- Dec 08, 2023
- Ramaharitha Pusarla
At a time when India is planning to resume its oil supplies from the Caribbean after three-year hiatus, a new front is brewing up in the region. Following the partial rollback of the Trump-era sanctions on Venezuela by the US administration, Indian suppliers are getting ready to begin oil exports. Towards the end of October, US Treasury issued a general licence to Venezuela lifting all the prohibited sanctions for six months in lieu of conduct of internationally monitored elections in the country towards the second half of 2024. India used to procure 10 million barrels per month before the sanctions constituting 5-7% of imports. Owing to the 2019 US sanctions, India was forced to stall crude imports from Venezuela. After the Ukraine war, the US began to soften its stance towards Venezuela over the fears of rising oil prices. These moves were soon followed by an exchange of hostages between both countries. While the re-entry of Venezuelan oil back into global markets in the wake of OPEC’s oil production cuts is truly welcoming, the call for a referendum by the Chavista regime on December 3rd on the disputed Essequibo region has potentially stirred up a longstanding conflict. Venezuela and Guyana are embroiled in a bitter territorial war over Essequibo on the Western Border of Guyana. The densely forested Essequibo region rich in natural resources and mineral deports makes up two-thirds of Guyana. Close to two centuries old dispute which was resolved amicably is now raked up by the Chavista regime for both political and economic brownie points. Venezuela obtained independence from Spain in 1821 as the Republic of Gran Colombia comprising of Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Venezuela separated from Gran Colombia in 1830. In 1814 British seized Dutch colonies which included areas to the West of the River Essequibo and unified them with British Guiana. Though Spain had laid claims to some of these regions, preoccupied with independence movements across Latin American countries, ignored the British occupation. In 1835 British deputed German explorer Robert Hermann Schomburgk to demarcate the boundaries of British Guiana. Subsequently the British published a map in 1840. Venezuela contested the map and claimed the entire area west of the Essequibo River. With the discovery of gold in the Essequibo region around the 1850s the dispute reignited. In 1899 jurists from the US, UK and Russia at the international tribunal in Paris awarded 94% of the region to the British Guiana and the area close to the mouth of River Orinoco and a small stretch along the Atlantic Sea coast to Venezuela. Though Venezuela was unhappy both sides accepted the judgement in 1905. In 1962 when the British initiated serious deliberations on granting independence to British Guiana, Venezuela declared the 1899 ruling as “null and void”. Following Guyana’s independence, Venezuela militarised the border in 1966 and installed military infrastructure on disputed islands and instigated the indigenous population into an uprising against Guyana. Under intense diplomatic pressure, both countries signed a 12-year moratorium agreement on the dispute at Port of Spain in 1970. To prevent the dispute from spiraling out of control, in 1990 the UN created the Good Offices Process to mediate the dispute1. Even after three decades, when countries failed to reach an agreement, in 2018, the UN referred the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In 2020, ICJ confirmed its authority to hear the suit. With President Maduro facing an International Criminal Court investigation over human rights violations, Venezuela rejected ICJ’s jurisdiction. The discovery of new oil fields off the coast of Essequibo in 2015 by Exxon Mobil has changed the dimensions of this dispute. Countries vied to invest in Guyana and suddenly the economic prospects of one of the poorest countries in the continent brimming with opportunities has intensified tensions over the disputed region. Venezuela has hardened its position post-discovery of the largest crude oil reserves off the coast of Essequibo. Maduro embarked on subversion and intimidation tactics. Venezuelan Navy began to harass the Guyanese shipping vessels and started interrupting the oil exploration by Exxon Mobil in the Essequibo region. Maduro issued two decrees in 2015 and 2021 to establish Venezuelan maritime boundaries over the Guyanese economic exclusive zone and fortified the region with military deployments. Image credit: Financial Times Amid dire economic straits in 2021, Maduro used this dispute to achieve a rare solidarity with the opposition turning it into a symbol of nationalism. He vowed to reconquer the disputed region. Militarily Guyana is not a match for Venezuela which has Russian weapons and military support. While Guyana has a security cooperation agreement with the US it is not part of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (where nations are obligated to defend others). Guyana is militarily vulnerable and ill-equipped to take on Venezuela. The timing of the escalation of the long-standing dispute between Venezuela and Guyana over the natural resource-rich Essequibo region is rather dubious and cynical. US sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector have crippled the economy and soon investments also disappeared. The partial revocation of US sanctions came into force after Maduro agreed to release political prisoners, lift a ban on opposition leaders and conduct internationally monitored elections in 2024. But Maduro held back on reinstating the opposition leaders in public offices. Capitalising on the latest concessions, playing patriotism politics, mainstreamed the Essequibo issue. In September Venezuelan national assembly passed a resolution calling for a referendum comprising five questions on the Essequibo dispute on December 3. The apprehensive Guyanese government then approached the ICJ for provisional measures to prevent Venezuela from changing the existing status quo of Essequibo. ICJ’s verdict scheduled for December 1 has warned Venezuela to “refrain from taking any action which would modify that situation that currently prevails”. Though the court hasn’t specifically banned the referendum it has asked Venezuela to stop taking any concrete action that would alter the status quo. Granting Venezuelan citizenship to Essequibo residents, rejecting the UN jurisdiction in the dispute, issuing identity cards, incorporating the region into the Venezuelan map and establishing a state in the region were the five questions in the referendum. In the lacklustre referendum with a poor turnout, Maduro claimed to have received 95% support for annexation. With Presidential elections slated for next year, driven by political motives, Maduro is using Essequibo as a trump card to woo the electorate. Maduro’s political mentor Hugo Chavez in 2005, pushed this issue under the rug and formed a political and economic alliance with Guyana and other Caribbean countries. Through the alliance PetroCaribe, Venezuela traded refined petrol products with rice from Guyana. But Maduro has dismantled this alliance. The referendum is an attempt to shift the focus from the real issues of poverty, economic recession, and massive emigration of people. About 8 million or a quarter of the population have moved out of the country. Two days after the referendum, Maduro mobilised troops close to the Venezuelan borders along the Atlantic coast, ordered the state oil company, PDVSA to draw plans for the exploitation and exploration of reserves in the Essequibo region and draft a new law to nullify the Guyanese contracts with foreign companies involved in oil exploration. Following Maduro’s escalatory measures to formalise the referendum and bellicose rhetoric, Guyanese President, Irfaan Ali appealed for help from the US and UN and sought the support of Caricom, the Caribbean Community. The US has backed Guyana and assured support. With global attention focused on the referendum and its potential ramifications, Maduro has arrested 10 opposition political leaders. Characteristic of an authoritarian despot, enflaming nationalism, Maduro is now steadily consolidating his political dominance as well. Sitting on the world’s largest oil reserves, caught by Dutch disease (rich resources inflating the country’s currency making the non-oil exports uncompetitive) and plagued by socialist economic policies Venezuelan economy has collapsed. But this hasn’t deterred Maduro from stirring up another conflict for resources. Maduro’s attempts to ratchet up tensions amid growing disregard for international law by countries is unsettling the geopolitical scenario reeling under conflicts. Indian Connect Colonised by the British, indentured labour imported from India, constitute the single largest ethnic group in Guyana. Home to the largest Hindu population in Latin America, India and Guyana share a unique bond. Guyanese President Ali, guest of honour for the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, mooted a long-term partnership with India in areas like energy, health care and infrastructure. Since 2015, Guyana has substantially increased oil production and made its first oil shipment to India in 2021. With Guyana planning to auction 14 oil blocks, India should actively explore investment opportunities to meet burgeoning energy demands. Amid China’s rapidly expanding footprint, Latin American countries are enthusiastic about Indian presence to counterbalance the Dragon. The commissioning of “MV Ma Lisha” a passenger-ferry cum cargo ship built by India’s GRSE (Garden Reach Ship Builders and Engineers) in George Town in April 2023 revived the 185 year old ties with Guyana when two ships SS Whitby and SS Hesperus set sail from Kolkata2. With Maduro ratcheting pressure, Guyana might expand the scope of defence cooperation with India which is currently restricted to providing military training to soldiers and coast guards. Defying ICJ’s verdict, Maduro is advancing annexation attempts. With tensions soaring, the US has announced joint exercises with Guyanese Defence Forces. With its sovereignty under threat, Guyana has called for an urgent UNSC meeting. Roiled in geopolitical wars spanning various theatres, the international community is now alarmed by the prospect of an oil war in South America. References https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/22/venezuela-guyana-essequibo-maduro-opposition-oil/ https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/grse-renews-citys-185-yr-old-guyana-link-with-mv-ma-lisha/articleshow/99774304.cms Image source: France 24
