Victimhood and reconciliation
Ravi Dev Column
May 6, 2007
Mr. Dennis Wiggins suggests that those like myself, who adopt the position that the structural conditions precipitated by the fact that the Guyana Police Force from its formation in 1839, the Guyana Volunteer Force (including its precursors – the Guyana Militia/ the Guyana Regiment) and the Guyana Defence Force since its formation in 1965 have been overwhelmingly dominated by African Guyanese, induces an Ethnic Security Dilemma in Indians, are wallowing in a “victimhood psychology”.
Mr. Wiggins even-handedly offers that such victimhood may be “real or imagined” in all ethnicised politics and that ours, since 1992, has been “exaggerated”.
But if victimhood is an aspect of the ethos of all ethnicised conflict we cannot summarily dismiss it, as Mr. Wiggins appears to do, if we consider the context in which Mr. Wiggins is tendering the heuristic of “victimhood”.
Of recent, for instance, it has been used to dismiss the efforts of Africans seeking to rectify the pernicious systemic impact of slavery in the present, and or of women to do the same with a male-dominated culture. The proponents of this perspective imply that the victim (whether real or imagined) is using the psychological condition as a crutch or excuse (“poor me”) and the cure is that they should simply “stop blaming others and move on”.
Mr. Wiggins, it appears, is interjecting (consciously or otherwise) a negative technique called delegitimizing through “labelling” - he throws in “guilty race” later for good measure. This will not do.
Mr. Wiggins has asked if I could write on “reconciliation”. Well it is recognised that if groups have experienced traumatic violence in the past or in the present, then victimhood is an issue that must be dealt with if there is going to be any hope of peace. One commentator has defined victimhood as characterised by “A history of violent traumatic aggression and loss; a belief that the aggression and violence suffered at the hands of the enemy is not justifiable by any standard; a constant fear that the aggressor could strike again at any time and a perception that the world is indifferent to the victim group's plight.”
As I said at the funeral of Ronald Waddell, we have all wept as we sat down by the rivers in Guyana and remembered our “Zions”. If the victimhood is real (and I believe it to be real for all groups in Guyana ) then should we not move to act to remove the structural conditions that hinder the ability of the victim to just “move on”?
The peace commentator concluded: “Victimhood is a state from which all groups (or individuals) need to recover in order to lead normal lives. Victimhood is not only a perception of self, but of self in a system of relationships. Acknowledging victimhood as a problem is the first step toward recovery. Part of the healing process for victims is regaining self-esteem and relearning that the “other” is also human and that this “other” has suffered as well. This process allows the groups to begin to transform the system in which victimization was made possible into something much more positive.”
When Mr. Wiggins goes on to seek to disprove the thesis of an Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma, he ironically proffers an argument that serves to show that Africans suffered greater victimhood at the hands of the Guyana Security Forces.
This claim of greater victimhood is very common in ethnic conflict situations. While some of his claims are arguable (I will simply suggest to Mr. Wiggins that he looks a bit more closely at the historical record) Mr. Wiggins once again misses the thrust of my argument. My point is twofold but related. Firstly, the historical exclusion of Indians from the security forces (first Police and Militia/Guiana Regiment/Volunteer Force) through various stratagems by the Colonial authorities left a structural aversion in Indians for that vocation.(As was engineered analogously for Africans in business.)
Secondly, the violence inflicted on Indians in their struggles on the sugar plantations for justice by the Police, and the various military outfits (mass killings in 1872, 1896, 1903, 1912, 1913, 1924, 1939, 1948 and countless skirmishes in between) all manned primarily by Africans, fanned the British-intended enmity between Indians and Africans.
There was an ethnic element in the equation which would have been absent when the Police used violence against Africans. This is the crucial element that representativeness in the forces would address.
The Ethnic Security Dilemmas were only precipitated when the issue of which group would control the state became a reality by the late 1950s.
Mr. Burnham early on saw the injustice in this regard inflicted on the African and Coloured sections by the Constituency system and agitated for PR. Later, the projected demographics, which favoured the Indians, helped persuade him and most of his supporters that they had to play outside the rules so as not to be excluded in perpetuity from the executive.
This still remains a clear and present danger unless the present rules lead to greater equity. The behaviour of the Forces during the CIA-sponsored riots (which devolved inevitably into ethnic riots) of the 1960s transmuted the Indian generalised physical security fears into an Ethnic Security Dilemma.
I will quote from some non-Indian analysts:
In 1962, massive demonstrations were launched against the PPP government but, “throughout the demonstrations, the police remained largely inactive – allowing demonstrators to flaunt the regulations governing public assembly.” (Prof. Danns).
“Soon, rioting broke out, accompanied by arson, and the looting of several East Indian-owned businesses. The Police and paramilitary units, sympathetic to the black rioters and to Burnham's PNC, did very little to intervene and to control the destruction.” (Prof Hintzen).
In the 1963 round, “Ten persons lost their lives and hundreds, mainly East Indians, were wounded during the course of the 80-day strike. Racial violence between East Indians and blacks (sic) was one of the outcomes of the industrial unrest.” (Prof Danns)
A most explicit description of Dr. Jagan's comprehension of the Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma was Mr. Burnham's account, in a speech to the PNC in September 1963, recounting a meeting between himself and Jagan, during the efforts of the UN to broker a settlement between the two parties.
In response to the PNC's request to control the Ministry of Home Affairs in a coalition with the PPP, Mr. Burnham said, “…he (Dr. Jagan) contended that the People's National Congress already controlled the police force, and, if to the actual control which he said existed there were to be added the legal control, then he and his party would be in jeopardy and to quote him accurately and precisely, ‘their heads would be in danger'.”
Mr. Burnham left the meetings convinced that, “the People's Progressive Party is now in fear, in absolute fear, of the People's National Congress.”
In 1964, when Dr. Jagan's misplaced trust in British “good faith” backfired, he returned and promised CR (“Cut Rass”) and not PR (Proportional Representation).
The partiality of the forces towards his opponents was the most telling feature of the results in him and his supporters suffering the CR: “The culmination of the racial violence…took place in the bauxite mining town of Mackenzie-Wismar in May 1964. While the police and Special Volunteers looked on passively, the Afro-Guyanese engaged in an orgy of violence against the Indian community, involving rape, arson, beatings and murder.” (Latin American Bureau).
The PPP had to capitulate as Mrs. Janet Jagan, the Minister of Home Affairs resigned in tears.
Mr. Burnham's dissolution of the racially-representative SSU, his creation of the African dominated Guyana Defence Force and various para-military outfits after 1964 and their deployment did nothing to lessen the fears of the Indian community– as it related to the ethnic control of the state.
The Indian Ethnic Security Dilemma is based on the victimhood of Indians during their long history in Guyana . It is real and rational and it must be addressed if there is going to be any reconciliation in this land.
Likewise the victimhood of the African community in this land, for which they literally slaved, is real. If freedom and democracy is to mean anything for them, and for all Guyanese, they cannot be excluded from the Executive of this country. No rule that perpetuates their exclusion can confer legitimacy for just governance and must be struggled against. I write this on Indian Arrival Day.