The pluralism that shaped our cultural landscape is accentuated when all groups can freely express their values and claim ownership of the distinct cultural traits that define our existence. Being Guyanese means that while we share commonality and equality as citizens occupying the same territorial space, we are, simultaneously, components of a community representing cultural groups, with varying identities, origins, and backgrounds. Diversity implies that we have emerged into a complex society of people capable of celebrating, commemorating, and appreciating historical turning points that define our various heritages.
May 5 is one such turning point. On the first Saturday of May 1838, about 400 Girmitiyas (indentured Indians) survived the kala pani odyssey of more than 10,000 nautical miles across two oceans to reach Berbice and “Damra Tapu” (Demerara). Guy-ana bears the unique distinction of being the first Caribbean country to receive Indian labourers premised upon an arrangement brokered by John Gladstone, the wealthy Scottish absentee plantation owner. Gladstone’s family had previously received some £85,606 as post-emancipation compensation for the loss of approximately 2,183 slaves in British Guiana and Jamaica. Additionally, as far as I am aware, British Guiana was the only colony in which two ships transporting Girmitiyas, the SS Whitby and SS Hesperus, arrived on the same day in 1838.
For indentured Indians, their journey began with a pioneering, voluntary, as well as involuntary initiative, which today is nationally and officially commemorated in post-colonial diasporic societies where Indians represent a majority or a significant segment of the population: Jamaica (May 10- Indian Heritage Day), Trinidad & Tobago (June 1- Indian Arrival Day), Suriname (June – Pravas Din), Fiji (May 4- Girmit Remembrance Day), St. Vincent (June 1), St. Lucia (May 6), Grenada (May 1), Mauritius (November 2), and South Africa (November 16). As it stands, the only obstacle to recognizing Indian Arrival Day in Guyana is the PPP government.
Historically in Guyana, the premier Indian organization, the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), established in 1916, with its origin in Berbice, gave recognition to the importance of Indian arrival. The British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS), starting in 1937, held its yearly theatrical performances in May. The BGDS selected May month for their activities so as to mark Indian arrival to British Guiana and to pay tribute to their patron-dramatist, Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and writer from Kolkata who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913, and who was born on May 7.
In recognition of this historic event, in the preamble to his Message on May 5, 2021, President Mohamed Irfaan Ali, said “I greet all Guyanese on the occasion of Arrival Day 2021. This special day is commemorated as a public holiday on May 5 each year. It celebrates the contributions to the national development of our African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese and Euro-pean ancestors and their descendants.” In contrast, former Presi-dent Granger’s Message delivered during the previous year read: “Indian Arrival Day is celebrated each year on 5th May. The East Indians who arrived came largely from the Uttar Pradesh and Southern Indian regions of India.” The presidential narratives are distinctly noteworthy. Emancipation Day is dedicated to our African brothers and sisters, Amerindian Month is dedicated to our First People, and the Chinese first arrived in January (1853). The two groups that arrived in May were the Portuguese (May 3) and Indians (May 5). I surmise that the Portuguese will not take kindly to having their day of arrival subsumed under the same day as Indians. In effect, President Granger, as early as 2017, had established a precedent for the designation of Indian Arrival Day when he issued public notices proclaiming, “Chinese Arrival Day,” “Portuguese Arrival Day” and “Indian Arrival Day.”
That May 5 was officially intended as Indian Arrival Day dates back to a process started on April 14, 2003, when a Special Select Parliamentary Committee was established to review “The Public Holidays Act, Chapter 19:07.” As former ROAR parliamentarian Ravi Dev explained, when the said day was approved by the Parliamentary Committee in 2004, it was called Indian Arrival Day. The rationale for considering the holiday began with the introduction of a Report of the Special Select Committee: “Guyanese of Indian origin, who form a large portion of the country’s population, had for a period of in excess of the past forty years, been calling for 5th May to be declared a statutory public holiday, in observance of the arrival of the first batch of Indian indentured labourers who came to the then British Guiana in 1838.”
Yet the Government’s Resolution (No.12 of 2003) to establish the Committee declared that it should review as a possible public holiday “Arrival Day, that is to say, the 5th May, or, if that day is a Sunday, the following day.” In its conclusion, the Committee noted: “While the aforesaid recommendation (on the holiday be named “Arrival Day) is in keeping with our mandate, the Committee wishes to note that all the submissions favouring 5th May as a Public Holiday recommended that it be designated ‘Indian Arrival Day’ as is the case in Trinidad and Tobago.” The resolution was sent to the National Assembly on April 29, 2004, and “Arrival Day” was officially observed on May 5 of that year. It was the PPP parliamentarians who subsequently dropped the “Indian” from Arrival Day.
The PPP, in this particular case, seems to be bending over backward in order to avoid acknowledging Indian Guyanese’s claim to national recognition. It was Presbyterian Rev. J.B. Cropper, whose sole purpose was to harvest Christian converts, who declared that “without the labour of the East Indian, the Colony would today have been little more than a mangrove swamp fringed with courida bush.” Cropper was being overly generous with his assessment of Indian contributions to Guyana’s development at the 1938 centenary celebrations. However, the fact remains that Dr. Cheddi Jagan was committed to recognizing May 5 as a holiday. The PNC is on board. It now remains to be seen whether the government will continue to remain impervious to the sentiments of its large Indian constituency, who, through thick and thin, have provided multi-generational support for the PPP.