East Indian solidarity in nation-building in Guyana
Guyana Chronicle
May 5, 2002

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Indo-Caribbean culture, today is not widely accepted as a legitimate field of study because the Caribbean is still seen as African. Numerous studies of Afro-Caribbean history and culture attest to this definitive conclusion. These studies show an Afro-centric approach toward the Caribbean. Given a sizable number of East Indians in Guyana, the notion and application of an Afro-centric philosophy entrenched in Caribbean Studies certainly reduce the significance of East Indian labour in the Caribbean from the beginning of Indenture.

Some features of the Indo-Caribbean experience may very well be dislocation from India, massive burden of labour in the Caribbean, ethnic victimisation in the post-colonial era, and migration to the metropolitan centres. These characteristics generate a double marginalisation, as Naipaul would say (Birbalsingh 1997: xv). First, there is marginalisation via their a subservient relationship to American and Euro-centred Creole-Caribbean condition. Second, there is marginalisation via their ‘outsider’ status as East Indians in the Caribbean.

An integrated pluralist model
Guyana emerged from the White planters’ clutch as a plural society with multiple class and cultural traditions. People have ingrained belief systems and values, driven by their cultural norms. In a multiethnic society, the cultural institutional structure, i.e., family, kinship, religion, and ethnicity, are presented as dimensions of pluralism.

Therefore, the traditional pluralist model comprises two concepts: culture and ethnicity. Smith describes a plural society as a society divided into separate social and cultural sections, each of which was typified by a different system of basic institutions. He argued that “This basic institutional system embraces kinship, education, religion, property and economy, recreation, and certain modalities” (Smith 1965:82).

He argues that a plural society lacks a common value system shared by the separate cultural sections. Under these seemingly conflict and unstable conditions, therefore, order and control functions become a premium, and these are effected through a political machinery controlled by the dominant cultural section. However, the ruling elite has a dominant value system, with which subordinate groups have to comply, even in situations of cultural coexistence.

Clearly, cultural coexistence under the traditional pluralist model could breed ethnic cleavage and closure, with only minimal participation of the competing ethnic groups in the economic sector of society. This analysis of pluralism, if true, suggests minimal social interaction between Africans and East Indians in Guyana. But the empirical evidence would indicate otherwise. For instance, observation of these two races in the adolescent and adult socialisation process in Guyana shows consistent meaningful interaction, even during colonial times.

In these circumstances, class as a third dimension needs to complement the other two concepts of culture and ethnicity in the pluralist model. However, ethnic cleavage and closure become diluted when both competing ethnic groups begin to perceive themselves as holding a similar class position at each level in the class structure. Indeed, the possibility still exists for people of similar ethnicity and race, but from different class levels to experience prejudice and discrimination. Any of the three factors of race, class, and ethnicity, or their combination is capable of triggering off the ugly faces of prejudice and discrimination.

Therefore, class, race, and ethnicity are lived simultaneously (Andersen & Collins 1992:xxi) to create stratification systems, and they interact to facilitate or thwart access to social and economic rewards, intensifying the impact of any of them individually (Rothman 1999:15-16). Rothman argues that the interaction of class, race and ethnicity can be illustrated in examining the distribution of income. For instance, then, those East Indians and Africans who comprise the working class, will share similar occupation, income, and education characteristics, referred to as socioeconomic status (SES). This similarity is observed for all race and ethnic groups at all class levels of the stratification system.

In this integrated pluralist model, we can now identify the level of cultural pluralism in Guyana, albeit theoretically (Gordon 1959:143), by first examining four types of cultural pluralism. These are:

• The tolerance level - minimum cultural coexistence

• The good group relations level - more secondary and less primary contacts transcending ethnic lines

• The community integrational level - increasing primary contacts with less emphasis on ethnicity

• The pluralistic integrational level - growth of subnational heritage where there is free movement among different ethnic groups.

Some mutual accommodation to each group’s cultural values, some freeing up of ethnic endogamy, and their increasing informal interaction, may very well symbolise in Guyana a good group relations level of cultural pluralism.

Seeing Guyana today as being characterised with a cultural pluralism only in terms of race and ethnicity, motivates a person to largely focus on the distinctiveness of beliefs, values, kinship groups, and institutions.

However, each ethnic group’s culture is distinctive but permeable, due to the injection of class as a variable into the pluralist model, creating an integrated pluralist paradigm. This expanded pluralist model has the potential to facilitate a focus on ethnic similarities and not ethnic differences, thereby preventing a minority group's assimilation to a dominant culture.

Resistance to assimilation
Most societies have a stratification system where there is an upper class, a middle class, a working class, a lower class, and an underclass. People are located at different levels of this class structure. Let us assume for a moment that a person is part of the middle class as an East Indian. Are there not Africans who, too, are part of that middle class? And because they are part of that middle class, even though their race and culture are different, the East Indian middle class person would tend to have more meaningful interaction with those Africans who have a similar economic status.

