Why men rebel
Photo : Ravi Dev
The ROAR of Ravi Dev
A couple of years after the 1992 elections, I, along with Eusi Kwayana and several others were nominated to the fledgling “Race Relations Committee” chaired by Bishop Randolph George. Invited to a 1995 panel discussion in Trinidad on “Violence and Youths in the Caribbean” chaired by Prof Errol Miller, I offered an analysis of the political situation in Guyana. I predicted ethnic violence would break out in a few years because the political system was ignoring the wellsprings of politics in the Guyanese milieu - ethnicity.
I have consistently acknowledged my debt to Donald Horowitz for his socio-psychological theory of ethnic conflict which I had introduced into Guyana. As explained a few weeks ago, this was succinctly encapsulated in his equation: group comparison + group legitimacy = the politics of entitlement. Meaning that while in all societies groups will compare themselves with each other, in ethnically plural societies this comparison process is especially invidious, especially if a former “forward” group has been superseded by a putatively “backward” group. This is what was happening in Guyana, with the former “backward” Indians and the former “forward” Africans/Coloureds.
The former is blamed for the latter’s predicament as they become the receptors of all the negative projections of the latter’s fears. After the universal franchise was introduced in 1953, this group comparison process was increasingly played out in the competition over which group would control the state under the new dispensation which proposed that, politically, Guyanese of all colour, race and creed were now ”equal”.
Horowitz’s second factor, group legitimacy, now kicks in. Some groups - here Africans and Coloureds - were convinced because of “prior arrival, slavery, earlier education, greater suffering, cultural orthodoxy, civilising the landscape” etc, they had a greater legitimacy to inherit the state after the departure of the British. By this logic, the West Indies was an “African Nation” which should be ruled by Africans. While Indians might have been a majority/plurality in Guyana and Trinidad, the claim to greater legitimacy precipitated “the politics of entitlement” which averred jettisoning the international of equality if necessary, to satisfy its logic.
As George Lamming wrote in his foreword to Rodney’s “History of the Working Peoples in Guyana”, “This perception of the Indian as alien and a problem to be contained after the departure of the Imperial power, has been a major part of the thought and feeling of Black West Indians and a very stubborn conviction among the Black middle layers in Trinidad and Guyana. Indian power, in politics or business, has been regarded as an example of an Indian strategy for conquest.”
But the conflicts created by the politics of entitlement do not lead ineluctably to ethnic violence. What then were the factors that precipitated my 1995 prediction about the violence that broke out in 1998 Jan 12, and continued for a decade? The work by one Ted Gurr, who had written a seminal text, “Why Men Rebel”, helped. Two weeks ago Ted Gurr passed away, but his thesis has become increasingly relevant to Guyana as the “politics of entitlement” now plays out once again. Before he passed away, Gurr offered some advice for activists and politicians in the present:
“Begin by examining the group identities and grievances of disadvantaged people, including the poor, underemployed urban youth, and members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities.
Understand the sources of people’s grievances by examining their status and their treatment by governments and by other groups. Listen to what people say, not just what others say about them.
Ask why group identities and disadvantages make their members susceptible to different kinds of political appeals and ideologies that justify protest or rebellion.
Analyze the motives and strategies of leaders who seek to build political movements among aggrieved people.
Study the motives and strategies of governments in dealing with disadvantaged groups. Are governments open to political participation by such groups? Do government policies increase or reduce the potential for disruptive conflict?
Analyze the international pressures and constraints that influence the way governments respond to political action.
Consider how political action and government responses affect the groups involved. How much does a group gain or lose? Do governmental policies restore public order or do they provoke further resistance?”
To ignore this advice is to guarantee ethnic violence.