African and Indian Guyanese have different paradigms, creolisation and colonisation
by Abu Bakr
In the interest of stimulating debate on the ongoing problems of race and culture, we publish a contribution by Mr Abu Bakr, a Guyanese who lives in France.
December 23, 2001
We believe there has been a far more pervasive 'creolisation' and sharing of cultural values (the rule of law, the parliamentary system, the educational system, language, dress, cuisine and even music) than Mr Bakr suggests and the argument that the two main groups have separate paradigms will be widely disputed.
There are calls for a commission of enquiry into the racial crimes of the past.
Where elections are decided not by issues, but predetermined by a kind of "ethnic calculus", the calls for a commission can be seen, simply, as war by other means, or the desire, after victory for still more-vindication and a sort of public trial of the losers.
Where even recent history is, in the public mind, a sediment of myth on a sliver of fact, and the political leadership, in a rare consensus, propagates the fiction that the root cause of racial separation is, in a sense, bewitchment by a coloniser and an old conspiracy, the call for a commission of enquiry into the past is a commentary on the present.
Where the political leadership sees local culture as fine arts or folklore, and the conceptual bases of all our institutions, their ethos, is purely judeo-christian and anglo-european, the people perhaps have a right to an enquiry into racial crimes.
For a commission of enquiry can also be a cathartic, cleansing the body politic of some of its toxins. Or like a session on the analyst's couch - baring the subject's complexes, bringing him to a new understanding of himself, and, if he supports it, to a sudden vision of his own dark impulses. Seen in this light, the process could be salutary, not only for the clamant Indian community, but for all of the country itself. For all of the virtual complainants.
The political leadership in Guyana, with rare exceptions, has been in turn blind, hypocritical and manipulative, or polite and silent about the issues of race and what really underly them - the questions of culture. In fact it is the first to portray itself as victim, crossed with a people such as we. Victim of a manipulation by the coloniser of old, who, dividing to rule, mocks from his tomb the motto on our coat of arms. It wishes therefore to persuade us that the opposing races, at whose service it has benevolently thrown itself, are programmed to forever be at daggers drawn, eternally infantile, and victim to the white man in the immensity of his cunning.
This is the myth that much of the political leadership wishes us to think that it truly believes. But if the myth can be "deconstructed" and made to reveal anything at all, it is their conviction that we are manipulable. The myth serves, after a fashion, to exculpate us all, summoned before the commission, of conspiring at our own destruction, and displaces all responsibility for the present safely into the realm of the past. It exempts us from the task of looking squarely at ourselves, and at a certain section of the leadership, and then at our institutions.
Much of the political leadership cannot truly tackle the question of racism because it would force examination of aspects of the national cultures about which it is itself ambivalent, and silent. It is therefore not astonishing that another pole of consensus of our ruling elites is that the particularities of the non-european cultures, mutually incompatible, will disappear in time or recede completely to the private domain. And that constitution after constitution, we are never required to face what the hindu really wants or what the muslim proclaims. That a lyrical preamble, proclaiming racial equality and enshrining inalienable rights, will suffice. And that the evident refusal by a divided community to give life to such concepts is only, or above all, an electoral issue, readable concretely as a logarithm.
Much of the political leadership, black and indian, cannot be convinced that the essence of the non-european cultures, now majority in the country, with their specific social practices and religious values, could fit into the european matrix that it manages, or that caste, polygamy and other "anachronisms" need have a status other than that of dying traditions. There was not, as in India or much of the third world, a provision for customary law. Remember, the consensus is that the public sphere will be neither multicultural nor polychrome, but tinted anglo-european, and that religion and "culture" be consigned to the private. Each constitutionally free to do as he wished, but, mark well, only in his home, mandir, or mosque.
Like mancrab. Creeping at close of day to the sanctuary of his hole to crouch before his altar at his own rites. But when, at crack of dawn the first rays cross his door, and he leaps out like all in general, it is as "citizen" that he joins the common dance.
Our political elite has not therefore engaged the idea that the racial problems it faces are conceived and delivered precisely in the private sphere -home and place of worship - that it will not invade out of prudence and the calculation that silence will be taken to denote respect and good breeding.
But it will not disdain the dividend it reaps on polling day when, in a way, its silence is rewarded. It will not address the problems of prejudice, ignorance and the abberations rooted in some belief systems, or the "conflict of paradigms" that I observe as the cause of our racial problem. And so in collusion with the people, who have no great interest either in having these ashes turned, they are content with the empty call for mutual toleration, and to each the spirited defence of his own flock.
For the racial conflict is to my mind demonstrably gr-ounded in the differences of vision -of themselves and of the character of the future Guyana- that mark the masses of the two major races as well as a part of their elites.These are differences of ritual and culture as well as differences of perspective. It is the worldview of the economic immigrant versus that of the transplanted slave, and a paradigm of colonisation versus one of creolisation. They can coexist, but they will never combine. And the conflict is complicated by rivalry for access to the resources of the state.
