Political Violence as a Consequence of Identity Crisis*
A Look at Possible Solution

By Gary Girdhari PhD

Guyana Journal, May 1999

Political violence - physical, verbal, psychological, disruptive


THERE IS NO NEED FOR ME TO TELL YOU of the current major problem in the world. I refer to the problem in Yugoslavia** – the war, the killings, bombs, destruction of buildings, industrial plants, bridges, etc., and an exodus unparalleled in modern times. People are displaced to foreign lands. Their routines appear unreal like that of zombies. The suffering is unbearable, even to watch on TV. America and NATO say that they are mounting this tremendous war to save the people. Well, I have misgivings. But that's another story for another time.

How is the war in Kosovo relevant to the subject on "Politics in Guyana"? Well, there is a link, and I hope that I can show it presently. What has been happening even before the war was called for by NATO is the claim for ethnic identities by the peoples who were all once citizens of Yugoslavia. The break up of Yugoslavia into individual nation states augured the return to 'identity'.

So often we have seen countries faced with apparently intractable social conflicts, political and infrastructural disintegration, leading to mass migration, and various forms of anomie.

Invariably, the dilemmas have a religious and/or ethnic basis. When these conflicts assume extreme proportion, the world witness indescribable destruction, and in terms of human casualty, the world has witnessed decimation of peoples, which is tantamount to genocide or ethnocide. I refer particularly to black/white relation in apartheid South Africa, the caste system and religious zealotry in India (Hindu/Moslem, Hindu/Sikh), the Hutu/Tutsi tribal war in Burundi and Rwanda, the Indians vs. the criollos and mestizos in Guatemala, Biafra war involving the Ibos and Hausas in Nigeria, the People's
Liberation Army in Sudan (SPLA), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, the Chinese and Malays in Malaysia, the Irish problem, the Palestinian problem, the Chechnya problem in Russia, "Bosnia and Kosovo, and yes, the Black/Indian conflicts in Guyana.

The Re-emergence of Identity

As seen, some of the most destructive relationships have developed even as human civilization is about to cross over to the next millennium. Is it not paradoxical that, with the greatest scientific and technological advancement, the most modern societies, superb communication and globalization brought about by the information technology, humanity is witnessing some of the most gruesome and atrocious acts in all history. Most of the acts are due to ethnic and/or religious schisms. Why is it that the salience of ethnicity and religion becomes so important with such high levels of consciousness perverted to cause extreme social conflicts, negating all that modern civilization offers? The answer is obviously very complex indeed. It seems that the world, as we know it, is being suffocated by the dominant political culture and economic principles of the West, and many societies are unable or unwilling to follow their dictates of globalization and modernization. They therefore react....

With colonialism becoming an anachronism and the Cold War over, there emerged varying degrees of prominent identities throughout the world, including Guyana. Generally, modernization is usually equated with Westernization, and not every society agrees with or shares the norms and values of the West. And although heightened secularization and the rational kind of thinking of the West are the inevitable fallout of science and technology, this only satisfies the materialistic, albeit, necessary requirement of modem living. This rationality has failed to give succor to the emotional and spiritual needs of people. Most people, it appears, need to share and protect common interests, and to belong to a group in order to do so. People would therefore protect their culture, their territory, their myths, folklore, language, and other characteristics that define their group or ethnicity.

During the Cold War, peoples, populations and nations debated issues on an East/West, Communist/non-Communist basis, that is, ideological considerations assumed precedence over ethnic and religious values.

Further, colonial peoples were denuded of their history and culture as a matter of course, and these were replaced, fully or partially, with foreign and sometimes ambiguous values that have been insulting to the psyche of the colonial people. But later, the fight for political independence saw new blood whose intellectualism disavowed the conflicting values and sought nativism. New nation-states asserted their own history and culture, self-respect and national pride. Three notable Caribbean personages whose works explained this scenario are Eric Williams (Capitalism and Slavery), Cheddi Jagan (The West on Trial) and Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa). Nationalism and the song of freedom surfaced above individualism, the common good in unison assumed paramountcy, even in pluralist (tribal, religion or ethnic) nations. In a similar manner, the identities of tribes, religion and ethnicity were disclaimed (or at least not overtly endorsed) in societies that embraced the Marxist or socialist ideology. In both cases the all awee is wan mentality was a mistaken path in the political process of many plural societies. What is now observed is that explaining and directing the political and economic processes on the basis of class without fully recognizing and dealing with race, ethnicity, religion and culture in the Guyana context (or any plural society) stifled the cultural and spiritual growth of the people.

