Dr. Prem Misir has over the last few years written a lot on the issue of race and ethnicity. His general thrust has been that racial and ethnic problems in Guyana are exaggerated. This has also been the PPP’s line since attaining office in 1992. Prior to 1992 the PPP had seen the situation differently. In addition to its Marxist class analysis, it identified a racial component of the prevailing politics, especially in relation to what it perceived as the African political directorate’s racial discrimination against and oppression of Indians. Dr. Jagan went as far as describing the treatment Indians during the PNC reign as that befitting secondclass citizens. Yet as soon as the PPP came to power, race and ethnicity ceased to be a problem as far as governance was concerned. Race, according to the PPP, is now a tool being used by the PNC, ROAR, WPA and the talk show hosts to further their political agendas.
I mentioned the PPP’s line to show the convergence of Dr. Misir’s views with those of the ruling party. Although he had advanced these views long before he started to work for the PPP government, one cannot help but locate Dr. Misir’s writings within the context of the PPP’s media offensive, especially since 1997. The PPP has been trying to do three related things on the racial/ethnic front. First, it has tried to prove that no aspect of its rule is racially motivated. Second, it has been trying to fend off the challenge from ROAR that it has not guaranteed or it has ignored Indian security. Third, it has been doing its utmost to beat back the impetus towards Power Sharing as an alternative to the present political arrangements. Since all three of these issues assume the presence of racial/ethnic security problems, the PPP must at all costs discredit the racial/ethnic explanations of the country’s problems. It is in this regard that Dr. Misir’s contentions are useful to the PPP’s agenda.
In his most recent offering– “The Social Construction of Ethnic Insecurity” (Guyana Chronicle November 10), Dr. Misir says that “those who see only race/ethnicity in politics in Guyana, as others who see tribe and religion in other countries, are not viewing reality comprehensively, objectively and scientifically.” This is clever intent by Dr. Misir. The key point in that statement is those “who see only race/ethnicity.” I ask Dr. Misir: who are these people? Name them. Based on my observation most of the people who discuss race in Guyana see it as the dominant feature in Guyanese political economy, but not as the only explanation. Just as Mrs. Jagan creates a category called “power sharers who were part of PNC government,” Dr. Misir creates this category of “those who see “only” race/ethnicity in politics.” This is serious stuff – you put words in people’s mouth and then you proceed to prosecute them. Dr Misir does exactly what he later in the article charges others with-“It’s as if the politicians create a stage play where they write the script and hope and pray that the masses would use it effectively”
Dr. Misir goes on to talk about class within the various races. The thing that bothers me most is that we talk about both race and class as if they are things stuck in time. Class theoreticians, especially those of the Marxist persuasion, must stop being un-Marxist and recognize that one of the basic tenets of Marxism is that things are forever changing. In any case, Dr. Misir presents his arguments for a class analysis of Guyanese society as if the presence of class means the absence of race. In Guyana, race and class are intertwined, but more often than not the contradictions in the society are manifested in racial terms. And when this happens it has to be observed as such or you run the risk of giving the wrong treatment to the problem. I am going to leave this section with a question. There is solidarity among both Africans and Indians irrespective of class.
Dr Misir quotes Dr Jagan on class solidarity regarding the shift in the TUC in 1984. But that class solidarity or multiracial solidarity, which actually began with the ASCRIA/IPRA unity in the Land for the Landless campaign and taken to a higher level by Rodney and the WPA, was the consequence of heightened repression by the authoritarian regime. In other words it was the convergence of the PNC’s authoritarian rule and the WPA’s multiracial mobilization that caused that “working class alliance” that Dr Jagan speaks about. One must also note that what Dr Jagan calls “working class alliance” was part of a larger “multi-class and multiracial alliance.” The two cannot be separated. It should also be noted that the PPP by its very tactics in those days frustrated class solidarity as it did when it practically broke up the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (CDD) and the Council for National Safety (CNS) and when it refused to support the Sugar and Bauxite Workers Unity Committee (SBWUC) and actively campaigned against a WPA-organized Day of Rest in 1983.
