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.

Will the PPP win in 2015?

In the land of the blind, one-eye man is king…

From now until May 11, some of us will contemplate the answer to this question with much fear, hope or a combination of both.

Will the People’s Progressive Party (PPP)win? Or will they lose?

Before I answer this, I believe it is worth clarifying where I stand: I am the Bharrat who stands in the middle. It is true that I am not pro-Government. Unfortunately, this statement seems to be synonymous with “I am anti-Government” or “I am pro-Opposition”. I am none of these things. I, Bharrat, am pro-Guyanese.

Those on my left believe that – given the degree of exposure suffered by the PPP – the ruling party will fall. However, a condition which seems necessary for this is a coalition between the two main opposing parties. These people are not necessarily fearful of another PPP win but they intensely hope and, in some cases, believe that the ruling party will lose.

On my right, there are those who trust that A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC) have sufficiently ruined their own images. If they could not capitalize on a hung Parliament then how will they make a coalition work? This is the question I hear the people on my right asking no one in particular with some hope in their voices. These people hope intensely for a PPP win and are very fearful of any other outcome. Fear makes people unstable; it makes them suffer.

During my months of bad health and worse silence, I listened intently to those around me. Many older Guyanese are still choking on rice flour bake and roti and the choking syndrome has been inherited, unwillingly for the most part, by their descendants.

Only tonight I was told that the “National Mood” is indicative of a PPP loss. However, I believe that what shows itself as a National Mood are things that we are able to see or feel in some way; things that have been let or leaked into the open. But what about those things which are carefully guarded? And never voiced?

It is all too easy to see the ocean’s surface but we must dive beneath the waves and become intimately acquainted with those powerful undercurrents that carry truth.

As it is now, I believe there is a higher chance of a PPP win than of a PPP fall.

In this worry of win and lose, all I can think of is whether the outcome, whatever it may be, will be best for our people; our Guyanese brothers and sisters. There are few men and women among politicians whom I perhaps can bring myself to trust but they are certainly not enough for a Cabinet and do not all come from the same camp.

While I do understand the fear that weighs on the hearts of men and women who could be my mother and father or my Nani and Nana, I sincerely hope that they can bring themselves to fight the fear.

We must recognize that politicians rise to power with our blessing and upon our shoulders. We, the people, give them power and we most certainly can strip them of it. This year can perhaps be the year Guyanese win if we learn to use our own powers; if we learn to put politicians in their place.

Without Wax,

Bharrat.

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

I am a Swing Vote

By Saieed I. Khalil

Mr. Khalil is a final year Economics student at the University of Guyana.

Our pattern of voting influences the nature of government and its policies. The power to freely and informedly choose the political and socioeconomic data by way of the ballot is what constitutes the lynchpin of a peaceful democracy.

Ideally, elections ought to reward governments for good policies and governance in line with what a nation desires. Conversely, politicians who disappoint are, through the polls, booted out of office. It is the prospect of losing office or being rewarded with more tenures which keep government in check and on the path of pursuing good governance and socioeconomic prosperity for their citizens.

However, in Guyana politics hardly works that way. For much of our post-colonial era, voting has transpired along the ethnic lines of the two dominant groups: Afro and Indo-Guyanese. There are many factors behind this pattern. Prime among them are Western interference and more importantly, a stunning lack of statesmanship by national leaders who failed to forge reconciliation between the rival of ethnic groups and a common agenda of nation building.

Due to this ethnic tension, the two main parties, the PPP and PNC, are perennially assured their political existence by virtue of their support among the Indo-Guyanese and Afro-Guyanese respectively. As a result of the existence of these vote banks, however, these political parties have not had to give much weight to the consequences of their party’s policies and decisions.

If these parties did give much weight to their decisions, the PPP-led government might have seen a few dismissals of those Ministers embroiled in corruption scandals. (Brazilian President Dilma Roussef’s government has seen some). Similarly, the PNC-dominated parliamentary coalition which voted against legislation that would enable hydropower development – legislation which was nevertheless passed by virtue of a smaller opposition faction, the AFC voting with the ruling party on the measure – would have been more open to compromise on this key development project.(in the US, the right wing Tea Party Republicans run the risk of political annihilation for similar obstructionism).

However, because of ethnic insecurity and mistrust, which have their genesis in traumatic historical antecedents that are yet to be adequately addressed, voters largely base their support on race and support their “home” parties blindly. However, the winds of change are quietly brewing.

