Cycling to a better place
By Eusi Kwayana
Kean Gibson The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana (NY, 2003)
November 30, 2003
Coming so late in the responding order, these remarks no doubt show awareness of what others have said. Kean Gibson's book, The Cycle of Racial Oppression in Guyana, is a challenge to all sections of Guyanese society. Fortunately it appears at a time when the racial problems of Guyana are no longer hidden as they were before the late fifties and early sixties, when I had the misfortune of being the gadfly. She opens with the claim what she is doing is new: that the culture behind the racial politics had not been discussed before; that writers had dealt with the political issues only on the basis of politics and race, not culture.
We must, therefore, welcome her bold expedition into that forbidden field.
"Political studies on Guyana blame the current social and economic problems on ethnic conflict between Africans and East Indians, but none have attempted to aggressively debate the racist principles operating in Guyana that are the centre of the problem and hence the source of the conflict. Thus race is a problem, but at the same time it is not there." (p.2)
She points to the one novelty of the book when she writes: "This study brings to the fore the problems associated with Hinduism - a religion that sanctifies racism - and a rise in Guyana of what one commentator describes as 'neo-ethnic supremacists.'"
For those who have not read Gibson, it is only fair to restate her aims as she states them: "to account for African puzzlement about being defined as 'criminals' by East Indians; the pervasive culture that if you are not East Indian you are nobody; an African-dominated police force that periodically kills Africans; disregard for the laws of the country by the government; corruption that is ruinous to the state and an obvious attempt to pauperise Africans." (p.1)
No other person I know of has spent so much time as I, fairly exposing Dr Jagan's racial opportunism (my old phrase). Yet never have I had to fall back on transferred political epithet. We should see the use of fiction as unworthy of a worthy cause. Dr Gibson made the point that in 1957 the Jagan faction used race. There was no need to place the 'apan jaat' poster in the PPP's hands. That was a specific slogan used by D P Debidin mainly against the PPP. So westernised was Debidin, that he did not at first pronounce the Hindi properly!
While no one can challenge Dr Gibson's anecdotes - and some are taken from my writings on the sixties but not on the nineties - some flaws could have been avoided. We all have a responsibility to point them out.
She refers to Mr Burnham's "knowledge of PPP's racism." Yet in a New Amsterdam Congress speech of 1963, Mr Burnham presented an explanation of the racial tensions then worrying the society. It does not match Dr Gibson's quoted explanation of Mr Burnham's approach or knowledge. (See Destiny To Mould.)
In her focus on the novel aspect of the case she is presenting, Dr Gibson may have played into the hands of her detractors, by skimming over some political and constitutional data. Some of these can affect her conclusions, and her sense of future developments.
i. Her treatment of the post-emancipation period does not do justice to significant African self-development and contribution to the domestic economy and the formation of the nation. There is no record of self-development in coastal Guyana to equal what the Africans did after 1838. My indignation at the abuse of Buxton by a politically armed body is directly connected with the timeless example set by Africans, which others followed.
ii. The alleged lack of involvement of Africans in estate labour is sugar planters' propaganda.
iii. The British and the world had been reminded, at least since July 1961, that the problem was a struggle for power of two major races, and that it ought to be resolved. 1964 was a late discovery.
iv. The quote from The West On Trial of what Jagan and others wrote to Greenwood after the 1964 elections, can be improved by looking at the daily newspapers of that period.
Dr Gibson's political anecdotes and history are highly selective. Although she may be on to something in her diagnosis of religion as the key component of our problems, she has not made the argument. To come to such a conclusion of a particular place, namely, Guyana, not India, not T&T, not Fiji, she must attempt a fair and detached history of race relations over a century and a half. She has not examined in our presence the role of caste and how it has been treated in the Guyanese Indian community. These are essential links in her thesis.
By the way, is it fair to treat Hindus, with all their undoubted political solidarity, as people of one belief or practice? Even since the 19th century, Swami Dayanand spearheaded a reform Hindu movement, the Arya Samaj (AS). That movement is active in Guyana and has been so for about a hundred years. True, it is not a dominant movement, but its ideas are gaining ground. Since Dr Gibson felt impelled to treat Hinduism in such sweeping terms, she might have mentioned that the AS is opposed to gender discrimination and declares that no one can be born into a caste. The worship of Kali Mai, the Black Goddess, is not surprising in a country which, along with the continent of Africa, has some of the most dark-skinned people on Earth.
Gibson admits a cycle of racial oppression exercised by Europeans, and by an African elite. There is an apparent gap in her cycles before she comes to 1992. She is not at one with the current zealots who regard Burnham's rule as a golden age, but she then makes a case for Burnham's authoritarian rule, which almost justifies it. She sees no alternative policy or culture. She avoids the facts of the steep drop in average achievement of African students during the 28 years. The period includes educational reforms and abuse, the introduction of the famous Community High (non) schools and an established growth of illiteracy among younger Africans.
True, one book cannot do everything. But there were two PPP governments between 1957 and 1964; what was the experience of those years?
