A letter writer raised a question in reference to the recent controversy regarding Diwali celebrations in Guyana by asking “Where are the Indian intellectuals?” In short, why are Indians not speaking out through a consensus voice and addressing issues germane to their physical existence? The deafening silence has led to two possible conclusions. One, there are few Indian intellectuals in Guyana who are capable of articulating a position on behalf of Indians. Two, Indian intellectuals are afraid to speak out because of the perception that they may be branded as “racists”. They will be accused of not being a “true Guyanese”.
There is no question that an intellectual tradition is firmly grounded in the African community. This has been established over the years, largely complemented by many years of oppression and discrimination, and a historical experience that has created shared values and common positions around national issues, be it racism against Africans, reparations, etc. Swami Aksharananda reminded us that within the African community (specifically, the PNC and WPA) “a significant number of African intellectuals, scholars, and activists …are quite vociferous when it comes to ethnic honour, and for whom the furtherance and defence of African Guyanese interests, is an important plank in their political and public life.” He suggested that “this group of individuals seeks to connect ethnic interests with national interests” and that there is an “asymmetry in this position when it comes to Indians”. His conclusion was that the Indian ethnic interest “has been presented as diametrically opposed to national interest.”
Judging by the letter writers, social blogs and social media platforms, there are some common trends that are identifiable when it comes to the way Indians are perceived in Guyana and the Caribbean. One, they are viewed as a backward, unsophisticated lot, a perception often linked to their Asian, rather than western outlook. Two, the language used to describe Indians suggest that they are “interlopers”, “temporary migrants”, or as Eric Williams of Trinidad referred to them as “a recalcitrant minority”. In sum, Indians are seen as non-patriotic and as anti-nationalist as they come. As a result, Indians who publicly advocate for their community or group interests are viewed as “parochial” because they cling to their primordial sentiments. If readers think these claims are not grounded in reality, one simply has to peruse the unfettered blogs where Guyanese, hiding behind anonymity, tell each other how they really feel. By no means am I claiming that Indians are saints in this regard, but, unfortunately, the vitriol is reflected on both sides.
If an intellectual tradition exists within the Guyanese Indian community, it is difficult to identify the protagonists. Had there been an intellectual tradition in Guyana, the current perceptions regarding Indians may not have gone unchallenged. One is hard-pressed to produce evidence that the PPP and its leadership has elevated the status of Indians, its largest voting bloc, to the next plateau because that party is guilty of squelching any semblance of intellectualism within its core, a tradition that dates back to the early days of Cheddi Jagan.
Moreover, beyond his Marxism, Jagan saw himself as the person on a mission to bring the races together. He was assured of Indian support, so little attention was given to the particular problems of Indians. He did not care to raise them, while working assiduously to delegitimise any Indian leader or organisation that expressed a desire to engage in meaningful dialogue about race relations in Guyana.
Ironically, Swami Aksharananda’s statements received vociferous castigations, not from Africans, many of whom would probably agree with his assessment, but from a lone Indian, Freddie Kissoon, supposedly a “renaissance Guyanese” who declared the messenger as an “Indian triumphalist”.
The clear lack of an intellectual tradition creates a number of challenges for the Indian. His concerns are not seen as legitimate, his causes are not worth struggling for, his rights need not be protected, he has no business being in politics, and he should not make any claims to the national patrimony. It is much worse for Amerindians, who were here long before Africans and Indians were brought to this country when the colonial possession was still a swampland. Their voices are drowned by a national culture that does not legitimately embrace the Indian culture as part of the national fabric of dear Guyana.