IN my conservation some two months ago with Professor Ruben Gowricharan, a Surinamese- academic based in The Netherlands, I was struck by two fundamental factors. The first is that he has taken on the humongous task of assessing and analysing the transformation of Indian peasantry in places where Indians were indentured, including Guyana. The second is that he was somewhat taken aback by my comments on Indians in rural Guyana, and in particular, Berbice. I told him that I am impressed with his remarkable understanding of the macro dynamics of the Indian peasantry regarding how some Indians were able to break away from plantation entrapment and became land and rice mill owners, shop keepers, and their close association with the western-controlled banking system. I advised him, however, that he still needs to capture the micro or face-to-face dynamics of the Indian peasantry to produce a convincing narrative, at least in Guyana.
I told Ruben that to understand the Indian peasantry one ought to examine the petty capitalism among them. To recall, all Indians entered Guyana on an equal footing in that all of them were indentured Indians transported from their homeland to supply manual labour to the plantation owners. Over time, however, this equal arrival status, including their caste social structure, was transformed in ways in which some Indians were still trapped while others were moving out from the bound plantations to independent survival. Why and how this uneven transformation occurred depended on the superstructure of the plantation system itself and Indian adjustment, adaptation, and even resistance to it. In the end, some Indians did well while others became victims of circumstances in a capitalist system driven by production and profits. The human value, at least from the perspective of the labourers, was simply a dot. It was not a system in which anyone who tried hard “to reach for the highest star” would have had an average chance of getting ahead.
Fast-forward to the 1950s onwards, noticeably there were merely two classes of Indians occupying the countryside, namely, a petty bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production such as the capital and rice lands) and a large proletariat (workers). In between was a small middle class such as teachers and clerks who vacillated between the petty bourgeoisie and proletariat Indians in terms of helping out with important chores relating to educational and government-oriented matters. They have been almost invisible when compared to the two other classes, mainly because middle class occupations in the civil service have not been a prevalent and predominant trend in the countryside.
I argue that Indians in the countryside do not fit neatly into the sociological models of social class, notably, like the diamond and pyramid shaped class system in the United States and Guyana, respectively. In the former, a majority of people occupy the middle class while a smaller number of them occupy the high and low classes. In the latter, a majority of individuals occupy the middle and lower classes. The Indian classes in Guyana share some fundamental similarities which may not be aligned with the above description. Strong emphasis on family traditions, low divorce rates, education, religious beliefs, and politics are deeply ingrained class characteristics of rural Indians.
What is different in the class relation of Indians is that the upper class does not possess the attributes of power and property, and privilege at the same time while the lower class has been in the process of experiencing the aforesaid characteristics. The lower class has been experiencing gradual upward and intergenerational mobility through the strength of their labour.
In rural Guyana, class relations revolve around intimate community rather than impersonal associations. Class positions are not fixed, and so the weight of Forbes Burnham’s cooperative socialism practically led to the collapse of rice planting elites. Many went bankrupt, and new class dimensions have been formed in rural Guyana. To be continued (email@example.com).