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Raffique Shah


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Indian Tribalism

By Raffique Shah
May 19, 2017

I did a double-take upon reading Freddie Kissoon's post-May Day column in the Kaieteur News of Guyana. I don't know Kissoon personally, but I do know that he's an activist and a writer who is not averse to controversy, who writes as he sees things, damn the consequences.

In his May 5 column, he wrote about participating in a May Day march, a date that coincided with the arrival of Indian indentured immigrants in Guyana, "After nearly two hundred years of occupation of Guyana, the ontology (nature of being) of Guyanese East Indians torments my psyche... I have seen and met Indians all over this world and they seem a less racially oriented people than the Guyanese Indians...

"...It is frightening to note that this mental anachronism can be found in Guyanese Indians who hold professorship in universities around the world. The list includes professionals in every conceivable area of knowledge..."

He had started his column by arguing passionately for the David Granger-led APNU/AFC Government to give sugar cane lands to the people who worked them, now that the sugar industry was being downsized: "...Let us give the vast lands that the sugar canes once stood on to sugar workers. This country is very poor. It has endured 60 years of economic and political stagnation but one of the great human features that makes this country stand out against all others in the world is its genetically driven resilience... Sugar may have died but you give those fields to our former sugar workers, you will see that unleashed spirit of perseverance...

"I don't believe we have achieved any greatness as a nation except that phenomenal resilience..."

Since the vast majority of workers and farmers in the sugar industry are Indians, one cannot accuse Kissoon, who is Indian, of being against his own people because of his criticisms of them I noted earlier. He has implicit faith in their perseverance and resilience, such that he calls for all the demobilised sugar cane lands to be given to them, presumably through leases, for agricultural pursuits.

Still, he thinks they are "racial", from top to bottom, and he explains. Most of the diaspora who reside in the USA were against Barack Obama becoming president of the USA-only because he was seen as a black man. In Guyana, he says, if he met ten Indians and asked their views on the incumbent Afro-dominated APNU government, they would be unanimously against it remaining in power. But if he spoke with ten Afro-Guyanese, five would be for and five against. If he did the same exercise when the Indo-dominated PPP government was in power, all the Indians would be supportive of it, and again, the Afros would be divided.

Kissoon wrote that he felt such racially-anchored politics was peculiar to Indo-Guyanese, not to their counterparts in Trinidad & Tobago, Mauritius or Fiji.

Well I have news for Freddie: I don't know about the latter two island-states, but when it comes to political allegiance, more than 75 percent of Indo-Trinis vote for whichever party is seen as the main Indian force, matters not if its principals are seen as being corrupt, inept or anything else negative.

I dare argue that except for the pre-1970 period when Dr Eric Williams and the PNM commanded maybe 80 percent of the Afro-votes purely on race and Williams's charisma, most Afro-Trinis have shed blind race-loyalty. Of course, I don't have any empirical evidence to support this claim. But tell me, what accounted for Karl Hudson-Phillips's ONR polling 91,000 votes in 1981? Or the ANR Robinson-led NAR sweeping the 1986 election 33-3? And Patrick Manning losing in 2010?

The Afro-vote has long ceased to be racially anchored. Mostly, the Indo-vote remains a monolith that is manipulated by, not the party, but the Chief (Panday-till-ah-dead, pre-2010, then Queen Kamla), which is an even worse form of tribalism than what obtains among Indo-Guyanese. This thinly-veiled racialism (not racism) spans the societal strata. It includes relics of an indenture-era long gone, beneficiaries of an education system that did not discriminate by race, and yes, Freddie, even professionals and professors.

When so accused, they invoke righteous indignation: Me? I am no racist! And indeed they aren't. In Trinidad, almost everyone from different ethnicities has friends, even relatives, of other races. We mix socially, as neighbours, at schools and workplaces, at fetes, funerals and so on.

But when it comes to politics, Indians don't mince matters: "apan jhat" is the guiding and deciding factor. Hey, but I voted for Robinson in 1986! Yes, because Panday told you to. Yow! Look at how many Afros we have in our ranks! Sure, they are window dressing that can be changed overnight-ask Jack Warner and sundry others.

Tribalism among most Indians, and, I imagine, some other ethnicities elsewhere in the world, cannot be easily explained. We are doomed to dwell with this anachronism in this life and the next, in Guyana, Trinidad a case of marking time in perpetuity.

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