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Indian Indentureship: The Police

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By Ravi Dev

As we saw in the previous instalment, the Police was used by the Planters who controlled the state, to control the Indentured Labourers. The Guyana Police Force (GPF) had been formed in 1839 and modelled on the highly centralised and militarised Irish Constabulary. The early recruits were primarily from Barbados so as to ensure that any orders from the Whites to use force on the newly freed enslaved Africans might not be disobeyed, out of sympathy for “kith and kin”.
The local Africans, however, were soon recruited into the GPF to deal with the new “threat” and set into motion a historical discrimination against Indian recruitment that continued to the present. It did not fit in with the British policy of playing off one ethnic group against others, to have an integrated force. The British were old hands at the art of discriminations and they used various stratagems to exclude Indians from the GPF.
In Guyana, “minimum physical requirements” was one of their prime tools. The physical requirements for males were as follows: Height: 5’ 8″, Weight: 135 lbs., Chest: 34″. During the nineteenth century the average height of the Indian male was about 5’ 3″ and so in one swipe, most Indians were excluded. The age requirement was 18-25 years and the applicant was also required to be unmarried. Up to the middle of the 20th century, however, Indian cultural practices ensured that most males were married by that age. Food, which was geared for the tastes and diet of the Africans, was another barrier to Indians, who had religious proscriptions against certain foods. Breakfast was typically tea and bread, while lunch and dinner leaned heavily on ground provisions, (plantains, yams, eddoes – fried and in soups) beef, pork, saltfish. Muslims did not eat pork while Hindus ate neither beef nor pork.
By the 1870’s, Governor Kortright noted, that there were over 60,000 Indians on the Plantations – with cutlasses in their hands and this presented a clear and present danger of an uprising. Armed police were recommended for the rural areas. During the 19th century, in only one year (1885) were Indians recruited in significant numbers – 58 of 157. The record showed that they performed credibly. Inspector-General Cox, who addressed the batch, found it necessary to instruct: “If you see Coolies, your own race, breaking the law you must arrest them the same you would Black people.” Indians were obviously not trusted by officialdom and were kept out.
The planters continued their historical opposition into modern times. In 1939, the Sugar Producers’ Association (SPA) demanded a military man to command the Force: “With their thousands of labourers of an alien race of little or no education and a special aptitude for conspiracy, the estates’ need for police protection is a pressing one at this time”. Twenty years after the last indenture contract expired, Indians were still an “alien race”, which, of course, made them easier to mow down. In 1939 five Indian sugar workers were killed at Leonora.

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