Demographic changes such as an increase in the number of persons of mixed heritage, and an influx of immigrants from Brazil and China mean that the ethnic pull may not be as strong. More importantly, however, is the increase of the population’s portion of people under the age of 35. It is the rise of a cadre of young, dynamic voters that poses the most potent threat to political tribalism and offers the greatest hope for democratic renewal.

Young people do not bear the historical scars of brute inter-ethnic hostilities. The government’s politicos, in particular, have lamented the clean slate mindset of young people. Attempts to school youths as to “the way things were” have floundered as in this, the Information Age, young people through their Blackberries , iPods and iPhones and tablets and laptops have tapped into a world of ideas and they know, we know, that a better, more progressive way is possible.

Even parents, who may have more reason than their offspring to carry and propagate racial prejudices, no longer do so, because if they have traveled and lived abroad, if they too are as connected (or in this author’s case, more connected) to that world of ideas, they, as well, know what better systems of governance, that are conducive to multiculturalism and harmonious development, look like. It is becoming harder to feed young voters prejudice pills especially as they increasingly interface with each other online and come to the realization that divisiveness impairs development.

Guyanese can no longer wait for the political parties to lead the break from race based to issue based voting choices. For decades, the two political dinosaurs have done precious little to reach across the ethnic divide (token attempts at creating a facade of diversity hardly count) while simultaneously using rank race baiting to guard their own turfs. As outlined above, the status quo actually benefits their existence.

The change must, therefore, start with the voters. From the ground up. The parties will then either be compelled to modify their electoral strategy or die a political death (as was the case with the Republican party prior to the Ronald Reagan-led revival).

For instance, continuous losses of Indo Guyanese support, though it might not take away the Presidency and Executive which is guaranteed on the basis of mere attainment of plurality in the polls, could keep the PPP in a legislative minority that might eventually compel it to seek some constitutional arrangement for shared governance (as is the case with Parliamentary democracies in Trinidad, Britain and Germany).

Meanwhile, if the PNC sees a desertion of Afro Guyanese supporters, it would be compelled to reinvent itself as an ethnically inclusive, ideologically oriented unit instead of remaining as the Afro-centric party it is perceived as now. To speak the truth, it is the PNC’s inability (or unwillingness) to transform itself that has helped to reinforce the ethno-centric voting patterns and keep Indo-Guyanese firmly in the PPP camp. It is indeed a truism that it is a credible threat of electoral defeat by its rivals that keeps government in line.

It is the young, so far unprejudiced voters who look at issues rather than ethnicity that can lead this sea change in our politics. Young people must exercise courage and avoid being shackled by the bonds of racial mistrust and choose their representatives on performance, not pigmentation.

In political theory, such voters are called the independent voters, or swing voters. They hold the balance of power in the mature democracies and the political fortunes of governments rise or fade at their whim. These are the most insightful voters and the ones who governments fear the most.

Are there enough of us to shift the pendulum? Are you a swing vote?

Do not be silent so that fear may slowly stop your heart. Rise, speak! There is always hope.
Sara

They brand us, play us and cast us aside

Many a bottom house raja and rani have told me that there is no race problem here in Guyana. They must really think that my belly is too full of that grassroots thing for me to not notice the hate, anger and bitterness that simmer just under the skin of my country men and women; men and women whose minds have been chronically abused by the racial politics of our land.

Yesterday, I stood before hundreds of students at St. Stanislaus College and broke my silence on the abuse I suffered as a child, teenager and young woman. I broke my silence and shared my secrets hoping that I would awaken their minds. I looked at their young faces, I saw what I once was and I could not stifle the fear I felt for these children, my children, our children. Are they yet infected with the hate, anger and bitterness that consume their elders?

It is the same hope I have for those of you who read my words. I hope that every time I speak of my fear, every time I speak of things which I once dutifully ignored, I hope that I can reach you and inspire you to break your silence too. When I write, I write for you because there’s not much else I can do just yet.

And this brings us to why I write today. I write because racism does not anger me. It breaks my heart. While binging on fast food at Royal Castle, Vreed-en-hoop yesterday I was confronted directly with the hate, anger and bitterness that leap forth with the slightest provocation.