Next, Dr. Misir draws our attention to the dangers of what he calls “false views of reality.” He then lists eleven of these “false” statements, all of which emanate from the African section of the political divide. The author would have done his case a whole lot more good had he listed some “false” statements from the Indian section of the divide. Or are we to assume that Indian “politicians ever budding and wannabes, and the mass media” are not “owners of such remarks?” But Dr. Misir goes on. He says with much certainty “Most if not all of these statements are consumed in a high degree of falsity. However, they help shape the individual’s reality, that is, to influence the individual to believe that all these statements represent the true picture in Guyana. In the end, we see the development of false perceptions and a reality filled with untruths.”
Since it is Africans who are consuming these falsities, then it is Africans whose reality is based on false perceptions. And what is worse, according to Dr. Misir, is that those individuals behave “in accordance with these beliefs.” I agree with Dr. Misir that there are many unsubstantiated statements being made in the media and that these in turn influence people’s attitude to politics. But there are two things I wish to point out. First, these “falsities” have to be countered with attempts at truth and not by more falsities. I have a hard time seeing how Dr. Misir’s statement that those who comment on race see it as the “only” problem in Guyana or his oft repeated position that there is no crisis or no big race problem in Guyana tend in the direction of truth. These contentions are to my mind as false as some of the statements Dr. Misir sees as dangerous. “There is a crisis” is countered by “there is no crisis.” “There is marginalization” is countered with “there is no marginalization.” “There is a racial problem” is countered with “there is no race problem.” We seem to be forever trapped in a space that allows us little flexibility and all societies, especially racially segmented ones, need flexibility.
How can Dr. Misir and the PPP determine what is the “objective reality” of the African people? What yardstick is being used to measure their reality? Some fancy book with high flung theories that have no direct relevance to these people’s lives? Reality is a product of perception, but it is also a product of concrete experiences. And it is as insultive to African sufferers to tell them that their cries of frustration are wholly or largely conditioned by politicians as it is insultive to Indian sufferers to tell them they are wholly or largely under the spell of some Hindu conspiracy. Dr Misir may have ended up doing more harm than good here. We need to stop this nonsense of looking for enemies because when we don’t find them we create them.
Dr. Misir does something else. He says “Clearly politicians ubiquitously present this view of ethnic insecurity and call for new political arrangements to eliminate it.” Again, the author engages in half-truth. It is not just politicians who talk about ethnic insecurity and call for new arrangements. In fact, politicians are less guilty of this crime. But if you put the issue clearly in the politicians’ lap, as Dr. Misir does, then you can easily dismiss it as a ploy to get political power. But lets talk a bit about power. Dr Misir behaves as if only some politicians are entitled to power. Insofar as politicians represent people, they are entitled to exercise power in their name. So the PNC politicians are also entitled to power because the 44% of the electorate they represent are entitled to power. And what about those mainly Amerindians who voted for GAP-WPA or those Indians who did not vote PPP? The justification for exercise of power has to be reconfigured.
Dr. Misir lets the cat out of the bag towards the end of his article. His target is really power sharing-I smelled it from reading the first sentence. He mentions it by name in the last few paragraphs and ends his article by asking of those who argue for power sharing – “Do they have the mandate from the Guyanese people to advocate for this new political dispensation?” Well, Dr. Misir has outdone himself. Since when one has to get a mandate to advocate change? Further, who has the mandate to anything political in Guyana? The anointed parliamentary majority? By Dr Misir’s logic only the government has the mandate to advocate anything. Is this any different from PNC’s authoritarianism? For me, every parliamentary party-PPP, PNC, TUF, ROAR, GAP, WPA– has a mandate-some bigger than others and Guyana will be a better place when all of those mandates can find a place at the table of decision making and implementation.
And, yes I have a mandate to advocate for a change in the political arrangements. That mandate comes from my status as a citizen; it’s my responsibility. And yes Dr Misir, I, and others, including the PPP, did not wait for a mandate from the PNC or from the people to fight for a change of the authoritarian arrangements. Like the PNC of then, you want to deny me my human right to struggle to change the condition of my country if I don’t do it your way. In closing I shall beat my own drum– I have a mandate to struggle now more than ever because the present government in all its virtues and vices is in place largely because I, and others, dared to assume a mandate to advocate with our bodies for a change of the pre-1992 arrangements. As it was then so it is now–the well being of all of our people is at stake.