ROAR of Ravi Dev
Way back in 1963, after the leaders of the PPP, PNC and UF could not reach agreement on a way forward on Constitutional measures following ethnic violence that had wracked the country, the Secretary of the State for the Colonies succinctly described Guyana’s political impasse.
“…the Premier (Dr. Jagan) told me that, if the British troops were withdrawn, the situation would get completely out of control.
The root of the trouble lies entirely in the development of party politics along racial lines…. Both parties (PPP and PNC) have, for their political ends, fanned the racial emotions of their followers, with the result that each has come to be regarded as the champion of one race and the enemy of the other.
The Africans accuse the Government party of governing in the interests only of the Indians, and demand a share in political decisions. On the other side, the Indians accuse the Police, which is mainly African, of partiality towards the Africans and demand the creation of a separate defence force, recruited more extensively from the Indian community, to counterbalance the Police.”
In its proposals, the British pointed out that there was the need, in general, “to protect minorities” and in particular, to address “the racial nature of the problem”. For the latter problem, “the Government should endeavour to rule with the general consent of the population … (and a new armed force) …should be constituted before independence by the Governor, who would endeavour to ensure that recruits were not drawn predominantly from any one racial group.”
The British recognised that under existing conditions, neither the PPP and PNC would be able “to increase appreciably its following among the other racial groups.” They then submitted, “…it must be our deliberate aim to stimulate a radical change in the present pattern of racial alignments. It was therefore my duty to choose the electoral system which would be most likely to encourage inter-party coalitions and multi-racial groupings”. Finally, they concluded, “proportional representation would be likely to result in the formation of a coalition government of parties supported by different races, and that this would go some way towards reducing the present tension.”
Sadly, while the British had a very good diagnosis of what ailed Guyana, their prescription of “proportional representation” was tactical rather than strategic because of their prior agreement with the Americans to remove Dr. Jagan and the PPP from office. There were no additional structural changes that addressed the ethnic nature of the conflict. PR on its own, was simply a device to allow the PNC and the UF to coalesce and elbow out the PPP.
It is our contention that even with the changed demographics since 1963, the politicians and other actors in the public arena will have to honestly and publicly confront the ethnic/racial orientation of Guyanese political culture and structures, and attempt to deal affirmatively with the inevitable consequences. From the March 2 elections results, the PPP has evidently been able to attract a block of voters from the Indigenous, Mixed and African Guyanese groups – outside their traditional Indo-Guyanese base which is now below 40% of the electorate.
But the PNC has undoubtedly retained its base in the Afro-Guyanese and Mixed communities along with a significant number of Indigenous votes. This means, therefore, that the two main groups Afro and Indo-Guyanese are still, by and large in opposing camps. With the PNC adopting the identical posture in the post-1997 elections, it is quite possible that history might repeat itself.
What to do? While institutions do not ever encompass the totality of individuals’ activities around a value, at least they delineate the ideal that individuals should strive for. This is where policy makers can begin. Race/ethnicity remains the primary cleavage in Guyana and still shapes our political culture to an overwhelming degree. Secondly, it should be accepted that the political device deployed to mediate inter-group relations from the establishment of the colony to the present – principally domination and force – have not worked.
We have proposed some specific institutional mechanisms (Federalism); policies (Ethnic Proportionality in State Institutions, Multiculturalism, Affirmative Action in Economic activities; Ethnic Impact Statements, etc.) that may assist in moving the political struggle out of the zero sum arena in which it is presently waged, by helping to shape a new political culture to encourage the growth of Democracy.
We urgently need a national discussion on these issues.