Back in 1998, after hundreds of Indians were, on January 12, beaten in Georgetown by PNC supporters protesting the results of the December 1997 elections, I wrote about the nature of the politics playing out. It was summarized in a simple equation by the noted scholar of ethnic politics, Donald Horowitz: “Group Comparison + Group legitimacy = the Politics of Entitlement.”
What this essentially predicted was that in a society like ours, groups would inevitably compare themselves to each other, and if the one that claims greater “legitimacy” – through prior arrival, greater suffering, earlier education etc — suffers by comparison, they would pursue the “politics of entitlement” to claim a greater share of the national patrimony. What follows is excerpts from the section on “group comparison”.
“The colonial experience also left a more pervasive basis of comparison between the Africans and the Indians. The Christian missionaries, who always followed the Colonial flag, fuelled the scorn of the ex-slaves for the indentureds by defining the latter as “heathens” in addition to the general “uncivilised” tag. As Christians and “cultured”, the African was persuaded that his status, beneath the Whites, Coloureds, Portuguese and Chinese, was acceptable, since he could now look down on the “Coolie”. In a pattern that continues to the present, the colonised were using the categories of the coloniser to form their judgments. The rest of Guyanese society defined the Indian as “backward” and deserving of nothing but contempt: his culture, non-western and mocked by the coloureds and ex-slaves, was derided as being primitive and outlandish. This view is still prevalent is those communities.
In addition to being willing to perform “slave” labour, the Indian was lambasted for being docile. Ironically, the other attributed stereotypical characteristics – money-hungry, shrewd, stingy, cunning, energetic, resourceful, miserly, ambitious, avaricious, crafty, clannish, etc. — indicated that, in reality, the Africans were labelling Indians as a group with progressive attributes, given a negative cast.
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From the beginning of his indentureship, however, the Indian, in defence, rejected the denigration of his group, and postponed his entry into the dominant Creole culture. For instance, because the schools were all controlled by the various Christian denominations (even though the salaries were paid for by the state), the Indians held back on enrolling their children for fear of the children being converted by the Christian proselytization efforts which were rampant in the schools. The educational rates lagged, but so did the conversion rates. He engaged in his own evaluations of the African with some of the European’s evaluation thrown in for good measure. The African, he asserted, was lazy, hedonistic, violent, and bereft of his own culture.
Part of the present problem between the Africans and Indians stems from the recognition by Africans that the very traits they had derided and denigrated as backward in Indians only so recently are actually the traits that confer success in the modern world. This came out very clearly at the “Conference on the Plight of the African Guyanese” organised by ACDA on March 16, 1997. African leaders from across the social, economic and political spectrum recommended to fellow Africans the old disparaged “Indian” qualities in their positive incarnation, and compared the African position with that of the Indians’. Dr. C.Y. Thomas, a leader of the WPA and ACDA, in his presentation, compared the economic picture of the African very unfavourably with that of the Indian in present day Guyana.
I wrote, “What Dr. Thomas is doing in the 90s is to widen the arena of possible conflicts between Africans and Indians by introducing new criteria whereby Africans should measure their position – employment and sectoral dominance and this vis-a-vis Indians. However, by selecting the previously despised group (Indians) as the standard for comparison (and by implication emulation), Dr. Thomas, while providing Africans with a scapegoat, is further damaging the African psyche and creating a mindset for extreme behaviour.”
Reflecting demographic insecurity, such groups are paranoid about being “swamped, subordinated and actually made extinct” by the previously despised group. While the reactions may be out of proportion as opposed to the actual threats, they could very well be projections of “solutions” they themselves may be harbouring in an effort to resolve the cognitive dissonances created by the new dispensation.