My objection is to the concept of one overarching culture
Stabroek News
August 12, 2001

Dear Editor,

In responding to the editorial note appended to my letter [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] "The Nation State Fallacy" which interestingly enough SN re-captioned as "Nation building is not the answer" (SN 8/8/01), I wish to make two prefatory points.

Firstly, I acknowledge that man, by definition, is always embedded in a particular culture and situate my comments on "nation and state" towards the goal of institutionalizing democracy in Guyana. This must always be kept in mind. Secondly that I am in total agreement with Mr Rohan Sooklall (SN 8/9/01) that whatever model is eventually applied, it must be conditioned by our concrete local realities. The Ottoman Empire was used as an illustration that "nation" can be "disjunctured" from state.

Substantively, my objection is to the ideal that Mr David de Caires insists on- that the citizens of a state (defined by occupying a particular territory) can only be a viable polity if they subscribe to one overarching "culture". In his Trinidad speech Mr de Caires conceded that, "we are not yet a nation". In his addendum to my letter, he asked whether "there is such a thing as a Guyanese culture as distinct from an Indian, African or European culture?" But in his addendum to Mr Sooklall's letter he concluded "We are no longer Indians or Africans but Guyanese, despite some cultural relics". Apparently Mr de Caires isn't really interested in a debate. It is interesting, however, that he does not question whether "European culture" survives and certainly didn't give it the title "relic". But if we have a State (we all agree on this) and we are all "Guyanese" what's the fuss about, Mr de Caires- I wonder however, if Mr de Caires is guilty of the common semantic slackness to mix-up "Guyanese-by-citizenship" (which we all are) and "Guyanese-by possession-of-one culture". It is also interesting that Mr de Caires widens the focus from "Guyanese" which he now claims we are, to positing that "we must start by debating honestly what the West Indian is." (Honestly, the joys of being a publisher!)

The dangers inherent in trying to forge "One nation" (no matter how weakly defined) cannot be brushed aside by implying that Europe's fascist denouement of that ideal was a one-shot aberration. Ms Ryhaan Shah recently (SN 1/8/01) revealed the position of Mr Rex Nettleford on the cultural context of one such vision for Guyana - "the African Presence (his capital) must have a central place in the ethos of the Caribbean...(and) the Caribbean offspring of Asia (must be) willing to be absorbed..." Mr Nettleford doesn't confine his vision to "nation" only but to state also. In 1990 he was quoted in the Trinidad Express as saying that Africans had a "psychic inheritance" to political and economic power in the Caribbean (Express 5/8/90).

Mr Nettleford is Vice Chancellor of UWI, an indefatigable cultural activist ("West Indian", he says) and he represents what I have labeled elsewhere, the "dominant tendency" in the Caribbean, in reference to the question of "Caribbean culture" and Caribbean power. This tendency played itself out in Guyana under Mr Burnham of the PNC, who appropriated all "national" symbols to the dominant ethos. Our motto became "One People, One Nation, One Destiny" and it is not mere fortuity that Marcus Garvey's Black Nationalist moot was "One god, One Belief, One Destiny".

Our "National" hero is Cuffy because, as Mr Nettleford declared, we are all defined by the African slave experience. Our flag is a combination of the Garveyite and Ethiopian African nationalist colours. The institutions that define any state - the army, police and civil services - were constituted and remain as overwhelmingly African, in Guyana. The economic system was to center around the co-operative movement - defined as "African" in origin and inspiration (confirmed by the post-emancipation experience and the Tanzanian (Arusha) experiment). Mr Burnham's project, of course, followed the preceding colonial project, which also rejected Indian cultural practice as being beyond the pale (heathen and uncivilised).

Mr de Caires must understand why Indians are very skeptical and not a little apprehensive when the "One Nation" model is touted as the ideal for our state. For instance when an Indian hears of Cuffy, the thought provoked is of the PNC's troops massing to march and beat up Indians. Hardly a thought that fosters "fraternity" and "unity".

In a follow up letter (this one is already stretching what I believe our readers will put up with at one go), I will develop my proposals on the cultural institutions, which will not only co-exist with, but also further our common goal of democracy.

Yours faithfully,
Ravi Dev (MP)