Ravi Dev Column
February 11, 2007
After responding in the press to some statements made by Professor Clive Thomas at an ACDA conference some years ago, I was chided by Elder Eusi Kwayana. He pointed out that he had actually expected a response such as mine the moment he had read Dr. Thomas' comments.
I don't remember his exact words but it was to the effect that in societies such as ours - divided societies, that is – there is a certain hyper-sensitivity to certain comments; a reflexive offensiveness to statements that emanate from the “other”.
This is especially true when the statements touch contested areas – those that have implications for the power relations in the society.
In Guyana, the Indian and African, political opponents, are the “other” to each other. I was reminded of Mr. Kwayana's insight when I read Mr. Clarence Ellis' riposte (“A GOPIO sponsored East Indian University is a bad idea”) to Mr Vishnu Bisram's “Guyana 's relationship with India is an asset to Guyana”.
Bisram, who was himself addressing a previous objection that he was a “cheerleader” for closer relations with India (from Colin Bascom – an African “other” who feared the implications of such closer relations) accepted the label and proceeded to offer a detailed rationale for his position. This included the following: “The Indian Government recently announced that it plans to open a university for people of Indian descent.”(PIO)
Mr. Ellis, interpreted this proposal to claim that GOPIO was planning to build a university for East Indians in Guyana and quickly dubbed it “preposterous”. This was the quick reflexive offensiveness arising out of our heightened sensitivities.
Upon being informed of his geographical misapprehension he apologised but still dismissed the intended one in India as “preposterous”, stating however that it was not his “concern”. But in his reflexive offensive at the fear that Indians would be pushed in front of Africans, Mr. Ellis continued with his other misapprehension that activities of the Government of India and GOPIO are one and the same. They are not. GOPIO is the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin and was founded in New York City in 1989. It is the Government of India that is proposing the University. But the misapprehensions do not end there.
Mr. Ellis went on to suggest a desideratum for GOPIO which demonstrates that he is completely unfamiliar with this organisation: “the likelihood of benefits from addressing deficiencies in Hinduism by GOPIO.” Mr. Ellis later elaborated, as he has done elsewhere that the “deficiency” he speaks of is “caste”.
It is the fate of certain words and phrases to be used to bludgeon those perceived to be opponents: in Guyana it appears that the African intelligentsia bludgeon against Indians is “caste”. In going about its business, it would be best, opined Mr Ellis, if, “GOPIO starts with the wider social context and works inwards to the Diaspora relations”.
Ironically this is what GOPIO has been doing from its inception. In its defining launching conference in 1989, the themes were, “Political Responsibility and Involvement”, “Socio-cultural aspects of Assimilation of People of Indian Origin”, and “People of Indian Origin and World Development”. The latter was not the jingoist, “we launched everything in the world” approach but rather considered approaches such as “integrative processes and communal harmony”, poverty and inequality, peace, non-violence and Human rights” etc.
I was the co-chairman of the session on “Political Crisis: Patterns, Policies and Prevention”, and the plenary body considered in great detail, “the ethnic question in national and international politics” and “the anatomy of ethnic conflict in the world arena”.
We invited the “outsider” Professor Paul Brass to give an overview of “causes of inter-ethnic conflicts and the role of Indian communities”. We had a high official of the African National Congress to address the plenary body of GOPIO. He was introduced to our luncheon speaker, Ron Brown who had been campaign manager for Jessie Jackson's Presidential run the year before.
He had just been appointed as the first African-American Chairman of the Democratic Party and went on to play a key role in the election of Clinton in 1992.
The point I am taking pains to make is that GOPIO, from its inception, has not been as insular and oblivious to the nuances of the sociology and politics of plural societies as Mr. Ellis and others in the African Guyanese community fear.
About the “bludgeon” of caste. GOPIO's approach has been to focus on actions – its own actions – rather than mere rhetoric. There is the firm belief that the best way an outside body like GOPIO can assist to solve the inequalities inherent in the present deformed caste system – especially in India – is through the economic development of all communities.
From the first Conference there has always been a “Business and Technology Exposition” where concrete business opportunities are showcased.
Successful billionaire business tycoons – from all castes – demonstrate the power of the free enterprise system for lifting whole communities up. We have seen the distance that India has travelled in the nearly two decades after GOPIO I.
All ships – of caste, class or faiths - will be lifted in India – just watch and see. Local businesses in Guyana and the diaspora also have the opportunity to seize the same business opportunities.
Mr. Ellis says that, “the Government of Guyana has an obligation to ensure that GOPIO assistance does not lead to further racial imbalances.” I am sure as an economist he understands the economic synergies of lowered transaction costs occasioned by the easier information flow within ethnic communities. This is an integral aspect of the modern round of globalisation – there's nothing governments can do about this. But should we want to hinder this development? All diasporas are exploiting this fortuity. Hasn't this been a theme of all the Pan-African Congresses since 1900?
After the Manchester Congress of 1945, didn't most of the future leaders of the West Indies and Africa return home armed with a common agenda? Even if our Mr. Burnham didn't attend the Congress, surely he had access to the positions as an official of the League of Coloured Peoples (London Branch) that had been designated as the official distributor of the collected papers?
Surely also, in our own time, Mr. Eric Phillips and ACDA's African Renaissance has been inspired by the effort of the same name launched in South Africa after former President Mandela used the concept for the first time in 1994 at an OAU summit in Tunisia.
The later African Renaissance Conference's stated aims and objectives are remarkably similar to GOPIO's. Was Mr. Phillips in South Africa at the launch of the African Renaissance Institute in 1999 by Thabo Mbeki ? There's nothing wrong in this.
Early on in his “Critique of Pure Reason”, Kant pointed out the dangers of reasoning without recourse to the concrete – as in mathematics, for instance, where everything can be merely stipulated. “It is, indeed, the common fate of human reason in speculation, to finish the imposing edifice of thought as rapidly as possible, and then for the first time to begin to examine whether the foundation is a solid one or no.
Arrived at this point, all sorts of excuses are sought after, in order to console us for its want of stability, or rather, indeed, to enable us to dispense altogether with so late and dangerous an investigation.” There's a greater danger in this rush to conclusions that just embarrassment.
Mr. Ellis has shown himself to be a patriot committed to building a just Guyana. But as Elder Kwayana, advises let us not rush to reject the efforts of the “other” without due diligence of the facts. If history (and some maladroit leaders) have conspired to make the African and Indian competitors for the political space, we will have to get used to a certain amount of friction. To pretend otherwise is to reason only from wishes not reality.
As the normally pedantic Kant poetically declared, “The light dove cleaving in free flight the thin air, whose resistance it feels, might imagine that her movements would be far more free and rapid in airless space.” But we know the dove would plummet to the ground without the air, don't we?
Let us work together to soar, notwithstanding the inevitable frictions.