To support this desideratum a few points are noted here: People do not acquiesce to the identity of others, even if it is proclaimed by the state. All peoples place utmost importance to their individual identities, a kind of primal compulsion. They are so defined historically by certain basic commonalities, such as food, language, territory, custom, race, religion, etc. On the other hand, the mere sharing of the commonalities does not mean that they adhere syncretically to them. The fact is that some kind of ethnic consciousness has to be constructed for a collective group consciousness. This social construction is based on historical events and formulated on some past experiences. This may be innocuous, or may result in political action if there is an inferior/superior relationship (as in the old South Africa, caste system in India, Indians/Mestizos, etc.). Also, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, dominated by others in the society respond in different ways; and it is important to recognize this at an early stage. For example, competition for jobs, language rights, religious rights, income disparity, power for political office, access to opportunities in business, and ownership of land, are all ingredients that may forge solidarity and be the nexus for group survival. Denial of these essential needs not only affect people in a physical way, but also psychologically, and tend to reinforce the solidarity for aggressive behavior.

The Reagan-Gorbachev era and glasnost brought about, among many changes, the fall of the USSR, the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War, with consequential sweeping global 'democracy' movements. In many countries thenceforth, the tendency for integration and assimilation into the dominant mainstream was retarded, and an opposite assertion was advanced, which encouraged individualistic identities within nation states throughout the world – the former USSR and Yugoslavia are prime examples.

Similarly, ethnicity began to assume greater importance in the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad and Guyana. In Guyana, which is pluralist like Trinidad, the racial divide has a historical basis, for example, residential segregation – African people settled in Villages in the post-emancipation period, and the Indentured East Indians remained on the Sugar Plantation housing schemes. The mild fractious divide during the indentureship period was of no serious consequence. Conflicts were not rancorous and were only mildly contentious. Indeed, the greatest racial harmony eventually evolved during the second quarter of the 20th century and the 1950s throughout Guyana. To be sure, the People's
Progressive Party (PPP) must be credited for this equanimity.

This was a time when the political struggle in Guyana was doggedly maintained with anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist rhetoric; a time when the causa belli had a working class basis; a time also when the proclaimed ideology was anathema to the colonial powers; a time when the PPP, led by Cheddi Jagan, was unreservedly (some would say carelessly, artlessly and naively) espousing socialism as the way forward for Guyana. Shortly after, the racial togetherness and solidarity were thwarted with open conflicts and violence in the early 1960s, which has left indelible wounds on the soul of the nation – an unforgivable shame! It was known then and fully evidenced now that the problems were deliberately engineered.

Guyana subsequently embarked on a road of economic doom under the People's National Congress (PNC), led by Forces Burnham, and later by Desmond Hoyte. For 28 years the PNC regime mismanaged government, ruled by dictat, conducted elections by rigging and fraud, and denied the basic freedoms. Guyana endured 28 years of a de facto dictatorship during which time numerous embassies of 'democratic' governments in Georgetown witnessed first-hand the total decline (second only to Haiti in the Americas) in the political, economic and cultural life in Guyana. The undiplomatic question is: Was it convenient for these 'democratic' governments to be silent?

The support, particularly by the United States, for worldwide 'democratic' movements following the Cold War, could not be dubious or ambivalent for the situation in Guyana. Thus, the Carter initiative was especially critical in ushering a new phase and a new turnaround in Guyana. In 1992 (after the '28 years') free and fair elections were held and a new government (PPP/Civic) was formed. Democracy was restored. And once again, all the people (but especially Indians) breathed freely of freedom.