The matriarchal family system is prevalent among many communities of the Brahmaputra Valley, besides the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias of Meghalaya. It is thus a religious custom among several such communities to worship Sakti. A popular belief is that the Khasis and the Jaintias were the original sadhakas of Ma Kamakhya. A significant section of the Jaintias worships this Sakti as Jainteswari Devi in the 600-year old Durga temple situated at Nartiang village of Jowai in the West Jaintia hills of Meghalaya. Another belief is that the present-day Kamakhya Saktipeeth in the Nilachal hills on the south bank of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati, Assam could have been an ancient sacrificial site of the Khasis. Similar to Kamakhya, there is no murti of the Devi in the Durga temple at Nartiang as well. As mentioned above, the Khasis, Garos, and Jaintias reckon their descent through the female line. The Khasis and the Jaintias believe that the world is ruled by the supreme Goddess called Ka Blai Synshar (Ka meaning ‘She’). Their indigenous religion is known as Ka Niam. With the growing popularity of Christianity in the Khasi society, the suffix Tre, meaning ‘original’, has been added by the non-Christians among them who take pride in themselves as the followers of the Niam faith system. Hence, presently, it is known as Ka Niam-Tre or simply Niam-Tre or Niam-Khasi (meaning ‘original religion’). The term Jaintia came to be used only after the area came under British rule in the year 1835. This was done to differentiate it from the plains areas of the old Jaintia kingdom, the capital of which was at Jaintiapur situated in the Jaintia Parganas of present-day Bangladesh. A significant section of the Jaintias still resides in different districts of Bangladesh. A popular local belief is that the origins of the word Jaintia may be traced to Jainti Devi or Jaintesvari (believed to be one of the ugra swaroopas of Devi). She was the chief deity worshipped by the Jaintia royal family during the 16th century after consolidating its sway over the plains tracts in the south. The present-day Jaintia Hills District in Meghalaya constituted the nucleus around which the Jaintia Kingdom grew and prospered. Slowly, this Kingdom began to play an increasingly important role in the politics and culture of the North-East from the 17th century onwards. The Jaintia kings initially ruled in the hill areas only. But, they gradually extended their territory through military conquests both in the areas of the North and the South, but particularly towards the South. Originally, their capital was at Nartiang near the Durga temple although later, they had shifted to the hills of Jaintiapur in the plains of Sylhet (today’s Bangladesh). Located in the West Jaintia Hills, the Nartiang Durga temple at Jowai, Meghalaya is one among the fifty-two Saktipeeths of Bharat, where Devi is worshipped as Ma Jainti or Jaintesvari. The Devi’s left thigh is believed to have fallen at Nartiang. The present structure of the Durga Nartiang temple was built during the 15th century when a Koch princess Lakshmi Narayan, daughter of Koch Raja Naranarayan, married the Jaintia King Jaso Manik. It is said that the King had a vision of the deity in his dream who had asked him to build a temple there. The reign of Jaso Manik constitutes a glorious chapter in the history of the Jaintia Kingdom of Meghalaya. Jaso Manik played an important role in the extension of the territories of his Kingdom bordering the Ahom dynasty of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam to include several smaller Kingdoms, but Gobha, Nellie, Khola, Topakuchi, Baropujia, Sahari, and Phulaguri in particular. These Kingdoms are now a part of the Kamrup and Nagaon districts of Assam. Jaso Manik was also known to have maintained friendly relations with Vijay Manikya, the King of Tripura. The Ahom Swargadeo Pratap Singha, a devout Hindu, also maintained cordial relations with the Jaintia Kingdom, especially Jaso Manik, who undertook many steps for the overall welfare and prosperity of the Khasis, Garos, and the Jaintias alike. Inside the Durga temple at Nartiang village, Jowai, Meghalaya Devi Jaintesvari was the presiding deity of the Jaintia royal family and a central figure of the Niam-Tre belief system, the religious rites and rituals of which are quite similar to Hindu Dharma, especially in matters related to birth and death. Just like in any other ordinary Hindu family, the followers of Niam-Tre cremate their dead, unlike the Christians. They also have similar customs for rituals related to marriage and pregnancy. Hindu Jaintias of Meghalaya are primarily concentrated in the towns of Mihmyntdu, Jowai, and Nartiang. A declining religious belief system, Niam-Tre is an ode to Mother Nature’s power to create and sustain life. The rituals in the Durga temple at Nartiang, a beautiful fusion of Bengali Hindu and ancient Khasi traditions, are not performed in the conventional way as is the case in the plains. The local priest or Syiem (in the Khasi