A few letter writers in the Guyana media and online bloggers have dismissed the need to focus on the past, arguing instead that it is the present and the future that are imperative. However, historicism (the organic connection of the past to the present and the future) aside, in Guyana, where ethnic violence and hostility have tainted almost every aspect of historical and contemporary life and where suspicion informs the relationships between the two major races, moving forward in a manner that eschews ‘us versus them’ is impossible without firstly ensuring that the past is accurately portrayed so that its legacy of division, antagonism and blame would give way to the fostering of mechanisms to nurture trust, mutual comfort and capacity building as prerequisites to constructing the desired future.
In effect, the simple reality is that until those who significantly shaped the past, Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham in particular, are accurately located in historical context, Indians would not generally be accepting of the African perspective of the role and impact of Burnham nor would Africans be generally accepting of the Indian perspective on the role and impact of Jagan.
Additionally, those who manned the trenches with Walter Rodney during his brief (1974 to 1979) sojourn on Guyana’s political landscape, continue to locate him far and above his actual impact and influence, while they simultaneously whittle away at the role and impact of Jagan and quite possibly Burnham. Furthermore, some of these Rodneyites continue to bolster Eusi Kwayana’s attempt to sanitize his role in Guyana’s politics and tout him as the consummate, color-blind Guyanese politician, contrary to historical reality. In short, revisionism seems to have migrated out of its moorings within the framework of histiography and now operates as a whimsical substitute for historicity.
It is also necessary for Indians to be as comfortable writing and talking about the Indian experience as Blacks are writing and talking about the Black experience, without either side instinctively labeling the other as racist. As it stands, some Blacks are quite ethnocentric in their writings while Indians who attempt to forge a similar narrative are, more often than not, deemed biased and prejudiced. In fact, for too long, Indo commentators have been much more likely that Black commentators to experience racist labeling for expressing ethnic pride and debunking ethnic fallacies. Consequently, until there is mutual acceptance of the historical and contemporary space claimed by each other, moving forward will always mean going backwards. In short, given the competition for group affirmation and the effects of the socialization process, the past cannot be simply wished away.
Besides, there is another dimension to this debate – a very human one. I am on record as emphasizing my disappointment at the PPP government. After all, I spent 16 of my 32 years in Guyana to the struggle for a return to democracy and fair and free elections. And perhaps I was naïve but I did believe that a PPP government would have operated on the basis of integrity and transparency, with merit underpinning all employment and awarding of contracts; that the best minds, regardless of race or ideology, would have been employed in the nation building; that the eschewing of race and party loyalty would have characterized government dealings with the populace and that social pathologies such as corruption and bribery would have been seriously tackled. To the extent that these measures have not been dominantly effected I sometimes question the cost benefit of my involvement (and I know teeming others who similarly question theirs), but by the same token I would challenge those who negate or belittle the struggle towards which I and so many unheralded or low keyed thousands sacrificed time, sweat, tears and yes lives – both literally and metaphorically.
In the same manner, even as we recognize the need to focus on the present and the future, we must be careful of grand generalizations premised on nothing more than a writer’s opinion. For example, one recent letter to the Guyana media was entitled “The people of Guyana are not interested in the constant racial and ideological bickering”. Now it would have been great if this writer could have shared with readers the complete results of the survey that indicated in what the people of Guyana are/are not interested, given that such a statement seems to indicate that ‘us versus them’ no longer inhabits the collective psyche of the Guyanese nation. In effect, in the absence of irrefutable supporting evidence, those who claim to be knowledgeable should desist from presenting mere wishful thinking as generally accepted facts.
Another letter asked who cares about Jagan and Burnham? Actually, given the ongoing debates in the media and elsewhere and the reality of ethno-political relations in Guyana, among other indicators, one would be hard pressed not to conclude that a nation’s collective psyche cares.
Then there is a columnist who continually carps on what Burnham would or would not have allowed. The simple reality, however, is that while nobody knows with any measure of certainty what Burnham would have tolerated, history tells us what he did and did not tolerate and these facts – the good, the bad and the ugly – cannot be wished away, glossed over, whitewashed or for that matter be used as the basis to present mere speculations as definitive conclusions.
Also there are those who emotively talk about ethnic marginalization without offering tangible evidence to support such a contention, while the reality is that in areas where the government has direct influence, – public service, security – the supposed marginalized group dominates. On the other hand, in the areas where success is premised on private initiative and risk taking, these same individuals urge government intervention to bring about ethnic equity while ironically accusing the government of being too pervasive in the lives of Guyanese. And, more often than not, to support their contention, these same individuals grab at a few isolated trees and proclaim that they have found the forest.
Incidentally, these are some of the very same people who want it to be accepted, that contrary to overwhelming evidence, ethnic marginalization did not take place under the PNC.
Essentially, regardless of what vehicle for social transformation is propounded these problematic issues that characterize ethno-political relations in Guyana need to be addressed in an honest and open manner if we are to move beyond ‘us versus them’ and cultivate the requisite socio-political mechanisms to foster nation building and the full flowering of all the people, all the time.
PS: This letter was published in the Guyana media in february 2010. However, it is as relevant today as it was then and will perhaps be for quite some time.