THE EAST INDIANS &F
GUYANA AND TRINIDAD
Report No13 MINORITY
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The MINORITY RIGHTS GROUP is an international research
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investigating their situation and publicising the facts internationally as widely as
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developing into dangerous and destructive conflicts which, when polarised, are very
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which create prejudiced treatment and group tensions, and so to promote the
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SPONSORS Lady Butler
Erwin D. Canham
Dr Robert Gardiner
Dr Joseph Needham
COUNCI L Rt Hon Jo Grimond, MP Chairman
Professor Sir Robert Birley
George W. Cadbury
Professor Roland Oliver
Rev Michael Scott
Professor Hugh Tinker
Canon M.A.C. Warren
DIRECTOR Ben Whitaker
OFFICE Benjamin Franklin House
36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NG
The report that follows has been commissioned, and is published, by the Minority Rights Group as a
contribution to public understanding of the problem which forms its subject. It does not necessarily
represent, in every detail and in all its aspects, the collective view of the Group.
For details of the other reports published by the
Minority Rights Group, please see the back cover.
THE EAST INDIANS
GUYANA AND TRINIDAD
by Malcolm Cross
Part One: Guyana 6
Part Two: Trinidad and Tobago 17
Select Bibliography 28
From the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights,
adopted by the General Assembly
of the United Nations
on 10th December 1948:
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.
They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act
towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in
this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race,
colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion,
national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the
political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or
territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent,
trust, non-self governing or under any other limitation of
The so-called 'East Indians' of the Caribbean cannot really be considered beleaguered
minorities. There is no formal attempt to discriminate against them and there are few
walks of life where they may not be found. In no real sense, however, can they be said to be
integrated into the West Indian or 'Creole' way of life. The word 'Creole' is variously defined
throughout the Caribbean, although it is normally used to refer to those born in the Caribbean
area. Everyone is agreed, however, that it does not include the East Indians. In Guyana the
East Indians, who are the descendants of immigrants from the sub-continent and in no way
related to the aboriginal Indians, comprise more than one half of the population, while in
Trinidad they exceed one third and yet as the famous novelist from Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul,
recalls '..... to be an Indian was to be distinctive'.
The Indians of the Caribbean area have always been distinctive. They came originally in a
continuous stream from the mid 1840s through to 1917, not merely as immigrants, but as
indentured labourers to work on sugar estates. As such they have always been disparagingly
viewed as 'coolies', prized merely for their docile and tractable labour by the planters and
other Europeans and despised by the African* former slaves for those same qualities. Indeed
their undisputed abilities as farmers and farm or estate labourers has not only served to
alienate them from those whose position they were often seen as undermining but it has
meant that they have not played their full part in the development of that vital nucleus of
change in the modern world, the city. The East Indians are the true inheritors of slavery
but they were never its victims. For this reason they were able to succeed on the land, but
this very success forced the Africans into the cities and thus into those areas where the future
power was to lie. It is the city that becomes independent when empires fall and colonisers
withdraw; the Indians were never able to step into those vacant shoes. Now there is a new
radicalism emerging in the Caribbean which it is certainly not my wish or purpose to
condemn but the position of the East Indian has not changed. He is still distinctive, he is still
separate; and attempts by Afro-West Indians to launch programmes of radical change under
the rubric of 'Black Power' carry with them a perceived threat to many East Indians, who,
while they may feel themselves in need of power have never considered themselves 'black'.
This report will concentrate on the two independent Commonwealth states of Trinidad
and Tobago and Guyana formerlyy British Guiana), on the South American continent.
Trinidad is a small island off the east coast of Venezuela which, together with its even smaller
sister island, Tobago, covers a land area of 1,980 square miles and sustains a population of
1.2m. Guyana on the other hand has a much smaller population (0.7m) but a vastly greater
land area of over 80,000 square miles, most of which is sparsely populated tropical jungle
Trinidad (with Tobago) lies within the Caribbean sea and is the richest and second largest
West Indian island (after Jamaica). Geographically Guyana is not 'Caribbean' for the muddy
waters of the Atlantic wash her shores and it could be argued that she is not 'West Indian'
either. But historical experience and cultural identification are at least as important as
geography and in this sense Guyana is as West Indian as any English speaking territory in the
* The term 'African' will be preferred throughout this report to its synonym 'Negro'.
t In this report 'West Indian' and 'Caribbean' will be used loosely and taken to be synonymous.
The vast majority of the Indians in the West Indies live in these two countries. A small
number survive in Jamaica but hardly as a recognisable group, and a few thousand are to be
found in the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. For the rest, the only other group
of any size is in Surinam, the former Dutch colony in South America now assimilated into
the Netherlands. Of course this does not exhaust the overseas Indian communities in the
world. While not as ubiquitous as the Chinese, Indians migrated to South and East Africa,
Malaysia, Mauritius, Burma and Fiji, as well as to Canada and the UK at a later date.
The position the Indians came to occupy in Trinidad and Guyana was similar but the actual
experiences they have had with respect to the other major ethnic groups has differed in some
ways. After a brief look at the common history of indentured importation I will examine
separately the position and role of the Indians in each country.
The Indenture Period
The Indians were originally solicited in response to labour shortages resultant from an
expanding sugar industry and the exodus from the plantations of newly freed African slaves.
Even before this latter event some planters had seen the need, in their terms, for a different
type of labour. William Burnley, for example, a Trinidadian planter, specified clearly in 1814
that the need was for a distinct group of labourers. They should be:
........... healthy and free, with habits ready formed,
and sufficiently numerous to stand unsupported and distinct
from our present population on its immediate arrival.'
Ever since the Indians arrived they have been seen as separate and indeed their distinctiveness
was positively encouraged both by planters and by colonial administrators. When it came to
issues of racial antagonism the British colonial administration would decry racial separation
but any reading of the documents of government will show that whenever labour questions
arose in Trinidad or Guyana (British Guiana) the first reference to be made was whether the
people concerned were of African or Indian descent.
During the years of immigration under the indenture system the following numbers of
Indians migrated to the West Indies, largely through Calcutta and Madras:2
British Guiana 238,000
St. Lucia 1,550
St. Vincent 1,820
The vast majority of immigrants were between 10 and 30 years of age, and there were two
men for every woman until in later years disturbances on the estates forced the authorities
to try and correct this imbalance. Because of the nature of the work involved and the type
of person sought by the recruiting agent nearly all the Indians were, or claimed to be, from
an agricultural caste or jati. It is possible that some impecunious Brahmins made the passage
and it is also probable that some of low caste later claimed high caste origins in order to
obtain work as priests or merely to guarantee association with and marriage into the wealthier
families. The caste hierarchy, however, was one of the first cultural features of the
immigrants to lose its force.
SFor footnotes, please see page 26.
The indenture ordinances that governed the life of the immigrants were comprehensive and
paternalistic. They governed rates of pay, the minimum number of days that work had to be
offered, medical facilities, housing and provided a comprehensive legal code. It could be said
that they replaced the coercion of the whip by the letter of the law for under this 'new
system of slavery' the Indian was scarcely free until the end of his five year indenture term.
After a certain number of years, which varied during the 19th century, he was eligible for
repatriation to India although efforts were increasingly made to entice the Indians to remain
on or near the estates, mainly by offering land in lieu of a return passage. Indeed once they
were free and had acquired some land there was good reason to stay, for however hard life
was, land was more readily available in the West Indies than it was in India.
The distinctiveness of the Indian was not merely something that derived from his dress,
appearance, language and religion, strange though these were to the Creole. It was more than
this because there was from the first an inherent conflict of interest between the African and
the Indian. The Indian was entering an industry where the bulk of the labour was African
and where the relationship between white and black was the veiled hatred that is the hallmark
of oppression. He was obliged to work for less than the African and by shielding his dignity
behind the impervious barrier of an alien culture, he was able to accept the inhumanity of
plantation life. It is hardly surprising therefore that the African despised the 'coolie' for his
blacklegg' entry into their struggle. The planters themselves were delighted at the adaptability
of the Indian and were only too eager to praise his thrift and hard work. This was partly an
act of retribution for the lack of loyalty that the African apparently felt towards the
plantations but it was also in the interests of the planters to divide the labourers in these
colonies, for by so doing they lessened the likelihood of united revolt.
The operation of colonial society was inherently divisive, partly by design and partly as a
by-product of social and economic change. The fact that agriculture and mining were oriented
towards exports meant that there was little need for internal trade but a great demand for
one central location through which external trade could be carried on with Britain and in
which administration could be centralized. Thus market or regional towns did not expand,
while the capital city became the focus of development. In Guyana or Trinidad this meant
the development of Georgetown and Port of Spain at the expense of the rural areas. It also
meant that service and urban occupations were created for those literate in English, the
Afro-West Indians. In this way earlier conflicts of interest in the agricultural sphere became
overlaid with urban-rural differences. As events in Guyana were later to show, those who
controlled the city controlled the country.