The black Guyanese had long observed himself in the act of creating a new culture, from the distillate of his "africanity" and the essence of english civilisation. By the time the indians and the others arrived the black presence was 200 years old and an afro creole culture had evolved. To this the newcomers were expected to add only a little folklore and a culinary item. The paradigm is creolisation and the metaphor the melting pot - the others obligingly to disappear into the magma. In this there was a certain presumption.
Separated by culture and social geography, the african apprehension of the others could only be folkloric. The amerindian in the bush bow in hand. The chinaman at his wok, remarked for the rare dragon dance and the discretion of his obsequies. Portuguese Manny as the savours of the saltgoods shop and garlic pork. And Indian culture -phagwah or a wedding house imagery of multi-coloured baubles, a pandit muttering incomprehensibly, or a man in white holllering by the minaret of a white mosque. This, and the cuisine.
Indian immigration, 240, 000 souls from 1838 to 1917, had occurred in the space of only 79 years - the life span of a fortunate man, and was destined to the relative isolation on the estates. The creole culture could not recede before, or absorb this flood, or adjust its paradigm, in the short historical time and the conditions of limited contact. Almost three out of four indians stayed, as did a lot of other immigrant races. The blacks may have thought all this lent colour to the landscape, and perhaps suspected it would totally change their prospects in the country.
Colonial laws had made land ownership by the mass of blacks impossible. A campaign of economic destruction sustained by the white plantocracy and taking various forms, would leave the majority in a state of relative poverty. The new immigrants seemed fav-oured - land in lieu of a passage back for many Indians - encouragement in small business for the Portuguese, destined to play here the role reserved for the mulatto in the islands. All of the economic conditions were in place for the progressive degradation of race relations which cultural factors would later aggravate and the political battles of the fifties and sixties erect as the defining factor of our national life.
The ideals that shaped the afro creole personality were derived from the egalitarianist christian education, the culture of the european enlightenment and the native values of "respectability". And this was a part of the problem. With reference to the immigrants, there was eventually a sort of hubris. The sentiment that it embodied all that was modern, liberal and progressive was to mark the mentality of the emerging black petty bourgeoisie and to diffuse itself in the population as a comfortable sense of superiority. The blacks had now not only the whites by which to measure himself, but also the unschooled immigrant. This sense of cultural superiority, was a sentiment generated by the people itself and in ways a reflection of the english view of indian cultures, but there is no evidence of a systematic indoctrination.
Thus to suspect the afro guyanese political leadership of the post independence period of an ordinary racism, is to ignore its christian roots and to underestimate its own esteem of itself and its sense of mission. It is to commit a major error of analysis and to project upon it responses not proper to its social psychology. In their view, overt racism observed in certain blacks was nothing but a form of backwardness or eccentricity, and in the Indians, the taint of an old paganism. There was cultural superiority but no racist philosophy, and the figure of the racist bully in the indo guyanese mythology was neither generated nor harbored by the black leadership, sensitive as it had cause to be, about its own credibility.
In fact it conceived of its future completely in terms of the melting pot. And its preference was peace not conflict. Its response to the racial problems, once in government, was a programme of coop-tation and conciliation, the proportion of Indians in ministerial and senior positions largely exceeding their rep-resentation in the ranks of the party. Its concern was with staying in office, and where it sinned was not in its attitude to race, but in its attitude to sharing power.
Despite the blandishments and the crossings of the floor, there would be no credible access to the masses of In-dians but through Dr Jagan, viewed as always with the usual mistrust. The menu of solutions to the racial problem was unimaginative and short, for the melting pot and vanguard party model, then in vogue, could not contain the idea of a Swiss or Belgian system of ethnic block representation, or with Jagan, a government of national unity
The mass of the Indians then, emerging with the others from the tunnel of colonial oppression, though battered, was almost culturally intact. In addition to this cultural capital, many now had the land given in lieu of a passage back and hence a claim on the soil. And theirs was a different vision of the future and a paradigm, not of creolisation, but of a kind of colonisation. Colonisation conceived as the perpetuation or recreation of the institutions of the old world on the new ground, and, also important, as preservation of the genotype.
With this - the paradigm of colonisation - the Indian shared the worldview of the englishman, who, in the Caribbean created no indigenous cultural product and left in his wake only a history of economic exploitation and sterility.
But perhaps the Indian could not have been expected to effect, in so short a time, the transformation to creolity that it took blacks hundreds of years to make. Thus the melting pot was generally disdained. Beckoned to the cauldron, the Indian prays to be excused, pleading religious and other obligations. In this he was being truthful.
The hindu arrived with the advantage of one of the world's ancient and intellectually creative civilisations, but also with the handicap of its degeneracies - the psycho-social insecurities of a caste system with its basis in color and its cause in a millenial history of aryan conquest; The muslims touched by all this were, in addition, bound to certain rules that would impede assimilation. The Indian society had been programmed by its culture to cast up not only the prescribed internal hierarchies, but also to see racial and ethnic differentiation in hierarchical terms. Some factors - the hold of religion, the effusions of the Bombay film industry with its fair-skinned starlets, the smattering of language, and the sheer fact of numbers (and later the sentiment of exclusion and the fear) were to reinforce the sense of an attachment to India and a common Indian identity. Nonetheless, in time the cross marriages and creolisation would eat at the margins. The language would be lost and the uncertainties increase.
