When analyzing Guyana’s curious politics and the ethnic relations between Indo and Afro Guyanese, there are some things in our history that we need to consider. Any attempt at an analysis that begins at our march for sovereignty and democracy is ignorant/dismissive of the intricacies of our history. We need to acknowledge how race was weaponized by the colonial state to break the possibility of a united afro/indo class/labour struggle against the plantation system, as our struggle today is still rooted in this.
There are those who don’t understand the dominant role ethnic insecurity plays in our historical and current political impasse. They use the mythical veneer of multi-ethnic party unity to claim that ethnic based politics is gone and now there only exists a political struggle for power.
It must be noted that our politicians did not create our racial/class divisions, but from the beginning they have fed and strengthened it, even now. Our ethnic political premiers Cheddi and Burnham would solidify ethnic rule and create distinct narratives for their individual support bases. Their legacies of racially polarized and consolidated power would become cemented and remains even today. But let me circle back on the point of the colonial state a bit…
It is well understood that class is a barrier to group cohesion due to unequal distribution of wealth/power but class has also become intricately tied with ethnicity/race due to colonial divide and rule tactics and cementing of ethnic power domination by those whose legacies still haunt us. As two minority groups in the colonial context, should the newly freed Africans and the newly arrived Indentured servants join together, it would mean an overpowering of white power and rule.
But the colonial state, well skilled in the art of divide and conquer, would use various tactics to instill fear, mistrust and hate. Indians were taught that Africans were lazy and untrustworthy and Africans were taught Indians were conniving and clannish. A lot of this was easily spread due the ethnic/cultural differences of Africans and Indians that saw them regarding each other as strange…
To add, the Indo population replaced the freed slaves not because ex-slaves no longer wanted to work on the plantations, but because they began collective bargaining and demanding higher wages than plantations wanted to pay. So the arrival of the Indo population undercut Afro labour power and fostered resentment. So from the beginning, there were stereotypical/ethnic/economic divisions that prevented them from forming a class alliance.
Given the different systems under which the two major groups came (Enslavement/Indentureship) the different benefits they received from the colonial state also fostered fierce class divisions that became ethnicised and strengthened. Land was a big source of contention as Indians were given land by the colonial state so they did not have to spend as much on repatriating them. Repatriation and monies given etc. were also a source of contention. Coupled with the ethnic mistrust, this would cement ethnicized conflict and thoughts as the main reason for the division, without acknowledgement of the unequal power/resources the two groups possessed.
Circling back to Cheddi and Burnham now – In understanding that class would be ineffective in gaining a large base, politicians would utilize race to enchant large voting blocs. Class solidarity ideology at this point served more as a Band-Aid holding together a multi-ethnic group rather than any driving force behind it. With the splintering of this brief interracial unification, the idea of ethnic political dominance and control was solidified as an ideology between the two groups. Rigging of elections would be and is still used to maintain this grasp on power and would further cause divide amongst ethnic lines.
The brief instances of cross-ethnic solidarity between Afros and Indos during the periods of (1920-1940s and onwards to 2011 to 2015) have splintered not only due to political corruption, rigging and mismanagement, but is also driven by our ethnicised economy and systems of governance. Similarly, in countries such as Trinidad, we see how despite brief cooperation between the two ethnic groups, this was always followed by increased separation amongst racial lines. It’s almost as if you know, race and power has become intricately tied in postcolonial multi-ethnic societies such as Guyana and Trinidad…
Something that must be acknowledged is that despite the PNC being an afro dominated government, (1964-1992) this did not necessarily equate to increased wealth and power for afros. Under the PPP/C indo dominated government however, indos benefited and prospered due to centralized ethnic power of the state, leaving many afro-Guyanese cut off economically with only a few able to benefit. This ownership of the economy and indo-dominated rule would marginalized afros further and solidify them as a minority group.
In refusing to analyze our historical insecurities that led to our current political impasse, we are blinding ourselves to how ethnic dominance politics is the one responsible for our repetitive problems. How do we transcend ethnicity when our politics are driven by it? How do we ensure racial justice without questioning racist power systems and structures? How do we move on when limited resources are still divided along racial lines?
I am very suspicious of those who ask us to move on from our ethnic/racial history because it no longer impacts us, or those who adopt a color blind approach to our nation’s political problems and solutions. Classicism and the ruling class are the root of the problem they say – yes, well acknowledged – but classicism and racism is intricately tied together due to ethno-driven systems of power that have formed and persisted.
Politicians will for as long as we allow them continue to promote racial ideas and narratives to gain political mileage and we should always be careful when listening to elites speak of our race issues. However, this does not mean that our ethnic insecurity should not be thoroughly discussed and analyzed. It is our long held refusal to seriously discuss race and the tensions amongst us that has seen us relying on the same well-worn narratives not grounded in history or current systems of power.