The interests of the planters and through them the colonial administrators were best served
by the Indian remaining m agricultural work. They were dissuaded from demanding education
in various ways, often merely by failing to provide non-sectarian schools, for it was well
known that the Indians feared the effects of Christianity on their own religion and patterns
This type of historical experience led to stereotypes of one racial group being held by the
other. These were remarkably similar for both countries and they still persist to this day.
The African was seen by the Indian as thriftless and irresponsible with a contempt for the
land and a general hedonistic outlook on life. The Indians to the African mind were mean
and cunning and. like the Jew to the anti-Semite, preparing themselves for 'taking over' the
country. With this sort of image of the other, both groups could defend their own communal
actions on the grounds of self-defense. The advent of local struggles for political power
naturally reflected these divisions in the populations and eventually came to have a greater
significance than class or ideological distinctions.
PART ONE: GUYANA
One of the paradoxes of Guyana (formerly British Guiana) with its similar land area to
Britain and population of just over seven hundred thousand, is that it suffers from a shortage
of arable land. It is only the long coast, stretching from Corentyne in the south-east to the
Venezuelan border in the north-west, that is cultivated, with the exception of the isolated
Rupununi Savanna of the interior. It is on this alluvial coastal strip that over 90 per cent of
the population live, bordered on the one side by the uninviting scrub that restrains the lush
tropical jungle of the interior and on the other by the discoloured and menacing Atlantic
Ocean. Most of this coast lies between ten and twenty feet below sea level and the constant
battle to prevent the encroachment of the sea is a hallmark of Guyanese history. Empoldering,
draining and irrigation together with the maintenance of the sea wall add enormously to the
cost of arable land.
It was the competition over land shortage that fed the hostility created by the arrival of
the Indians in the first place. The Africans saw the Indians replacing them on the estates and
later buying up what little available land there was. Prior to 1917 and the end of the
indenture trade, an added source of bitter complaint was that immigration was financed
through public revenues, notably customs dues. As one African organization complained in
the early years of this century '.. the race to whose detriment the coolies were being
introduced were made to contribute to the cost of a scheme of immigration designed either to
supplant the negro or to coerce him into service with the planters at a wage inadequate for
his proper maintenance'. To African eyes the Indians were favoured by the very fact of their
alien culture. Because they had not been brought up to accept Western values and standards
they were able to live far more cheaply and thus save comparatively large amounts to
purchase new land.
While the Indians never took over the sugar industry completely they soon came to
dominate the labour market on the plantations. Africans still cut the cane and worked in
the estate factories as pan boilers or other skilled jobs, but by the end of the nineteenth
century the major industry of the colony was dependent upon Indian labour.
There grew up in Guyana, or British Guiana as it was then, a deep seated antipathy towards
these latest arrivals, The keenness with which the planters welcomed this new labour supply
only exacerbated tension for, with the wounds of slavery still raw, anything in the interests
of the planters could hardly be seen as being in the interests of the African labourers. Despite
the fact that many retained the better paid jobs on the estates they no longer lived there in
any number but established African villages along the coast, like Buxton, and migrated
towards the two towns of any size, New Amsterdam and the capital, Georgetown. The
pressures put on the African population became intense. The wages they could command
were lowered and it was far from easy for them to make a living on their own. Cheddi Jagan,
the first Prime Minister of Guyana and himself an East Indian, recognizes the importance of
this for later racial tensions:
'The Negroes were doubly squeezed, cheap immigrant labour
lowered their wages in the estates, while cheap imported
foodstuffs made the cultivation of their crops uneconomic.
Some of the seeds of racial strife, first between Negroes
and Portuguese and later between Negroes and Indians, were
sown at this early date by the pattern of economic competition
that was imposed.'3
This competition might not have been so intense if agricultural diversification had occurred
or if urban development had been able to provide more jobs for the Afro-Guyanese population.
But this was not to be. Even the opportunities presented by the expansion of minor retailing
were seized by the Portuguese and Chinese immigrants who, though they only formed a
small percentage of the population, soon dominated in this economic sector. The Africans
were forced to remain in rural areas when there was little to offer them there that was
economically viable. There were exceptions to this generalization, of course, one of which
was the gold and diamond prospecting of the interior. The 'porknockers', so called because
of their rations of salt pork, were nearly all Africans. Again, at a later stage the
development of the bauxite industry at MacKenzie, sixty miles inland from Georgetown
and now renamed 'Linden' after the present Prime Minister, involved African labour rather
than Indian. It is also true that the majority of the urban working class is made up of Africans
but they are still well-represented in rural areas, mainly as factory workers on the estates or
as peasant farmers.
The only major alternative crop to sugar came with the development of the rice industry
which owes its origins to the initiative and industry of the East Indians. It started in a small
way with indentured labourers using the land they had leased on the abandoned sugar estates,
but it was not until after the First World War that it developed into an export industry of
major importance. By 1931 the acreage planted in padi outstripped that under cane. After
the Second World War exports had climbed to the pre-depression level and earned over half a
million pounds most of which went to Indian planters and millers. In 1969 the acreage
under padi was 279,303 compared with around 100,000 acres on the twenty-one remaining
sugar estates. However sheer acreage does not give a good indication of potential wealth for
the sugar exported brought in 13/2m in 1968, most of which went to the British owned
giant, Booker McConnell Ltd., while the rice industry provided only 5m in the same year; a
sum to be shared among many thousands of producers.
Rice and sugar, the two industries where Indians predominate, accounted for 42 per cent
of the value of exports from Guyana in 1968. A further 27 per cent is provided by bauxite
exports, an industry where the Indian worker is almost non-existent.
It is very often assumed that the East Indian in Guyana is only a rurally based agricultural
labourer in the rice or sugar industry. The 'coolie' image dies hard but while there is truth in
this generalization many Indians have moved to the towns. In the eyes of some it is thought
that the Indians ought to remain in the agricultural areas and not invade the African bastions
of the city. However, the Indian has already invaded and is becoming progressively less rural.
Indeed there are today few parts of the urban areas where Indians are not found. Thus if we
take the three hundred Enumeration Districts defined by the national census in urban areas,
it can be seen that in only 36 per cent of cases do the Africans form more than three-quarters
of the combined Indian-African population. Almost one third have completely mixed districts.
Not only is this process continuing but it is also true that the Indians are forming a progressively
larger proportion of the population. Through their higher fertility, itself partly the result of
earlier marriage, the Indians have risen from parity with the Africans in 1917 to well over
fifty per cent of the total population today. This is a fact to which we must return for it is
of considerable importance in trying to understand the political conflicts of recent years.
When we consider the representation of Indians in the occupational field other than
agricultural, it is apparent that until recently they have been severely under-represented. This
is true even if we compare their position with the African population who also suffered the
imposition of second class citizenship wrought by British colonialism. Dwarka Nath, a former
civil servant in British Guiana, and himself an East Indian, provides some important statistical
evidence on the achievements of Indians in his History of Indians in Guyana. Even such an
apologist for the Indians as Nath has to admit that up to 1921 'Indians had not achieved
anything worth mentioning'. At the 1931 Census things had improved but only marginally.
In this year the Indians comprised 42 per cent of the population of British Guiana but only
8 per cent of the civil servants. If one looks at the all important composition of the Police
Force then this under representation is even more pronounced. Similarly only 7 per cent of
teachers were Indian. 4
By 1943, the Indians comprised just over ten per cent of the civil service. Much more
information on the involvement of Indians in government agencies and services became
available in 1965. After widespread rioting and racial violence between Africans and Indians
in the years 1962 1964, the new Prime Minister, L.F.S. Burnham, who is still in office,
invited the International Commission of Jurists to investigate the problem of discrimination.
They found that in the Security Forces under 20 per cent were Indian while a third of the
civil service were of that race. In all, Indians were only over-represented in local government
and land development. For all positions under 40 per cent were Indian while by this time
they had come to be about one half of the population. Part of this under representation would
have been the natural result of the fact that Indians were still more likely to be found in rural
areas whereas, of course, the majority of public service appointments were urban.
The Commission of Jurists were of the opinion with respect to the Police that 'there are
not sufficient Indians in the Police Force for it to command the general support of the
population as a whole.'5 They also found that the Indians were the ones who suffered most
in the riots of 1964 and that they looked upon the Police as an African dominated organization
that either could not or would not protect them in an emergency. The Jurists showed that
even in the areas where Indians predominated over Africans, there were likely to be more
African policemen. Obviously such a situation in an atmosphere of racial distrust and suspicion
and where police powers had on frequent occasion been resorted to, only exacerbated
communal division and further entrenched the frustrations of the Indian population.
On the question of the civil service itself the Jurists found that the poor representation of
Indians was the result of historical and social forces and not the operation of discriminatory
practices. While this may have been a reasonable conclusion to draw, there is no doubt that
when communal lines are hard drawn justice between one ethnic group with power and one
without is seldom seen to be done even when objectively no actual discrimination exists.
Parallels with the situation in Northern Ireland are tempting and in many ways apposite, for
there too what is perceived as being the case is often more important than objective reality.
