Ravi Dev Column
February 18, 2007
Last week, in addressing some issues raised by Mr. Clarence Elllis, I pointed out the “reflexive offensiveness” that most individuals fall into when there are interactions between the two major players in the Guyanese political equation – Africans and Indians. Mr. Ellis responded to my critique in a letter captioned, “The parallelism between GOPIO and Pan-Africanism is superficial” and I would like to keep the dialogue going in this column. A dialogue, not a polemic as these interactions tend to degenerate into.
Right up front, let me declare that I am in no way speaking for GOPIO…I am not even a member of the organisation. My rationale for entering the discussion was to suggest that Mr. Ellis in his “reflexive defensiveness” (as he defines his posture rather that “reflexive offensiveness) might be a bit misinformed about the extra-national organisation of Indians as it relates to the Guyanese situation. And this unfortunately adds to the defensiveness or offensiveness, not only to Mr. Ellis but also to others. The parallel tendency tends to manifest itself in Indians.
I was there when GOPIO was formed and I can heartily support the following statement taken from their website, “The initial thrust of GOPIO was fighting human rights violations of people of Indian origin.” The brochure went on to state, “Although this has been improved in the last one decade, human rights violations continue to be a major issue for PIOs living outside India. GOPIO has now set its priorities in pooling our resources, both financial and professional, for the benefit of PIOs, the countries they come from and India.”
The point I made was that in the present round of globalisation, pushed dramatically by quantum leaps in communication technology, diasporas across the world will coalesce almost inevitably– whether we like them or not.
Mr. Ellis is cautioning that we should insist that the activities of such agglomerations do not “prevent us from striving towards racial parity”. I am sure GOPIO would heartily agree.
I am saying that Mr. Ellis should not reflexively conclude that Indians and Indian organisations (such as GOPIO) are oblivious to effects of their activities within the various host countries. For instance back in 2001, GOPIO took pains to be accredited by the U.N. as an NGO to participate in the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa .
It is Mr. Ellis' follow up suggestion that I find problematical: “it may be useful…if the GOPIO can assist in the reduction of the deficiencies of Hinduism which retard progress toward racial equity because inequality is believed to be divinely ordained.”
Now this statement in itself demonstrated the gulf that separates us Guyanese when it comes to the specifics of the several communities. Mr. Ellis speaks of “Hinduism” as he would of a “religion” as defined by the Western canon in the Abrahamic tradition: a book, a prophet and a creed.
“Hinduism” is actually “Sanaatan Dharma”, a concept that is not translatable into English since the reality it encompasses has not been experienced by that tradition. There is no single book, no prophets and no creeds: only the exhortation that only by one's actions (karma) can one be liberated.
There is no “divinely ordained” result in Sanataan Dharma – simply the law of Karma.
For those who choose to conceive of a personal God (such as Vishnu or Shiva) even these Gods are bound by the law of Karma. This does not result in a fatalistic determinism as is erroneously believed by some, but in the knowledge that one's present and future karma can elevate one towards liberation.
I mention this only to point out that we cannot facilely try to equate concepts across civilisational boundaries. Mr. Ellis would appreciate this from his own experience of how concepts from African civilisations have been distorted through the lens of the “Enlightenment”.
About the “deficiencies of Hinduism” which Mr. Ellis has elsewhere identified as the caste system he can rest assured that while I am sure that there may be Indian organisations that have caste biases, GOPIO is not one of them. One reason is because the leading force in GOPIO has been, and remains Thomas Abraham, a Christian from South India. I have found Christians from India to be much more sensitive to the nuances of modern caste practices than those from the diaspora.
And that brings me to the crux of my disagreement with those who insist on using the “bludgeon” of caste to define relations between Africans and Indians in Guyana (which Mr. Ellis cautions is his concern).
Mr. Ellis has noted “the brutal treatment meted out to ROAR by the PPP”, so I can hardly be accused of being their defender, but I find the accusation that the PPP is a practitioner of “caste prejudice” very far fetched indeed. Analyses lead to strategies of action and if they are founded on the mistaken, the actions will be at a minimum, for naught.
I remember having a discussion with Dr. Jagan in 1989, where he reminisced bitterly at the treatment meted out to him by a high caste Hindu in Georgetown when he boarded at the latter while attending Queen's College in the 1930's.
As he pointed out in the first page of his West on Trial, he was a Kurmi, a subgroup of the lowest Shudra caste. I remember my reaction at the time was that, “Boy, Dr. Jagan can sure hold a grudge!” This was because I too was a Kurmi – but I only knew of this because I had been raised by my grandfather who was born in 1896, when some of the old notions still held sway.
By 1989, when we spoke, caste was irrelevant to Guyanese Indians with the exception of a few who held on to the belief that a “pandit” ought to be one who was a “born” Brahmin. I have had many differences with Pandit Reepu Daman Persaud, who led the major Hindu organisation that supported Dr. Jagan, but we have to accept that he always encouraged all interested individuals to become pandits.
On the other hand, the Pandits' Council, which supported the PNC from the late 1960's, vigorously promoted the “Brahmin by birth” position. I remember a bitter dispute that blew up at the time with that organisation when a visiting Swami Chinmayananda rejected their position.
The issue became “political” when the PNC denounced the Swami for meddling in “Guyanese” affairs. I mention this to demonstrate that whatever remnants of caste remain in Guyana , it has taken on manifestations that have little to do with anti-African racism. The latter occurs all across the globe – where there is no “Hinduism”, so the cause has to lie elsewhere.
Mr. Ellis would accept that we cannot explain a constant by a variable. Anti-African racism has its roots in the white-black dichotomy fostered by Europeans to justify African slavery from the sixteenth century onwards and is coterminous with the European Enlightenment to which we all still bow. Let us not be sidetracked by red herrings.
In conclusion I would remind Mr. Ellis that no community is monolithic. Within Guyana, after the GOPIO 1989 Conference, contra to the PPP, we called for a New Political Culture that defined an African Security Dilemma as well as an Indian one. We called for Power Sharing at the Executive level as well as in state institutions. We called for Affirmative Action for Africans in the business arena and for an Ethnic Impact Statement to accompany all government policies and programs.
And yes, Mr. Ellis, while we called for Federalism to create several states, we agreed with you that this ought to be carried to a third level to the villages. It was in the press: we were not “silent”. Ethnic parity has always been our goal and we are striving concretely to make it a reality.