As my friend and I ate, we played a game of cards. A woman, I average she is in her early 50s or there about, was highly offended at this. “Cards is fuh wake house,” she shouted. I sat silently and when the security guard, at the woman’s insistence, asked us to stop playing, I told him that management at the Georgetown branches had never objected to us playing and requested to see the manager to determine whether we were actually breaking house rules. I should add that I found it ridiculous that a game of cards between two young people as they ate would anger this woman in such a manner.

Upon hearing my words her anger leapt forth with greater force: “You letting she tell you how fuh do yuh wuk? She wan’ see supervisor? Dem always want see somebody. You feel a black man could come in here and do that? Is only dem could do that.” Her words hit me where it hurts the most and with my own frustration evident all I could tell her was “Madam, you’re being racist. Why would you say that just because I’m playing cards? Do you have children? Is this what you teach them?” Of course, I was treated to a good cussing after that and the cards lay forgotten as I stared at her and tried to understand her intense anger.

I didn’t need to think long because I’ve always understood that sort of anger. I grew up witnessing my own family and friends have similar out bursts. Everything is always the fault of the Black man or the Indian man. With this woman, it was a classic case of political branding.

When she looks at me, she does not see a young woman who could be her daughter, she does not see me at all. All that she sees is an Indian, the symbol of a corrupt government, and I must suffer for sins I have not committed or condoned. This is what that grassroots thing has done to me and my generation. Our identities are overlooked, we are branded politically because of our skin colour and condemned to suffer for crimes of those bottom house rajas and ranis and their equivalents.

You and I, we are like a pack of cards. They play us and when the hate, anger and bitterness erupt we lay forgotten, cast aside, meaningless. They have blinded us so that it is hard to look at a man and see just a man and not a symbol, a card in some politician’s hand.

Sharing a quick moment with you while I’m on the go.
Sara.

The ashes of Cheddi and Burnham

Dare I risk taking on the Jaganites and the Burnhamites? Dare I question the counterfeit images of dear old Cheddi and dear old Burnham that have survived for my generation to see? My only answer is this: why else do I have a mind if not to question everything endlessly so that in the end I may believe only in those things which I have found to be true and genuine?

In the 90s I grew up with Cheddi and Burnham in Craig Village. Cheddi was like the mamoo or chacha I never saw and Burnham was the line-up-fuh-soap-and-butter man. Cheddi was the sustainer of the great and powerful roti and Burnham was the man who tried to choke the nation to death with rice-flour bake and roti.

But somehow, many of my Indian elders were convinced that Burnham’s grand scheme to choke the nation was somehow the fault of the black man. I still wonder if they’ve ever realized that black people ate and choked on the same rice-flour bake and roti.

There have been moments in my life where I have felt that I know Cheddi and Burnham more than I’ll ever know myself. When the old Indian women met at wedding and jandhi houses to clean katahar and make puri there was always an endless supply of Cheddi and Burnham jokes. But always, always Burnham took the brunt of it.

The problem is that jokes aren’t just jokes to a child. As a child, these jokes taught me that Burnham was a man to be feared. And because they had made Burnham the symbol of the black man it followed that the black man was to be feared. As for Cheddi, they said he was the hero of the Indian man and no one else. These women were selfish with their Cheddi.

How could they dishonor Cheddi and Burnham in such a manner? And how could they not have known what they were doing to my mind? The answer is simple: grassroots politics.

All my life, they’ve been trying to make me know Cheddi and Burnham; at least the images of Cheddi and Burnham that they were fed at bottom houses. But the truth is that I (and all young Guyanese for that matter) will never know these men. I think Ian McDonald says it best:

“I remember long ago when I was a boy my father held a dead bird in the palm of his hand and said the beauty all had gone – to see it like that and describe it alive, alive and flying, was to see ashes and try to tell about fire.” (“Well Remembered Friends, Cloud of Witnesses, p. 348)

Cheddi and Burnham are the dead bird. My generation will never know the real men.

As for my elders who still cling to the ashes of Cheddi and Burnham, for now I have given up trying to decide how or what I feel for you. I did not choke on rice-flour but I choke on something far worse in my time. I am sorry that you had to choke on rice-flour but I am even sorrier that you do not yet realize that I am choking in a far worse way than you did. The bottom line is I think it’s time someone told you that rice-flour was not your black brother’s fault just like the current corruption in Canecutopia is not entirely our fault.

Flour or rice-flour? They don't look much different eh?

Flour or rice-flour? They don’t look much different eh?

Sharing a quick moment with you while I’m on the go.
Sara.