Demands of diversity and unity have to be balanced
By William Walker
May 29, 2000
For a multi-cultural society such as Guyana's, the Westminster winner-takes-all form of government fails to address the needs of minority ethnic groups to feel included.
This was the observation of Lord Bhiku Parekh speaking at the Guyanese Indian Foundation Trust (GIFT) Symposium held yesterday at the Le Meridien Pegasus Hotel. Before a large audience that included Prime Minister Sam Hinds, three government ministers and a Who's Who of Indo-Guyanese society, Parekh stressed the need for a constitution and electoral system agreed upon by all ethnic groups. No party could be allowed to rig an election or refuse to accept the results of a freely conducted one. It was like two boys playing marbles and one walking away when he does not win.
"Children can do that, but not society."
Parekh, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Hull, favours a federated system that drives political ambition away from the centre and relieves electoral tensions. He said models such as power sharing or initiatives such as automatic consultation of opposition parties on important matters of state and appointment of minority leaders to cabinet positions, can help to give all ethnic groups a sense of inclusiveness.
Moreover the institutions of the state, in particular the police, army and the civil service should at all times appear impartial. Any discrimination must be punished heavily. He advocated that these "symbols of the state" should as far as possible be representative of the community.
Parekh recommended that education in the "crucible of the schools" must be truly multicultural. Ways should be devised to find a composite common culture through state support for the arts and cultural practices of all ethnic groups. This would create a common space to which all could relate. He noted the success of countries such as America in creating an identity in which all can see a bit of themselves.
He said it was important to examine the symbols of a state to see if they reflect different ethnicities. This had even led in England to a critical analysis of the National Anthem.
Parekh said he was reluctant to make any recommendations but added that the building of inter-ethnic bridges through common projects could create a sense of common purpose. Whilst he saw a predominant creole culture here, he favoured an opening of that culture to include other ethnicities.
Parekh refuted the idea that ethnic organisations exacerbate racial tensions. On the contrary, he believed that self consciousness of one's ethnicity can dampen ethnic tensions. But he acknowledged the thin line between ethnic pride and racism noting that it is alright to define one's point of views as long as one is not against another ethnic group.
Parekh said that throughout civilisation there have been multicultural societies. With the dominance of capitalism, and modern democracy, it is no longer feasible for ethnic groups to isolate themselves. Capitalism inevitably requires interaction, and democracy asks ethnic groups to be involved in voting for the future of a nation. The great challenge for a multi-cultural society is to balance the legitimate demands of diversity with the national demands for unity. "You can't invoke `one nation, one country' and all of that, if it alienates one set of people." The next speaker Swami Aksharananda proposed that the Indian sense of identity, irrespective of where Indians live, was primordial, stemming from their obsession for a life with a foundation. This need for security was manifested in the Indian's overwhelming desire to own their own home.
He refuted the contention that Guyanese Indian culture began with the arrival of the first Amerindian. "We are inextricably linked to India and to deny this is to make us orphans in the world."
Aksharananda argued that the Guyanese school system is laden with a Judeo-Christian bias, noting that Hindu and Moslem children were still being forced to recite the Lord's prayer; schools were still being used as churches on the weekends; and government forms still ask you to fill in your "Christian name". "It is time for Guyana to have a genuine multi-cultural curriculum."
Aksharananda said he was mystifed how Guyana could be land of six peoples and have the motto one people, one nation.
GIFT executive RK Sharma gave a comprehensive analysis of what he perceived to be institutional racism during the People's National Congress tenure in government. He took up Lord Parekh's call to examine our national symbols. He described the Golden Arrowhead as merely incorporating the red, black and green colours of Marcus Garvey's pan Africanism and the national motto which "ignores ethnic pluralism" as an adaption of an African organisation's motto.
He called for the abolition of the position of the minister of empowerment and the formation of a committee that would empower all ethnic groups.
Indian rights activist Ravi Dev predicted that the upcoming elections would achieve nothing. "There's going to be trouble even if Mr Hoyte has to remind us ever so often." There was nervous laughter from the audience. Integrated federalism is the answer, Dev submitted. It would address the fears of African Guyanese that they would never get back in power and allay Indian fears of physical insecurity. He believed that the African psyche felt so strongly about having slaved and literally shaped this land that to leave them out of power is to ask for trouble. PPP executive Ralph Ramkarran was not convinced by all this ethnic rhetoric. He preferred to view Guyana's problems through the prism of class struggle.
"Forms of government that require alliances of different ethnic groups are difficult to sustain without a commitment to the working class... class identification must take precedence over ethnic identification". Ethnic tensions were not inherent but resulted from competition for scarce resources due to acute poverty. He argued that the PPP before the split of 1953 was genuinely unified in its struggle for equality and the split when it came was not so racially clear as historians would like to make out.
The PPP's refusal to define itself as an ethnic party eventually allowed for the relatively peaceful return of democracy in 1992, he concluded. He saw the nation's present problems not best addressed by a new structure of the state but rather by a renewed purpose. While ethnicity might play a role, it is not with the intensity some believe and should it become a permanent feature of Guyanese politics, it would become an obstacle to the country's development.
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