How should Indo Caribbean Culture be treated by the new Governments in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname?

In the multi-ethnic countries of Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname in the southern Caribbean, new elected Governments were sworn into office this year, within two months, on August 18th, August 2nd, and July 13th respectively.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname (East) Indians constitute the largest ethnic group in each country (35.4%, 40% and 27% respectively).

In the recent election in Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Keith Rowley was sworn in (for a second term) as the Prime Minister after defeating the Opposition UNC led by Kamla Persad-Bissessar. This time his party won a three-seat majority (22 to 19) in a closely-contested election that was believed to be rigged.

In Guyana, Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali was sworn in as the new President five months after legal and other disputes over recounting of votes. In Suriname, Chandrikapersad Santokhi was made the new President after forming a coalition with smaller ethnic-based Opposition parties.

The following are excerpts of a virtual meeting held on August 30, 2020 on the topic “How should Indo-Caribbean Culture be treated by the Governments in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname?” The Pan-Caribbean public meeting was moderated by anthropologist Dr. Kumar Mahabir from Trinidad and was hosted by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre (ICC).

The speakers were Dr. Sat Balkaransingh, a performing artiste, author and economist and former senior public servant; Dr. Devanand Bhagwan, a graduate in Christian Theology from Acadia University in Canada; and Dr. Kirtie Algoe, a graduate of Anton de Kom University of Suriname. The discussant was Ravi Dev, an Indian civil rights activist and a former member of Parliament in Guyana.

From L to R: Dr. Devanand Bhagwan, Dr. Kirtie Algoe, Ravi Dev

“Indian Culture” was taken to mean the visual and performing arts produced in public spaces; examples being Indian Arrival or Immigration Day, Divali, Phagwa or Holi, Hosay or Muharram, Eid ul-Fitr, kasida, tassa, chutney, shows, songs, music, dance, drama, art and craft, etc.

Indian culture is practised by Christians, Muslims, Hindus and non-Indians as well. Cultural presentations must be compared with their counterparts. For example, Indian Arrival Day must not be compared to Christmas or Eid or Divali. Indian Arrival Day should be compared with African Emancipation Day. They are both historical commemorations; not religious holidays.

Perhaps the best unit of analysis to measure Governments’ treatment in all these counties is to calculate what percentage of Indo-Caribbean Culture has been represented in CARIFESTA (The Caribbean Festival of Arts).  Invariably, it is a token tassa performance here and a colourful dance there, and that is it.

Dr. Sat Balkaransingh of Trinidad said:

Initially, Indians were brought to the Caribbean to save its economy, and by 1920 did so. Now 100 years later, their off springs must again assume leadership roles in saving the economies, especially in Trinidad, again in serious crisis. Failure to disregard this crisis is not an option.

Dr. Devanand Bhagwan of Guyana said:

In Guyana, it is vogue to proclaim that “all-awe-is-one” to undergird the notion of unity in the country. In one sense, the statement, “all-awe-is-one” is certainly veritable as it reflects the equality of all Guyanese that is enshrined in the country’s constitution. In the other sense, “all-awe-is-one,” is not accurate to describe the nation of Guyana. This country consists of various ethnic groups with distinct cultural backgrounds and expressions. There are differences in religions, traditions, food, music, and even oral communication.

Traditionally in Guyana, politicians have been cautious in addressing the thorny issues relating to race. Therefore, they emphasize the “one-ness” of the country and have been careful to avoid references to the ethnic composition.

The political, religious, and civic leaders must have the courage and wherewithal to remind Guyanese of the ethnic makeup: Indians are 40% of the population, Africans 29%, Mixed 20%, Indigenous peoples 10.5%, Others .5%. This information has important implications as it pertains to employment, funding for cultural events, and inclusion of cultural government programs.

Unity does not mean uniformity. The cultural mosaic of the country must be recognized, supported and celebrated.

Kirtie Algoe of Suriname said: 

Indian cultural policies should be part of a well-balanced national policy that brands cultural diversity. Two principles are key: income generation and sustainability. 

The government should subsidize events and programmes on the basis of extinction threats such as nagara and the impact on intercultural connections like Phagwa and Eid-ul-Fitr. In doing so, stakeholders must be consulted in the decision-making. 

The discussant Ravi Dev of Guyana said: 

The three main speakers – especially those from Trinidad and Guyana – emphasized the paucity of funds granted to Indo-Caribbean culture by their respective governments. As emphasized before, this is due to the reality that in all three countries “national culture” has been equated with “Afro-Creole Culture”.

In Trinidad, the Maha Sabha had long called for the Ministry of Arts and Culture to be renamed the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism to implement a needed policy shift. In 2010, this was accepted by the United National Congress (UNC) government under Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar. 


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About the Author

Dr. Kumar Mahabir
Dr. Kumar Mahabir, Assistant Professor University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Chairman, Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre Co. Ltd. (ICC) E-mail: [email protected]