At last year's annual congress of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP), the major East Indian
party and now in opposition, an official memorandum was issued complaining of 'political
and racial' discrimination in many fields, including the Public Service. It argues that unless
one is a supporter of the ruling Peoples National Congress (PNC) one's job is at risk and the
chances of acquiring land or social services are far less. The PPP sees this as being grounded
in politics but buttressed by race, as will always be the case when political differences are
superimposed on racial or ethnic differences. The PPP specifically refers to the recommendations
of the International Jurists concerning the Police Force and they note that these have not
been implemented and further '..... that those (Indians) who are recruited are so pressured
that they leave in disgust'. The memorandum, issued on the 15th of January, 1971, concludes
with the remark:
'So far as Indians are concerned, discrimination definitely
appears to be part of a studied policy to reduce them to the
status of second class citizens.'6
The question of educational facilities has always been a contentious issue with the Indians.
In 1904 the then Governor, Sir James Swettenham, issued a circular which removed any
legal sanction compelling Indians to send their daughters to school. It was argued by some
that this was designed to preserve the East Indians from the denominational schools which
saw themselves with the missionary function to convert the Indians from Islam and Hinduism
to Christianity. This, however, was not the real reason. Swettenham was acting in the interests
of the planters who needed the child labour for the 'Creole gangs' (weeding and manuring) on
the estates and who were generally averse to education for their labourers. Although the
Swettenham Circular mentioned only girls it was generally the case that little encouragement
was given for the Indians to educate their children. More recently great advances have been
made and Indians are well represented in both primary and secondary schools. With respect
to the latter, problems still exist however in that rural secondary school facilities are less
developed than in urban areas a fact which automatically militates most heavily against the
The 1965 report condemned the Indian response to the troubles of the previous few years,
which had been to establish their own schools. The Commissioners viewed with '. .. grave
concern the trend towards racial schools' although, despite this, it has continued and there
are now some schools that are explicitly for Indian children. An added incentive to this
demand came with the revived interest in Indian culture and traditions which grew up after
the partition and independence of India.
The question of teachers is still one of concern for many East Indian educationalists.
Overall the Indians comprise about 42 per cent of all teachers, which is a great improvement
on previous years. However when we consider the denominational schools (largely Anglican
and Roman Catholic) the proportion falls to little more than one fifth. This reflects a dual
tension that has a long history. The denominational schools preferred Christian teachers and
the Indians viewed the schools with suspicion because of their self avowed missionary and
proselytising function. This was of particular significance to the Hindus for even during the
period when there were few with any real understanding of their religion, it served a vital
integrating function in an alien and often hostile environment.
Today Guyana boasts its own university at the Turkeyan campus about five miles out of
Georgetown. But here too the communal conflict is evident. Within the student body itself
this division is strong enough to polarize student politics, and alarm has been expressed to me
from a number of African students that the Indians will soon 'take over' the University just
as seven years ago fears were expressed that they threatened to 'take over' the country.
In those branches of professional education that were pursued overseas or that were
genuinely independent of governmental interference the Indians fared very well. After the
value of Western education came to be appreciated for the power and wealth it could bring,
it became common practice for one son to be singled out for preferential attention and the
rest of the extended family would be expected to support and encourage him. This was not
without tensions and difficulties but it did serve to rectify the under-presentation of Indians
in professions such as law and medicine. Nath's figures show that whereas in 1926 Indians
comprised only 9 per cent of medical practitioners, by 1965 they made up 52 per cent of the
total while over the same period the proportion of Africans had actually fallen two percentage
points to 1.3 per cent. The same is generally true of the legal profession. In the period 1906-25
Indians made up 21 per cent of barristers and solicitors admitted to practice whereas by
1961-5 they comprised 57 per cent.7
It is generally true therefore that where education is concerned the Indians have made
considerable advances in recent years. But if discrimination exists, or is seen to exist, then
this only exacerbates communal tension for, as the example of the United States has shown
so clearly, discrimination on grounds of race may continue for many years if it is concealed
by educational selection which is a perfectly permissible form of discrimination. The myth
is revealed however when the achievements of the minority group challenge the grounds on
which occupational selection is in fact made.
The vast majority of the Indians who came to British Guiana were Hindus while nearly all
the remainder were Muslims. It is at first sight remarkable that so much of the original culture
of the Indians has been retained. It is true that much of the religious ritual has changed
imperceptably year by year so that now, for example, caste proscriptions have very little
meaning. The writings of V.S. Naipaul are striking proof of both cultural retention and
cultural loss. The disdain he now shows for the West Indies in general together with the
feelings he has described himself about adherence to the dietary and ritual cleansing laws of
Hinduism show up his Brahmanical background while his reactions to the realities of India
herself, so brilliantly portrayed in An Area of Darkness, provide some testimony to the
degree that highly educated Indians from the Caribbean have often become Creolised or, as
in Naipaul's case, almost totally Westernised.
However, there is still a great deal in the working class Indian way of life that separates them
from the African and European in the West Indies. Prayer flags flutter in Indian villages and
men in dhotis are occasionally to be seen, while the latest record or film from India can still
cause a stir. Some years back it became a fashionable object of anthropological attention
to search for 'African survivals' in the Caribbean, like Ashanti folk songs or Yoruba cults,
but nobody seeks out Indian survivals for their clear presence makes such endeavour
superfluous. Indeed it is this very cultural retention which has provided Indian solidarity over
the years. As such the interest in India has tended to rise as pressure and competition from
other groups has risen, although when it became really intense cultural interests began to be
replaced by racial identity. When power was gradually seen to be passing from the colonial
government to local groups in Guyana, a process commencing in the 1930s but not really
getting under way until after World War II, a great deal of attention became focused on ethnic
or racial associations. For the Africans the League of Coloured People provided this outlet
while for the Indians the East Indian Association, an organization in existence since 1919,
served to promote their interests. On the labour side, the British Guiana Labour Union
organized the African workers while the Man Power Citizens Association found much support
among the Indians. It was also true that the crystallization of ethnic or racial barriers lessened
divisions within groups. Thus for the Indians in particular, it was true that religious differences
existed both within and between Muslim and Hindu faiths but these, like caste itself, were of
secondary importance to the major problem of establishing the rights of Indians in the country.
It was into this situation that the East Indian dentist, and aspiring politician, Cheddi
Jagan, returned in 1945. Jagan first became a member of the Legislative Council of British
Guiana in 1947 but it was not until 1953 that his influence was really felt on the political
scene. In that year, elections were held under universal adult suffrage, previously granted to
bring British Guiana into line with Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. Jagan had been active
for a number of years prior to this. His object then as later was to form a mass political
movement based upon socialist principles that would unite the racial factions and oppose the
colonial administration. His goal was clear: the eventual establishment of an independent
socialist state. Cheddi Jagan became leader of the new party (PPP) while his American wife
Janet assumed the role of General Secretary. The Chairman of the Party at its formation in
1951 was L.F.S. Burnham, a young and highly ambitious Afro-Guyanese lawyer.
The PPP, in the first election under adult suffrage, offered the electorate a means of opposing
the continual sluggish rule of the British. In their rush to make their voices heard sectional
and communal differences were laid aside and no great attention was paid to the ideological
position of the party. What was important was that it was Guyanese and for the first time
men and women could be returned to represent working class opinion. The support for the
PPP in 1953 while not overwhelming was enough to win 18 of the 24 contested seats. The
Government did not have complete power by any means,for the Legislative Council still
possessed members nominated by the Governor but despite this it became apparent that the
PPP ministers were bent upon changing the way society was organized in British Guiana. In
particular the encouragement these ministers gave, either explicit or tacit, to the demands of
rural and urban workers was sufficient for the new Governor, Sir Alfred Savage, to feel that
the interests of the Colony would not be served by the continuation of this administration.
Governor Savage decided therefore to exercise his rights under the Constitution and declared
the new Constitution suspended after it had been operating for a little over four months.
The result of this was to revoke the ordinance providing for adult suffrage which was not
re-instated until 1957. The main reason given for this unusual and unfortunate act was that
the leaders of the PPP were communist inspired and that at one time they had conspired to
set Georgetown ablaze although it was never very clear what Jagan and his associates were
thought likely to have accomplished by such destruction which,of course, never took place.
In the early years of the 1950s, in the atmosphere created by Stalin and McCarthy, merely
the word 'communist' could be guaranteed to elicit fundamentally irrational responses from
those who imagined themselves to be more 'free' or to have superior political arrangements.
Only the opening of the historical records will finally reveal whether the Colonial Office
in London fully agreed with the suspension of the Constitution but the Secretary of State
for the Colonies, Oliver Lyttelton complied with the Governor's request for a cruiser and
seven hundred troops. He declared in the House of Commons that the statements and actions
of members of the PPP were '. part of a deadly design to turn British Guiana into a totalitarian
state dominated by Communist ideas, whose whole political, industrial and social life would
be concentrated in the hands and in the power of one party'.