Some people may not accept it, but I think that you should ponder for a moment about the many similarities East Indians have with Africans. If you accept this level of similarity, then the quality of interaction between the two major ethnic groups will be enhanced. The same argument can apply to any of the class level for both ethnic groups.

The obsession with ethnic differences and not ethnic similarities, has driven people to believe that in Guyana as in all multiethnic societies, the achievement of a common culture or a common value system is the panacea for race problems and nation building. Nothing can be further from the truth. The U.S. with a multiplicity of cultures, and it has a lot more than six cultures, does not appear to have a common culture. People who are American citizens or Green Card holders in the U.S. generally comply with the legal requirements of the system, and still sustain their own cultural heritage and contribute to nation building of that society.

A false assumption is used to promote assimilation toward a common culture, as the focus is, mainly, on ethnic differences. The false assumption is that racism can be resolved by creating a common culture, achieved only through assimilation. A spotlight on ethnic similarities will preserve and advance each other’s culture. Both East Indians and Africans have to develop a reduced focus on these differences, and place greater emphasis on cultural universals; cultural universals, are values, norms, or other cultural characteristics found in all societies (Henslin [1993] 1995:49). These are commonalities shared by different cultures, implying that East Indians and Africans, in this context, have cultural similarities, and, of course, as well as differences.

Picture the bridges and the coalitions these cultural universals can establish with both cultures. We must respect other people’s culture, and understand that the cultures of the Amerindians, East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese, Africans, Mixed, can coexist through cultural universals. Whole cultures cannot be bridged, only those components common to different cultures can be bridged; these common components are cultural universals. However, such cultural universals are necessary but not sufficient to create the bridges; they are, nevertheless, useful building blocks that can become the linkages among different cultures.

Cultural universals refer to aspects of different cultures, and, therefore, do not constitute a whole culture. Therefore, any bridge established through cultural universals, represents a pluralist unity, and not the ‘conventional national unity’.

National unity conventionally refers to a fusion of several minority cultures that become absorbed into the dominant culture. These many minority cultural slices will not produce any unified ‘Guyanese culture’, the achievement of which is perceived to be national unity. This is so because this preposterous ‘Guyanese culture’, presented as the consummation of national unity, presupposes a condition of forced assimilation, manifest or latent, on minority groups by the politically dominant. Whole cultures in Guyana do not have to linked. Only relationships premised on ethnic similarities have to be bridged.

East Indians understood well the need to preserve their culture, and have resisted any attempt to dilute the East Indian heritage. This resistance to any type of assimilation to Creole or White culture, facilitated the social construction of East Indian solidarity. The solidarity showed deference to and sustained the colonial value system through the ‘total institution’ framework on sugar plantations in the colonial period.

At first, East Indians showed solidarity to colonial culture, and latently, demonstrated resilience against assimilation through their cultural persistence, followed by a period of solidarity with Africans in battling colonial hegemony up to the 1950s. Ethnic cleavage and closure by East Indians was practically nil in their show of support for Whites at the beginning of indenture through the 1860s. However, in their pursuit of cultural preservation to ward off any threat to their culture, ethnic cleavage and closure displayed by East Indians, became a predominant factor of social life.

Africans continued to distrust the East Indian “… for his ‘blackleg’ entry into their struggle” (Cross 1980:4), well beyond the indenture period. By the same token, East Indians consistently showed cultural resilience and persistence, aided by their ceremonial ethnic cleavage and closure against Africans and Creoles. But amid their conflicts of interest, East Indians also showed solidarity with Africans in the early beginnings of trade unionism, industrial resistance, and sustaining the sugar and rice industries.

Labor resistance by East Indians against the plantocracy, and politicised constituents within the East Indian population, such as, Bechu in the 19th Century, and Peter Ruhoman, and Dr. Cheddi Jagan in the 20th Century, among others through the 1950s, confirm the evolution of East Indian solidarity with Africans against colonial hegemony. Obviously, under these conditions, inter-ethnic solidarity tended to reduce the level of intra-ethnic cleavage.

East Indian subculture
What factors sustained East Indian culture since 1838? Through the characteristics of the East Indian subculture, inclusive of the family system, religious organisations, and educational institutions, East Indians have been able to uphold their culture and contribute to societal development.

Malik (1971:27) argues that the unit of the East Indian community is not the individual but the joint family. At marriage a girl leaves her ancestral family and becomes part of the joint family of her husband … a very important feature of this social unit is that all property is held in common” (Madan:10-11). The joint family system and kinship pattern were effectively relocated to the Caribbean from India, demonstrating a continuity between cultures. This continuity was significant in enabling the family to socialise the child in the formative years.

Klass (1961:93) shows that “… an East Indian’s first allegiance is to his family, his next to his wider circle of kin.” East Indian life revolves primarily around the family, and secondarily encompassing social and public life. The family-centred approach, according to Malik (1971:30), promotes particularist and ascriptive values, and strong ethnic identification as attachment to family, village/estate, and religion. This attachment, however, gets transformed into primary tasks for the individual, and encourages ethnic politics. Some East Indian leaders, notwithstanding their localised psychological attachment, have used their ethnic base to integrate ethnicity, race, and class into political activism through advancing to higher levels of cultural pluralism.

