Politics Will Not Decide Who I am

When I was 7 or 8, I lived along Craig Sideline Dam at my grandparents’ farm house. I farmed my own little plot of cash crops to help buy my school books and I spent hours stooping in slushy mud, between pakchoy and lettuce banks, picking snails and weeds from among the healthy, thriving plants. This is something I haven’t very often shared about myself.

I have milked cows, sold fruits and vegetables on the road side and cleaned out chicken pens. During my teenage years, I stood behind the counter of my uncle’s shop in Craig Old Road selling into the night. I fetched cases of rum, bags of sugar and rice and occasionally bunches of plantains from the boat by the Craig trench landing to our house.

Most of my immediate family are traditional PPP supporters. My maternal grandfather was a cane cutter and farmer. His wife, was a seamstress and market vendor. On my father’s side, they were rice farmers from Essequibo and later moved to the East Coast of Demerara. These are things about myself I used to be afraid to share because I was afraid that I would be shamed.

I became politically aware during my early 20s. I realized then that everyone stereotyped me. Because I looked Indian, because I was of Indian ancestry, it was automatically assumed that I was PPP. And guess how we stereotype PPP supporters? PPP supporters are painted as backward cane cutters, as lacking intellectual capacity, as being dishonest, as being evil, as being the people responsible for the state of Guyana.

So when some people look at my face or any face like mine, this is what they think of us. This is the product of identity politics in Guyana. It has robbed us of the right to be and to be proud of who we are and where we came from. It has robbed us of the opportunity to really see our parents and grandparents, to truly value what they have brought to this nation. My grandfather died without me ever recognizing what an extraordinary man he was and how hard he worked for his country. I never got a chance to look him in the eyes and tell him how much he meant to me. You see, before he died I didn’t realize that he was a victim of a system that he couldn’t control.

I do not for a second believe that my experience is unique to me or to young people of Indian ancestry. I believe this is something that is experienced by all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from. Our political culture has blinded us. We don’t see each other. We see the political stereotypes that have been painted of us for decades.

For a while, I hated looking in the mirror. I hated seeing my own face and what I believed it represented. Since then, I’ve realized that my ancestral history is so much more than the politics that has hijacked it.

And the worst part by far is that I cannot even speak up for my identity without having my voice politicised. If I speak for the Indian identity, for my right to this part of my culture and heritage, then I will be labelled as a pro-PPP racist. Most people don’t care for my independence, they only see what I look like and the stereotype that is attached to my features.

Yes, I am Guyanese and part of what makes any of us Guyanese is our unique sub-cultures and heritage. These differences give the Guyanese identity value. To attempt to take away any one facet of any of our identity, is to rob our country of part of its history and part of what makes it what it is.

We cannot have a Guyana without any of its people. We cannot have a Guyana without PPP supporters and they will never join us unless we stop demonizing them, stop crucifying them for their political beliefs, stop making them afraid to be among us. These people are our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, our friends.

The PPP alone is not responsible for the crisis of identity politics in Guyana. The PNC, now under the unity umbrella of the APNU-AFC Coalition, is equally responsible. I say this not to cast blame on either party, but to acknowledge that identity politics has been a weapon of both our major political factions. And until Guyanese begin to see what identity politics has taken from them, we will always be shamed for being who we are.

Remember…We’re all Guyanese

Less than 24 hours ago His Excellency President Donald Ramotar named the big day: May 11, 2015. Campaign material flooded social media almost immediately and, of course, the inter-party battles begun.

Guyanese will be attacking each other in the safety of cyber world with the worst possible weapon: words. But must it really be this way?

Not so long ago, my elderly neighbour collapsed in her home and had to spend a few days in hospital. As soon as she came home again, I rushed over and I made sure I held her close and told her how much she meant to me. I did not want the words to be left unsaid.

Every morning she sits on her veranda watching as the soft sunlight slowly awakens our world. For years, my eyes have always turned upwards looking for her when I walk out my front gate. I cannot imagine our village without her. I cannot imagine becoming this me that I am without her.

Her family and mine will most likely not be voting for the same party in May but this does not lessen my love for this woman. She has a right to freedom of choice; to choose as she pleases.

