India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for on

When Indian indentured labourers first arrived in Guyana (or British Guiana as it then was) in 1838, most of the population consisted of descendants of Africans who had already worked on the colony’s Dutch and British-owned plantations for two and a half centuries. By the 1920s, as more Indians continued to come, a well-known Indian leader (Ayube Edun) could speak of Indo-Guyanese as forming 42 percent of the colony’s population, and therefore of being in a position - in the near future - to 'dominate the political situation.' This represented an astonishing, as it turned out - frightening - transformation in people who, on their arrival in Guyana, found themselves in an environment alien to them in every way including landscape, language, custom and ethnic composition.

In these circumstances it was perhaps natural that Indo-Guyanese should react strongly and intimately to India - their motherland. But not all their reactions were based on historical reality: some reactions were based on myths of religious significance, and yet others on the idea of a motherland that was, ambivalently, both an object of sentimental longing, and a convenient counterweight to be wielded defensively against encroaching social, cultural and political obligations in Guyana.
In the short space of 98 pages, 34 of which are Appendices, Clem Seecharan’s India provides an account both of the socio-intellectual background out of which these mixed reactions evolved, and of their impact on the Indo-Guyanese imagination.

Dr. Seecharan’s research is meticulous and his analysis penetrating. This is why, despite its specific Indian focus and slender look, India offers much insight into the broader history of Guyanese society as a whole. In the first place, by the early 1900s, after a century and a half as a British colony, India herself was going through a period of cultural re-discovery and renewal inspired partly by Indian reformers such as Ram Mohun Roy, and by European scholars like Max Mueller, who drew attention to a common Aryan ancestry that was shared by Indians and Europeans.

To impoverished Indo-Guyanese living in humiliating circumstances as mere plantation labourers or coolies, re-discovery of an illustrious Indo-Aryan past was enthusiastically embraced as a welcome source of newfound racial dignity and cultural pride.

The Ruhomon brothers - Joseph and Peter - played an important role in articulating this new, uplifting sense of Indianness which was also fostered by social and cultural activities, and by visits from prominent Indians, for example, Pillai and Tivary, Kunwar Maharaj Singh, and Rev. C.F. Andrews (an Englishman, but a close associate of Gandhi), all of whom came to Guyana in the 1920s.
In this climate of rekindled Indianness, an East Indian Cricket Club was founded in 1915, and an East Indian Young Men’s Association in 1919. In 1916, J.A. Luckhoo became the first Indo-Guyanese to enter the legislature. In 1922 the Hindu Society was formed, while a new Hindu temple was built in 1923, and a dharma sala (home for the poor) established in 1929. It is possible too that the formation in 1927 of an East Indian Ladies Guild with a woman president owed something to the example of Mrs. Sarojini Naidu being elected as president of the Indian National Congress. In fact, the whole Indian movement towards swaraj (home rule) and the nationalist agitation of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress helped to transform traditional Indo-Guyanese attitudes of loyalty to the British Empire and infuse them with a measure of political militancy.

Through analysis of such facts and events, and evidence of numerous statistics and quotations, Dr. Seecharan conclusively proves that Indo-Guyanese opinions and attitudes were profoundly influenced by social, cultural and religious ideas, and political events and personalities emerging out of India from the 1890s to the 1920s. Evidence of this shaping effect on the Indo-Guyanese imagination is also provided in extensive Appendices and Notes packed with rich details, anecdotes and observations drawn from an impressive variety of sources, including books, periodicals, official documents and rare publications like Joseph Ruhomon’s India: The Progress of her People at Home and Abroad,and How Those in British Guiana May Improve Themselves. (Georgetown, C.K. Jardine, 1894).

All this only confirms the exhaustive research that went into India. The scholarly penetration of the book is best illustrated by its last chapter ‘In the Shadow of Mother India: The Limitations of Indo-Guyanese Politics,’ where the author states that Indo-Guyanese identification with Mother India prolonged a sense of ambivalence towards the colony even among creolised, Christian Indians. It delayed the emergence of a comprehensive, unmediated loyalty to British Guiana. Above all it encouraged the Indo-Guyanese leadership to ignore the feeling of the Afro-Guyanese, and the political, economic, and cultural space this group was also demanding. Since Afro-Guyanese formed a majority in the colon when Indians first arrived, it is not difficult to imagine their feelings of apprehension, resentment and sheer fright when Indians came to surpass them in numbers, and looked like moving ahead in wealth, agriculture, commerce and the professions. In the Angel Gabriel riots of 1856 and the Cent Bread riot of 1885, Afro-Guyanese had already shown themselves frightened by the Portuguese who, like Indians, began to arrive in Guyana as indentured labourers in the 1830s.

This insight into the potential for ethnic conflict in Guyana is perhaps the most signal achievement of India, for this potential was later exploited by an unholy trinity of conspirators - L.F.S. Burnham, J.P. Lachmansingh and Jainarinesingh - who, in 1955, engineered a split in the People’s Progressive Party, while it was still a glorious movement of national solidarity led by Dr. Cheddi Jagan. This split inflicted grievous damage on Guyanese national and political development. 
And when, in 1964, the same potential for ethnic conflict was again exploited, this time more cynically, by L.F.S. Burnham and a new conspirator - Peter D’Aguiar - to form another unholy political union, it precipitated Guyana into a dark age of domination by the People’s National Congress, lasting for 28 years and subjecting Guyana to even more grievous and perhaps irreparable damage.
India does not comment on these later events because they fall outside of its time period of the 1890s to the 1920s. But nothing illustrates the merit of this deceptively slender volume more than its ability to illuminate crucial events in Guyanese history that fall well outside its declared scope.