The late Guyanese dictator Forbes Burnham pursued genocidal policies against Indians. He marginalized Indian culture and denied them access to their traditional diet by banning certain foods. He also denied them access to items needed for the preparation of the dead for burial or cremation and for related rituals.
Burnham banned goods that were required for Hindu funerals and rites as well as that are used by other religions. The banning of basic goods and religious items was an act of cultural and religious genocide. Up till now, those individuals, including some Hindu leaders and pandits and Mulvis, associated with Burnham are yet to condemn Burnhamism and the dictatorship’s crude attempt at de-culturalization of large segments of the population.
The Hindu faith (religious book as handed down by God) outlines specific acts and rituals that must be performed from the time of death thru thirteen days after funeral (or cremation) and just before the conclusion of one year from death. There are also specific rituals during the wake and the viewing and on the body of the deceased. I am very familiar with the practice as well as the items required for the preparation of the dead for burial or cremation, the funeral rites, and the pujas to be performed over the next year or even beyond that time period. I worked as a youngster assisting my aunt in her supermarket in Ankerville and I was tasked with preparing the items for all kinds of religious services (Hindu, Muslim, Christian) particularly for Hindu funerals and the ‘dead wuk’. These rituals include oblations with specific items – most of which are not produced in Guyana but were historically imported (most of them from India and elsewhere). Burnham banned these goods or prohibited their importation. Some of these items include: Black till (sesame seeds), ghee (produced in Guyana but not even close to meeting demand), ganga pani, agarbati, hing, mustard oil, camphor, gugul, samagri, kasturi, kesar, channa, barley, dhal, wheat flour, ground rice (available in Guyana), cloves, chandan, katcha suit (sacred thread), sindur or kumkum, atar, haldi or hardee (dye), supari (grown in Guyana), milk (available in Guyana), honey, katahar or koa leaves and kush grass and varied other leaves (paan, neem, mango, tulsi, etc.) that are available in Guyana, and a host of other items. These items are not replaceable or substituted. For the puja on the 9th or 10th day and the 12th or 13th day after funeral and the one year commemoration, other items are required including alou or potatoes, onion, garlic, and all the spices and ingredients, including elichi (cardamom), that are used for preparation of a traditional meal. The scripture does not state that preserved raisins or cherries and other condensed and evaporated milk are required for the rituals; but it has been a tradition to use these items in cuisine preparation. In Trinidad, India, Surinam, Fiji, Mauritius, Singapore, and Malaysia, and other countries, apples, grapes, almonds, prunes, dates or cajoor are made as offerings.
When these items were banned or prohibited from being imported between 1970 and 1989 by the dictator Forbes Burnham and his cronies, it was a major challenge to prepare the Hindu dead for final rites and to perform rituals for their souls as prescribed in the scriptures. These items were smuggled into the country from across the Suriname border. They were not always available. Many families had to do without them. Some Guyanese visiting from abroad also smuggled the banned goods at great risk of fines and imprisonment. The police often conducted raids at Indian homes and shops in search of prohibited foods and religious items. In private, Hindu leaders who were associated with Burnham told me they appealed to him not to ban the above items but their pleas fell on deaf ears. They should have disassociated themselves from Burnham for his genocidal policies against Indians. It is not too late for them to condemn Burnham’s policy of banning goods that were so crucial for Indian religious rituals. It was an act of cultural and religious genocide.