We are seven different families trying to find ways of living together

Stabroek News
August 17, 2001

Dear Editor,

I do not wish to monopolise this discourse and I intend this to be my final letter on the issue of a national identity. I am pleased that the editor of Stabroek News took the time to write a fulsome editorial [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] (08-11-01) to forward this discourse, and that we are agreed that this identity allows for, among other things, religious freedom and a variety of human rights.

To add to the discourse, I would state that the Indians in Guyana have long since transcended any resentment of the past, our years of indenture, and view this as no more than a blip, however horrendous, on our history as a people. Perhaps, we are able to transcend that history and put it into historical perspective because we have to deal with our living history whereby we are subjected to violent attacks because of our race and heritage. This is the Indian Guyanese reality today, and this discourse began because of what Indians saw as a further attack by Caribbean pseudo-intellectuals, via the media, on our right to be Indian and, more seriously, on our right to be, to exist.

It started when a previous Stabroek News editorial captioned "Dinosaurs in the fading light" (07-04-01) accused that the common national identity of West Indianism was being eroded by "ethnic pressures towards ancestral links". Since the editor concedes that this identity has room for certain freedoms and rights, I am taking the liberty to assume that this editorial comment now stands corrected and that when, as an Indian, I practice the religion of my forebears, and subscribe to the familial values and cultural enjoyments that have direct links to my ancestral land, that I am not eroding anyone else's, nor my West Indian identity.

Since the editor speaks specifically of religious freedom, allow me to state that the religious of Islam and Hinduism form the bedrock of who we are, how we live, and how we behave towards each other and towards other groups of people. They are the basis of what makes us culturally Indians.

It is important that I explain this since the editor contends that I am not Indian, that I only partake of Indianess, and so implies that I cannot be Indian, West Indian and Guyanese at the same time. I ask: why not? While I agree with the editor entirely that as a Guyanese and West Indian I am expected to subscribe to certain core values of our common secular and constitutional state, these identities of citizenship do not represent the core of who I am, i.e. myself, my whole and essential being, the personal values, beliefs and systems by which I live and which are guaranteed by my constitutional freedoms and human rights.

I could not agree more with the editor's analogy of the Englishman, and that this `persona' is ambulatory. Today, the Englishman might be of Caribbean or Asian descent. He might be a Muslim or Hindu and derive his spirituality not from the legends of King Arthur, but from his readings of the Bhagavad Gita, Tagore or Gibran. Thus, the singular identity of "Englishman" is no longer practicable. To use it solely to describe the modern Englishman would be to take a little knowledge to describe a whole person and this is always dangerous. This is why double-barreled identities such as Black British are now accepted and commonly used in Britain today. They allow ethnic groups, as in the United States, national identities that comprise their citizenry and ethnicity. Hence, also, Cuban American, African American, Asian American, etc.

The danger in the refusal to allow the Amerindian to so identify himself, or the Indian, or Chinese, is that it allows for the erasure of whole and valid human communities from our national consciousness. There is very clear and present danger in any construct of a national identity that proceeds from a position that negates the essential and personal core of a human being - their racial type, and their cultural group or communal identity. The danger is that once you are erased culturally, it is an easy step to then erase you physically.

The editor cannot on one hand acknowledge that I am guaranteed certain essential freedoms and rights as a human being and then become upset when I give a name or identity - in my case: Indian - to these rights and freedoms. Denying us the right to identify and name our differences cuts from under us the very ground that is needed if we are to proceed to have mutual respect for each other, and this is the single most important element that is needed right now in any nation-building process in Guyana: mutual respect.

I take heart that the editor's proposition that we start to fashion an identity from the negative position of "what we are not", does not hold simply because it is impracticable. To take last Sunday's (08-12-01) issue of Stabroek News, for instance, replete with photographs and reports of the Amerindian nations celebrating Etauchingpang: Is he really going to replace "Amerindian" with "Guyanese", and dismiss these people as Guyanese who are only partaking of Amerindianness? And was it Guyanese who were only partaking of Africanness who recently celebrated Emancipation Day? The ridiculousness does not bear thinking about!

The peoples of Guyana are Amerindian, Indian, African, Portuguese, Chinese and European - let us add Dugla to this line-up - and all awe is not one family. We are seven different families trying to find ways of living together in a common household. This explanation may lack the jingoism of the popular soca line but it is the truth.

I am from one of these families. I am an Indian Guyanese. This is my national identity.

Yours faithfully,

Ryhaan Shah