The effect of the suspension was to remove the unity between Africans and Indians for it
led to a battle for leadership between Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan. By the end of 1955
the PPP had divided along racial lines, one section remaining under the control of the Jagans
while the secessionist element was led by Forbes Burnham. The Burnhamite section of the
PPP eventually changed its name to the Peoples National Congress. A dual party system had
been created but only at the expense of re-opening the racial schism. From that time to the
present the African working class together with many African and 'coloured' (mixed)
professionals and others in Georgetown has supported the PNC while the rural Indians on the
estates and rice farmers united around their champion, Cheddi Jagan. It is not the purpose of
this pamphlet to apportion blame for events like this one but nevertheless it is hard to absolve
the colonial administration for this state of affairs. To this one might wish to add, as later
events were to confirm, that Burnham was the victim of his own burning ambition; but he
will surely not be the last politician to perceive complete unity of interest between his career
and the good of the country.
In the election of 1957, the PPP was again returned to power and yet again in 1961 for by
this time the East Indians formed an electoral majority. While voting by this time was
clearly on grounds of racial identity the political situation was certainly not as clear out as
this might suggest. To start with the leaders of the PPP were not making a deliberate appeal
on racial lines, indeed there was no reason why they should. They were expounding a doctrine
of international socialism culled straight from the works of Marx and Lenin and involving
frequent and direct contacts with Moscow and Cuba. This had little effect on the rural Indian
masses since they could not be expected to understand the language in which much of this
was expressed, let alone the relevance which at this level of generality it might have had to
their situation. The PPP has always been adamant in insisting on the importance of theoretical
and ideological political belief but quite unable to translate this for the Guyanese situation.
The statements of the PPP leaders on political ideology did have a number of effects, two
of which are of particular importance. First, they did help to prevent complete racial
polarization at certain levels. Thus a number of leading African left-wingers supported the
PPP and some of them, like Ashton Chase, still do; while the Indian middle class, engaged
in business and measuring their own status by the degree to which they could separate
themselves from the rural 'coolies', felt constrained to support a non-PPP party. Unfortunately
the second result was even stronger. The urban African and 'coloured' (mixed) middle class
could not support a party of what appeared to be such extreme left-wing views and even those
who were not against Jagan and his party on grounds of race felt it impossible to give
allegiance to a party they felt was the opponent of the business values they held dear. The
African urban groups were obviously far less swayed by ideological considerations and much
more by racial distaste; a feeling that was exacerbated by the increasing migration of Indians
from the country to the urban perimeter.
Another factor that has without any doubt played a significant role in Guyanese politics
is interference from government agencies of the U.S.A. The early 1960s were years of great
fear over the imperial aspirations of Russian communism. The Cuban adventure and the missile
crisis of 1962 only deepened these fears and,while the exact nature of American involvement
is largely undocumented, there are few who doubt that the weight of American influence has
been against the PPP and in favour of the PNC. It is doubly unfortunate that any political
alignment will carry with it effects upon racial divisions.
By 1962 the situation had developed to the point where independence from Britain lay
around the corner. The businessmen of Georgetown, many of whom were Portuguese in
origin, had formed themselves into a third political party the United Force, under the
leadership of Portuguese businessman, Peter D' Aguiar. The PNC under Burnham adhered to
a broadly reformist, even socialist stand, but was more concerned to represent the voice of
the urban Africans and thus the majority of trade union members. The PPP felt itself poised
to carry the country through to independence safe in the knowledge that despite its lack
of control in the towns and despite international opposition the demographic structure of
the country could not fail them. The beginning of the real trouble for the PPP government
came after the Budget Speech for 1962 on the 31st of January of that year. This speech was
intended to open a new era of economic policy for, following the constitutional changes of
1961, it was the first occasion that the PPP ministers possessed real power. This new policy
had been devised with the help of Nicholas Kaldor, the famous Cambridge economist, and it
consisted of a radical, but by no means unreasonable, series of proposals to raise revenue and
re-channel public spending.
The Budget called for a tax on capital gains, an annual tax on property and a tax on gifts
as well as devices to prevent tax avoidance by companies with their head offices outside the
country. British Guiana has always had to have a relatively high public expenditure to meet
such items as the sea defences and drainage,apart from more normal heads such as education,
agricultural development and social services. In the past these had often been financed by
grants-in-aid from London but now more had to be raised locally. Clearly it would have been
impossible to tax the poor, burdened as they already were by the urgent demands of living;
so the companies and middle classes would obviously have to pay more. At least this was the
reasoning of the finance minister, Dr. Charles Jacob. Such a policy clearly offended the
industrialists and the middle class in general and they reacted with fury, vituperating against
the government and scheme alike with charges of communist inspiration and punitive laws
against the 'enterprising' few. The PNC was not slow to seize its chance and while the Party
could not really defend the business interests unequivocally it was able to brand the proposals
as 'anti-working class'. It is perhaps at this point that the racial division had the most telling
effect for clearly the proposals were not 'anti-working class', but they had come from the
Indian party. The supporters of the PNC could be easily deflected from considerations of
their economic interest when the proposals came from racial rivals, even to the point where
they were prepared to go along with such strange bedfellows as the United Force. Members
of the business community, acting entirely out of self interest encouraged this racial rapproche-
ment by fomenting strikes against the proposals even to the point where they agreed to pay the
strikers their normal wage.
The result of this united urban opposition to the PPP was widespread rioting and looting
which culminated in an official Commission of Enquiry. This Commission in its report did not
feel that the budget proposals deserved the almost hysterical attacks they received from some
quarters, such as the Daily Chronicle, an organ of the business community. On the Budget
the Commissioners remark that it
'.... provoked fierce opposition from several quarters and
was made the excuse for sustained and increasingly hostile
demonstrations against Dr. Jagan and his Government. It will
be seen that there is nothing deeply vicious or destructive
of economic security in the budget. It had been drawn up on the
advice of an experienced economist, who could not have been said
to have any Communist prepossessions.'
Reading the documents and newspapers with the hindsight of a decade it is astonishing that
the Jagan Government could have been attacked by opposition parties for being on the one
hand communist and on the other pursuing policies purportedly injurious to the working
class. Such however is the power of irrationality imbedded in appeals to racial and ethnic
The PPP Government staggered on through the general strike of 1963 and the mass racial
violence of 1964 until at the 1964 election the British Government, in what must have
appeared to the Indians as a last salvo against them, administered the coup de grace in the
seemingly innocuous form of a decision to alter the electoral system from a 'first past the
post' arrangement to one of proportional representation.
This decision came at the end of long and bitter struggles in Guyana,in which over 150
people died and which almost completely polarised the population into African and Indian.
The independence talks were deadlocked over the question of proportional representation
which, it was felt, would prevent the PPP from gaining a majority. The British Government
overtly acted to prevent further racial violence but in fact it is more likely that the opposition
to Jagan was on ideological grounds. There is evidence, for example, that the action was
taken on the demand of the United States Government. Presidential adviser Arthur Schlesinger
in a book documenting the Kennedy administration describes the results of visits to
Washington by Jagan and by Burnham in 1961 in the following manner:
Burnham's visit left the feeling, as I reported to the
President, that 'an independent British Guiana under Burnham
(if Burnham will commit himself to a multi-racial policy) would
cause us many fewer problems than an independent British Guiana
under Jagan'. And the way was open to bring this about, because
Jagan's parliamentary strength was larger than his popular
strength: he had won 57 per cent of the seats on the basis of
42.7 per cent of the votes. An obvious solution would be to
establish a system of proportional representation.s
He then goes on to describe how, 'after prolonged discussion' with the British Government
this policy to remove Jagan was put into effect.
These events were a curiously ironical conclusion to the actions of eleven years earlier. Then
the self-avowed purpose in suspending the Constitution had been to save the country from
communism; for the later intervention that reason was still the operative factor but it was
declared as a means of solving the racial imbroglio which the previous action had done so
much to excite.
At the 1964 election, the first under proportional representation, the PPP was unable to obtain
an absolute majority of the votes and was displaced as the governing party by an unlikely
coalition of the PNC and UF. It was this coalition which achieved independence for Guyana
on May 26th, 1966.
From 1966 to the Present: The New Radicalism.
With voting still largely along racial lines the effect of the 1964 election was to deprive the
Indians of their decisive voice in Guyana. This was further strengthened by the 1968 election
in which the PNC won an absolute majority of the votes thus rendering unnecessary the fragile
coalition between Burnham and the United Force. This, the last general election to take place,
was perhaps the most controversial of all for there was considerable evidence that by the
use of proxy votes and other expedients the PNC had 'padded out' the electoral lists of
Africans and thus likely supporters of its administration. For instance it became possible to
vote by proxy from the U.K. if one was Guyanese but inquiries by Granada TV and the
Sunday Times showed that a very high percentage of the names appearing on the overseas
electoral role were fictitious. It was claimed in 'The World in Action', on the basis of an
independent inquiry, that only 4,700 of the 11,750 registered voters in the United States
were genuine while in the U.K. the proportion fell to around a quarter of the 44,000 names
appearing on the electoral list. When the overseas 'votes' were counted it became clear that
the PNC had obtained 34,429, the PPP 1,003 and the UF 1,053. It was also alleged that
'padded lists' occurred in Guyana, while in the Pomeroon District it was reported that ballot
papers were found in ballot boxes with rubber bands around them! Whatever the reality such
episodes, which on this occasion were certainly not the creation of the opposition party, do
little to allay the long term fears of the Indian community.