So today, if any of you are so moved with those passionate emotions that cause us to wield words that inflict deep and lasting wounds, please don’t. I beg you.

Stop and think of someone like her, think of someone different from you, someone who does not share all of your beliefs but still holds a place in your heart. Think of how you still care for them despite this difference.

I am certain that all the people in my house will be voting PPP. I am not sure where my vote will go but I know where it will most certainly not go.

My family is aware of my choice and yet they love me no less. We are a family and we share a bond that cannot be broken by a difference in political preference. And is this not what a nation should be? A family?

So please, please, whether you’re supporting PPP, APNU, AFC or one of the others, I beg you to respect each other’s choice. In the end, isn’t this what we all believe we’re fighting for? For continued freedom? And doesn’t this include the right to freely choose without being hurt for that choice?

Remember, when this is all over we will still live together under the roof of this nation. And when the politicians have settled into the powers that we have given them at the price of our bond with each other, we will be the ones who will struggle to put the pieces back together again. We will be the ones, watching each other try to scrape a living.

It is sad that more often it is only in such times of great misery that we manage to see ourselves in each other and only then realise that beating a man over the head with one truth does not cause him to forget his own truth.

Without Wax,

Bharrat

An Independence Conversation with Nani

Earlier, the sky was a clear kind of blue that floods the soul with happy, happy feelings. Now, the rain clouds have descended upon Craig Old Road. It isn’t a storm but it isn’t quite the sort of early evening calm that usually greets us at this time of day. Nani sits in her usual spot on the couch, the neighbours are quarreling about the stray cats and some BBC reporter is walking confidently among Thai protesters on the television screen. Life isn’t like it used to be, Nani says. She was born in 1939 and has seen many blue skies and many little showers of rain. She has lived through storms. I ask if she would answer some questions. She smiles and nods. I believe the state of our people’s minds is the true reflection of what we have achieved since May 26, 1966.

Do you remember when Guyana gained Independence? How old were you?

In 1950…no wait Rohan bin born, he was a couple month old baby. So we gained Independence in 1966.

Who was the leader at the time?

 I think Jagan.

 

How did you feel when Guyana became Independent?

 Me di feel okay…but after that he [Jagan] and Burnham split.

Why did they split?

They split because when they went to India and come back they were at loggerheads.

Why were they at loggerheads?

Jagan kept certain meetings and he used a certain term. That would have no doubt upset Burnham.

What term did he use?

Well it was one term. Aapanjaht. It means nation for nation.

Why do you think he used that term?

I guess according to what was going on he felt the need to do something like that. Advantage was being taken on Indians.

Did Burnham ever say anything like that?

He na use it in a language like Jagan but he spoke about it in sentences and people understood what he was saying. At Bourda Green Burnham spook about the goal mines. He said to look at who was mining the gold and who was wearing the gold. He said that the gold must be taken back.

What were things like before Independence?

Under the white people, that was the British, well to me the wages were small and so but you used to get everything. There was no kick down door. Robbery and murder was not rampant. And even though groups of blacks were in the kick down door campaigns there were one one Indians among them. The Indian presence in those things was not as prevalent as it is today. You could walk the streets in the British time. You could buy one big basket goods and still have lef’ back after the month was done.

And what happened after Independence?

We suffered a lot to get things because they kept saying that Jagan was a communist.

Did things change when Burnham took office?

For his first term or so we had access to things but then he banned the imports like flour and said that we must use local. Wasn’t a bad thing but we na had other things. We couldn’t produce our own. The decision was too rash. Maybe if it was done gradually it would have been more successful.

Where was Jagan during this time?

I remember sometime in the 60s Jagan called for all farmers to stay away from the market for a week. If Burnham was going to punish us by banning flour then we should punish him by not taking provisions to the market. But we still went to the market. We couldn’t stay home. We needed sales, we needed money, we had to survive.

And then Hoyte took up office?

Yes. Hoyte did a lot of good but the price and so were high. When he came in there wasn’t much crime because he passed a law for hanging. Is da wa bring hatred between us so much.

