Indentureship, Land, and Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought in the Literature of Rajkumari Singh and Mahadai Das

Anita Baksh

In her pivotal 1998 essay, “Issues of Difference in Contemporary Caribbean Feminism,” Indo-Caribbean feminist Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen (now Rawwida Baksh) notes that, in the 1970s, many Caribbean women who considered themselves feminists developed a sense of this consciousness through their involvement in Caribbean liberation struggles:

Although their self-definition as feminist was in reaction to the men in these movements, their feminism did not assume the radical form of white feminists in the US and Britain in a similar situation. This can only be explained by the fact that they saw themselves first and foremost as black women living in societies which were in early transition from colonial rule, where race and class were still inextricably linked to the political/economic/social hierarchies, and where black men obviously also belonged to the oppressed group. (Baksh-Soodeen 1998, 80)

Similar to African American women in the US Civil Rights movement, Caribbean women often felt pressure to push aside, or overlook entirely,

A. Baksh (H)

LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, Long Island City, NY, USA

© The Author(s) 2016

G.J. Hosein, L. Outar (eds.), Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, New Caribbean Studies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55937-1_6

gender oppression to work toward eradicating race and/or class discrimination. This chapter investigates how two Indo-Guyanese women, Rajkumari Singh (1923-1979) and Mahadai Das (1954-2003), navigated their roles as political leaders and creative writers in the 1970s, negotiating gender, ethnicity, and class. Holding highly visible roles in Guyanese politics and art, they were members of the Guyanese National Service (GNS), a People’s National Congress (PNC) governmental organization aimed at developing national culture, and participated in the Messenger Group, a literary circle devoted to advancing Indo-Guyanese literature and culture. Drawing on Indo-Caribbean feminist scholarship, I examine Singh’s creative and nonfiction writings and Das’ early poetry to argue that these texts represent early models of Indo-Caribbean feminist thought rooted in indentureship heritage and in socialist political activism. Since there has been little written (even by the women themselves) on the personal and public lives of Indo-Guyanese women writers and political figures of the 1970s, literary works serve as important artifacts from which the emergence of a feminist consciousness can be glimpsed. Thus, my chapter contributes to this collection by disrupting “the common divide between activism and [feminist] thought” and by investigating the “historical roots and cultural underpinnings that have shaped Indo-Caribbean women’s approaches to feminism.”

To appreciate the significance of Singh and Das as public figures and as literary pioneers, it is important to consider the context of 1970s Guyana. When Guyana achieved full independence from England in 1966, a climate of ethnic and class rivalry existed as a result of the colony’s road to autonomy. The nationalist party, People’s Progressive Party (PPP), was formed in 1950 with Indo-Caribbean leader Cheddi Jagan as head and Afro-Caribbean leader Forbes Burnham as chairman. Drawing support primarily from agricultural laborers and industrial workers, the party mobilized the common history of colonial oppression through slavery and indentureship as well as the continued exploitation of the rural sugar laborers and urban proletariat to unite the Guianese people based on a working-class consciousness that elided ethnic difference. In 1955, however, the USA and Britain manipulated ethnic and class tensions within the nationalist movement causing the PPP to split into two parties: the PPP remained under Jagan and the PNC was created under Burnham’s leadership. Additionally, Western powers colluded with Burnham (and the PNC) to effectively overthrow Jagan’s communist government in the early 1960s. Even though Guyanese politics was (and still is) marked by ethnic and class divisions, independence still held the promise for national cohesion through socialist revolution. The PNC viewed art and literature as important tools for forging a unified socialist Guyanese society. For instance, it created Carifesta, the Caribbean art and literary festival, and established a publishing press to encourage the development of Guyanese cultural production.

Against this backdrop, I read Rajkumari Singh’s and Mahadai Das’ participation in the PNC government as a strategy to insert Indo-Guyanese cultural forms into the emerging national culture and to transform the status of Indian women within public life. They transgressed ethnic and gender expectations by participating in national politics and by joining what was perceived as the Afro-Caribbean party. Since at this time Indians were the demographic majority, but the political minority, many Indians felt marginalized by the PNC’s practices, despite its rhetoric of racial integration and claims to elevate the working class. Consequently, even though the government had made national service compulsory by the 1970s, many were skeptical of Indians, and of Indian women especially, who supported the regime. In the mid-1960s when Rajkumari Singh switched parties from the PPP to the PNC, many criticized this move as an act of ethnic betrayal (Naidu 2005). Expected to be loyal to ethnic affiliations, particularly as women who were traditionally viewed to be the bearers of Indian religious and cultural identities, Singh’s and Das’ choice to join the PNC can be read as a desire to establish Indo-Guyanese history and culture as integral components of Guyanese national life. Moreover, given the low participation of Indian women in public life, as political figures and artists, Singh and Das challenged stereotypes of Indian women as passive and domesticated and those of Indian middle-class women as housewives. According to an International Commission of Jurists report, while Indians accounted for 50% of Guyana’s population in 1965, Indian women made up only 2.85% of all employees and 13.5% of female employees of all governmental departments (Naidu 2005). In this context, Singh’s and Das’ visible national presence provided alternative models of Indo- Caribbean femininity, helping to transform how this group was viewed in the Guyanese imaginary.

For Indo-Caribbean women writers, gender, ethnicity, class, and nationalism are inherently linked. For instance, writer Ramabai Espinet recalls a moment when Das won a Guyanese beauty pageant and walked on stage to claim her crown wearing a GNS uniform.1 This act can be read as an acknowledgment of how socialist nationalism intersects with gender and a challenge to binaries that attempted to separate women’s public and private lives. While at first glance, Singh’s and Das’ poetry may not seem to reflect overtly feminist concerns, I argue that these poets mobilize subversive literary techniques to insert gender into masculinist public discourses. Gender was largely omitted from the nationalist rhetoric of both Jagan and Burnham as well as that of male literary writers of the time. Explicit calls for gender equality and for recognition of women’s struggles may have further marginalized these women. Direct emphasis on gender would have been perceived to be antipatriotic and to go against the socialist ideology of the new government that claimed to espouse the liberation of all working-class people and to challenge divisions based on ethnicity, religion, gender, and other differences. As Patricia Mohammed warns, “how we impose a feminist consciousness on the past must also be informed by a profound understanding of how gender is perceived and acted out during each historical period” (Mohammed 2003, 111).

In the first section of this chapter, I focus on Singh’s civic and political activities, drawing on her family history, scholarly essays, and her own newspaper and nonfiction articles. I argue that the subversive nature of her poetry suggests that, while she was part of the PNC government, she was skeptical of some of its policies. In the second section, I examine Das’ poems since she did not publish nonfiction. In comparison to Singh, her treatment of gender is more nuanced and her socialist vision is more encompassing of all Guyanese working-class peoples. Considering the political activities and literary works of these two women, in this order, allows us to trace a genealogy of Indo-Caribbean feminist thought and makes apparent how Das’ work was influenced by Singh’s mentorship. I assert that their creative works reflect the complexities of being Indian women, creative writers, and public servants in an ethnicized, masculinist environment and provide insight into the ways in which they navigated these multiple positions. By analyzing Singh and Das’ poetic depictions of indentured women, workers, and landscape, this chapter shows how they reclaim Guyanese land and women’s bodies from colonial and postcolonial male power and legitimate their authority as women writers.

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