A most welcome aspect of the book is its compact exposure of corruption in the ruling circles. What is new here is the packing of much of it - by no means all - in one piece of permanent writing, a book. This form gives intensity, not novelty. With my long-enduring interest in the area of government, I should like to recommend that corruption needs evidence, which is likely to be mostly circumstantial. Exposing corruption is a painstaking process. In Guyanese culture, whistleblowers are few.
The pre-PPP regime is let off on corruption, perhaps because of the seemingly smaller stakes. In 1970, under pressure from some organisations - not the PPP - Burnham called a special meeting of the National Assembly and the bureaucracy and pledged to fight corruption. Both Jagan and Jagdeo in their early years denounced corruption in the state. That is all over now. If the leader says there is corruption in his government that is proof enough generally.
The PNC's main method of raiding the state was through the Office of the General Secretary, which was merged with the Ministry of National Development, as I have shown conclusively elsewhere. The PPP is raiding the state by manoeuvres in procurement. This is why the Procurement Act came under my attack. It does not help matters one bit. Dr Gibson rightly points to the silence of my own Bishop and certain other churchmen in the post 1992 situation. All in all, corruption under the PPP, as I have said previously, is the most prevalent in all my experience. It was WPA's investigation of a certain minister that caused Mrs Jagan to be placed in charge of a PPP anti-corruption committee as a diversion.
A more subtle form of corruption is the device by which public officers, who are supposed to be independent, have to approach the Office of the President for permission and funds to travel on official business. This is a form of modern barbarism. That requirement itself is an admission of failure.
Dr Gibson as a scholar should have measured the on-going attempts to expose corruption. In this the TV hosts have been far more accurate than when they shoot war propaganda. Vieira of the Evening News has made some well-documented revelations, which I have used and shall use in Watchpost, the anti-corruption bulletin, which all the media ignore.
Dr Gibson does not treat the constitutional matters she selects with sufficient care. This is regrettable. The independence Governor General and the 1970-1980 President did not have "final say." Their power of assent to bills was exercised according to the UK Convention on the advice of the Prime Minister. Such light matters were not the cause of the 1980 Constitution. (See My Guyana: The Second Republic, 1981)
Under the 1980 Constitution the head of government became also head of state 'as if elected.' The PM was not head of government except by the empty title. It freed the President from attending Parliament and from the exposure of that body. Moreover, it gave Mr Burnham total power over the administration as 'supreme executive authority.' That allowed him to at least in practice become 'all powers.' It gave him the right to control directly every aspect of the public sector and to overrule any other executive authority.
Dr Gibson dismisses the Constitution Review Commission. She does not note how effective it was in reducing the powers of the President, altering the nature of many public bodies and guaranteeing a standard for consultations by the President with the Leader of the Opposition. Her view of methods of struggle could be modified if she knew the content of the reforms - amendments fought for by the WPA members of civil society and civil members of the two major parties.
Without a knowledge of the reforms, the public, and writers too, we cannot know the rights legally now available to the opposition, to various organs and to representatives of the people. Thus we cannot judge whether the government is acting within the law, covering up, or whether the opposition is demanding and using, or allowed to use the powers available to them; whether society has the will to insist on the application of the constitution; whether the underpaid MPs have the will to use the reforms for the good of those they are intended to support or protect.
A view that only violence can work may well reflect political lethargy or incapacity, and may well force certain elements to rely on the caste within the African community which is willing to carry AK-47s as their only claim to importance or power.
I join issue with Dr Gibson, an industrious young scholar, when she gives the impression, even if she does not say, that violence is the only outcome of our conflicts. Are not societies applying brainpower in the service of developmental problems? Is it that we have no brainpower or are we misapplying it? By we, I mean Guyanese as a whole, as well as particular races with particular problems.
The 1980 Constitution could not "abrogate all rights and privileges," certainly not in writing. Articles 138 to 155 do not support that contention. It is anther matter to say that the government did not respect these rights. These were essentially the same as in the 1966 constitution. It freed him, the President, of civil and criminal proceedings not only "while in office" but "also thereafter." No sweat, the two major parties regardless of religion or ideology or caste agreed during the recent constitutional review to continue the immunities.
Thanks to Mr Burnham's brilliance as a lawyer, he left the succeeding government a very convenient weapon for the achievement of the control of which they dreamed. The 1980 Constitution gave the Auditor General the power to carry out the functions of that office outside of the control of "any person or authority." To control the persons elected by the Auditor General as auditors to supplement the staff of the Department, the PPP passed a law. Under this law there was an advisory committee, which had the function of crafting a list of auditors from which the Auditor General was to select auditors. Spotting this device, I consulted attorney-at-law Gibson, and filed a motion in the High Court asking it to strike down the act. This is one of the ways, not wasteful of life, in which corrupt regimes have to be brought to book. I have my doubts about the "aggressive debate" which she invited, with some success, and hope myself to avoid it. We can count on aggressive debate to generate heat even at those times when the society is more in need of light.
Without being able from my own location to judge scholarship, as some of her critics are able to do, I can say that she writes with as much finality, as some of the critics of African Guyanese, on the motives of the group she calls variously PPP, or East Indian, or as influenced by Hindu ideology.
