It is the elites which benefit from social change

Dear Editor,

There has been, over the last few weeks, an interchange on the possible role of the “Indian intellectual” in the development of our national discourse and, more particularly, as a spokesperson for some or all of the Indo-Guyanese segment of our society. What he says and on whose behalf he says it has been obscured by his sponsors and we can only pre-suppose his content and tone based on the known works and pronouncements of those calling for his appearance. (A manner of speaking, for the call has been for a multitude of Indian intellectuals but here we speak of him as of an emblematic figure).

The purpose of this letter is to put all of this in context as it were.

First, pronunciations on questions of this type are not only necessary but inevitable.

Prof Guy Rocher in one of his tomes on sociology entitled Le changement social (Social Change) notes that a frequently observed characteristic of post-decolonisation, is the appearance of internecine conflict at some level and in some degree of intensity. He notes that it is often caused by the illusory idea of “national identity” and writes, “Let us underline that the idea of national identity, under the cover of which the process of decolonisation is realised may also be the object of conflict. The national identity within which it was believed were united varied racial groups and technical and linguistic groups was artificial enough. The difficulties and frustration of the post-colonial situation caused the break-up of this precarious union to the benefit of a tribalism reborn or in favour of regionalism founded on economic interests.” Local commentators from Eusi Kwayana to Ravi Dev have applied the same reasoning in our case. We saw in the post-independence 1970s in the Caribbean a lot of turbulence, in a few cases leading to armed revolt, caused by factors that included regionalism and identity politics.

Rocher notes that the cleavages often reveal divergencies that are both “deeply rooted and tenacious” and may be linked to cultural differences, real or perceived. It is to say that what we are living is both to be expected and fought against.

It is in this context that we regard the dyad of Indo-Guyanese/Afro-Guyanese, fastened together in an asymmetrical antipathy that has its origins in the cultural values and narratives proper to each group. These differences are indeed profound and tenacious. Walter Rodney has been quoted by Ravi Dev proclaiming the virtue of ethnic identity promotion by each race. A point that needs to be made is that Afro-Guyanese often grant primacy to “class” in their valorisation of people and things and “race” rarely has first preference as a criterion. Ethnic identity is sometimes but not always a component in the construction of the class identity. Not a Rodneyite myself, I cannot comment on the quote without knowing context and the full range of Rodney’s thoughts on the matter.

The participants in the discussion on the Indian intellectual have included some writers significant for the frequency of their intervention in the public space. Vishnu Bisram, Ravi Dev, Swami Aksharananda whose call has been quoted and one of its initiators, Baytoram Ramharack who have, over the years highlighted various aspects of the problematic. The stable of commentators over at the Guyana Times includes also Lomarsh Roopnarine who has had interesting views on the discussion.

To note that, in different circumstances, New World Africans have produced also a range of discourse. It has ranged from the self-affirming to the frankly delusional. But it can be turned to the common good if we start by recognising the dangers of certain ideas and their vocalization, and emphasise the positive in ourselves and each other. The black history month with its emphasis on the positive can be seen as more of therapy for a people living a permanent sort of stress. We can look at organising celebration of our ethnic cultures here.

One of the points that Rocher makes that we have seen in our case is that the ethnic group being manouevered into the dominant position in post-colonial societies rarely benefits as a collectivity. It is the elites in these groups that, as in most social change, reap the money and positions which swell their ranks, fatten and enlarge themselves, with the masses getting some by-products and crumbs of course. We have to see who is destined to benefit from changes the Indian intellectual is supposed to herald. Remembering that the Afro-intellectuals in the seventies in Guyana were also about, as I have written here, elite change.


Yours faithfully,

Abu Bakr