“Unusual” is the best word I can think of to describe the current imbroglio faced by the followers of Hinduism in Guyana. I can’t recall any recent occasion where such a rift became obvious in what most would agree is a usually peaceful and uncontroversial religion. Yet this year the debate rages on over which day the Festival of Lights (Diwali) should be held.
Personally, I have no interest in weighing in on the arguments over which day is the appropriate day to hold the festival. After all, Astrology has long been dismissed as pseudoscience. Persons are free to observe whatever religious festivities they want on any given day; our constitution guarantees us freedom of conscience. But that is not what this controversy is about. The problem has to do with the date on which the public holiday put aside to commemorate this festival falls. The Minister empowered to do so has chosen the 10th as the appropriate date after consultation with learned members of the Hindu community.
However, the fact that the Minister has to make a weighted decision on the matter is in and of itself, a quandary. The government has no right to be dictating to people when they should observe their festivals. The government also has no right to mandate citizens to observe religious festivals, when they don’t even subscribe to that particular religion. This explains why many secular nations while being pluralistic, have very few public holidays that are based on religion; Christmas being the most notable exception (I’m not referring to a Christian origin since this holiday is rooted in paganism; still religious though).
Having recognized the problem before us, how do we remedy it? Veteran politician Ralph Ramkarran has touted (possibly jokingly) the idea of having two days put aside for Diwali. Without having to hit the ceiling fan, this idea is soon revealed as feculent at best. This country has no shortage of holidays and one would have to be incredibly cynical to suggest that the business community pay the price for what is ultimately a failure on the part of the Hindu community to give the government a clear date for the holding of the holiday. That being said, what the government should consider in order to avoid this problem next year (since the 10th November, 2015 is a fait accompli) is to let the Hindu community come together and decide on a single date and then move to have it gazetted. The government therefore cannot be accused of meddling in the affairs of religion. If the leaders of the Hindu community fail to arrive at a consensual date, then the government is not obligated to set one. Or, a compromise date can be proposed. That is, one that falls on neither the 10th nor 11th, but merely set aside to commemorate the entire festival, which I am made to understand lasts for several days and culminates with the lighting of diyas.
A more ambitious alternative (probably based on my liberal-humanist background) is to do away with the commemoration of religious public holidays. Why is national attention given to three religions when Guyana is a pluralistic society? Ralph Ramkarran mentions in his piece that the Christians have two holidays in Easter (Good Friday and Easter Monday). If one includes Christmas (not originally a Christian holiday but for the sake of contemporary observance we’ll count it as a Christian holiday) then that means Christians have 3 public/bank holidays set aside for them. The Muslims also have three, leaving the Hindus with only two. Mr. Ramkarran’s argument is a reasonable one given the preceding grounds. However, what happens to minority groups if we continue to honour a select few religions? Does this exclusion of minority groups not constitute a tyranny of the majority? Not only is it unfair but it may even be unconstitutional for the State to exhibit such favourance.
At the end of the day, controversies such as this beg to ask deeper, more fundamental questions on the way things are done in Guyana. We know that after almost 50 years of independence there is still much to be desired for this nation. Are we prioritizing the wrong things and shunning corrective options on the basis of being xenophobic, uncomfortable or even too advanced? Guyana is in dire need of an enlightenment but who will be our René Descartes, Isaac Newton and John Locke? That much remains unclear at the moment but what is certain is that if such a movement is to take place and such persons are to be birthed, it will come from the demographic that constitutes 60% of our population; the Youth.
Correction: There are 2 public holidays to commemorate Muslim events.