language) is considered the chief patron of this temple. The popular belief here is that the locals of the Jaintia Kingdom were not familiar with the Puja rituals, and since they could not find any Brahmin from neighbouring Assam to preside over these rituals, they decided to invite the Deshmukh Brahmins (known as Deshmukhiyas among the Jaintias) from Ujjain, Maharashtra, and other parts of Western India as pujaris. Currently, it is the 30th generation of these pujaris who are looking after the day-to-day functioning and upkeep of the temple. Their forefathers were settled in the area encompassing Sylhet in present-day Bangladesh. Jaintia native priests are called Lyngdohs while Jayantia Brahmins are known as Wamons, who are seen as natives because of the matrilineal system that they follow. Bali-pratha is one of the most common and popular modes of Devi worship at the Nartiang Durga temple too. Goats, pigeons, and ducks are the most common animals sacrificed on the day of Maha-Astami during the annual Durga Puja celebrations. Earlier, the temple used to attract a large number of pilgrims on the occasion of Durga Puja, which is the most important festival celebrated here. But, over the past few years, in the words of Anil Deshmukh, the mukhya pujari of this temple, “There has been a continuous decrease in the number of visitors to this temple.” Just like in any other part of Eastern India, among the Hindus of Meghalaya too, Mahalaya marks the onset of Durga Puja. It heralds the end of the Pitru Paksha period and the advent of Devi Paksha. Besides the Jaintias of Nartiang, the worship of Durga worship is prevalent among the Hindu Khasis of Shella (Sohra/Cherrapunji). While some among them follow a sattvic diet regime from the onset of Mahalaya, some observe it from the day of Shasti. Khasi practitioners of Niam-Tre pay their obeisance to Hindu deities as well, but, quite interestingly, only very few among them consider themselves Hindu. They rather perceive themselves to be ‘indigenous’. Along with Ma Durga, they also worship Ka Lukhimai, an indigenized variant of Devi Laxmi. On the contrary, however, a significant section of the non-Christian population among the Jaintias takes pride in their Hindu identity. Even today, we can see many Jaintia homes plastered with cow dung, seemingly because of Hindu influence. During the Durga Puja festivities at Nartiang, the trunk of a banana tree is worshipped as Ma Durga. Decked in fresh marigold flowers and white linen, it is beautifully dressed as Durga in a red saree and decorated with traditional ornaments by the chief Pujari (Syiem) of the temple. The traditional Ka Pastieh Kaiksoo dance of the Jaintias is performed during the annual Durga Puja celebrations. The bhog offered to the Devi is prepared by the local Khasi and Jaintia village women. At the end of the five-day festivities on the day of Visarjan, the banana trunk with all its clothes and jewels is ceremoniously immersed in the nearby Wah Myntang river. The Jaintias believe that after Visarjan, Devi Durga returns to Her abode in Kailasa which is commonly known among them by the Khasi name of Ki Lum Makashang. Darpan Visarjan is another important ritual that is observed at the Nartiang Durga temple before the actual immersion of the murti of Ma Durga takes place on the day of Visarjan. In this ceremony, the Syiem symbolically immerses the murti (the banana trunk) by capturing its reflection in a bowl of clean water. One has to see the reflection of Ma Durga through this bowl to attain Her blessings. Although this had been the practice traditionally, it is, however, now on the decline. The worship of Sakti among the Hindus of Meghalaya would remain incomplete without a mention of the sacred groves of Mawphlang village in the East Khasi hills district of the state. People of this region believe that in these forests reside Labasa – a local deity that plays a key role in preserving Bhudevi or Mother Earth. The locals here are of the firm belief that it is Labasa who protects their forests and community from any mishap. Labasa is believed to take on the form of a leopard or tiger and protect the village. The Mawphlang sacred groves have one strict rule – ‘Nothing is allowed to be taken out of here. Not even a leaf, stone, or a dead log’. Monoliths at Nartiang village, Meghalaya. In the Khasi hills of Meghalaya, the sacred groves are known as Lav Kyntang, Lav Niam or Lav Lyngdoh, Khloo Blai in the Jayantia hills, and Asheng Khosi in the Garo hills. Cutting any plant or removing even the tiniest leaf from these forests means disrespect to Labasa who is believed to be the all-round protector of all living beings in the Universe. It is said that whoever attempts to break this rule is punished with a fatal illness or even death in extreme circumstances. Every sacred forest in and around the villages of Nartiang and Jowai in Meghalaya has the presence of an altar, mostly in the form of a monolith, covered on all sides by massive stones that were constructed by the Hindu Jaintia kings to mark their victories. At the entrance to the monolith garden of Nartiang (All pictures used in the article are from the author’s own personal collection).
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