The Struggle for Indian Arrival Recognition in Guyana

The Struggle for Indian Arrival Recognition in Guyana

Last May 5 marked 179 years since the people of East Indian ancestry first came to this territory to rescue the decrepit sugar plantations following the end of slavery. Today, May 5 is a holiday. It is important for people to reflect on how and why Indian Arrival is a national holiday and how it came about. Prominent Indian leaders were opposed to the  recognition for Indian Arrival, no different from the kind of opposition experienced  in Trinidad.

The Indian labourers have been the largest immigrant group to Guyana. And for decades, they have been the largest ethnic group in the then British colony and after independence. The indentured labourers have left an indelible imprint on the cultural (language, food, etc.) landscape and in the economic, social, religious, and political fabric of Guyana. Their immense contributions and accomplishments in every field have been on the basis of great personal sacrifice (of disconnection with their ancestral homeland, a good life, etc.), and against great odds. They have been an ethnically persecuted people since the time they arrived on May 5, 1838. They lived in inhumane slave like conditions. They were often cheated of their pay, battered and bruised by the white colonial masters and other ethnic groups. They overcame the adversities they faced with dignity and much cultural retention as practiced in India. They persevered, and their presence has added to the richness and uniqueness of the nation – multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic. Thus, it is appropriate for the nation to recognize the contributions made by Indians and what they brought from India and to honour them with an appropriate celebration like the granting of an Indian Arrival holiday as was requested by Indian rights activists.

But it took decades after independence to convince national politicians that the tremendous contribution and sacrifices of Indians to the nation be recognized with a national holiday similar to the honour (Emancipation Day) given to enslaved Africans who the Indians replaced on the plantations under some similar conditions of abuse. Emancipation Day was recognized as a holiday early in the nation. But it was a long struggle before the Indians were given recognition of a national day just over a decade ago. Even the PPP was not strongly supportive of a day to honour Indians for their pioneering efforts.

Indian activists and community leaders had to wage a long arduous battle for this recognition to the indentured Indians as both the governing PNC (1964 to 1992) and successor PPP administrations were opposed to recognizing the immense contributions of the Indian indentures and their descendants with a national holiday. It took intense lobbying, commitment and dedication to the cause by community groups and Indian rights activists like Ryhaan Shah, Ravi Dev, Swami Aksharnanda, Baytoram Ramharack, me (Vishnu Bisram) and other stalwarts to convince the PPP to grant the holiday. Strong political pressure from cultural groups like Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA) and the grass roots activists, both locally and  North America and the Caribbean, forced the PPP government to declare a national day for Indian Arrival. Fearing the brunt of the angst of Indians, the PPP reluctantly caved in to give Indians a holiday for their rescue of the nation. And the party refused to name it Indian Arrival Day.

This holiday honours the hard work and great sacrifices made by Indian indentured laborers who laid the foundation for a better life for their descendants. Indian Arrival Day is a day of reflection of the presence of Indians in Guyana. It salutes the Indian pioneers for their sacrifices, hard work and perseverance. As we commemorate their arrival, we must do so in acknowledgement of their struggle to survive and to build a better society. But their work remains unfinished. Equality for all has eluded the pioneers and their early descendants on the Guyanese territory. So we must take cognizance of the fact that the struggle continues for equality not only for Indians but for all groups. Every group must find an equal place and space in our national community and in the sharing of resources. We must also exploit the resources for a higher standard of living. This will allow for the construction of an ethnically harmonious society.

It is noted that some 179 years after the end of slavery, living conditions of Indians have not improved as much as the pioneers would have expected. The territory is still divided by race with political leaders playing the lead role in dividing the people by ethnicity. Sugar workers are still fighting for a decent wage and to hold in to their jobs.

Politicians of all stripes have let down the nation. The Indians, not much different from Africans, have been abused politically by their leaders whose primary interest has been capturing power but not in service of the interests of their supporters. The leaders were or are more interested in self wealth unlike the Indian pioneers who wanted to build a better society for all. The Indians, like the Africans, were manipulated for the self-preservation of leaders. As we commemorate Indian Arrival, Indians and Africans and other groups must come together to build a better society. People must put pressure on their political leaders to come together to build a just and equitable society for all.