The word “coolie” is said to be derived from the Hindi word “kuli” meaning labourers or day labourers. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was used to describe an unskilled labourer of East Indian descent. In modern day in the T&T it is considered a racial slur against East Indians although some may argue that it may be used in friendly repartee. Speaking for myself I consider it definitely racially derogatory in whatever the context it is used. I also similarly find the word “nigger” in any context to be a racial insult.
Last Tuesday, however, T&T for probably the first time in decades heard on a political platform references to “coolie” in the context of a “coolie” family and a “coolie” constituency. While the speaker, a Guyanese lawyer by the name of Kissoon, may have intended to warn people away from racial voting the language he used and the manner in which he did it may have recalled a Trinidad and Tobago of the 1950s and one which we had thought we had gone way past.
It is reported (and given the apology proffered by the Independent Liberal Party (ILP) I am assuming that the reports are true) that Mr Kissoon, among other things, said that Mr Warner was a “black coolie man” who provided drains for a “coolie constituency” and also quoted a song with the words “coolie family”. Since “coolie” refers to a person of East Indian descent to begin with and T&T is about 40 per cent persons of East Indian descent (“Indians”) according to the recent census, these references must have been intended to be a direct racial appeal to local Indians.
The mischief in the statement made by an Indian foreigner, no less, is that it invited the constituents or audience to identify themselves as Indians, firstly, and secondly, to identify Chaguanas West as an Indian constituency. It also probably invited his listeners to think of themselves a oppressed Indians, given that “coolies” historically were poor and powerless. So what was the message being sent when juxtapositioned with naming Jack Warner a “black coolie”?
It was crassly telling them that persons from Chaguanas West who presumably comprised largely Indians should vote for Warner because he was one of “them” — a coolie. The fact that some persons cheered loudly at the suggestion that Warner worked for the “coolie” constituency, with no regard to the clear racial pejorative, is an indication that the message was received.
These are highly dangerous statements and cannot be brushed aside by the wave of an apology. At a time when our major political parties have to some measure achieved a degree of success in crossing the racial divide and where people are moved more by party/personality than race, it is an inflammatory statement and has the possible immediate effect of moving racial harmony backwards. It also may serve to empower the minority who practise racism and strengthen the latent racists among us.
It is ironic to hear that direct racial appeal, under the guise of advocating against racial voting, in a campaign for Jack Warner, whom many saw and still see as the person who would break any racial barriers that might exist in Chaguanas West, through his own personal appeal. Instead here was Mr Kissoon effectively saying: Vote for Jack Warner, he is one of you: he is a “black coolie”. It is an insult to Jack Warner and an insult to the people of Chaguanas West, although some might not see it that way, as well as the entire country. Coming from a visitor to our shores it is totally unacceptable.
But the racial talk did not stop there. It is reported that Kissoon asked if Warner had ever stolen from Indians in the area or if he had stolen from the “black man” in the constituency. On receiving a negative response from the crowd he then went on to say if Warner “make his money from the white man” nothing was wrong with that. That apparently was to be regarded as compensation.
T&T has a small percentage of people of Caucasian descent but they are equally citizens of this country. Whether Mr Kissoon might have been referring to foreign Caucasians or not is irrelevant. He made a direct appeal to latent prejudices that might exist in our citizens against persons of that race based on historical economic/social imbalances. This statement was designed it seems to cause division between the rest of the country and Caucasians. Mr Kissoon could be seen as suggesting that it was acceptable to steal from such people. The effect of that kind of talk could even result in stirring up animosity and even violence against Caucasians.
Not only were Mr Kissoon’s overt and even subtle references politically incorrect, they were contrary to the tenets of our National Anthem in which we pride ourselves, “here every creed and race find an equal place”; and they significantly could amount to sedition.
Jack Warner and his ILP had no choice but to immediately distance themselves from it — which they did. The fallout from those remarks, however, are yet to be seen. This should be a learning experience not only for the ILP but for all political parties and other national platforms to know their speakers; what they promote and what they espouse.
T&T does not need that kind of talk and if it is sanctioned or tolerated in Guyana it ought not to be. We must put our collective feet down against any attempt or action designed to create racial disharmony. In today’s world we must ensure that, to quote the recent words of His Excellency, the President of our Republic, all our people are treated “with integrity and equality regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, class, gender or age”.
* Dana S Seetahal is a former Independent Senator