Indian fears: Fact or fiction
Ravi Dev Column
April 22, 2007
In this week's contribution on the building of a just Guyana , I address Mr. Dennis Wiggins' contention that the Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma is “unfounded” and in fact is a “fiction”.
Firstly Mr Wiggins took pains to quote me in detail: “The Disciplined Forces are the ultimate repositories of the power of the Guyanese state: the PPP in being elected to government may accede to “authority” to deploy those forces – but when the loyalty of the latter is suspect, their authority rests on very shaky foundation…The PNC, on the other hand, because of the “kith and kin” element, exercises some real power over the PPP because the latter is forced to observe “the principle of anticipated reactions” of the Forces in all confrontations with the former.”
Mr Wiggins boiled this down to: What Mr. Dev is contending is that, since the composition of the GDS is made up of mostly African Guyanese, and since the members of the GDS vote overwhelmingly for the PNC, the loyalty of the GDS lies with the PNCR and African Guyanese.
While the syllogism may be succinct, I believe that the word, “loyalty” in the conclusion caricaturises my contention somewhat. In an ethnically divided polity as ours (which Mr Wiggins accepts) most of us have an interest in the fortunes of our ethnic group – that is why, in our role as “voters”, we generally vote the way we do. When we have to perform other roles that may not be considered in the best interest of our group it produces a certain amount of cognitive dissonance.
The practices of an institution (as a set of rules) are given life only when we view it as an “organisation”, manned by human beings, with all that implies. This simple fact has profound consequences for all institutions but especially so for the organs of the state such as our armed forces.
I once had the honour of addressing a group of junior officers of the GDF at Ayanganna, not long after that organisation had completed its extended deployment within Buxton in an effort to quell the violence emanating from that village. They all concurred that strains were created in the discipline regime of the GDF because of the ethnic factor.
I would say that an inevitable “sentiment” resides within the members of the Armed Forces (as in all of us) concerning the fate of our ethnic groups. After all, to a great extent, it is our fate. It would be politically naive if political leaders do not factor this sentiment into their calculus when they make political decisions. It is apposite to note that it was on the matter of control and composition of the Armed Forces that unity talks between the PPP and PNC broke down on several occasions.
Mr Wiggins accepts that the doubts about how the Armed Forces would react in situations of political (read ethnic) conflict , “is a fundamental racial fear in a racialised state” but that it is “unfounded”.
Would he also say that the African fear of “exclusion” from the Executive is also “unfounded” and a “fiction”?
Just before the 1992 general elections, Eusi Kwayana had warned, in discussing “the possibility of Indian control and takeover”: “It is very important, in my view, for Indo-Guyanese who are the largest segment of the population to realise that many people, especially their closest rivals in numbers and ambition, (Afro-Guyanese) have this fear which can be played upon and exploited.”
Many, but not ROAR, chose to ignore his warning – and did so to their cost and to the cost to Guyana as a whole. Let us not repeat the mistake.
The reason Mr Wiggins calls the Indian Security Dilemma a “fiction” is to claim that, “ Since the coming to power of the PPP/C led Government in 1992, there has not been an instance where the GDS has shown disloyalty and/or has posed a threat to the elected government.” While the statement is quite arguable it misses the key point about human action.
To a great extent, our consciousness and will to act on any issue are inevitably structured by our experiences over time on that issue. While social facts are thus socially constructed they are no less real in their effects than the so called “physical” ones. And while Mr. Wiggins testily informed us that he is, “not a historian” I hope that he accepts Marx's stricture that to understand any human phenomenon it must be considered, “historically”.
For instance during slavery, slaves could not marry and that experience has shaped the ex-slaves' response to “family” throughout plantation America . While all Africans accept the “institution” of marriage, the practices of a substantial bloc varies substantially from the rules of the institution. These are the structural historical accretions.
For Indians, their reaction to the armed forces has also been shaped by their historical experiences. Very early on the Colonial order determined that the Indians with “cutlasses in their hands” presented a potent threat and armed policemen were deemed necessary in rural areas.
In line with their policy of “divide and rule” they recruited most policemen from the African community since the formation of the GPF in 1839. Those African policemen were not only called on to violently quell protests by sugar workers for better working conditions but to enforce the “pass laws” (“Exemption from Labour Certificates”) that aimed to restrict the immigrants to the plantations. Additionally, they were called upon to execute warrants for expulsions of immigrants from the plantation; to levy rents and to act as bailiffs who evicted tenants.