MY THESIS GENERALLY IS THAT just prior to, during, and post independence, the nation of Guyana and its people adorned themselves with the symbols and emblems of freedom, independence and nationhood, e.g., flag, anthem, motto, pledge, coat of arms, flower, bird and so on. All the shackles of colonialism were shorn away, and self-assertion and a sense of national pride assumed prominence. People learned of their own past-their history, writings, customs and religious practices, art forms, music and dance, and all the other things that collectively reflect culture and nationalism. These are the tangibles and intangibles that define culture of a people and the psyche of a nation. But these did not blossom and flower with any true endearment; instead, they eroded during the '28 years' of arrogance, deceit and dictatorial postures in Guyana.

After the '28 years' there was a change. Bearing in mind also that class ideology tends to suppress ethnic differences, it is not only that peoples were/are gradually moving away from the ideological prescriptions of the Cold War, but also the fact that formerly alienated groups greet the new freedom with an abundance of spirituality and creativity. In Guyana, this happened after democracy was restored in 1992 under the leadership of the late President Cheddi Jagan. People thereafter strive to advocate their rights to their ethnicity and culture with pride, and demand their legitimate place in the pluralist society. In other words, the people were trying 'to find themselves', to inculcate their self concept and self esteem, individually and as groups, and thus articulate their identities truly for the first time after Guyana's independence-without fear or favor.

If, as is known and documented, that there is a return of democracy and substantive economic growth and development, why is the Black/Indian conflict still raging? Why is it that some people are not satisfied with the fruits of modernization? The answer is suggested in what is perceived as relative deprivation. The Association for the Cultural Development of Africans (ACDA) conference on the Plight of the African Guyanese undoubtedly added fuel to the fire, because their discourse of marginalization, dispossession and relative deprivation did not inform of the true dynamics of the historical past, but introduced an inversionary discourse that helped to generate emotive tendencies of frustration, leading the presumed aggrieved group (Afro-Guyanese) to aggressiveness and violence. This violence, which conflicts with rationality in that it negates the benefits of democracy and human goodness, can however, in a morbid way, offer hope to those who believe that they are disadvantaged; the violence signals a new beginning for them; it thus perversely helps to shape identity; it can solidify group interests; attract publicity; and establish legitimacy. But in Guyana (as elsewhere) the violence strikes terror not only in victims but also in the society as a whole; and any attempt to define or categorize the violence in Guyana as legitimate or emancipatory is highly subjective and questionable.

In my opinion, the violence has become a medium for visibility and to prevent the PNC's (or some of its leaders) political decline and, at the same time, to reassert and redefine its identity, so as to attain ongoing political buoyancy. Further, by targeting the violence towards the supporters of the PPP, the political violence hopes to evoke or provoke retaliatory violence from the PPP and its supporters, thus hoping to weaken the moral authority of the government. In this regard, the nation is thankful that the PPP government did not bite the bait.

In Guyana after 1992, freedom and democracy augured a milieu for the expressions of those cultural values that were denied large segments of the population. Pressures for democratization sharpened ethnic cleavages. Previously, the de facto unitarist framework of the PNC government, aided by the powerful state machinery, regulated the ethnic differences (and this is still seen in Mashramani). Indeed, the largest section, comprising of Indians, felt a deep sense of relief after 1992. They saw a new beginning, and embarked on resuscitating diverse aspects of their culture, such as in writing, poetry, music, dance and religion – without enduring fear. Indo-Guyanese culture (which has been isolated and subdued for too long) expanded and quickly gained momentum, and was discharged openly in a matter-of-fact manner – as it ought to – as indeed for all the peoples of Guyana. In response to this, presumably, other groups of people (but particularly African people), not accustomed to seeing this overtness during the '28 years', felt somewhat subjugated psychologically and threatened in a sentient way. Thus, the birth of the Association for the Cultural Development of Africans (ACDA) with prominent leaders like Clive Thomas and Eusi Kwayana, the Pan-African movement led by Tom Dalgety, and the National Emancipation Trust led by Lorri Alexander. This explanation may be subject to criticism since the Afro-centric groups may have been born for the same reason put forward for the Indo-Guyanese cultural re-emergence, i.e., they too (as were all Guyanese) were denied their freedom under the undemocratic PNC regime, and simply wanted an assurance of their identity. Further, since both arguments may be valid, dual determinants may be operating synchronously.