What brought the hatred?

The disturbances of the 60s. Me can remember a time when Black people and Indian people used to live as one family. Now even though we still live good we don’t really trust each other you know.

Do you think Jagan and Burnham could have avoided this?

If they had preached the right things on their platforms then we wouldn’t be here. Where was the need to further split us because of politics? I can remember in 1964 when the Black were burning down Georgetown. Is Black people house we used to go and hide.

Which Black people were burning down Georgetown?

They used to say Burnham had he thugs. But is not the Black people who were our neighbours and friends. No, not them at all.

And what about Rodney?

I never met Walter Rodey but I remember that Rupert Roopnaraine came to our village once and he wanted to hold a meeting in front the shop so he could get light. But we didn’t give them light because we were afraid that people would pelt our house and attack us.

Do you regret not giving them light?

Yes. I sorry in one way but you try to protect yourself and your family. In these fights you always have to choose between the good they promise and yourself and your family.

How do you feel about Guyana now after almost 5 decades of Independence?

Everybody want fast life.

Everybody?

The new politicians and the old ones that still around. They just won’t sit and get things done. Look at parliament. They row whole day. They won’t learn to sit and agree so that the country can go forward. Their attitudes na good at all.

Who do you vote for?

Me does always vote for the PPP.

Why do you vote for them?

Because I seh more seat they get they would have more power to look after the people.

Do you feel that they are looking after the people?

I really can’t say with what going on. They got too much going on. You can’t deh in parliament whole day forming law and brukin law and not coming out to see what is happening to the people. Where is the money? Imagine, dead man getting pay in office.

Is this PPP the same PPP you voted for when Jagan was alive?

No they aren’t the same. They aren’t the same at all. They are vastly different. Everybody wants a fast life. Everybody wants to full their pockets.

What about APNU? Do you think they would do better?

APNU? But APNU was in it too. Granger and Greenidge were in it back in the PNC days.

Do you think it’s fair to blame young people like James Bond for what happened back then?

No that is not fair at all. And that is the problem. The old people need to learn that their experience is good for guidance. They need to step back and let young people take up their rightful places. When the old continue to make a mess of things is the young people will have to clean it up.

If all of those men and women in parliament were your children would you be proud of them?

No. I would be very upset with them. All of them, not just any one side.

What would you tell them?

I tell you like it is. I would tell them ‘You are not doing the right thing’.

 

For Tribe or Country

“My name is… Bharrat. I am an East Indian Guyanese…” (The beginning of a Primary School composition in the early 90s).

The relative of a high ranking public official engaged me in conversation on January 15, 2014. We spoke briefly about the connotations of a certain word. They believe the word is an insult to Guyana and Indians. “…the beloved country you are fighting for is being insulted by it [the word] including yourself, whom I suspect has some trace of Indian heritage,” they said.

This was not my first experience of being othered. Sadly, many have decided that I simply cannot be only of Indian heritage because the views I have expressed in earlier articles seem to be anti-Indian. Some more creative minds have dubbed me “the anti-coolie coolie woman”. I can explain this reaction in one word: tribalism.

“I am a descendant of Indians. I come from a traditional Hindu, Indian, PPP [People’s Progressive Party] family,” I explained. They said nothing.

On December 19, 1950 the Waddington Commission reported:

“Race is a patent difference and is a powerful slogan ready to the hand of unscrupulous men who can use it as a stepping stone to political power. Race too, is easily identifiable with nationalism which in recent years has been emergent among all colonial peoples…. The Indians, too, derive from an ancient culture of their own, and some among them may be inclined to pay homage to their heritage merely as a cover under which to condone racial attitudes.” (quoted in History of the People’s National Congress, p. 6)

Even a brief examination of Guyana’s political history will reveal that racism has been used to engulf our nation in flames that burn to this very day. In The Ashes of Cheddi and Burnham, I note that these two leaders have become respective icons for Guyanese of Indian and African heritage. As a result, the PPP and the People’s National Congress (PNC) are associated with Indian and African power, respectively. Our political machinery has effectively divided us. We are tribes, armed with the vote, in a power struggle.

