Africans were never classified as Sudras

Stabroek News

October 27, 2003

Related Links: Letters on 'Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana' death
Letters Menu Archival Menu

Dear Editor,

In Mr Abu Bakr’s letter, “The separate but equal philosophy ROAR is advocating seems like something from the past” [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] , (SN 10-1-03) he quoted a passage from my “Aetiology of an Ethnic Riot” and suggested that it gave support for Dr. Kean Gibson “arguing that blacks are regarded as outcasts”. Dr. Gibson never argued this but claimed that Indians viewed Africans as Sudras. There is a world of difference between the classification of Sudras and outcastes and to conflate them, as Mr. Bakr deliberately does, demonstrates his polemical rather than dialogical focus. On this question of how Indians categorised the Africans they encountered in Guyana, since both Gibson and Bakr claimed to have read my paper, at a minimum, they would be familiar with the inevitable “social comparison process” that groups engage in. In that process, just as inevitably, each group would have utilised criteria that were part of their cultural repertoire they possessed at the time of contact. As we pointed out for the ex-slave Africans, who refused to do “field work” at the offered paltry rates, Indians were “docile”; for the Europeanised Coloureds they were “stingy, uncivilised, heathens”.

Varna and Jati

The primary social classificatory categories for Indians in India were “jati” and varna, which, while correlated, offered innumerable combinations, permutations and manifestations that defy simplistic pronouncements. Suffice it to say that Varna can be seen as a “religious” normative model of four “estates”, which had no racial basis, while jati was the localised empirical sociological fact, but also never having a racial basis. While in India the individual jatis’ circumscribed rules of dining (commensality), contact (purity and pollution), job specialisation and marriage were the most salient basis for identity, these began to break down even before the immigrants left India when all recruits had to sleep in one building - the depot. The process continued on the ships where all immigrants had to eat from the same pot cooked by individuals from any caste. With ten male immigrants to every three females, the strictures on marriage fell by the wayside pretty soon on the plantations, as did job-specialisation under the plantation work rules. However, it is our contention that Indian group- identity, while shaped by their rejection and denigration by the “others” in the Guyanese milieu, yet had to contain elements of the jati concept. Indians now ate, interacted, worked and married together as a unit and utilising the category they were most familiar with, considered themselves one Jati. Obviously however, this category was not, and could never be monolithic. The Brahman category that outsiders rail against was a simple response to the Jati’s demand that life-cycle rituals be performed. This produced the lowest rank of Brahmins - the role of the Purohit - and the lowest one at that - since he has to attend to all and sundry. These Brahmin Purohits, because of the extra income earned, quickly became differentiated as an economic class rather than “caste” as in India. However the inclusion of Muslims and Christians within the unitary Indian Jati attests to the pressures from the other groups in the society.

Thus, when Dr. Gibson claims that Indians in Guyana accorded the Sudra position to Africans, she displays a total misunderstanding of the jati/varna system as it operated either in India or Guyana. To have classified the African as Sudra, would have meant that the Indian was defining not only his, but the entire, society according to his categories of Varna and included Africans within his society. This was never the case. In India, the Indian was used to dealing with categories of people outside his Varna/jati scheme - for example, the tribals, the Moghuls and later the British. However, inevitably these outsiders were evaluated socially by Indians based on the values, norms and behaviour they practiced. In Guyana, other groups in the society such as Portuguese, Chinese, Africans and Amerindians were placed outside the pale, so to speak, of the Indian Jati. The passage that Mr. Bakr quoted from my paper must be understood from this perspective. The African was neither Sudra as Dr. Gibson asserts nor “outcastes” as the term is used in the Indian context. The latter usage would only have been applicable if the Africans had been placed within the Varna ideal and then had fallen or been cast out for some major transgression of values. This was never the case with Africans or any other groups.