Is this new awakening good or bad? Is the group solidarity mentioned before good or bad? It seems clear that there is always a great need for historical and cultural continuity of any group of people. But specifically, the answer depends on how the leaders exploit the situation. Ethnic differences do not have to play out in violent conflicts; but this is how they unfortunately end in some countries such as Yugoslavia, Sudan, Rwanda and Nigeria.

It is therefore of paramount importance that Guyana realize the potential for grave confrontation consequent upon ethnic distrust. Guyanese must face the reality that there is a race problem and must be brave to say unequivocally that it is alright to embrace one's identity without acrimony, without antagonism, and without deprecating other people, recognizing unconditionally that other cultures are not better or worse, but merely different. Hence, it is quite appropriate for any one to propagate one's culture without being (or being labeled) a racist.

But ethnic consciousness can be manipulated by political 'entrepreneurs' or 'mobilizers' for their narrow self-interest which may be detrimental to the group interest, and may also be a subterfuge to compromise class interests. The leaders of coercion use certain kinship relations to divert condemnation of their acts in public life (e.g., in sympathetic unions, student groups and professional bodies). Further, if ethnicity (and other facets of culture) are blindly pursued in a fundamentalist and ultra chauvinistic manner, in isolation, then there is serious cause for concern. And such ethnic formulation must be denounced. In other words, the promulgation of ethnic and cultural parallelism must always be to clarify and diffuse rather than obfuscate and befuddle the thorny issues that are impediments to the much desired Guyanese identity.

In Guyana, the Black/Indian conflicts have engaged all kinds of debates, such as distribution of the advantages in the state apparatus, minority rights, insecurity, dispossession, alienation, and separatism. People on both sides of the debate feel aggrieved, and the public is inundated with volatile discourses of "us" and "them".

Now, there is constitutional reform to entrench certain safeguards. There is talk of devolution of power (federal or confederal), power sharing arrangements, electoral reform to reflect the plural character of the nation, and other policies to promotes good race relations. Meaningful dialogues are always preferred to political violence. Certainly, these will continue long after the constitution is amended.


Regardless of the decisions, it is clear that nothing can run smoothly if there is no goodwill to do so. The political will to see Guyana move away from impending demise must assume prominence over narrow self-interest. People who have the capacity for unthinkable evil and extreme violence also possess the undeniable capacity for goodness, love and extreme heroism. Too many individuals have engaged in destructive behavior, and find an impasse for coming to terms with their actions. Too many individuals have been hurt, and find it difficult to forgive. In fact, they yearn to retaliate for revenge. But violence breeds more violence, and retaliation begets other retaliation; thus, the dilemma, the fear, distrust and insecurity. What is required therefore is cognitive closure.

With closure there will be healing and forgiveness. But there must be a priori truth and reconciliation before forgiveness. The nation of Guyana needs to have a psychological catharsis more than ever. The nation of Guyana must learn from the lessons of pluralist societies that experience conflicts because of identity crises. The concept of power sharing, for example, good intentions notwithstanding, is not the solution for the long haul. Such a concept only lends credibility to the nation's inability to solve the identity crisis, and is a recipe for failure.

In addition to mandating certain constitutional guarantees, what is essential is an acknowledgement of the human dimension for the restoration of peace and tranquility. There must be a high premium on education to demystify myths and eliminate stereotypes; and this must include the lowest levels in the schools. A re-education process must focus on the history and culture of all the people in a straightforward, intellectual manner, to learn the history and culture of African Guyanese, Indian Guyanese, Amerindian Guyanese, Chinese Guyanese, Portuguese Guyanese and White Guyanese. The history and culture must be looked into to show the failings (if any) of the different ethnic people as well as their greatness and contribution. Race relations must be debated at all levels in the society in a rational manner. Therefore, there is need for a special task force to devise a suitable curriculum and to train personnel for this purpose.

Assuredly, there will be dissenters and detractors. The good people of Guyana must never be silent in denouncing them so that eventually they too will be a part of the healing process. Looking for one's identity should not then lead to political violence. Instead, the process should beautify, heal and forge unity from the diversity of people in Guyana.

Dr. Gary Girdhari is the Editor of the Guyana Journal.

*Presented at a Conference on Politics in Guyana at York College, New York, April 1999.
** Since this article was written there have been others – Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East.


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