Ms Gibson must be congratulated for setting out to break new ground in her thesis that the Hindu religion is the mischief. Unfortunately, her book has offered no new tools for the uphill task posed by her thesis. Bearing in mind her published views of the Hindu faith, I fully support the call by Swami Aksharananda on well-established Hindu institutions in Guyana to make a considered statement on Dr Gibson's findings. It would be presumption for an outsider like me to pronounce on the faith.
What the cultural tool, if any, for dealing with the "Hindu ideology" as she understands it, is to be applied? Instead of searching for one as a pioneer in this field, she seems to have dread expectations based on a less thoughtful course. Gibson recommends extending proportional representation from the elected body to the cabinet. This is a form of power-sharing, which in 1961 I saw as joint-premiership, reborn in the Working People's Alliance as a Government of National Unity and Reconstruction - power- sharing, with a mandatory woman Executive Vice President, which is now actively promoted by most persons of hope, like Andaiye and Dr David Hinds in a non-sectarian mood.
I begin by criticising my own recommendations first. I admitted in a lecture in 1978 that my own handling of the racial problems of those days, although in the national interest, was insensitive, tending to offend the very people whose joint agreement could make the proposals succeed. If insensitive dealing with the race problem was wrong in 1961, is "aggressive debate" better in 2003? To make my purpose clear, let me say that in my time I have accused hard-liners of both major ethnic groups of genocidal intent. Many in either camp will see this as likely only in the rival camp. Without elaborating, I will just repeat that these ambitions are there somewhere.
Secondly, in 1959 I wrote in the New Nation an article The Rot within the PPP, after a crisis had forced the PPP leadership to cancel internal elections. Thunder commented that I should know why the leadership took that action. In the (signed) article I expressed the opinion that Indian electoral solidarity was noteworthy, and that only a political split among Guyana's Hindu population would make democracy possible in Guyana. The Africans at that time were split politically.
The essence of Dr Gibson's theory is this. Hindus are caste ridden. In Guyana, Hindus, Muslim and Christian Indian Guyansese act as an upper caste, seeking certain absolute advantages in regard to other Guyanese, African Guyanese in particular.
A complex interweaving of race, class, status and other social tests including history, which has been called caste, based on religion, or justified by religious doctrine, is the business of Hindus. In the same way the complex of kinship, language and custom, which we call tribal society, is the business of Africans and Amerindians where these things exist at all. They become public concern only when they affect public life or public policy.
It is easy, now that Dr Gibson has pronounced a certain religious ideology as the tragic factor, for people to think that an answer to our troubles, our political problems has been found. On p. 77 Dr Gibson spells out the choices taken from Mills, and presents them as choices which lie before human society.
"Dualism: Some persons and cultural perspectives are bad, and these are to be controlled or eliminated by a more powerful good.
Beyond dualism: What is good is to incorporate the views of all persons and cultural perspectives into a more encompassing perspective which embraces what is common to all of the particular variations."
After introducing us to these gems of human guidance, she fails, here or in another section of the book, to apply the more healthy of these choices. Having gone to great lengths to demonstrate the "dualism" of the whole Hindu population, comparing it to discredited European models, Dr Gibson goes on, so it appears, to adopt some of the attributes of dualism. If this is an unfair conclusion, then I have wholly misunderstood the book.
To what extent do the fundamentals of orthodox, or any Hinduism, inform the leadership and power centres of the PPP? To what extent do orthodox Christian principles, or any other, inform the power centres of the PNC? Has the influence been established through persons in positions of influence, or through some written or unwritten code applying to Guyana?
Is African society or Amerindian society without caste? I suggest that caste is deep-seated in our psyche. Paule Marshall, the gifted novelist, exclaims through one of her woman characters, "Class is our curse!" Not in every household now or ever in Guyana will some persons be allowed to drink water from the same vessel as the caste of the household. This is widespread folklore!
Old as I am I am willing to pool my efforts with people who want to reform the political economy of our 800,000 population in such a way that no race or generation or gender suffers. This refers especially to Africans who complain of being at the bottom of the social scale, but do not like a Jagan to say it. Is it not strange that, knowing that I am not in search of government employment, with all the racial problems, mainly economic, no one in authority has asked me what measures I think are workable? At least we used to be able to 'pick sense out of nonsense sense.'
To conclude, I invite readers to find and read Judaman Seecoomar's Contributions Towards the resolution of Conflict in Guyana. Seecoomar adopts from Burton, as C Y Thomas did less frontally some years ago, (1992), the theory that every human has basic needs.
Only Walter Rodney's History of the Guyanese Working People examined Guyanese society in its dynamic formation, with the elements of the old mother societies, which remained as they interacted to form the essence of what we have called Guyanese. Only the WPA attempted over 29 years to encourage such a society. Dr Gibson ignored both experiences. She saw the East Coast explosions of recent months as natural. In fact they were contrived.
This recently published book by Seecoomar offers many practice aids for moving a society "beyond dualism."