The early internal differentiation, vertical and horizontal, of the Indian population is a fact that should not be ignored. The predominant hindu segment had known defections, significant in rare localities, as a result of missionary action by the Lutherans, Canadian Mission and others. The muslims represented another division. In time the peasantry and captive labour on the plantations had little in common, beyond a shared faith and similar origins, with the cultivated class of Indian professionals and the wealthy muslim clans that had emerged over the years.
The differentiation in the indian population could create strains and the occasional malathion drama, but the defining moment of our modern social history remains the racial riots of the sixties and the defensive solidarities they would engender.
If, in the case of the blacks, there was an undeniable sense of cultural superiority, in the indian mind "exclusiveness" was multi-layered and situational, residing in the layers of religion and class and necessarily the impermeable membrane of race. Racial solidarity could not remove all the walls between hindu and muslim. They are formally prohibited by their faiths from inter-marriage, that prime mechanism of social integration.
And if inter-marriage was less problematic between blacks and other types of christians in a community where the reigning neurosis was, for a long time, hair type and color, the Indian found that, in his case, the integrative mechanism of miscegenation beyond the ethnic boundary was formally proscribed or socially discouraged. To cross the racial divide was to offend the human and the divine. Therefore in the new world as in the old marriage could only continue in its role as an event reaffirming the status of the family, or as a move in a strategy of socio-economic advancement.
Integration into social groups by the other mechanism of religious conversion, was either unthinkable for the hindu or unforeseeable for all but a few muslims. The indian was no proselyte and while he had been offered the blood of Jesus and in some cases accepted, the integrity of the genotype had rarely been compromised. He was not assimilable by the mechanism of the melting pot, only rarely by marriage or conversion and usually only through the "detribalised" or socially marginal.
The mancrab arrangement should have suited all nicely. It solved for Indians the fundamental problems of preserving the culture and the racial genotype while guaranteeing to all a place at table. Each man was citizen. Except that it would occur to all, that, with the white man long gone, the real issue becomes control of the table, (sparse as would become the victuals at the end of the seven fat years from 1966 to 1973) injecting thence the economic issue into the problem of cohabitation.
The black man, majority in the civil service long before the end of colonialism, often neither owned nor had access to any resource or means of advancement but the government job. The colonial laws which deprived him of access to land had left the majority eking a living as clerk or artisan. The politicians that the community threw up from the liberal professions were expected to guarantee him his place at the table, sole security after 300 years of misery on the wild coast. But there were only seven fat years, and never enough for all.
The racial problem, after the eager generations of Indian children in the education system, becomes also for this community complicated by the question of access to jobs and the division of the resources of the state, not according to the logic of a meritocracy, but in the minds of the uninstructed, by a sort of proportional racial representation. In a country where the government had become the major employer as well as the principal contracting agency, control of the government was seen as by many Indians as the sole means to redress a perceived imbalance in recruitment to the public service that, ignoring cultural predispositions, he understood as racism.
Using the economic base in land to graduate to entrepreneurship and finally re-placing the Syrians and Sindhis in the commercial quarters of the city would not dispel Indian feelings of deprivation and discrimination for the population pressures and the needs and expectations had grown. The mass emigration of the last three decades had but limited utility as a safety valve for any segment of our community.
As the sole component of the new state with an explicit philosophy of colonisation, the indian community has required that it be reserved a collective space in the public sphere and that its members be included on the rolls of the insitutions of the republic, not as individual and autonomous existences, but as spokespersons for that collectivity. And now that it is in a majority it may legitimately ask that its culture, so far a symbolic but secondary issue, be given equal time and space. It may negotiate the terms of its participation in the new society, and possibly demand that it be permitted beliefs and practices that are in contradiction to the letter and spirit of laws conceived and crafted for a christian polity. Or it may insist that the constitution frankly acknowledge its specificities and redefine the republic as multi-cultural and multiethnic, and that equality of faith and practice reach beyond the pious declaration and is debated and entered into the corpus of the law.
It will, in doing so, raise the question of what is admissible.
This will cause contention and the discomfiture of the political leadership, which, like everyone else prefers the pale almost neutral tint of the almost level european model playing field. We will be forced to take a hard look at ourselves. Even this will yield no greater mutual comprehension, as the premises, the interpretative and conceptual framework, the paradigms, are not shared and cannot be communicated
Understandably then, for the moment everyone contents himself with recounting the others' racial crimes, covering his own with a sediment of myth.
There are even, in some quarters, calls for a commission of enquiry.
In the interest of stimulating debate on the ongoing problems of race and culture, we publish a contribution by Mr Abu Bakr, a Guyanese who lives in France.