Since 1968 Guyana has been comparatively peaceful but this does not mean that resentment
and communal sentiment have vanished. Power has returned to the cities but it is in the city
that resentment may be most readily expressed. The PNC Government has been gradually
moving in a more radical direction catching the breeze of the new radicalism that is
beginning to blow throughout the West Indies.
On February 23rd, 1970 the state of Guyana, ending the fourth year of independence from
Britain, was declared a republic with a Chinese judge, Mr. Arthur Chung, installed as the first
President. The Prime Minister, speaking at the Annual Congress of the PNC in 1969 stated:
'We hear of Fascist Republics, Communist Republics, Democratic
Republics, Capitalist Republics. I propose that ours be a
Co-operative Republic. This would highlight the economic
institutions which we have chosen as the vehicle for making
the little man a real man.'
And so the world's first 'Co-operative Republic' was born, dedicated to the small economic
unit and the elevation of the 'little man' to national economic importance. The Opposition
however were skeptical of this achievement and argued that mere slogans could not hide the
slow eroding of civil liberties and workers rights. The Co-operative Republic owes much in
conception to President Nyerere's Ujamaa. In fact much of the new politics since 1968 has
borrowed from the Tanzanian example; the co-operative is seen as being implicit in the social
and economic organization of the Amerindians and in the early African villages just as the
African form of socialism is seen as stemming from the traditional village community.
There is no doubt that the concept of the co-operative is being taken seriously but despite
the fact that a unit for Co-operative Development exists within the Ministry of Economic
Development and a course in co-operatives will be compulsory for all university students,
nobody seems to be very clear on what it entails. It is seen to be something superior to mere
'worker participation' and 'profit sharing' and it obviously involves self-help and the socialization
of industry but the actual structure of the economic unit remains a mystery. What is important
is that for many Indians it is seen as something which will enable the Africans to encroach
on their hard won economic viability. Indians who are self employed in agricultural work or
retailing often run what are in effect co-operatives based on their families and the last thing
that they would welcome would be government involvement in their affairs.
Whatever else it may involve it is clear that the Co-operative Republic does not mean
continued co-operation with such companies as 'Demba' (The Demerara Bauxite Company,
a subsidiary of Alcan, the Canadian based, U.S. owned, aluminium producer). On February
23rd last year the Prime Minister addressed the nation and accused the Company, which has
been mining bauxite in Guyana for over 50 years, of revealing 'a basic contempt for the
Guyanese people' whom, he argued, the Company had treated as chattels. The tradition the
Company had established at MacKenzie, the mining town sixty miles inland from Georgetown,
is one of' prejudice, discrimination, segregation, intolerance and a recognition of workers'
rights only as a last resort'. The Government decided to nationalize the Company but only
after attempts at compromise had failed due to the intransigence of Alcan.
There is little doubt that many of the charges levelled at the Company are true and
nationalization is by no means an unwise policy but it may yet carry unforeseen implications.
The workers at MacKenzie are almost exclusively Afro-Guyanese and there has been little
or no attempt to take over the equally exploitative sugar industry in which so many of the
Indians still find employment. It might be argued that this industry is more diversified but
this is not so for one company dominates the industry in a similar way to bauxite extraction.
In other words, just like the Government's policy on the rice industry, their attitude towards
sugar could be seen by the disaffected as further proof that, at best, the Government is only
prepared to help its supporters or that, at worst, it is racially biased.
The unfortunate fact is that at times of economic stress, policies which appear to be geared
towards preserving political support also appear to have a racial flavour. The Prime Minister
himself has on occasion increased this tension. For example, when it became clear that
people were perceiving political affiliation as important in opening career and job opportunities
they tried to join the PNC. Rather than disabuse those who acted upon this belief by denying
its validity, Burnham chose to close the ranks of the Party. This not only amounts to an
admission that political affiliation was important but that it would be denied to all those who
were not already members. There can be few actions more suggestive of discrimination to
The Indo-Guyanese and 'Black Power'
Once the euphoria of political independence has passed it often becomes clear that little has
really changed. Economic ties with Western powers are the same and nothing seems capable
of halting the gradual worsening of the terms of trade. The foreign-owned and operated
companies producing primary products (agricultural staples and raw materials) continue to
feed Western industry and provide employment possibilities far from the Caribbean where
population expansion, due to falling death rates and limitations on migration, forces more
and more people into unemployment and urban squalor. This is particularly true among the
young among whom unemployment rates may be 30 or even 40 per cent. What is more
their values and expectations are those of Western youth and they often possess sufficient
education to be sensitive to world movements and to be able to articulate their frustration
by reading and discussion. Naturally enough radical political organizations develop to take up
the challenge offered by this situation.
In Guyana in recent years Indian radical groups have almost always been spawned by the
PPP though it is often the case that they have been later accused of deviationistt' tactics by
the Party. The new radicalism among the Africans and some Indians is generally referred to
under the label 'Black Power'. For many followers of 'Black Power' organizations in Guyana
the issues are not racial but economic even though specific problems may be seen in terms
of 'the continued white domination of industry'. However organizations like ASCRIA (African
Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa), under the former PPP Minister
Sydney King, have always followed an Africanist, and therefore by implication a communal,
policy. The significant fact is that King, now calling himself Eusi Kwayana, had until recently
allied his organization with the PNC Government. A volume put out by the Government to
celebrate the inception of the Co-operative Republic, for example, had an essay by Kwayana
following immediately after one by the Prime Minister.
Many of the adherents to a 'Black Power' philosophy would include Indians as 'black' but
the majority of Indians, conscious of their secondary political and economic position, do
not see themselves in this light. They view any rapprochement between movements like
ASCRIA or other African dominated organizations like the Trade Unions and the PNC as
further evidence of discrimination. Signs of this can be found quite easily, even among radical
groups. For example, early last year a group of Indian professionals formed the Guyana
Anti-Discrimination Movement with the clear goal of fighting for a radical politics that included,
and is seen to include, the Indians.
To many Indians radical politics involves radical policies and nothing more, and references
to 'black' at best will merely confuse the issue and at worst will once again exclude the Indians,
the majority of the population, from full political participation. The Guyanese must tread
their own political path; the question is can they afford to adopt slogans and symbols that
appear to many Indians as the ideological flowering of racial discrimination and domination?
PART TWO: TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
The position of the Indian in Trinidad is in many respects similar to Guyana but subtle and
important differences exist. In the first place the East Indians have never formed a majority
of the population and today comprise around a third while those of African descent account
for something over two-fifths. Second, Trinidad is richer than Guyana at least in terms of
average real incomes. Surprisingly enough, considering the island is under 2,000 square miles,
land is more readily available and the rise of the oil industry has assured the rapid growth of
an important industrial sector. This has entailed the growth of the urban areas and service
industries but it has also meant that economic frustrations have been less urgent and
compelling. This does not mean that problems for the Indian do not exist and neither does
it mean that hostilities are unknown, nor racial and ethnic demarcations irrelevant. Indeed for
Naipaul, the most prolific East Indian writer from Trinidad, although not the most representative,
the country '. teeters on the brink of a racial war'. To him the African '. has a deep
contempt for all that is not white; his values are the values of white imperialism at its most
bigoted', while the Indian '. despises the Negro for not being an Indian'.9
Economically the role of the Indian was and is similar in Trinidad to Guyana. Originally
introduced as indentured sugar workers the Indians still dominate the labour market in the
sugar industry. From very early on however they were able to acquire small amounts of land
for their own use but rather than turn to rice farming, for which the land is unsuitable (except
on the fringes of the Caroni and Oropouche swamps), they grew sugar. Today over a third
of the sugar crop is grown by farmers who sell the raw cane to estate owned factories or
usines for sugar extraction. Competition with the African would have been greater were it
not for the fact they have remained economically segregated to a marked extent.
Far more of the labour in the cocoa industry, the most important export crop in Trinidad
at the turn of the last century, was African. When the market for cocoa collapsed during the
1920s, with the growth of West African competition and problems of disease, the Africans
were able to turn to three areas of rapid growth which gave adequate employment possibilities.
