Why we must Commemorate Wismar Massacre

The Wismar massacre of Indians was an appalling, genocidal event causing very serious suffering of the survivors, the victims’ families, Indian people in general, and Guyana as a whole from May 1964 till now. Commemorating it is a moral duty of Indo-Guyanese everywhere (in Guyana and in the diaspora) and others who care for human lives and democracy.

Why we must Commemorate Wismar Massacre

The Wismar massacre of Indians was an appalling, genocidal event causing very serious suffering of the survivors, the victims’ families, Indian people in general, and Guyana as a whole from May 1964 till now. Commemorating it is a moral duty of Indo-Guyanese everywhere (in Guyana and in the diaspora) and others who care for human lives and democracy. People need to be informed of what happened to their ancestors or the country on May 26 even if it leads to outrage and condemnation. Remembrance and commemoration of the Wismar massacre serves as a key indication of how a people or a nation recognizes its history and the contributions of her people. Indians and Guyana as a whole should have remembrance ceremonies of major events like the Wismar or Ruimveldt or Enmore or Rose Hall or Uitvlught massacres, among others.

Guyanese focus on celebrating ‘independence’ without understanding the background of why May 26 was chosen as independence day. Americans celebrate July 4 as their Independence Day because it was historic – the day the representatives of the colonies took the decision to break from Mother England. May 26 had no historic attachment to Guyanese other than being the day when three thousand Indians were ethnically cleansed from the neighborhood of Wismar-McKenzie – several killed, many wounded, property burned to the ground, temples and mosques desecrated, women and little children raped, among other atrocities. How could that day be one for celebration? Do Americans celebrate the Boston Massacre? Do Jews celebrate the Holocaust or Kristallnacht? In a similar vein, it is felt that May 26 should be the Indo-Guyanese ‘Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Wismar-McKenzie Massacre’, including little children, pregnant women, all who were killed, robbed, raped, and victimized. Dr. Cheddie Jagan and the PPP opposed May 26 as independence day. The dictator Forbes Burnham and his party insisted on May 26 as independence day as a mark of triumphalism at Wismar-McKenzie cleansing the area of Indians. They gloated about it. And Burnham renamed the area after his name – Linden.

May 26 should not only be commemorated as Guyana independence but it must also be a “Day of Remembrance”. Indians need to make that point on any effort to celebrate May 26. It must serve as a reminder to all Guyanese and the world that it is a date of infamy in Guyana – the first incidence of ethnic cleansing of a people. Besides, it is inappropriate to commemorate one event that happened on that historic day and exclude the other far more historic event. One group of people cannot be told to conveniently forget what happened to them on May 26 and move on while the other group celebrates their victory over the Indian victims while dubbing it Independence Day. Independence Day is celebrated because it connects to a struggle waged for freedom from Britain over fifty years ago. Similarly, Wismar massacre is remembered because it connects to why a people were cleansed from an area on account of their ethnicity.

Every community commemorates massacres – Armenians, Ukranians, Chinese, Jews, American Indians, Africans, Mexicans, etc. Why shouldn’t Indians do the same? It is important for a people to journey into the past. We are historical beings tied to the past. We are a people today because of our past. What is learned today is drawn from the past that has not been forgotten. History is connected to the present. The past is remembered to understand the present and to avoid the pitfalls of the future. Recognition of what happened in the past and holding people accountable is an important aspect of history. To say Guyanese should forget the past and concentrate only on the present is to forget important lessons. Some say it is time to forgive and forget — perhaps to ensure that the massacre do not distract from the politics or from development and to affect cross over ethnic votes. If we just let things rest, as some prefer, we will not know the horrors that transpired in our past. Then we will not be able to prevent the same mistakes from happening all over again. If something as monumental as the Wismar Massacre — a genocide of the 20th century Guyana, perpetrated by the leader of a party and his sycophantic supporters, can be forgotten, what are the implications for other racially inspired violence? After all, as George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The facts would show the Wismar massacre has impacted on politics since the 1960s, and it will not go away by simply pretending it never happened. There has been virtually no cross over ethnic votes since 1957 – seven years before the Wismar massacre. Some 55 years after the massacre, Guyana is worse off developmentally. The country has retrogressed since the massacre. A national remembrance of the massacre may help to promote development. It will bring people together – victims and perpetrators – provide the right atmosphere for reconciliation and social cohesion. It will help to foster dialogue and give real expression to the motto of one people, one nation, or unity in diversity. Raising the issue of the massacre annually is exactly why this or other historical tragedies should never be laid to rest. By focusing on history and relating it to current events creates help us to understand what is going on around us both locally and globally. This is why the past, rather than being seen as a distraction, helps us to find solutions to the present day problems.

One cannot pick and choose what is commemorated and what is remembered. To tell Indians they should forget the past and concentrate only on the present is to forget important lessons. The Wismar Massacre is of historical significance to Indians and all of Guyana. We hear stories about the bravery of Indians to stand against terrorists who attacked them in Wismar and McKenzie. And we also hear other stories of indentured pioneers who settled on estates overcoming adversities and of Indians who were gunned down in various estates opposing injustice. These stories provide inspiration to go on in life and they provide a map for the journey of Indians as a people. Other groups are not asked to forget their past. So why should Indians? No historical tragedy (not slavery, not indentureship) should be put to rest. Commemorate all historical events and respect all groups   to exist.

Descendants of massacre survivors remember the victims of the Wismar massacre. They seek healing for all people, the victims’ families and others, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Commemoration is for everyone not just for the victims and families and Indians; it is for the entire nation. Every major event can be commemorated without undermining any group’s history. And Wismar can and should be commemorated on May 26.