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 GIHA’s President launches Crime Report in Toronto

Toronto — President of the Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA), Ms. Ryhaan Shah, launched the GIHA Crime Report at a public forum at the Toronto’s International Centre on Saturday July 26, 2003.

The Report entitled, Indians Betrayed, Black on Indian Violence, Government’s Denial and Inaction, focuses on various aspects of the criminal activities that engulfed the country between February 2002 - February 2003. Indians were the main targets of the orgy of violence that wreaked havoc on Indian communities and which seemed to be beyond the ability of the government or the security forces to take control.

The troubled Indian Guyanese community in Toronto and others who attended asked searching questions to gain information about the situation and to discuss the recommendations in the GIHA report.

Guyanese lawyer, Mr Ramnarine Sahadeo, who deals with refugee claimants from Guyana, reported that a refugee board member, on seeing the 164-page Report, commented that "it was the most interesting document" they had seen on the ethnic situation in Guyana. "They asked for a copy of the Report for their document centre," Sahadeo said, adding that he had submitted the Crime Report as evidence in a refugee claimant case involving an Indian Guyanese businessman and his family who had been robbed several times during the recent year of violence.

The Toronto solicitor opined that the GIHA Report should form part of the arsenal of any lawyer or person presenting a case to the Refugee Board on behalf of Guyanese seeking admission to Canada.

During her recent four-day visit to Toronto, Ms Shah gave interviews to several news organisations and had informal discussions with groups of Indian Guyanese. (Please see page 16 for her interview with ICW.)

She also met with MPP Raminder Gill who is also the parliamentary assistant to the Premier of Ontario. Mr Gill expressed deep concern about the situation in Guyana

There is a movement to establish a GIHA Toronto group to support GIHA’s work in Guyana involving educational and cultural development projects. The GIHA Report is available in Toronto by calling 416-744-1657.

Wanting to belong

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I witnessed only two events where a kind of belonging seemed possible in an inter-generational manner - the Pan Alive concert at Fort York and the fete at Wild Water Kingdom.

The Pan Alive event at Fort York was the first held in that venue and what a promising location it turned out to be for a steelpan evening. The natural contours of the space, its hillocks and protected rounded valleys suggested an intimacy ideally suited to listening to pan music.

The Wild Water Kingdom dance, held yearly as a Funlovers wind-up event, also proved to be a pleasingly mixed space where variant constituencies partied together. Some kind of evolution is happening here and time will express it, of course. In the meantime, we wait and wonder and greet each other with undisguised warmth as we wind down the summer and wine up what remains of waists and too many knees that are giving out.

Has Canada made us more feeble than our own parents of yesteryear? So it seems, somehow.

The other bright spot on the horizon this year was the new crop of made in Canada calypsoes. Outstanding among the rising calypsonians was Brian Thornhill, a Barbadian with the sobriquet Structure. Last year he was named most promising newcomer. This year, he proved himself by copping almost every award distributed: "He go have to rent a small van to carry home all dem awards," a member of the audience murmured as the prizes piled up around him. Wit, panache and a dazzling sense of staging characterized his performance. His range and versatility were also impressive – composer, lyricist and acute commentator of topical events in Canada and in terms of global issues as well, he lived up to the classic tradition while honing in on the sense of absurdity that is so much a part of the kaiso’s art. For real calypso afficionados, alive and well in the city as the packed house indicated, he was the overall winner by a long way, affirmed by being selected the People’s as well as the judges’ choice.

Macumere Fifi’s steelband calypso, composed by Jason and delivered in Fifi’s inimitable style, was another gem of the season. It was utilized by one of the competitors at the Thursday night King and Queen competition at Lamport Stadium, but such are the habits of the down-home crowd that they sat in silence, not responding even by a casual wine to one of the most dashing calypsos of the season, here or in Trinidad, because of its unfamiliaity, one supposes. Perhaps, the planned calypso radio station will provide some redress to this problem, but in the meantime, surely other radio stations can support the art by playing more Toronto compositions.

This is an arena which is somer-saulting into its own with such rapidity, the least the diasporic population here can do is to encourage and support its growth. And so , the summer is ending and back to school sales are cranking up. And Caribana recedes into memory for yet another year, while the post-mortems continue in backyards and lakefronts and the march of time takes us all into another year…  

‘...In my own land I could be killed for being an Indian’

Interview with Ms. Ryhaan Shah, President of the Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA) who was in Toronto in the last week of July to launch the GIHA Report - Indians Betrayed, Black on Indian Violence, Government’s Denial and Inaction. The interview was conducted by Ramabai Espinet.

Ramabai Espinet: Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to this place in your life, as President of GIHA – the Guyanese Indian Heritage Association.

Ryhaan Shah: I had left Guyana in 1977 and lived abroad for about 20 years. I lived in the United States, went to university, lived in Britain for about 8 years, then I was working in the Cayman Islands as a journalist.

I was having a nice life…then in 1977 I went back for family reasons. So after 20 years of living in what are considered to be some of the most racist societies in the world, like Britain, I went back home. It was just before the 97 elections and so I witnessed first hand, all that transpired. 97 was the starting point for the violence that has been erupting over and over [in Guyana]. We had a shop in Regent Street which was very vulnerable. My father’s shop was pretty much smashed up in 92 when PPP won the elections. And it happened that every time the PNC protesters came down the street it was midday and my father was afraid that I was in the shop. I listened to this howling and these so-called democratic protests and you know that, as an Indian, if you go out there you are going to be killed. And most of the staff were Indians, young girls, and so you have to close the shop and go inside to make sure that everybody was going to be safe.