The first of these was the oil industry which is now far and away the most important revenue
earner for Trinidad and almost completely African in its labour force. The second was
manufacturing which employs more Afro-Trinidadian labour than any other. With the
development of the Industrial Development Corporation since the mid 1950's an increasing
proportion of the labour force became engaged in manufacturing,and this expanded again
when policies of substituting local goods for imported ones became a central economic
principle of the Government led by Dr. Eric Williams. Again service industries associated
with the rapid growth of urban areas and construction work have supplied enhanced
employment possibilities for African workers. The last two points are clearly revealed in the
official Government statistics. Of the 220,400 employed men in the country at the end of
1969, only 52,000 were in agriculture, forestry, hunting and fishing,while 40,700 were in
construction work and 64,400 in commerce and service industries. That is almost one half of
the employed male labour force were engaged in these urban sectors of the economy, the
vast majority of whom would be Africans. One should not imagine that this has meant
conditions of easy or adequate employment for this has not been the case; the point is
merely that alternatives were available in a way that was not as true for Guyana.
It is partly this lack of economic competition between the two main racial groups in
Trinidad that has made it possible now and then for racial divisions to lessen in importance
and a united political front emerge. It happened in the 1930s when the trade unions were
formed. Indeed the father of trade unions in the country, Arien Cola Rienzi (n6 Krishna
Deonarine), was founder and simultaneously head of the oil workers union (O.W.T.U.) and
the sugar workers union (All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union). There
is also some evidence to suggest that these divisions were losing significance in 1970 when
radical young African opponents to the Government of the Peoples National Movement (PNM)
sought alliances with the Indian labourers to press for a change of government and policy.
In terms of the representation of Indians in other areas of Trinidadian life, it is generally
true that they are less often found in Government service, indeed in any facet of life that
comes directly under Government influence. The most recent survey of the position of the
Indians in Trinidad found them to be '. grossly under-represented in the civil services in
comparison with their numerical strength in the total population'.10
In the professions the usual pattern of Indian success is evident, particularly in medicine
(about 34 per cent) and law (about 42 per cent) and they are well represented at the lower
end of the commercial spectrum. For all that, the position of the Indian in Trinidad has been
frustrating, especially in relation to political power or influence. One reason for this has been
that the Indians are deeply divided by religion and this has hindered any united political
pressure. It is generally true that the rural sugar workers are Hindus. Many of the merchants
and urban Indians are Muslims, who comprise about 15 per cent of the total Indian population,
but despite their greater power and influence they seldom appear to act in the interests of
the total Indian population. For example a recent study of Indian elites found that almost
four fifths of the Muslims interviewed regarded the Hindus as supporting another political
party. It is perhaps for this reason that they tend to be the ones chosen to represent the
Indian position by the Creole dominated Government of Dr. Eric Williams.
The third group are the Christian Indians who are mostly Presbyterian although there are
large numbers of Anglicans. The professional and leading Indian businessmen are most likely
to be Christians just as they tend to adopt other Western behavioral and other cultural
patterns. In any event the materialism of the Trinidad middle class,which the successful
Indian appears so eager to join, is hardly compatible with the spirit of Hinduism or Islam.
It is not as if even the Hindu or Muslim Indians are in any sense united: in religious terms
there are at least two other sects of Hindus apart from the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha.
However, the vast majority of the rural Hindus are members of the Maha Sabha so that a
considerable amount of power resides in its leadership.
It is not easy to prove or disprove the existence of racially motivated discrimination
against the Indians. It is obviously inadequate to show degrees of under-representation when
they may result from historical tradition or cultural preference. Equally one cannot surmise
that occupational discrimination occurs unless some allowance is made for educational
attainment since this is one major determinant of economic position. According to the 1960
Census the whites or Europeans in Trinidad have per capital incomes far higher than other
racial groups (over 1,250 per annum). For Africans the figure was 260 while for Indians
it was 195, so that it would appear that any discrimination there may be by Africans against
Indians is overshadowed by the economic inferiority of both groups in relation to the whites.
One of the few values that transcends religious, class and occupational divisions within the
Indian population is a dislike of 'Creole' values. This takes at least two forms. To the older
Indian it is a basically religious response to the perceived depravity and sensualism of the
African. This finds frequent expression during and before the annual pre-Lenten, Bacchanalian
festival of Carnival. It was the preservation of their own customs and traditions that helped
to insulate the previous generation of Indians from cultural encroachment from the Creoles.
As Naipaul put it:
'Everything which made the Indian alien in the society
gave him strength. His alienness insulated him from the
black-white struggle. He was taboo-ridden as no other
person on the island; he had complicated rules about food
and about what was unclean. His religion gave him values
which were not the white values of the rest of the community,
and preserved him from self contempt; he never lost pride in
But that describes the past which, although it continues, is not an accurate description of the
position of younger Indians, particularly those in urban areas or along the Eastern Main Road
strip, a ribbon development cutting deep into rural Trinidad.
To the younger urban Indian, say from St. James in Port of Spain, the values of the African
may be overtly rejected but it is quite clear that objectively there is often more that unites
the two groups than divides them. Young Indians will 'jump up' in Carnival bands, they will
go to 'fetes' and calypso 'tents', they will support their local steel band and they will often
'lime' a little on Frederick Street on a Saturday morning.* That great leveller of cultural
difference, fashion, and the wish to appear 'modern' has blanketed traditional ways of living.
However it is still true that marriages tend to be racially exclusive as do friendship patterns.
What is important however is that in the past new generations of Africans and Indians were
growing more alike partly due to the influence of education, the mass media and urban ways
of thought and living and also because both groups were struggling along the '. ... weary road
to whiteness'. Recent events have at last suggested that this is changing. Indians responded to
Indian independence with an upsurge of Indian nationalism in the late 1940s and early 1950s
and Africans have begun to respond to the obvious exemplar of black nationalism in Africa
and the heightened sense of black consciousness in the Americas. But political power lies in
African hands so the obvious question is to ask what this means for the Indian minority.
To understand this at all one has to go back to the immediate post-war period. The General
Election of 1946 was the first to be held under full adult suffrage. Prior to that the electorate
had consisted of a propertied and mainly urban elite. It is not really true to say that racial
considerations were of over-riding importance at this time although they certainly had an
important influence. The following of an Indian politician like Ranjit Kumar, for example,
was certainly tinged with the feeling that he was a 'genuine' Indian (i.e. born in India) and
this was an image that he sought to exploit. However the new constitution in 1946 did not
really redistribute power to anyone so that competition between the major races was less
relevant than it was later to become.
In 1955 the situation changed drastically for it was at this time that Dr. Eric Williams, fresh
from a politically useful row with his employers, the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission,
entered the political theatre. The stage was well set,for the country was due for the first
constitution granting local political leaders any real power and the previous five year period
had seen the rise and fall of a politician, Albert Gomes, whose virtuoso brilliance could not
* 'Jumping up' refers to active participation in a Carnival road band. A 'fete' is Trinidadian for a party,
the public variety of which will often attract 3 4,000 revellers especially in the pre-Carnival period.
A Calypso 'tent' is the venue for the presentation of Carnival calypsos, while a 'lime' is slang for almost
any type of relaxation but normally involving passive appreciation.
sustain a following when the need changed to a demand for mass politics. The 'mass' politics
was, of course, nationalistic and required national symbols; Gomes was a 'Portuguese' (descendant
of an immigrant family from Madeira). This nationalist feeling which shot Eric Williams and
the Peoples National Movement (PNM) to power in 1956 was comprised, naturally enough,
of those who considered themselves 'nationals'. Notwithstanding the pleas of Nehru to
identify with the country that they resided in, this did not include the vast majority of East
The Indian political experience in Trinidad has been one of reaction. When it became clear
after 1956, and especially after the Federal election of 1958, that Eric Williams was leading
a black nationalist movement, the Indians, who saw themselves as neither black nor nationalist,
reacted in self-defense. From that time onwards politics in Trinidad was fundamentally based
upon racial divisions.12 Not that racial considerations were explicit tenets of policy but the
symbols of political identity were not, as they are in Britain, occupation, income and ideology,
but physical and cultural difference. Albert Gomes wrote after the 1958 election that 'decent
citizens were the victims of the most vulgar abuse on the streets for no other reason than
that they did not look like the sort of people who would be PNM supporters'. From then to
the present Indian politicians have contented themselves with the politics of the powerless;
that is, since they were never likely to be in a position to carry out policy they could range
freely over the whole gamut of political expedients. They could and did promise the moon
to their constituents without having to show how the journey would be accomplished; they
could withdraw their support and refuse to attend debates or even, as in 1971, refuse to
participate in the elections at all. In other words, free from concern for reality they plunged
from political apathy to political fantasy.
While there were opposition parties led by East Indians in the 1956 election, notably the
Peoples Democratic Party led by the head of the Maha Sabha, Bhadase Sagan Maraj, it took
the election of members to the new Federal Parliament in 1958 to bring to the fore a
coherent East Indian party, the Democratic Labour Party. It seems to take a surge of popular
feeling of resentment to launch a party in Trinidad for otherwise the fissiparous individualism
of the islanders ensues. In 1956 for the urban coloured and African middle class it was the
prospect of the final realization of their birthright which itself prompted an Indian reaction
based fundamentally on fear. In the first place this was fear of Creole domination but it was
also determined by fear of their own leader, Bhadase Maraj, whose methods and style of
politics had as much in common with Al Capone as Mahatma Gandhi. By 1958 the threat
of an African government was a dynamic and in some senses, aggressive, reality and what
was more Trinidad was joining a Federation where over ninety per cent of the population
would be African.