The question of integration between Indians and other groups in the society remains, for Indians, one centred on values and for this reason many Indians reject Creole culture. Negative expressions by Indians about Africans invariably have to do with a judgement on their values and thus the problematic concerns an integration of cultures rather than race. There is however no question that Indians, to the extent that they would have been exposed to European values - especially through the Christian schools - would have modified some of their evaluative categories and that there are some who are racist in the western sense of the term.


The other issue, related to the first, has to do with a profound difference between the Western (Christian influenced) and the Eastern paradigms concerning “differences”. The Western ideal for societies is e pluribus unum (“one out of many”) versus ekoham bahusyaam (I am one let me be many). From the Indian perspective, diversity is a fact of existence in this earthly plane and the task for mankind in organising societies is not to seek to obliterate those diversities but to accommodate them within a harmonious whole. The Varna system was a model, like Plato’s much later, to deal with questions of power and status in the creation of such a society.

A leitmotif in all of Mr. Abu Bakr’s writing on the question of race and ethnicity is the complaint that Indians are averse to miscegenation. Mr Bakr apparently sees miscegenation as a salutary solution to our “race” problem. Bakr asks, “Does (ROAR) want black Hindus, or every man in his own racial/cultural” Jati”?” This is very short-sighted for several reasons - not the least being that miscegenation is not a question of race but of power. We have abjured the use of “race” as a useful category for classifying human beings. Ethnicity, with its nexus to culture, offers a more fertile ontological ground and epistemological tool. It was the British who dubbed us “the land of six races”, yet, in the post-slavery colonial era, installed the Coloured group, formed by the miscegenation between the White masters and the African slaves, just below themselves. This group was held out to the African as the epitome of what he could achieve - and he could do this by “marrying up” (marrying someone fairer from the Coloureds) and behaving in a “proper” manner (imitating the Coloureds who imitated the Whites). Miscegenation didn’t solve anything, because it was simply a recipe for striving to be, at best, second class to the Whites - and to be superior to the vast majority of one’s own group. As we have pointed out before, because race and ethnicity more or less coincide, the problem becomes tainted by questions of “race” which are completely extraneous. We can , and do, have Hindus of all races but we do not believe in proselytisation.

As different groups live together without great power-differentials, mixing will inevitably occur - ROAR has on numerous occasions stated this. What it opposes is those who push miscegenation as a policy under the present unequal power- relations. In such a scheme, we are talking of merely accepting the status quo. For those who rail at “Aryan” exclusivity and snobbery, it is instructive to examine the cultural and religious practices of say, the Rig Veda era versus the present. Even though many claim that the Rig Vedic culture was hegemonic as it spread though out India, today one can ask who conquered whom - with non-Aryan practices, concepts and values dominating. Integration has to be a two (or many) way street.

Mr. Bakr claims to be familiar with my writings, yet he asks “we are not convinced that ROAR will, Kwayana-like, move from an urgent concern with the welfare of a single race to a preoccupation with the welfare of all of us.” It is obvious that either he isn’t familiar or he wants, like Dr. Gibson, to demonise those who speak from an Indian perspective as if they cannot be concerned with the dilemmas of other groups. In the very first paper I wrote on politics in 1988 (On the Guyanese Dictatorship) I concluded: “The Burnham era, 1964-1985, had graphically and tragically exposed the dangers of permitting any man or group unchecked power. Yet Guyana is caught in its historic dilemma. The call for free and fair elections would in all probability lead to the permanent control of the State by an Indian-dominated political group. The Indians have now increased their majority to 53% of the population and the African and Coloured sections have to be concerned as to whether they would be a vengeful majority.”

No one can point to any of my subsequent statements or writings (or ROAR’s) that have deviated from that position. I have had to conclude (sadly) that is because this call was coupled with the following that I could not be “national”: “There can be no lasting political solution in Guyana until the legitimate security concerns of the African and Creole sections are addressed along with the need for the full and equal participation of the Indian and other excluded sections in the life of the nation.”

Evidently, the Indian is not supposed to want justice and equity.

Yours faithfully,

Ravi Dev,

MP. Leader of ROAR