Earlier this week, I met with the Reverend Juan Edgehill, Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission. The commission has come under much criticism, and I was not altogether surprised by Rev. Edgehill’s observation that the withering criticism to which the commission has been subjected by the Indians and the Africans, indeed by people representing all shades of political opinion, is better testimony than any that could be given of the useful work that the commission is performing. Apparently, if the approbation of everyone is clearly a mark of success, so can one claim similar success, and certainly dedication to objectivity, if one’s work meets no one’s standards of satisfaction. As the Chairman remarked, it is hard to please people in Guyana!
Interesting, eloquent, and evidently diplomatic as he was on nearly every question, I found Edgehill especially engaging on the question of Indo-Guyanese participation in Guyana’s police force and armed services. The Indian population of Guyana has declined from something like 53% to about 41% over the course of the last two decades, but Indians are numerically still the largest ethnic group in the country. However, Indians account for less than 10% of the country’s police force, and their representation in the Guyanese Defence Force is about the same. What might account for this lop-sidedness, I thought to myself? The Reverend himself was certain that the lack of Indian presence in the police and armed forces can be attributed to the insensitivity of these arms of the state to Hindu and Muslim diets. As he put it to me, beef and pork still comprise a substantial portion of the food dished out to recruits. Edgehill then advanced a more startling proposition, one that I have not encountered previously either in my conversations or in the scholarly literature. Guyana is, he argued, a Christian state, and it is his submission that in its predominant features it still exhibits most features of the dominant Anglo-Christian culture, notwithstanding the advent of independence or even the fact that Hindus are still the largest religious group, unless one counts all the Christian denominations together under a single head.
Over the last few days, the Indians to whom I spoke, while not entirely dismissive of Edgehill’s argument that Hindus and Muslims will steer clear of the police and armed forces so long as beef and pork continue to be the mainstay of the food served to recruits, were quite certain that this argument is considerably overstated. Many Muslims and, especially, Hindus no longer are observant of the food taboos. That seemed so to me from my own observations. This morning I met with Mike McCormack, Chairman of the Guyana Human Rights Association, who is of the view that Indians do not think of the police or the army as a career option. His explanation hovers largely around the economic: when economic prospects are dim, the Indians are more likely to join the forces; however, just as soon as they have an opportunity to improve their life prospects, the Indians abandon the police and army. This seems to be a largely sensible view, except that the economic prospects of most Guyanese, Indians and Africans, have not been too brilliant for a very long period of time. In Guyana, as elsewhere, the idea that one should be able to make lots of money, and in short time, has certainly taken root among the young, and may explain why the young are more likely to turn to become drug traffickers rather than apprehenders of drug traffickers. The culture of modernity has introduced a different slant to the old question of economic advancement.
Considering the racial tensions that prevail in Guyana, it is understandable that the Indian population might feel exceedingly nervous that the policing functions of the state are overwhelmingly in the hands of Africans. But I have the sense that Africans feel even less safe than Indians from the long arm of the police. It seems to be the case that victims of crime are predominantly Indian, but whether this is a ‘racial fact’ as some suppose is not at all clear. Crime is a predominantly urban phenomenon, and the African population tends to be more urban-based than the Indian population. In British India, large classes of Indians was kept out of the army in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857 on the grounds that, as so-called “non-martial” races, they were not equipped to fight just as their loyalty was suspect since they led a comparatively cerebral life. I wonder whether such a sociology of knowledge was carried into the other colonies. I am reminded that one should not reach easy conclusions about these matters when I reflect upon the fact that in Mauritius Indians are well represented, perhaps overwhelmingly so, in the police forces.