This Issue | Editorial | E-mail
Guyana at the Crossroads
An Analysis of Issues
Current Problems and Suggestions

By Gary Girdhari

Guyana Journal, July 1998


Since the December 15, 1997 elections, Guyana has witnessed extraordinary protests, sometimes violent and degrading, by the People's National Congress (PNC). The PNC claimed that the elections were rigged or flawed. Their claim was proven to be without basis and untrue. Significantly, their protest was directed towards Indians. One can therefore infer that the PNC had other plans of dealing with politics, i.e., in terms of race – in an extreme, cruel and brutish manner. From subsequent developments it would appear that there was no randomness in the PNC behavior. On the contrary all their actions were orchestrated in a well planned and designed manner – to their credit or discredit. The leadership of the PNC have been able to mobilize their rank and file, and to call on intellectual support for justification of their cause (to wit Clive Thomas, Harry Voglezon, Dalgety, and others); and were successful in getting the People's Progressive Party (PPP) to “dance to their tune”.

Thus far, all the measures and counter measures, including the CARICOM summit, have only papered over the cracks in the current Guyana's political fiasco, and have not even acknowledged nor addressed the structural basis of the problem. This article attempts to look into some background issues in a simple and direct manner, and offers explanations and suggestions for some form of solution.


In the Guyana Journal (Girdhari 1998; Moore 1997) it was noted that racial problems between Indians and Africans predate the explosive 1962-64 race war in Guyana. Residential segregation was taking place coincident with the abolition of slavery and the introduction of indentured immigrants. Ex-slaves purchased land, built houses and engaged in agriculture; small businesses and tradesmen enabled a degree of self-sufficiency; thus the beginning of the Village System. On a micro level this segregation was observed at Port Mourant, with areas such as 'bound yard', 'nigger yard', 'Portuguese quarter'.

Educated Africans became teachers, clerks, civil servants, police, sailors, etc., resulting in their concentration in the towns. Indian Indentured immigrants were placed wherever there were sugar estates, resulting in their concentration in these areas. (Many of these estates have long been disbanded.)

After the end of indenture Indians remained on the estates and carried on as sugar workers (cane cutters, weeders, manure gangs, bateau boys) or engaged in agriculture (mainly rice) where the sugar planters ceased sugar operations – noticeably in Leguan, Wakenaam, Essequibo Coast and certain parts of Berbice and Demerara. Therefore the pattern of residential segregation is not random or accidental but has a historical basis.

Some people believe that the present day African/Indian racial animosity has its roots with the advent of indenture. Freed Africans had suddenly gained some empowerment to negotiate terms of their labor with the sugar planters. They felt that the indentured Indians deprived them of that leverage by virtue of their (Indians) replacement of them (Africans) in the sugar estates. This view presumably harbored by the ex-slaves is unfortunate because: i) the indentured Indians did not deliberately take away their bargaining power; the planters adoption of indenture did; the Indians were not willing and conscious participants in the system; ii) before and during indenture many more Africans from the Caribbean islands were drafted to work the sugar estates (the Bajans). Thus the belief of 'Indian participation' is flawed with scapegoatism. This does not mean that the belief did not exist during that period of history!

Shortly after the end of indentureship in 1917 Indians were afforded the opportunity of purchasing land in those areas where the sugar estates were closed. The 'generosity' of the planters (to the Indians) however was in the planters' self-interest. The whole idea was not borne out of love or concern, but was done to encourage the Indians to settle permanently in Guyana. In this way the planters avoided expenses for Indian repatriation. Here then was a thorny issue - Africans sensed that the Indians were treated with favor. In addition the planters paid the expenses of continued immigration and of those Indians who chose to be repatriated after their bound period from monies derived from taxation of African wage earners – they were "subsidizing their own retrenchment".

One can therefore explain the circumstance for African animosity toward Indians during the pre-war period. This rationale for the animosity is still being propagated. Important questions that need serious consideration: "Were the Indians active participants? Did they deliberately and purposely participate? Or was it the method and machinations of the colonial planters?

During the pre-war era especially, Indians did not avail themselves to mainstream life in Guyana. They were not educated. Young boys were more useful in the rice fields to augment the family income; young girls traditionally learned domestic chores in preparation for marriage at an early age. Initially (English) education was perceived to be meaningless since the 'free' Indians' intention was to return to their villages in India. Also, Indians feared that the education system would erode their culture because of the christianizing influence. This of course was (still is) evidenced in the case of the Africans who have lost almost all of their cultural heritage.

