May 05, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – Today is the official holiday celebrated every year since 2004, almost twenty years, as Arrival Day. It is a day of both commemoration and contortion, of the day the first Indian labourers came in 1838 to then British Guiana as bonded labourer to replace the African slaves who had toiled under heinous conditions for centuries prior, before being officially freed that same year.
Up until 2003, commemoration of May 5 were unofficial but dedicated exclusively to mark the day when two separate ships – the Whitby and the Hesperus, having left Indian on two separate dates in January of 1838 – both arrived in Guyana on May 5. When the issue of official commemoration of the day as Indian Arrival Day reached Parliament in 2003, what emerged was a clear ‘compromise’ in which the date would be designated an official national holiday but with the specific reference to it commemorating the arrival of Indians to Guyana avoided completely.
The thinking then was perhaps – against the backdrop of the Republic Anniversary jailbreak of the year before and the political (meaning ethnopolitical) turmoil that was to follow – that to commemorate an official holiday celebrating the arrival of one of the warring factions using the machinery of the state might have led to an exacerbation of the smouldering conflict. It is of course not impossible that this was in fact the implicit intention of some of those pushing for the commemoration.
Whatever the motives behind the lobby, and the original rationale by Parliament for avoiding naming the holiday Indian Arrival Day, the official name has remained with the annual, though now waning, battle in the newspaper letter columns on whether the name should remain or be changed to accurately reflect the event of the arrival of Indian to what would eventually become independent Guyana.
The irony is that theatre of avoidance of naming the holiday Indian Arrival Day also has a potential connotation or interpretation that goes in the opposite direction of the avoidance of naming, that is the assumption of the sort of hierarchy in which, at the highest tier, ethnic titling is not only unnecessary but appears excessive to the point of being tacky. The logic would that in the social tier system, persons of Indian origin are so overwhelming in charge of the society that an ethnic holiday in their honour would be seen as overkill, and consequently the ethnic holidays dedicated to other racial groupings are really a boon, a sop to de facto inferior minorities from that superior ‘majority’. There are, for example, no official nor unofficial but sanctioned holidays celebrating White Americans precisely because America is overwhelming a White society complemented by ethnic minorities that need the value of self-celebration and assertion and ritual that White people there do not.
This however is not the truth of Guyana, no matter how many people on either side of the rabid ethnic divide want to believe it so. Indo-Guyanese are an important strand, not the strand, of the rich fabric that is Guyana and Guyanese; a day commemorating their first arrival in the geo-social space that is Guyana is warranted, particularly so if the official holiday is one that commemorates arrival on the date that the first Indians from the subcontinent came here.
Avoiding the naming of May 5 as Indian Arrival Day, whether done out of a sense of pointless political correctness or delusional ethnic superiority, is inane, and symptomatic of our continued and convenient avoidance of the actual serious discussion we need to have on race and reconciliation in Guyana.
In his message for today, President Irfaan Ali, himself a descendant of indentured Indians who came to Guyana, writes that “Arrival Day is a day of recognition and appreciation of our nation’s multicultural character. Arrival Day challenges us to appreciate our diverse peoples and their cultures and encourages us to strive for a society in which the contributions of every ethnic group are recognised, respected and rewarded. It is towards that objective that I have committed to launching a One Guyana Commission. The Commission will become an instrument for valuing and respecting one another.”
He however then goes on to perpetuate the theatre of pretending that Arrival Day and Indian Arrival Day are two separate and coincidental celebrations: “Today, May 5, also marks Indian Arrival Day. This year, we are commemorating the 183rd anniversary of the arrival of the first batch of Indian indentured immigrants to our shores. The contributions of Indians to national development are indelible and undisputable. Indians have excelled in all aspects of national life. They have also passed on a precious legacy, one which should be preserved for and transmitted to future generations.”
If the President is serious about establishing the One Guyana Commission, one of its key objectives has to be bringing everyone to the table to tackle the sort of contortions and avoidance that the annual fiasco of May 5 represents. Guyana’s greatest gift is its cultural diversity, a diversity that should be celebrated by acknowledging basic truths and ensuring basic equity. May 5 is in fact Indian Arrival Day, as surely as August 1 is Emancipation Day that celebrates the legal liberation of enslaved Africans in Guyana, and not some generic commemoration of the general, watered down sense of ‘emancipation of all Guyanese’, some pointless official edifice constructed to satisfy political correctness, and to facilitate the watered down correctness of the beauty (and pain) of historical truths.
Happy Indian Arrival Day.
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