The problem was conceived as one of trying to find a leader to match the perceived
qualities of Eric Williams. Education had provided the avenue of escape for many West
Indians and it appeared natural to select those who could manifest the visible symbols of
The Indians chose the brilliant but neurotic mathematician, Dr. Rudranath Capildeo, a
lecturer at University College, London. Capildeo turned out to be somewhat unpredictable
when carrying out his political duties and his social and cultural experience prevented him
from making all but token identification with the rural masses. He has been aptly described
as 'a practising mystic with a strong passive streak' and on many occasions he had to be
cajoled to descend to the political fray from his London eyrie. He died in London in 1970
after being removed from the leadership of the DLP.
One result of the 1961 election was a State of Emergency in the Indian areas in Trinidad
and the defeat of the DLP in an election where race appeared to be of primary importance.
The DLP contended that the elections were rigged and the question of the corrupt use of the
voting machines was later to become the major political issue raised by the East Indian leaders
throughout the 1960s and a substitute for policy statements. By the time of the 1966 elections,
despite the intervention of radical parties that attempted to bridge the racial divisions in the
country, the polarization was if anything more obvious and apparently irrevocable.
The Recent Situation
In the late 1960s the situation began to change and it now differs considerably from the past.
To oversimplify a.rather complex situation; the frustrations of unemployment (caused through
continued urban migration, rapid population growth and falling economic expansion rates)
together with the 'new radicalism' of the Americas and the realization that economic dependence
had not been abolished with political ties, produced a state of unrest in Trinidad that grew
in 1969 and 1970 and continues to this day. Most of these dissenting groups can be subsumed
under the umbrella label 'Black Power' although, in typical Trinidadian fashion, they do not
form a united movement. Common to them is the demand for a change of economic policy
towards a more radical and socialist approach to economic planning. But after that they differ
The Union of Revolutionary Organizations (URO) adopts a quite orthodox Third World
Marxist-Leninist line, and has spent much of its time encouraging other groups to combine
with it, while the publishers of the paper 'New Beginning', under the influence of well-known
Trinidad intellectuals, have tended to seek socialism through African and Indian example. The
TAPIA House organization seeks a kind of direct democracy and grass-roots involvement which
eschews any racial or ethnic appeal. This group, now emerging as one of the most significant,
has constantly decried any reference to race or, for that matter, to any 'Black Power'
philosophy which could conceivably exclude Indian participation. Other groups like the
National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) have been less careful and tried to base their call
for unity on the problematic argument that the Indians should consider themselves 'black'.
It is true that the Indians have been exploited as much as anyone under colonialism but it
seems to fly in the face of the Indian experience to argue now that the Indian should identify
with a racial slogan, especially when that slogan is sometimes defined so as to exclude them.13
The unfortunate thing is that so many of the symbols of the new radicalism are African or
Afro-American in inspiration. The dashiki, the 'fat-head' (Afro hair-cut) and the West African
style sandals and ornamentation which are so much of the cultural movement are certainly
necessary in the quest to break with 'white' or European culture but they often serve to
alienate rather than integrate the Indian into the cause.
The visit of Stokely Carmichael, himself Trinidad born, to Guyana in 1970 illustrated the
problems succinctly. Indians were unlikely to feel great sympathy for a movement when one
of its most vocal leaders declares Pan-Africanism to be 'the highest political expression of
It is clear that it is not in the interests of the present government in Trinidad to have a
united opposition drawn from both racial groups just as it was not in the interests of the
colonizers before them. There is little doubt that Eric Williams is fearful of this. In his
autobiography, which says rather more about him than perhaps he intended, he chronicles
the history of the frequently attacked Industrial Stabilization Bill and indicates that the
attempt to unite oil and sugar workers in opposition to the Bill (which compels arbitration
and makes strikers prone to prosecution) was evidence that the '. subversive element of
the society .... were at work'.14 The result on that occasion in 1965 was another State of
Emergency in the sugar (Indian) area; an expedient which was once again immediately resorted
to following a unity march by the NJAC into the sugar growing areas of Caroni in April 1970.
At every time since then opposition to the present government which threatens a united
protest has resulted in a State of Emergency. At the time of writing in 1972 a State of
Emergency is still in existence following renewed 'Black Power' disturbances and a number
of those advocating a combined political movement have been imprisoned.
There have been a number of recent events that have led some to surmise that the African-
Indian gulf has begun to narrow. The Government, in common with many throughout the
West Indies, has responded to the demonstrations of frustration by moving generally in a
rightward and authoritarian direction. The irony is that this has created the conditions for
new alliances which have not been possible since the days of unbridled colonialism in the
1930s. Second, the reason that the disturbances of 1970 took on a more serious tone than
usual and aroused international interest was that they involved a mutiny by some members
of the Trinidad Regiment. Two of the officers later charged with planning and abetting this
insurrection, Raffique Shah and Rex Lassalle, being drawn from both racial groups, represented
clear evidence of rapprochement. They were regarded, and regarded themselves, as popular
heroes and their defence made clear their joint commitment to a 'Black Power' position. The
protest at their sentences (originally 20 and 15 years respectively; reduced to 15 and 12 years
under review and dismissed completely on legal grounds in January, 1972) indicated considerable
evidence of a united front particularly among the young.
Another example of this phenomenon may be drawn from the fate of Bhadase Maraj. Maraj.who
died in December 1971, has always been identified with an Indian communalism. Prior to the
General Election of May, 1971, the DLP under the leadership of the Indian lawyer Vernon
Jamadar, joined voices with a group led by the previous Deputy Prime Minister, A.W.R.
Robinson, who had resigned in protest at the Government's handling of the Black Power
disturbances of the previous year. The new front claimed a multi-racial position and obviously
hoped and intended to exploit the new unity that opposition to the PNM was creating. Maraj
vociferously attacked this stance. In a half page newspaper advertisement on April 16th, 1971
Maraj challenged the DLP and Robinson to prove their multi-racialism by placing candidates
of the other race in areas known to be racial strongholds. He accused the DLP of selling
out the Indians by combining with an African led group, and especially by taking second
place to them in the new party hierarchy.
Subsequently all the opposition parties withdrew from the election, on the grounds that it
was to be rigged, with the exception of Maraj who led his own splinter group (the Democratic
Liberation Party). Even though Maraj held the seat for Chaguanas at the time of the election,
the PNM won every seat with a vote representing under 30 per cent of the electorate. In
other words many Indians abstained completely rather than vote for a racist party even
though it was undoubtedly pro-Indian.
However the battle has not been won and the Indian is still the loser in Trinidad's political
game. One local commentator after the election remarked:
The increasing co-operation between the races that has been
happening for the last few years has not yet wiped out our
century old history of mutual antagonism.
There are those who argue that the Black Power movement is only concerned to ally with the
Indians in order to oppose the Government and that fundamentally the movement is as much
concerned with African dominance as any previous nationalist movement. While one can only
speculate on this, it is likely that the majority of Indians still share this view even though it
is seldom aired in public. One Indian writer put it this way:
That Black Power movement in Trinidad and Tobago is geared
essentially to the realization of Negro aspirations in which
the Indians are seen as having a largely instrumental role,
rather than autonomous claims as a racial or ethnic group.
Herein lies the greatest problem for the future. Even though few observers share the rather
contemptuous view of Naipaul that the small territories of the Caribbean are, by dint
of size and resources, destined to be forever the 'Third World's third world', unable to create,
to achieve, or to progress, there are many who would agree that the economic problems of
the present will worsen before they improve. With each deterioration of the economic health
of the country the competition between races for scarce resources rises. There is nothing
more dangerous for minorities dependent for any power they receive on fragile coalitions. It
is possible that the racial divisions will be submerged and eventually lost in an ideological
conflict between the middle class on the one hand and the rural sugar workers and urban
poor on the other. In that event the Indian problem is solved but it must necessarily involve
the transformation of society and the transcending of history; a veritable revolution indeed.
The East Indians of the West Indies are caught between, on the one hand, historical experience
and the demands of the present day and, on the other, between Eastern and Western culture.
They have insulated themselves against hostility in the past by turning inwards towards their
communal life and are now badly placed to fight for a role in nationalist politics. When they
have managed to overcome this, as in Guyana, their experience has been equally hapless for
almost every expedient has been used to rebuff their political demands. In many ways the
recent events in the West Indies represent a watershed. With the signs of political maturity
that the demonstrations have begun to show, they have an opportunity, but it is not an easy
one to grasp. The stakes are high, however, for the alternative to demanding, and being
permitted to have, full political and social involvement now could mean many years of
continued frustration. It would almost certainly mean the abandonment of any overall
development plans for the societies in which the Indians play such a significant role.