It is therefore easy to understand why there were no Indian teachers, police, nurses, postal workers, sailors, train and bus operators, clerks in the civil service or in private enterprise. These positions were occupied by Africans; Indians remained 'on the land' and were far removed from the indigenizing effect of the education system. Were these the underpinnings of racial animosity?

It seemed that both Africans and Indians had accepted the status quo in terms of their relationships – the Africans were generally in a better position and the Indians were content on being peasant farmers. Indians tended to endure more because of the fact that they lacked the know-how to get official things accomplished. They were exploited (some Africans also) by landlordism, shopkeepers and rice millers, and they were mistreated by officials on account of their lack of communication skills. Their cultural practices were marginalized. (Africans had long lost theirs and became part of a new culture.) None of their religious practices (Hindu, Muslim) was observed nationally, and their ceremonial/religious marriages were not deemed legal. Note many Indians with one name, father's name not stated. African wage earners were also exploited by the government and business because they lacked organization. Both Africans (especially civil servants, saw mill workers, stevedores) and Indians (especially sugar workers and peasant rice farmers) suffered the indignities of crude exploitation. The name of Hubert Nathaniel Critchlow and Ayube Edun must shine forever for their pioneering trade union work to mobilize the African and Indian workers respectively.

During the war years Indians received a shot in the arm when India's independence struggle ushered in a sense of pride, and kindled a fighting spirit imbued with togetherness in Guyana and solidarity with their fellow Indians in India. Africans did not have a similar sense of belonging until Kwame Nkruma won independence for Ghana. However, some educated Africans were aware of the stature of Marcus Garvey in the 1920s and were learning of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930s – developing an awareness of Africa and Africans – that they were not simply Negroes.

From these early days both Africans and Indians assumed their identities, and a beginning of an understanding of where they came from, why, and their sojourn. Educated African professionals and businessmen formed the League of Colored People (LCP) to look into the affairs of Africans; subsequently their Indian counterparts formed the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) with similar objectives. Unfortunately, both of these were bourgeois organizations, with little or no linkages with the common man. Incidentally, history repeats itself with the rebirth in the names of ACDA and Guyana Indians Fund Trust (GIFT), the motives yet to be fully demonstrated in practice in modern-day Guyana.

Thus far, racial animosities were mild. More often there was a reasonableness of cooperation among the ordinary Africans and Indians. Both groups were developing a sense, albeit slow, of identity, fighting against a system skewed to deny them this concept of belonging. Colonialism was not concerned with the evolvement of pride and self-esteem, but was slowly, directly and subliminally penetrating the psyche of the people for one-sided gain - the objective was to exploit as much as possible. Any racial animosity that existed at that time must be presumed to have been superficial.

The independence movement in India, which undoubtedly created a degree of separateness also, fired the imagination of some people who saw Guyana and its people being exploited, and being ruled by expatriates and external powers. They believed that exploitation of the people and the wealth of the country could only be prevented if the country was free from foreign rule, i. e., there must be self-rule, self-government and independence. These freedom-loving people did not emphasize the importance of the race question. Instead they observed that the majority of the Africans and Indians and other races had a common enemy, i.e., the exploiters....

The initial struggle began with the fight for workers' right to earn a decent wage, to enjoy benefits, to have representatives to negotiate on their behalf – in short to be unionized. Later, the struggle favored a political orientation. This commenced with the formation of the Political Action Committee (PAC) founded by Cheddi Jagan, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and Joycelyn Hubbard. The PAC evolved into the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950 led by Cheddi Jagan. (For details, see Jagan: The West On Trial).

The PPP was the first political party that enjoyed support from all the races of Guyana. Since it embraced a Marxist philosophy, it did not appeal for support on the basis of race. It analyzed the political and economic problems in terms of class, and its discourses appealed to the masses. The PPP was not a party of elitists, nor one of mere words; it practiced what it preached. It welded the overwhelming majority of the African and Indians (and others) with political cohesion and, with a biblical allure of the Sermon on the Mount, it galvanized the working class. There was no apparent cropping up of race problems. The Messiah (Marxism, socialism, and utopia) had arrived to cure all the ills of the masses!