RE: This must have been a very difficult time.

RS: Yes. And I admit that I wasn’t especially conscious of my Indianness before this. Living in Britain, you know, I was me, nobody bothered about whether I was Indian or not, even living in the Mid-West in the U.S. I was Western, I figured I had a right to whatever…I had a right to my heritage and nobody questioned it. And then I go home and find that in my own land, I could be killed for being an Indian. Until then I had not really been conscious of who I was, my identity and my heritage, about indenture and all of that. And then you begin to look at yourself and say, what is it about me? You see, in Guyana it’s not just a political thing against Indians; it’s also a cultural marginalization because the Caribbean is seen as a Black Creole place. And people like Rex Nettleford have this theory that you must assimilate– he made that statement in 2000 on television. He said that the problems with Indians in the Caribbean is that they have to learn to be West Indian. And I had a great problem with that. And I wrote letters to the press which sparked a debate on cultural identity.

RE: What were the issues?

RS: The underlying thing about the political issue is that they feel they have a right to power because they are the culture. We are the margins and we Indians are the outsiders. To them the Guyana situation was upside down, they felt that they should be the rulers and we are the Indian outsiders to whom they can do to as they please.

RE: What did you do about the situation.

RS: Well, GIFT had called me and I had done a couple of things on television.

RE: And GIFT stands for?

RS: Guyana Indian Foundation Trust. On January 12th, 1998, the PNC protesters beat up people, raped people in town and GIFT did a study of this and presented it. There were three major episodes of violence against Indians in Guyana – in 1964, in 1998 and now, in 2003. It wasn’t until last year that somebody from GIHA - the organization has been around for about five years, you know, but they did mostly cultural things - got in touch with me.

RE: Explain GIHA’s work.

RS: They would do things like Indian Arrival Day, you know, and then they would disappear. So it was like a one issue thing – mainly cultural. Then last year, on July 3rd, there was a PNC protest – beating Indians and so on - and one of the victims came forward to tell us her story, and we did a little mini-documentary. And then on August 3rd, this other incident happened where they cut off a woman’s hair.

RE: Tell me about this.

RS: They cut off her hair…first they went into her house, robbed her, tied up the kids, and cut off her hair. And they told her, "I’m doing this because I don’t like coolie."

RE: Is this the first specifically racialized attack that has happened – I mean the cutting of the hair is very symbolic.

RS: I think it’s the first time we have ever heard of anybody cutting off a woman’s hair and then saying what he did about not liking coolie. And for us that was the catalyst, that was the point when we said that we could not sit by any more and do nothing. ROAR was talking about Indian issues at the political level and we wanted to talk about it at the cultural level and connect the political issues. Because we thought that this was something that everybody should be concerned about. And that was how the organization took off, and as somebody said to me the other day, you know GIHA is talked about now more than some groups that have been around for 50 years. People talk about the issues we raise and listen to what we have to say because nobody was doing it before.

RE: So is there a vibrant organizational nucleus, or is it only you?

RS: No, we have an executive, we have a Vice-President, Suraj Narine. He went to India and studied Hindi, we have supporters, not a mass of membership but there are people who come out to our events. In that sense there is support. Some of it is quiet because the PPP see us as the enemy, you know, so they’re careful about what they say and they might give you money but they say don’t say anything about it. And I think Indians are glad that GIHA is there to speak for them and they are comfortable (and this is very important) with us because we are not challenging the PPP politically. We have friends in Trinidad and they are doing similar things on the cultural front. But it’s easier for them because nobody is calling them racist and extremist. They came to our mela and did what they call pichakaree singing which is like conscious Indian music and it went over very well.

RE: It’s English and Hindi?

RS: Yes, it’s very nice. But, you see, they don’t have the opposition we have.

RE: Why do you think that is, when you say you’re not making a political challenge?

RS: Well, we don’t challenge them politically but we criticize them – you know, you are the government, you are supposed to take care of all the people, and what do you do? We keep the issues separate.

RE: Is that accepted? Or is there an implicit political link in people’s minds?

RS: I think there’s a link in people’s minds but they don’t seem to care.

RE: How would you describe the impact of your work?

RS: They are paying attention, they are coming to the office, talking to us , and our situation in Guyana – and I think it’s a terrible situation - and the report we have written to Amnesty Internmational and to the United Nations details this. The GIHA office has become the human rights association, for Indians.

RE: Do the people who come to you expect you to act, or to publicize their situation?

RS: They mostly come for help. Like right now we are helping people who are asking for refugee status. They want to know what we can do to help. We are hoping that the U.N. or somebody can do something to correct the situation – we should have a share of everything, in governance and in other ways, but somehow I don’t have much hope that it will change. They say it’s only a hundred and something people who have been victimized, so what’s the big deal?

RE: But you are saying that thousands have been terrorized.

RS: Yes, the situation is urgent.

RE: I salute your work and wish you well in the future.

RS: Thank you very much.