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
RE: This must have been a very difficult
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
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
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
RS: Yes, the situation is urgent.
RE: I salute your work and wish you well
in the future.
RS: Thank you very much.