Being of Indian heritage and having lived the Indian experience, I can only speak of my own encounters with tribalism. I am not anti-Indian. I am anti-tribalism. I value my heritage. I recognize that it is part of the whole that is Bharrat. But I also know that it does not define me. My ethnicity is not my identity. I am not Indian. I am Guyanese.

The PPP and PNC cannot be blamed for the genesis of this tribal based political system. However, each (whether consciously or unconsciously) has surely played its part in maintaining the tribal mentality. The continued survival of tribal mentality means political power for a selected few. It means that we (the people) do not realize our own power. It means that we give our votes too cheaply.

Language is the most powerful weapon which the politician wields. With language, the politician manipulates our rational and emotional spheres. With language, he plants fear in our minds. He uses fear to maintain the tribal mentality, the tribal system. He teaches us to fear anything that is not of the tribe. He teaches us that he is necessary for the tribe’s survival.

In a recent study (The Undercurrents of Guyanese Political Rhetoric: Linguistic Manipulation and Power), I examined two speeches (one by former president Bharrat Jagdeo and the other by current Speaker of the National Assembly Raphael Trotman) from the 2011 General Elections rallies held at Albion, Berbice. The primary aim was to determine if and how the speakers used language to manipulate listeners in order to gain or maintain political power. Here is an excerpt of the analysis:

“Allusion

I know that many of you are just discovering how wonderful this country is and particularly those who left Guyana when times were hard, they come back and it’s a rediscovery process. (NCNNewsGuyana, “PPPC Rally – Albion”)

Allusion serves as a powerful tool in Jagdeo’s speech to transmit and reinforce political ideology by creating fear of past conditions. This ideology or perceived truth which is accepted as common sense knowledge “legitimize(s) the existing power relation” (Fairclough 1989, 33) between the party and the audience (a section of the electorate).

By alluding to “when times were hard”, Jagdeo is referring to the era under PNC rule when many Guyanese migrated. Further, the fact that he is East Indian and was alive during these “hard times” gives him more authority as a speaker and as a result the listener, whether or not they experienced the “hard times” that is being alluded to, is inclined to accept Jagdeo’s statement as true.

The utterance functions in two ways. First, it appeals to the listener’s logic and sense of reason. It is reasonable to contend that people are only now discovering how wonderful Guyana is because before now times were hard. This sort of linguistic strategy is rational manipulation and seeks to influence the listener’s behaviour (in this case cause them to vote PPP) by affecting the rational sphere. (Asya n.pag.)

Second, the manipulation also takes an emotional form. Guyanese, particularly those of East Indian descent, are fearful of the era to which Jagdeo alludes. The fear stems either from their own experiences during the Burnham period or ideas of these events that would have been transmitted to them by parents or grandparents. As a result, the allusion to the era plays upon this existing fear and creates fear of its repetition.

Hence, by using his ethnicity and experience as points of power, Jagdeo is able transmit his party’s ideology of the Burnham era to the audience. The transmission of this ideology is capable of influencing the listener both rationally and emotionally. If the manipulation is realized then the listener accepts the ideology as truth and concedes their vote.” (Bharrat 2014)

It is sad that the politician so successfully makes a case of our dependence upon him when the opposite is true. The politician is dependent upon us for power. It is time we realized this, time we recognized the power of a single vote. It is because the politician understands the people’s power that he works so hard to manipulate our beliefs, our thinking.

By allowing ourselves to be so manipulated we live in fear and we allow our actions to be controlled. We allow our vote to be talked out of us without ever truly thinking critically and independently for ourselves. We give our power to the politician too cheaply, too easily. This is how we have been handicapped. We have allowed them to convince us that we have chosen them when in truth our right to choose has been deviously taken from us.

The truth is that the politician lives in fear. He lives in fear of the day we learn to think and to separate ourselves from the tribe. He lives in fear of the day we fight for country and not for tribe. He lives in fear of the day we begin to freely choose again and in so doing force him to earn our votes by performing in our best interests. He lives in fear of the day our children will write:

“My name is Bharrat. I am a Guyanese.”
© Sara Bharrat 2014