There seems to be no end to the constant regurgitating of select portions of Guyana’s past by one or another of the denizens of Freedom House or Congress Place. It is as if the inhabitants of this land have their material existence in the twenty-first century along with everyone else on the planet, but that their mental life is tethered in decades long gone. The stories from those decades – and essentially there are two; one for each of the two major parties – are not compatible with each other, but both sides claim a monopoly on historical ‘truth’. Anything that deviates from one or the other version (particularly that from the PPP) is ‘revisionist’, in the narrow sense of that term.
Any excuse for another recitation of the old myths – for myths is what they are – is never passed up. The latest was a PNC anniversary, where Minister Amna Ally celebrated Forbes Burnham’s contribution to the nation. It was done with comparatively little fanfare, and for all its customary perversions and omissions could have been allowed to pass unremarked. But the PPP would not have it so, and consequently there was a counter-blast from some of the traditional voices in Freedom House, who regarded it as denigrating Cheddi Jagan’s ‘paramount’ contribution to the pre-Independence history of this nation. As a consequence, citizens were the beneficiaries of their particular perversions and omissions in turn.
The population has heard it all many times before, and by now should have it lodged in their memories, or at least that version which emanates from their side of the divide. It is not history, of course, and for many people ‒ perhaps most people ‒ these narrations and counter-narrations are very wearying. As time progresses, more modern events have been accommodated within the formula, but really as an extension of the original story.
At the same time, everyone – in the political firmament, anyway – is talking about social cohesion. It is no news to the populace that there isn’t too much of that around in these times, and the government is not doing anything much to help itself either, despite the appointment of a minister to attend to that sensitive matter. In addition, they appear oblivious to the fact that quite a bit of what they are doing plays into the Freedom House rendition of past events, so they can be accused of reverting to what went before.
At the bottom of it all, of course, most politicians are the last people who truly want total social cohesion, although they are not at the same time seeking anything too extreme in that respect, such as social dissolution; they still want to govern a unitary state. As primarily ethnically based parties, however, they view their existence as being premised on a measure of a certain lack of social cohesion, because they have to cater first and foremost, to their own ethnic constituencies. During election periods in particular, therefore, they are accustomed to talking out of two sides of their mouths, and some of them within the confines of their own constituencies – Bharrat Jagdeo being the prime example in recent times – have conveyed unvarnished race-based messages.
In such a scenario the ‘historical’ myths have a role to play, and the PPP/C insistence in particular, on their accounts being the only acceptable ones, is not just a rejection of historical method and the purpose of history which in healthier environments encourages open debate, but a way of keeping the constituency on message. The letter-writer to this newspaper, therefore, who decried the fact that in our unreformed school curriculum there was no history of more recent vintage misses the point. There can be no agreement on the past because there is no agreement on the present.
Ralph Ramkarran who gave a measured account of the accomplishments of both the PNC and the PPP which both parties could claim had nothing to do with ethnic dominance, as well as the cooperation agreements between the two stated that, “This history has kept the end of ethnic dominance as a fundamental goal of our politics” (Sunday Stabroek, Sept 24). That is no doubt true in relation to our more sophisticated politicians, but one cannot help but suspect that for a number of them, this is something they only pay lip service to.
There are those who believe that constitutional reform is the answer. It will certainly relieve some of the tensions if there is a framework in place which is more rational for our circumstances than the present one, but whether it will solve the social cohesion problem in and of itself is doubtful. This is not to say that constitutional reform is not urgently needed; it is, but our ethnic dilemma is not going away soon although it can be mitigated.
In fact, the problem probably has no quick solution; time will be needed in the first instance and that in a context where there are autonomous institutions well-structured and well manned, which monitor and hold to account the government, state agencies and even private ones. Our governments have to be transparent, honest, non-discriminatory, etc, and be seen to be such. Only then will people begin to trust that all governments are held to the same standard, and that there is some measure of fairness in the society. Certainly our governments since 1992 have not met these standards, or anything close to them, and as such the electorate has retreated into its ethnic camps.
If, however, the parties are serious about moving towards social cohesion, they could demonstrate it as a beginning, by ceasing to churn out their little stories about the past, which deify some players and demonise others. They should leave the space for the historians of the post-war period to debate the issues of what transpired, to which the propagandists could certainly contribute, but in an entirely different context and with a willingness to seek the ‘truth’.
Other than that the latter should certainly keep quiet and cease trying to impose an ethnic mon-vision on the nation. We could do without that.