The Indian predicament prompts speculation about similarities between their position and
that of other overseas Indians. Such parallels are dangerous, although their situation is by no
means unique. It would be most unwise, however, to generalise from the example of the
Ugandan Asians or other Indians in East Africa to the Caribbean, for there are many
differences. In the first place, there has never been a problem over citizenship since the East
Indians first decided to remain in the West Indies after their indentures expired. It is true
that some vocal minorities within the Indian group demanded Indian citizenship during the years
of rising nationalism within the sub-continent, but nothing ever became of this. The West
Indies have not been white settler societies since the rise of the planter class in the Seventeenth
Century so there was never the confusion between race and national identity that occurred
in East Africa. In general the white residents in the West Indies were either permanent, in
which case they viewed themselves as much members of the local society as anyone else, or
they were short term ex-patriates who never expected to be made citizens or nationals of the
emergent countries. At independence, therefore, there was no need to build in the escape
clauses that enabled all non-Africans (i.e. non-blacks) to opt for a British rather than a local
Second, the racial tensions in East Africa became overlaid with class animosities so that
the economic frustrations of the black masses could be simply expressed in racial terms. It
was not only true that a high proportion of the Asians were merchants or engaged in other
urban personal service industries, but also that a very significant percentage of those
occupations were filled by members of the same minority. In other words, economic antagonism
was aided both by the occupational homogeneity of the Asians and their predominance in one
economic sector. It is also of relevance that this sector was one commanding considerable
power and, more important, power that was visible to the African majority. Finally the small
size of the racial group in relation to the vast majority of Africans, aided their clannish
isolation and thus exacerbated the perception of exclusiveness by the Africans.
To varying degrees, all these factors are absent in the West Indies. There remains a considerable
amount of religious and other cultural difference; the Indians in Trinidad and Guyana form
a far larger group and one which is spread much more evenly throughout the economic
structure. Striking under-representation in position of political and economic power exist, of
course, together with a clear clustering in agrarian pursuits. But the rewards from such
activity do not attract envy and jealousy from the Africans, so that rural competition is rare.
It is not possible to imagine the solution of extinction by expulsion, that General Amin of
Uganda favours, being applied in the West Indies, even if any country recognized an obligation
of citizenship towards the East Indians.
On the other hand it must always be remembered that countries possessing racial diversity,
and which have had recent experience of British colonial policy, are almost certain to
exhibit racial problems. Situations in which this occurs vary enormously, as we have seen,
but there are three reasons why this may be so. In the first place, race was always used in the
British Empire as a means of classifying the population. As Christine Bolt has recently shown
so convincingly, a belief in the inequality of human races was fundamental to the Empire
builders of the nineteenth century.* What is more, this was not just a blanket condemnation
of all who were non-white but it distinguished between African and Indian. Trinidad and
Guyana, and particularly the latter, exhibited this same division, where Africans were felt
by whites to be of less value and use to the colony than the new hard working, unassuming
'coolies'. A second and related reason for the continuation of these beliefs and stereotypes,
is that they were utilized at varying times simply in order to preserve order and control. This
utilization of racial fears and anxieties may seem reprehensible now but it flowed easily from
the conviction that physical differences were indicative of innate qualities. It also followed
that policy proposals must take account of these attributes. For example, if the Indian was
thought to be intrinsically more suited to agricultural labour then it followed that land should
be made available to him and not to the African. Racially exclusive land settlement policies
resulted and then, indeed, Indians were more commonly settled on the land and the African
was said to prefer the town. The policy became self-fulfilling but only at the expense of
deepening racial resentments by overlaying the racial dichotomy with a rural urban distinction.
Third, there is the unintended consequence of the Western parliamentary system with its
emphasis on two parties competing for political power. Since race represents the most
compelling badge of political affiliation and the easiest way to mobilise political support,
parties in societies made up of two racial blocks will always tend to attract racial affiliation.
The British insistence that our way to democracy is the only way, regardless of local conditions,
has in the case of Trinidad and Guyana produced a situation where Indian leaders are excluded
from positions of political power not so much because their policies do not find favour with
a majority of the populus but because they belong to a particular race.
If there is cause for any optimism it derives from the fact that at least there are those in
both countries who possess humane and genuinely democratic ideals and who deny the need
to gain a stamp of approval from the West for policies they propound. In the past there have
been those who followed the British lead uncritically and those who blindly opposed it. In
both cases local actions were taken with as much of an ear to applause from one or other of
the major power blocs in the world as from local supporters. But such international interests
are involved in their own welfare and, as the EEC reveals quite clearly, they will not jeopardise
their own economic or strategic interest for anything resembling international altruism.
The Indians continue to occupy a marginal position. They do not suffer the persecution
of their brothers in East Africa, but as for women in Britain there are unwritten but
nonetheless compelling rules governing how much power they may legitimately have and the
occupational positions they may legitimately fill. With the present political leadership, an Indian
prime minister of either country supported by both races remains as remote a possibility as
a female prime minister of Britain supported by both sexes. In the one case, however, the
injustice is compounded for it carries with it the ever present threat of virtual segregation,
which at least for the other remains an improbable solution.
* Christine Bolt, Victorian Attitudes to Race London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.
1. Quoted by Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean,
1492 1969 London: Andre Deutsch, 1970, p.347.
2. Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, London: Deutsch 1964,
3. Cheddi Jagan, The West on Trial London: Michael Joseph, 1966, p.43.
4. Dwarka Nath, A History of Indians in Guyana, London: The Author, 1970, p.239.
5. Report of the British Guiana Commission of Enquiry into Racial Problems in the Public
Service Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 1965, p.42.
6. Memorandum of the Peoples Progressive Party on Political and Racial Discrimination
in Guyana Georgetown, January 15th, 1971.
7. Nath, op cit., p.266.
8. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days New York: Houghton, 1965, p.713.
9. V. S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage London: Penguin Books, 1969, p.86
10. Yogendra K. Malik, East Indians in Trinidad: AStudy of Minority Politics London:
Oxford University Press for the IRR, 1971, p. 16.
11. Naipaul, op. cit., p.88.
12. See Krishna Bahadoorsingh, Trinidad Electoral Politics: The Persistence of the Race
Factor London, Institute of Race Relations, 1968.
13. See David Nicholls, 'East Indians and Black Power in Trinidad,' in RACE Volume 12,
No. 4, pp.443 460.
14. Eric Williams, Inward Hunger: The Education of a Prime Minister London: Andr6 Deutsch,
Population by Race (per cent)
East Indian 51
Other Races 2
Population by Religion (per cent)
Roman Catholic 13
Other Christian 21
Population by Race (per cent)
East Indian 36
Population by Religion (per cent)
Roman Catholic 37
Other Christian 8
N.B. These figures are estimates for 1970 by projection from the 1960 Census.
V. S. Naipaul,
Leo A. Despres,
R. T. Smith,
West Indian Societies London: Oxford University
Press for the IRR, 1972.
The Growth of the Modern West Indies London:
MacGibbon and Kee, 1968
From Columbus to Castro: The History of the
Caribbean, 1492 1969 London: Andr6 Deutsch,
The Middle Passage London: Penguin, 1969.
Cultural Pluralism and Nationalist Politics in
British Guiana Chicago: Rand McNally, 1967.
The West on Trial: My Fight for Guyana's
Freedom London: Michael Joseph, 1966.
Conflict and Solidarity in a Guianese Plantation
London: The Athlone Press, 1963.
A History of Indians in Guyana London: The
British Guiana London: Oxford University Press,
Yogendra K. Malik,
V. S. Naipaul,
J. D. Speckmann,
Trinidad Electoral Politics: The Persistence of
the Race Factor London: IRR, 1968
East Indians in Trinidad: A Study of Cultural
Persistence Columbia University Press, 1961.
East Indians in Trinidad: A Study in Minority
Politics London: O.U.P. for the IRR, 1971.
A House for Mr. Biswas London: Andr6 Deutsch,
The Suffrage of Elvira London: Andr6 Deutsch,
Black Intellectuals Come to Power Cambridge,
Mass: Schenkman, 1968.
Race and Revolutionary Consciousness Cambridge,
Mass: Schenkman, 1971.
Trinidad in Transition London: O.U.P. for the
Marriage and Kinship Among the Indians in
Surinam Assen: Van Gorcum, 1965.
Malcolm Cross has lectured at the University of the West
Indies in Trinidad and at the University of Surrey. He
has visited Guyana on a number of occasions and
undertaken research for a comparative study of Guyana
and Trinidad while working as a research fellow at the
Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of
London) and the Institute of Race Relations.
The cover photograph is by Noel P. Norton; the other two
photographs are by John Bulmer (Camera Press).
This report was first published in December 1972.
J The Reports already published by the Minority Rights Group are:
*No. 1 Religious Minorities in the Soviet Union (Revised 1973 Edition)
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*No. 3 Japan's outcastes the problem of the Burakumin
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*No. 4 The Asian minorities of East and Central Africa (up to 1971)
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'A comprehensive analysis'9.
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