the Corentyne at Springlands, 40 families moved out of the logies and established their own little settlement at a place named Rampur. Despite their diversity in terms of religious faith, skill level, and social background, they lived in harmony and reached out to one another. He lamented that such “es prit de corps” no longer exists and that our communities are torn apart now by racism and social cleavages. Pt Motiram noted that the “togetherness” of the community then served as a balm to families who had otherwise been exposed to persistent hardships.

What message also came out forcefully from the proceedings was a rich source of oral history. These and other stories have to be recorded as part of the country’s written history. The anniversary event has given our community a few challenges, including the continued exploration of their respective family histories.  

The vote of thanks was moved by Dr Satish Prakash who was lavish in his praise for the performing artistes, the organizers, the donors of food and the audience. Gratitude was extended to Dr Vishnu Bisram, Robert Mohamed of WICR radio, the West Indians newspaper, Dr Satish Prakash and the Gurukula, Shri  Mohan Singh the official photographer, and Talesh and Avinash for making all the logistical arrangements. Organizers were commended for the high quality of the program.