My complaint is that Mash has virtually replaced Republic Day
Stabroek News
March 2, 2004

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Dear Editor,

By sheer coincidence earlier this week I happened to mention to Mr. David de Caries that in Harris we have a world class cartoonist. I still believe this even though the very next day he caricatured me as decrying Mashramani as "vulgar". I write to clarify my position because it is just not a "snooty" thing as Harris and others may believe.

I was out of Guyana for this February 23rd. I returned the day after and therefore had to go by reports in the media and word-off-mouth about what went on (or down) the day. I heard about the "best ever" Mash, the backballing, the Gajraj effigy, the poor private sponsorship and heavy Government involvement (ninety-percent of the floats Government sponsored?) and so on. What I didn't hear about was Republic Day, apart from the GIHA occasion on West Demerara - which most of the press ignored. And this has always been my problem with what has happened to February 23rd , this is now Mashramani Day, not Republic Day - the tail isn't just wagging the dog, the tail has become the dog.

My kids in primary school learnt that this is the day children play steel pans in the streets, dress up in scanty costumes and parade, and dance on stage and in the streets. Not a single activity to let them know what it means for their country to be a 'Republic". All they've learnt about this day is that it's a day of revelry. Now contrary to what some (most?) may think I like my revelry as much as anyone else - I've done my share of wedding bottom-house "coiling"! - but there is a time and place, a rhyme and reason for everything. We have to ask ourselves as a nation - what is February 23rd all about?

February 23rd is Republic Day - period. While Independence was given to us by Britain - and we know our history enough to remember that it was delayed from 1962 to 1966 because of US concerns - Republic Day was chosen by us as the day that we cut all formal ties with the British Crown. We were on our own - supposed to be captains of our fate and masters of our destiny and all that. "Republic" comes directly from the Latin "res publica" - the public thing. We the public, the people, were now responsible for governing ourselves and conducting our affairs in such a manner, to achieve the goals that we ourselves would set for our country. The day itself - February 23rd - was selected to help remind us as to what Republic Day was all about. February 23rd was supposed to be the date of Cuffy's great effort to overthrow Dutch rule over Berbice and remove the shackles of slavery back in 1763. It was a landmark event in the entire Western hemisphere.

Mashramani began as an event in Linden to commemorate Republic Day. This is perfectly in order and commendable - any group of citizens have the right to commemorate Republic Day based on how they feel it's appropriate. However, several problems arose when the Government promptly decided to adopt Mashramani and make it the official way to celebrate Republic Day. Firstly, by also mandating that all Government entities (at a time when the Government controlled eighty percent of the economy) including schools and Ministries had to get involved in the Mash, the Government sent the message that Mash was the Guyanese way to commemorate Republic Day. To commemorate Republic Day any other way was in some way to be outside the pale...literally marching to a different drummer.

Now Guyana is a land of several cultures and each may have different perspectives on how to commemorate or celebrate events. When the Government selects a particular cultural expression as the official expression it explicitly privileges that expression to the exclusion of others. This is an unacceptable policy in a multicultural state.

In its excursions in the cultural realm, the Government has to be balanced in its promotion of values and activities. Mashramani and its Carnival antecedents in the Caribbean come out of the cultural encounter between Europe and Africa during and after slavery - as an aspect of Creole culture. Its particular expressions of unrestrained exuberance, ebullience, gaiety and exhibitionism come out of a specific historical experience - most literally brought out by the Barbadian label for its version - Crop over. The African people were allowed to let off steam after the furious intensity and rigour of the grinding season on the plantations to forget for a while their degradation that they would be forced to return to with the start of a new crop. This was the old "bread and circus" routine perfected by the Romans so many centuries ago - but here there wasn't even any bread. Today, there is more than a sneaking suspicion that the PPP is pumping so much money into Mash to take off the heat from African anger at its failures of governance. Imagine that ninety percent of the floats were Government-sponsored! And where were the Indians from even GAWU in their float - when three quarters of their membership is Indian?

The second problem is implicit in the first. By making Mashramani the official celebration of Republic Day, the Government was telling the population that the values demanded by Republican status were going to be reinforced or inculcated in the Mashramani activities.

And this is where I part company with the promoters of Mashramani as the Republic Day commemoration activities. I would like anyone to tell me how backballing in the streets of Georgetown will help us to be self-sufficient or protective of our country or securing good government or any other Republican goal. Again I restate my point - private individuals can backball to their waist's content but a Government has to promote activities consonant with what they seek to promote -in this instance Republicanism.

And it's not as if we've had hundreds of years of imbibing and practising Republican values like America so that we can afford to "throw back". Look at the mess we're in: our economy is controlled by the IMF and World Bank, our Government is being mannered by the US, Canada and Britain and our citizens with great regularity commit the greatest barbarities against each other. Some Republic. One would have thought that at a minimum on Republic Day we could have reflected on why Cuffy's rebellion on February 23rd 1763 failed. It might even teach us something about why we can't get anywhere today.

But then that might make us demand change in ourselves that the politicians certainly don't want: real independence.

Yours faithfully,

Ravi Dev MP,

Leader of ROAR