In 1953 the PPP won a landslide victory but their sail through the channel of socialist politics was scuttled by the collaboration of the U.S. and Britain. The British government suspended the Constitution after 133 days of the PPP in office. Gunboats and British soldiers ensured 'peaceful' removal of the PPP government and its replacement with a "marking time" Interim Government – a most humiliating and disgraceful period in Guyanese history. It is apropos to note that today some prominent Guyanese are calling for a repeat of this history!

The divide-and-rule policy of colonialism set in train divisions based on race. Forbes Burnham who was Chairman and Deputy Leader of the PPP was encouraged to take over the leadership of the party. This he attempted when most of the top membership were incarcerated as political prisoners (Burnham was never jailed). The nationalist PPP was now confronted with the specter of racial politics.

Hitherto, there were no overt racial issues. But Burnham's ego was fuelled. In addition to the external forces at play, many Africans exhorted Burnham to take advantage of the situation. African pride surfaced supraliminally, many believing that Africans had a greater right to rule because they were in Guyana at least two hundred and fifty years before Indians arrived. Burnham was unable to usurp the leadership but was successful in splitting the PPP despite appeasing attempts to persuade him to recant.

The dream of workers' solidarity, the political cohesion and the united struggle for political independence were shattered. The issues of racism, racial domination, discrimination, insecurity, etc, began to hover and gnaw at the social fabric of the Guyanese nation.

Africans were indoctrinated (still are) to believe that Indians would dominate them and deny them of their “rightful place” in Guyana. In Guyana and in New York (WLIB 6/29/98) this view is expressed with vehemence, rancor and venom because the disseminators really believe this to be true and the propagandists have done their job well. The Anglo-American conspiracy had other plans – to remove the "communist" Cheddi Jagan and the PPP from office. Note also that many Indians were being educated in the professions and many were successful in business, moving from the countryside to the towns and occupying positions of rivalry and living in grand style. Although this is not true for the vast majority of Indians, the Africans felt threatened by the encroaching Indians.

In 1962 and 1964 attempts to overthrow the PPP government witnessed the most riotous and racial violence in Guyana's history. Burning of property, robbing, looting, wanton murder akin to internecine genocide, left untold scars yet to be healed. Forbes Burnham and his party, the People's National Congress (PNC) had embarked on a strategy to win political power at all costs, by hook or crook. They planned with their thug arm systematic beatings, arson and murder. "Rabbi Washington" attested to this and the PNC X-13 Plan is further proof.

By crookedness Burnham was able to eventually become the Prime Minister of an independent Guyana in 1966. For this and consequential developments the British government must be held responsible. Thenceforth the PNC under Forbes Burnham and Desmond Hoyte undisputedly rigged successive elections (under the watchful eyes of the CARICOM leaders and the democratic powers) to maintain power.

For nearly three decades the PNC ruled Guyana with an iron fist. There were no free and fair elections. The PNC adopted the principle of “party paramountcy”, namely, that every government or quasi-government body or office was an extension of the PNC party, Thus the civil service, the Police and Guyana Defence Force, the Guyana National Service and Guyana People's Militia swore allegiance and subservience to the PNC. Recall also that the YSM (youth arm of the PNC) marched with the disciplined forces, fully armed. Forbes Burnham had become a de facto dictator.

For various reasons, but essentially because of lack of democratic freedoms, mismanagement, corruption, squandermania and bad governance Guyana deteriorated. The long economic downswing (1975-1990) saw "the living standard of the Guyanese population far below what it was 35 years ago." (Gampat 1998). Economic growth either stagnated or contracted. Guyana's negative economic growth resulted in its distinction as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, second to Haiti.

A more insidious aspect of the PNC era was human rights violations, racial discrimination in jobs and promotion, and a degradation of the social and cultural wellbeing of the people. Obviously, Indians were the prime targets of the assaults and insults. In consequence production and productivity in all aspects of the economy and government slumped woefully. Indians migrated to North America, Suriname, Venezuela and the Caribbean islands in unprecedented numbers. Later, as conditions got intolerable, Guyanese without race or class distinction left the shores of their homeland to escape political, racial and economic turmoil. Thus Guyana lost most of its best people over a relatively short time.

As the Cold War ended there were new rules of engagement. The U.S., which ostensibly assumed the role of defender of democracy, had to ensure free elections in Guyana. The veteran politician, Cheddi Jagan, and the PPP won the 1992 election. An economic upswing gained momentum. Democracy was restored. The country was once again free, and economic confidence was regained.