By Dr Vishnu Bisram
The British colonial government established a fund called the Indian Immigrants Repatriation Fund for indentured laborers who wished to return to India. Part of the girmitya indentured contract required that the planters pay the passage of Indians who wished to return to the homeland.
Tens of thousands of dollars were accumulated in the fund at a time when Guyana’s money was high in value relative to the US dollar or British pound. At the height of his dictatorship in 1972, Guyana’s dictator Forbes Burnham made a decision to appropriate (confiscate) the Indian Immigration Fund to construct his edifice of what he calls the national cultural center (NCC). There is nothing Indian about the NCC, not even an acknowledgement that it was built with Indian money. Burnham used a few arkatees (Indians who sold out their mati for crumbs) to support his move. Almost every Indian, including the Indian political leadership, opposed Burnham’s appropriation of the fund. They suggested that the money be used to construct regional Indian cultural centers.
There were/are those who argue that the fund was used for a worthy cause – a cultural center for Carifesta. But Indians did not participate in that Carifesta and hardly patronize subsequent Carifestas. So why use the inheritance of Indians to construct a building or to benefit a festival which Indians are not keen or willing participants. Money could be taken out of the Consolidated Fund, the national budget of Guyana, for a national project. There must have been something sinister about appropriating the Indian Fund.
It was a very sensitive matter for Indians. The appropriation of the fund capped a long list of abuses of the Indian population including, but not limited to, race riots, Wismar Massacre of Indians, independence date that coincided with the massacre of Indians and their expulsion from McKenzie/Wismar that would be renamed after Burnham. confiscation of Indian agricultural land, banning of foods and other items related to the Indian cultural diet and religious practices, 1968 rigged election, and more. There was massive discriminatory practice and victimization of Indians. The governance of Burnham left a bitter taste in the mouth of Indians. Indians viewed Burnham’s policy to appropriate the money to build a center of which Indians would have limited, if any, access, as a deliberate act to seize money left for the descendants of Indian pioneers.
Burnham was ‘rubbing it in the Indian population’ by using the Indian Fund to construct the NCC that would benefit his supporters in Georgetown. The proposal was rejected by the Indian population which by 1972 constituted over half the population. Till this day, over fifty years, they remain opposed to it. Countless Indians of that era have refused to set foot in the NCC; they want the return of their ancestors’ fund. I was told the late Pt. Reepu Daman Persaud did not set foot in the NCC until Lata Mangeshkar performed there. Pt. Reepu had no choice but to accompany her to the hall. Other prominent Indian leaders also boycotted the NCC. Among them were Fenton Ramsahoye, Isahak Bashir, Dr. Balwant Singh, Yacoob Ally (who was jailed for having a pound of imported salt), Mohammed Insanally, Pt. Ramlall, Pt. Churkeeman Tiwari, and others. Dr. Balwant Singh (Head of Gandhi Youth Org) was fired as Chief Bacteriologist and Mohammed Insanally was fired as lecturer at UG for objecting to the use of the fund to build Bunrham’s cultural center. Dr. Jagan, also opposed the use of the funds to build a national cultural center. He supported regional cultural centers. The fund would have been used to build regional Indian cultural centers before Burnham’s installment in office. But the matter got swept away during the PPP administration (1957-64) by the wave of more important political issues of the time including political independence, race riots, etc.
During his long 20 years reign, Burnham attempted to deculturize Indians foisting an alien, creole culture on them, Amerindians, and others. And it was met with resistance. Indian culture has been marginalized in Guyana since independence. I and others have a patriotic duty to expose injustice and to further the culture of Indian Guyanese who were victimized for 28 years under the PNC regime.
Indians consistently opposed the use of their ancestral money to build a national cultural center. Their wishes should be honored. The Indian Immigration Fund, with interest, that would now be the equivalent of several billions, should be returned and the Indian community should decide what to do with it — if to build regional Indian cultural centers or a university or other project. The government had given subventions to cultural centers of other groups. For fairness and cultural equity, similar subventions must be given to cultural centers of Indians, Amerindians, and others. Indian cultural centers would help in countering the creolization and marginalization of Indians. In the meanwhile, there should be installation of plaque outside stating the NCC was built with the Indian Immigrant Fund and inside as well as outside the NCC should be Indian cultural insignias and mementos.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.