East Indians are not a collectively united ethnic group because of a division into several religious groups - Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and others. Religious-cultural diversities contribute overwhelmingly to the East Indian way of life. For instance, the majority of the Hindu population until the 1960s, were followers of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha. These East Indians stood tall when their religious organisation became susceptible to political aggression. Burnham, conscious that he would not win the East Indian vote without destroying the hold that the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha had on East Indian Hindus, successfully engineered the removal of some of its significant leaders.

Subsequently, Burnham was still unable to secure a large cross-section of the East Indian vote. Burnham’s attempt to fragment the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, demonstrated his perception of the political power of this Hindu organisation. In the twenty-eight dark years of the Burnham Dictatorship, East Indians sought solace in their religion, be it Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. Their religion and religious organisations provided the solidarity and activism needed to resist the authoritarian regime that posed a threat to their culture. In the Burnham Dictatorship years, ethnic cleavage and closure as projected by East Indians were high.

Contribution to sugar and rice
Stereotypes have alluded to East Indians as ‘sugar and rice people’; notwithstanding this stereotypical negativity, the allusion is also paradoxical. The paradox lies in the reality that both industries would have had a premature mortality, had it not been for skilled East Indian labour. The refusal of Africans to continue to till the sugar lands at the end of slavery, and to focus their energies in developing a successful village movement, would, indeed, have spelt the death of sugar. The presence, however, of indentured East Indian labour in Guyana, notwithstanding their replacement of Africans in sugar, guaranteed the persistence of sugar.

It is appropriate to mention here that East Indians, Portuguese, and Chinese were not brought to Guyana because there was a shortage of labour to man the sugar plantations; African workers were in adequate numbers to keep the sugar mills alive. Indentured servants were really induced to Guyana to act as an alternative source of cheap labour. Of course, White planters were successful in this mission. Eventually, East Indians constituted the main labour force in sugar.

Prior to the East Indian arrival in 1838, White planters attempted to cultivate rice, obtaining rice seedlings and advice from Louisiana, and other parts of the United States of America. Several attempts were effected, but all ended in failure. The East Indians, some with experience and skills in rice cultivation, consolidated the rice industry. Rice, today, is the second largest export earner for Guyana.

Common solidarity
East Indian descent demonstrated a remarkable history of active struggle, despite their containment within a total institutional framework. Rigid labour laws produced criminal convictions for the slightest violations. Medical doctors and magistrates operated in the ruling class interests, once they were paid off handsomely. East Indian women became frequent targets for sexual assaults by White overseers. Interestingly, East Indians did make active responses.

Although arrests were common, East Indians continued to resist. East Indians effected 31 strikes in 1886, 15 in 1887, and 42 in 1888. The years 1874 through 1895 saw 65,084 indentured East Indians convicted of violating the labour contract. Strikes against the White planters persisted throughout the colonial era until 1966.

Even though the East Indian presence in 1838 was manipulated to undermine the bargaining power of Africans on the sugar plantations, we witnessed a burgeoning industrial solidarity between Africans and East Indians in the colonial period that needs to be re-ignited today. Rodney (1982:xxiii) attributes the common pattern of victimisation perpetrated on both Africans and East Indians as the catalyst inducing a genuine solidarity in the plantocracy. This inter-ethnic solidarity, however, disintegrated after 1966.

A main theme defining East Indian contribution to the socioeconomic development of Guyana is solidarity. This solidarity is evidenced in their economic and industrial resistance, projecting their own grievances, but linking with the protracted and unrelenting African cause against White planters.

Out of this solidarity emerged a wholesome unity between the East Indian and African working classes during 28 dark years of the Burnham Dictatorship.

Political accommodation and support were, again, demonstrated by East Indians toward Africans after the 1997 national election, as evidenced in the Herdmanston Accord and the St. Lucia Statement. This point has credibility only if we agree with the perceived ethnic loyalties commanded by both the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/Civic) and the People's National Congress (PNC). Even if this credibility is mired in doubt, we need to say that joint East Indian and African working-class struggles, over the years, demonstrate solidarity in the form of political accommodation and support shown by both East Indian and African and working class brothers and sisters toward each other.

East Indian and African solidarity has the potential for longevity. But that solidarity must be premised on developing the following conditions, in order to reduce ethnic cleavage and closure:

Cultural pluralism based on race, ethnicity, and class to produce meaningful interactions among all groups; a coexistence of cultures, with an aggressive focus on cultural universals that transcend the falsely rhetorical Guyanese culture.

A stock of knowledge and authentic data base systems on the socioeconomic status of all groups by ethnic origin.

Race and ethnic relations policies to be based on an interaction of race, class, and ethnicity.

In a period of economic weakness, ethnic cleavage and closure and ethnic apportionment of blame have become a remarkable feature of social life which can easily as well return us to servitude and indentureship. We must never allow this to happen again.