Republic Day celebrations should be reformed

Dear Editor,

In the interest of national unity and the well-being of the citizens of Guyana, there is need for a comprehensive reform of Republic Day celebrations in Guyana.

As a nation, over the passage of time, we have signalled our intention to honour our diversity by granting the various major religions and ethnicities public holidays to celebrate their faiths and culture and heritage. In contemporary Guyanese society, several gaps have emerged.

Firstly, many groups – religious groups, cultural groups, ethnic groups, secular groups, community groups – are unrepresented nationally by these holidays and remain invisible. My conversation with a respected professional of Portuguese ancestry in Guyana revealed quite clearly that he did not buy the argument that the Arrival of Portuguese to Guyana was also being celebrated on May 5 – Arrival Day. Where do we give space to the Baha’i s of Guyana? Or the Yorubas? Or the Rastafarian community?

Secondly, by and large, most of the holidays that have been granted result in individual communities celebrating privately and separately. Republic Day celebrations, however, offer an opportunity to create the web that will link these separate communities and bind and unite us as a nation. There is much dispute around Mashramani and Republic Day and this signals the existence of a problem as well as an intention by the people to engage in discussion.

I know we are accustomed to thinking that our political problems are intractable. That’s because we are looking in the wrong places for a solution.

It is interesting to listen to the thoughts of a political commentator who suggests that the reason that PPP supporters (implying of course Guyanese of Indian ancestry) do not feel complete comfort with Mashramani celebrations is largely because the PPP told them to stay away. This type of commentary reflects the wrong views and inaccurate assumptions and it is precisely these ideas that need to be acknowledged to be wrong. Another confusion around Mashramani is that it is a Guyanese holiday which emphasizes ‘celebration after hard work.’ So what is it doing on Republic Day activities? Maybe as a young nation, ideas were limited. Now, with hindsight, we can do better than this. Interestingly, even Trinidad and Tobago’s Carnival, the inspiration behind Mashramani, is separated from Trinidad and Tobago’s Republic Day Celebration which happens on September 24.

People in Guyana who are calling for the PPP and supporters of the PPP to get with the programme and join in Mashramani celebrations as a wonderful thing are repeating a cycle of hegemony that started with the same disrespect for freedom and for other cultures that the people of this country experienced under colonial rule and in particular, British colonial rule. The current merger of Republic Day with Mashramani celebrations offers little opportunity for including other cultures, traditions and sensitivities. So, it is in its placement on Republic Day that the problem begins. The second problem arises from those who demand assimilation, which is not in consonance with acceptance, tolerance and respect, ie, at complete odds with our fundamental values as enshrined in the laws of the land. So, on Republic Day we are doing the very opposite of the aspirations of the paper documents supporting nationhood.

So why do we want others to conform to our culture? Is it a perception that a criticism of Mashramani celebrations is a criticism of Caribbean culture?  Considering the extent to which Mashramani celebrations are entrenched and enjoyed as part of national culture on Republic Day as well as receiving widespread criticism, reform will require national consultation around the issues of national unity and the role of Republic Day in fostering this much sought after goal. This is not an issue of ethnic relations, or for heavy government involvement beyond oversight. This is a call for intelligent interactions by the people of this country on what nationhood means to them and how to accommodate diversity and how various groups, sub-groups and miniature groups, should they wish to be represented, can be accommodated and why. More importantly, it is a challenge to determine the extent to which people are willing to introspect, shed erroneous beliefs and accommodate others.

While we still exist as if in the clutches of colonialism, London today is perhaps the most truly multicultural of urban centres that has ever graced the face of the Earth, and it reflects an almost complete reversal of any colonial idea of assimilation. We need to move on as well and with the goodwill among the people of Guyana that we know exists, we can do so in a manner that the world has never witnessed.

How many nations in the world have an opportunity to truly honour the splendour and diversity of creation by eliminating resentment, hatred and fear instead of repressing it? How many have risen to the challenge? We dwell in an interdependent reality and our internal problems detract us from making a more useful contribution to the international community. We have an opportunity before us to challenge the boundaries of tolerance and accommodation and to honour the creative force of life in triumphant victory over the forces that have derailed our attempts at unity. If we do it well, and if we can only see it, we have an opportunity to transform the myth of El Dorado into reality.

Yours faithfully,
Sandra Khan

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