The epic is that of a Guyanese people who overcame

Dear Editor,

Did the People’s National Congress government of the seventies and eighties institute banning and control of certain items as one of its means of punishing Indian-Guyanese? And was the instrument of discrimination particularly aimed at Hindus? This is a serious and recurring charge.

Vishnu Bisram, the Hindu-Guyanese activist and commentator, has written that my dismissal of his contention that the restrictions were so intended, was offensive in its tenor. And insensitive in its inference (based on his reasonings) that some Hindus may have been imagining personal and material loss due to the non-availability of the prescribed or traditional grains and other ingredients common in ritual.  The inference is quite admissible when one considers Mr Bisram’s argument that Hindus felt their rituals could not be properly conducted without certain items. A distinguished pollster whose work commands my interest and respect, Mr Bisram adds that his conversations with “many Indians… in Guyana” reinforce his sentiment that my reaction to his charges against the PNC was “insulting and hurtful… offensive to religious sensibilities.” Clearly then, Mr Bisram and his sample of Guyanese Hindus have convinced themselves that a refutation of his PNC anti-Hindu thesis is, of itself, anti-Hindu. I am almost certain, also, that most Hindu Guyanese do not share this view.

An initial conclusion, then, is that while Dr Kean Gibson argues that there is or was a Hindu conspiracy, whatever its shape or form, to subjugate African-Guyanese, Mr Bisram argues from the Hindu side that there is or has been a perceptible conspiracy by PNC-ites to wound and weaken Guyanese Hinduism and to heartlessly destroy its very foundations. These are positions that go off the register of the normal, the reasonable, the confirmable, and enter the range of the risible.
First, the character of the discourse and the place of the discoursers within in. Without falling back on the ad hominem it needs to be noted that Mr Bisram has been associated with a group of Hindu militants that includes Dr Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha who occassionally writes in the papers, Ravi Dev, etc, who have contributed to the sharpening of our consciousness and understanding of ethnic matters. They have done so by extruding from the Indian eidos (the worldview or interpretation of reality) the discomforts, fears, resentments, complexes, prejudices, and all the angst and the flashes of self-satisfaction that would be natural and expected of a community of third and fourth generation immigrants into a community such as this. They have done so by analysis that is often insightful. But essentially by elaborating a particular discourse about race in which the Indian is essentially victim of a malevolent Other, white Anglo at one time and African-Guyanese thereafter. The discourse, as I have had occasion to state here before, is, like all discourse, not at all neutral, but serves as the motor of an ethnic narrative in which a diabolised PNC has been observed by one or two of the narrators not only to be striking wickedly at the most sacred in the sacral realm, the religion itself, but in the sacred realm of the family.
The emergence of this group of intellectuals from the Indian community may be regarded as inevitable, even necessary in the sense that that they have shaken some awake from their comfort with some of the unquestioned hegemonies to which the African-Creole society had been accustomed and had begun only slowly to change. The fact, however, that their activity was/is linked to a political project, has propelled their contestation from the rooftop of mere theorising observation to the bottom house of a militancy that is funded by its own exaggerations and appeals to racial solidarity with the inevitable distortions.

Certain verities are perceptible above the surface as we survey the landscape they have chosen to occupy.
Prominent among these is, in the case of the Hindu activists from this group, that they fail to make the distinction between a Guyanese Hinduism, by now sufficiently distant from Indian or even Bhojpuri practice, to merit consideration as distinctive, and an idealised dharma that may never have been uniform in practice, belief or ritual. By which we mean that Guyanese Hindusim has undergone so much modification that when we speak of ‘Hinduism’ the specification has to be made. For them, Guyanese Hinduism has become ‘Hinduism.’
It is a form of Caribbean Hinduism which, as Anil Misir writes in Indian Caribbean Heritage eventually “became less doctrinaire and more flexible, adapting itself to the environment.” And noting that even in India “Caste and geographic differences militate against common rituals.”

The rituals therefore, that have been practised in Guyana in puja or yajna are not always identical to those practised in an India where rituals, according to experts in the field, are fading out. But, as has been observed, even though there is not ‘orthodoxy’ of belief, there is, in many places an ‘orthopraxy’ of ritual where, in Guyana perhaps, certain traditions have developed and certain preferred forms retained.
So, Hindus in this country, led and organised by a pandit group that has been seen as remarkable for its work at facilitating adaptation, may see themselves as needing flour and ghee to do some work. It is tradition and we understand that these traditions are specified in some sacred texts. But as A Whitney Sanford has stressed, “Hindu tradition reveals an enormous flexibility and adaptability to individual and community circumstances and thus there is no single or authoritative text or body to dictate ritual.” He adds that the numerous ritual manuals suggest how they are performed but are not obligatory.
It is noted that there are and have been currents in Hinduism, and the Upanishads are referenced here, that even dismiss the dependence on ritual as a sign of a slow evolution of the consciousness.

We cannot say, therefore, that, for Hindusim, there is consensus on the form or necessity of ritual. We can concede however that as a legitimate local practice, Hindu religion has taken traditional forms in which reliance on traditional rituals is important. The governments of the Caribbean have had to take into account locally generated forms of religiosity. The African communities have produced them aplenty and in each case, the establishment has been reluctant or slow to incorporate their specific demands. Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad got their charter fairly recently. Rastafarianism, as religion, is still to be granted equal rights in most places. And in Guyana itself, we learnt recently, the sacrament of marijuana, as important to them, as Mr Bisram says, grain is to Hindus, will not be considered licit any time soon by the present government.

The question of the necessity of certain items to anybody’s rituals, in the face of legal or economic constraint, is then a matter that goes beyond race, to my mind, and I am not at all convinced that the PNC had intentions as Mr Bisram suggests. Muslims do not need to eat flour or any of the former banned/restricted items at a Quran Sharif. For Mr Bisram to suggest that Islam prescribes any such thing is for him to indulge his imagination. Methodists or Congregationalists, if I remember, who take morsels of bread and a little wine as the communion, would have had as much reason to resent the PNC as Mr Bisram. They are not, to my mind, making it a racial issue. Perhaps being mostly black, the absurdity of the plea is immediately obvious. Were the government to have made an exception of Hindus resentments may have been born. Or every African bread and bake eater could have become ‘Hindu.’ The banning and restrictions were a result, objectively, of the lack of foreign currency reserves, not anti-Hindu sentiment. It is dishonest or delusionary to suggest otherwise. The policy of import substitution and developing local food was really an excellent initiative. It could have been done differently, but economic circumstances precipitated things. All suffered in some measure. Perhaps this is why the government of the time tolerated the surge of a parallel economy from Crabwood Creek to… where you could have bought everything needed for ritual at a high price. This was, for Hindus as for everyone else, the problem. Earnings had fallen in value, unemployment was high, the trickle of remittances could hardly cover domestic consumption for the beneficiaries. The epic is that of a Guyanese people who by their resilience and imagination and intelligence, overcame to retain a religious and family life even in the dark moments. Hoyte came, and his PNC lifted the seige of circumstances. This PNC has also to be remembered.

I do not know that the PPP said the bannings were anti-Hindu.

I do not expect that Mr Bisram intended me to refer to [Lord] Ganesh as Lord. For us Muslims, only Allah can be so described or addressed.

Yours faithfully,
Abu Bakr

Editor’s note
This correspondence is
now closed

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