The immigrant was always looking over his shoulder for the African policeman who would harass him. This continued into the present. I felt that Africans would finally understand Indian fears when I saw one African mother on TV exclaiming that nowadays she “frightens” her wayward child by saying, “Policeman coming!” It has always been so for the Indian in Guyana : this is our social fact.
In the ethnic riots of the sixties primarily between Indians and Africans, most observers agree that the armed forces acted against the PPP and in effect against the Indians. This memory has remained palpable in the consciousness of even very young Indians today because it was the defining one of their parents who would have been impressionable children then. “Structures” are just a fancy way of saying that stories are passed down the generations and influence the behaviour of the listeners.
Mr. Burnham understood the implications of the composition of the armed forces. In an interview for Ebony Magazine (published April 1967), Era Bell Thomson – with the ICJ's recommendation of 75% Indian recruitment in mind - posed a question to Mr. L.F.S. Burnham, “Would troops, half (being) Indian, be loyal...should racial strife return?” She then wrote: “The Prime Minister rose from the table and stood at full height. He smiled the broad smile. His eyes twinkled. And although his answer was couched in the charming dialect of the Caribbean , he was still the politician. ‘Madam,' he said softly. ‘We not as simple as we is Black!'”
The PNC ceased to make statistics available after 1966, but data collected by Prof. K. Danns showed that between 1970 and 1977, while the size of the force was being doubled, 92.2% of recruits were Africans with only 7.8% being Indians. Their numbers dropped to less than ten percent of the Force. The same was true of the newly formed GDF and other para-military organizations. Their marches through Indian villages at night helped to solidify the “social fact” of fear.
Mr. Burnham was quite explicit as to what he expected of the GDF in terms of the African Ethnic Security Dilemma and its posture to any PPP aspiration of governing. Speaking to GDF Officers in 1970, Burnham said, “I expect you to be loyal to this government. If there is any other government, it is a matter for you to decide about that, but so far as I am concerned I don't want any abstract loyalty.”
In addition to the composition and deployment of the armed forces, in and of themselves raising fears in the Indian community, there is the matter of their stance towards acts of violence directed primarily against Indians from elements in the general population.
In the 1960s the “choke and rob” phenomenon had a political origin directed against Indian visitors to Georgetown and was never aggressively dealt with by the police. It soon took on a life of its own. In the 80s the “kick down the door” innovation which targeted primarily rural Indians involved many ex-armed services personnel.
Contrary to what others may say, in 1985 Mr. Eusi Kwayana spoke about the banditry and the lack of police responsiveness. He called for “firm police action against violent crime which in Guyana has often, but not always, an ethnic direction with a flavour of genocide.” This banditry against Indians morphed into the post 2001 East Coast criminal activity of which the African Resistance, which Mr. Wiggins refuses to concede, is an integral part.
While one has to admire the overall stance of the armed forces since 1992, one has to understand the PPP's skittishness towards them against this background. Unlike what Mr Wiggins claims, ROAR has steadfastly agitated for the forces to be “professionalised” in terms of funding, training, material etc.
At what some have defined as “fatal” political risk, we participated in the Rule of Law March and spoke at the Square of the Revolution for such professionalisation. We insist, however, that the professionalisation will only take root when the composition of the forces reflects the population of the country. In such an environment, it will not be as easy for politicians to court the loyalty of their “kith and kin”, nor place our servicemen in untenable situations. Similarly, citizens will not be as prone to offer “ethnic” explanations for the behaviour of the forces as is now the case.
I conclude with the advise of the scholar Cynthia Enloe, who studied Guyana first hand, and concluded after a worldwide survey in her essay, “Police and Military in the resolution of Ethnic Conflict”:
“The resolution of inter-ethnic conflict demands that armies and police forces be examined not as neutral instruments that cope with problems, but as potential causes of the problems as well…Any lasting resolution of ethnic conflict may require that the distribution of political authority and influence in the society be basically reordered and that, as part of that reordering, the police and military be ethnically reconstituted at the top and the bottom.” She is saying, therefore, that we have to address both sources of ethnic insecurities if we are to have lasting peace in Guyana whether we accept the social facts that undergird them or not.