Guyana’s fight for Indian Arrival Day

In 1995 then Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared May 30 as a public holiday to observe the 150th celebration of the arrival of Indians to Trinidad and Tobago. This holiday as envisaged by the Manning Administration was to be only called Indian Arrival Day that year, thereafter the day would have been known as Arrival Day. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday however upon assuming office affirmed that that holiday would retain the name of Indian Arrival Day much to the delight of the Indo-Trinidad population.

In the nine years that followed the official holiday there has been a struggle for the retention of Indian in the Arrival almost equal to the struggle for the creation of the holiday itself. Ironically a similar dilemma and indeed twist of fate occurred in neighbouring Guyana where the struggle for State recognition for Indian Arrival Day has been going on for years. When the first group of Indians set foot on the banks of the Berbice River on May 5, 1838, this heralded not only the arrival of Indians to Guyana but to the Western world. The end of slavery resulted in indentured labourers imported from India (238,960 between 1838 and 1917) to Guyana. From 1838 to 1928, a total of 340,792 indentured labourers were brought to Guiana.

Even in Canada, May is now recognised as Indian Heritage Month to honour this date. In Guyana, where this historical event occurred, successive PPP Governments with the authority to declare this holiday have refused to do so. Premier Cheddi Jagan, in the 1960s, was asked by the Gandhi Youth Organisation to make this declaration and he did not. Finally this year, Wednesday May 5 has been designated Arrival Day in Guyana and will be a public holiday. The notice was given in a letter from the Permanent Secretary’s Office, one day after the National Assembly approved the report of the Special Select Committee on the Review of Public Holidays. That report recommended that May 5 be observed as Arrival Day and May 26 as Independence Day. For many years May 5 has been celebrated as the day marking the first arrival of Indian indentured labourers in 1838. (May 1, 2004, Stabroek News). Ironically the day Indians arrived has been named Arrival Day and not Indian Arrival Day.

The fist observance of Indian Arrival Day in Guyana was an observance limited to the West Coast of Demerara and has been going on for 16 years — but has not grown or developed beyond that. The first Guyanese Indian Heritage Association (GIHA) celebration began six years ago and has grown into national observance so much so that last year the ruling Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) got scared of the popularity and created an Indian Arrival Committee to ask for the Indian Arrival Day Holiday and to compete with the Guyana Mela. While the motivation for the West Demerara celebrations is unknown save the fact that always the president and other PPP officials attended, the Guyana Mela grew out of lobby for the holiday, which was restarted in 1992 with return of PPP to office. This lobby was by the Jagugar Committee, GIFT, ROAR, GIHA and Government lobbying itself through IAC creature.

Indeed the IAC that was created by the government to advise on Indian Arrival Day holiday stated to the government in 2003, “The IAC is calling upon all political, cultural, social and business groups and all of civil society to unite and support its call for Indian Arrival Day (May 5) to be elevated to the status of a national holiday. The IAC is confident that your Party will support this significant step, which will lead to greater unity amongst all the Guyanese people.” Clearly the government has ignored the committee it established to advise on this issue, thereby suggesting that the only answer the government was interested in was the name “Arrival Day.”

There were several possible reasons for the government for not making the day officially a holiday. While no parliamentary party included PNC has any objection to Indian Arrival Day, Arrival Day is preferred to the ruling party. President Jagdeo stated this publicly many times because to be Indian is seen as PPP as racist and divisive. Indians view this as contempt and the struggle continues for the proper naming of the day — as in Trinidad where Panday made it Indian Arrival Day. The opposition to the Indian Arrival Day celebrations has been identified as the ruling PPP Government. Despite the lack of official observances Indians all over are now educated as to the significance of the day and more importantly their right to be given a holiday. Amerindians have Heritage Month with benefits funded by Government. Africans have Heritage Month and have always had Emancipation Day.

At a recent media conference GIHA declared May 5 Indian Arrival Day, a national holiday. This was decided since the PPP Government still refused to declare this long overdue holiday to recognise and honour the Indian Guyanese community for the rich cultural diversity we bring to the country, and for the values of hard work, thrift and entrepreneurship that continue to contribute to Guyana’s development. (Giha Perspective, April 30, 2004). Like in Trinidad the group in Guyana that will be the main celebrants in Arrival Day will be Indians. These Indians will celebrate  Indian Arrival on May 5 and nothing less despite the omission by the government.


"Guyana’s fight for Indian Arrival Day"

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