To rely on PPP sources alone is to give only ‘one side of a historical narrative of guilt’
By Stabroek staff | June 26, 2009 in Letters
In his reply to Dr David Hinds (‘David Hinds history,’ KN June 19) Mr Ralph Ramkarran makes it clear than he does not like “shallow” reasoning or subjective considerations. He tolerates no “anecdotal” history and no “flawed” analysis. These, he says, are no good for societies like Guyana’s: “They add nothing to serious debate in Guyana.” I agree. They have never added anything useful, even when made by the PPP. He says that “Dr Hinds uses a subjective… approach that seeks to sustain one side of a historical narrative of guilt.” This is the first time I see a leader of the PPP allowing that there is more than one side of the historical narrative of guilt.
But Mr Ramkarran has more than anecdotes. He has note of my “state of mind” as it was in 1953 during the leadership debate of 1953 and even in 1956 and 1957. He rules his own evidence to be in order! He should also read PPP documents. I had a “warped” mind long before young Dr Hinds. As Chalk Dust would say, “I was in town.” And I don’t blame younger people for not “being in town” in those days and for questioning those who were there, questioning not some of them but all of them.
It was not Mr Burnham who proposed me as a person to break the leadership deadlock after the 1953 elections. The proposal came from one of the ultra-left. My immediate rejection did not allow discussion. Mr Burnham sat there, swinging his long key chain and said, “I would work under him.” Integrity was not an issue. Dr Jagan had led the public agitation between at least 1947 and 1953, most often as a lone voice in the Legislative Council. Jagan used to pick me up after school on many Friday afternoons for the Corentyne where we would hold a series of meetings even before the party was formed. So after all that, when the party won the elections, my question was – Why change him?
I do not think that my support of Cheddi Jagan in 1952 and 1953 was an integrity issue. For me it was a matter of logic. Jagan and his work in the 1947-1953 Legislative Council and among the people placed him ahead of all others for that role at that time. His activity in and out of the Council was the chief single source of encouragement before 1950 and of party building after 1950.
I had worked along with Jagan for about three years before I ever knew Burnham. But I had nothing against the newly returned lawyer. We had worked closely. I was in no way hostile to Burnham. I had sat in the court with him doing some of the work of junior counsel to him when he defended some ritual murder accused in New Amsterdam.
Next, why did I oppose a move before the 1953 election to postpone the election of leader of the legislative group on the ground that there was only one member, Jagan? The West On Trial records this, but puts words in my mouth I did not use and would not have used. I said, “This motion will be a vote of no confidence in the present holder of the office.” Somehow, the mover and seconder did not pursue the motion.
Mr Ramkarran does not know what record he is defending. He chides Dr Hinds for not giving me credit for just trying to be fair. From my point of view, the PPP has never given Martin Carter “credit” as the intellectual fountain of the liberation movement of those times. When I was a WPA member of parliament, the PNC placed Jagan’s 40th anniversary (1987) in the Legislative Council on the agenda. I spoke of Jagan’s pioneering work and of his flawless representation of all working people between 1947 and 1953. Since I had become critical of Jagan’s later lapses, both PNC and PPP were astonished. After the session I visited Freedom House where there was a reception to celebrate the event. While I was viewing the exhibits, a senior sugar worker of about my age came up to me and said, “Comrade, I am not seeing your photo.” It was not there of course. Freedom House does not record that I was one of the persons who received trespass notices from 13 of Bookers estates – another subjective anecdote. Mrs Jagan wrote and published in 1995 in the generous mood of victory, Children’s Stories of Guyana’s Freedom Struggles. All of them were of one race. The only non-Indians featured in any part of this book were the author herself and the illustrator, Paul Harris. It was “dedicated to the children of Guyana.” Even Walter Rodney was missing. If Mr Ramkarran relies on PPP documents to explain the past he will find himself in a tunnel.
When I returned from the Peace Conference in Europe (1952-1953) I told Jagan that I was not interested in running for parliament. I had the organizer and educator bug, being uneducated myself. He said to me that if I was not running for a seat, he was not running. I did not expect that answer. As I did not want to take on the responsibility of depriving the people of their most consistent and well-prepared representative, I shut up.
As a loyal PPP member, I was also against a PPP victory in1953 and moved a motion in the Executive Committee that the party should contest no more than about eight seats. This was to allow a greater space for more understanding and unity among the working people. Continued opposition to a colonial regime by a multiracial team and not by one man this time, would be the best way to develop, encourage and ensure interracial understanding and reduce suspicion, so as to withstand shocks that would surely come. This required patience and much linking with the people and their organizations. Only Martin Carter seconded and supported the motion. The two top leaders both said, “If we fighting, we fighting to win.”
My concern arose because I was sure the party could win. I did not carry out an objective poll. I just understood the responses of people all along the coast and in the Essequibo islands. When I told the two top leaders, standing together, “You all winning, you know,” both brushed me aside. When it happened, the top woman leader at the Bourda Green victory meeting described it in her speech as “My baby.” How objectively subjective! I am sure some of the city’s political class swallowed hard.
Mr Ramkarran makes much of the fact that I did not break with the PPP until 1957. He means publicly. There is a saying that we have – ‘Leaf fall ah wata, ’e nah a-ratten same time’ (A leaf may fall into the water but it does not rot at once). My rebellion against the PPP leadership began in 1954. The PPP had taken a decision that all who were restricted should keep the restriction and await May Day 1954. The party would then apply for the traditional parade. If permitted, it would mobilise the event. If denied the party would decide who were to break the restrictions and be arrested. After this, Jagan and Burnham, who had returned from India and Egypt, and the UK were restricted, along with the five of us who had been detained at the US Air Base, and others previously restricted.
Dr Jagan broke his restriction when the governor refused permission for him to travel to Mahaica where he had opened a free dental clinic on Saturdays. He stopped a man at Buxton Public road and sent me a message saying that he was breaking the restriction. I omit details of this conflicted anecdote. In my opinion, which could be unpopular, the party leader was acting against a clear decision of the Executive Committee. Dr Jagan was arrested and most of the activists in Georgetown came out in a protest demonstration. They all were arrested, tried, defended by party lawyers and sentenced to prison. The ultra-left, except me, led that protest. In the 1956 Congress they were not wanted, but I, as a more public face, was wanted (see West On Trial).
Mr Ramkarran did not read me right when he said that I did not “fall out” with the PPP until 1957. . In1956 the Soviet Union invaded the Hungarian People’s Republic. The PPP was not as Mr Ramkarran points out, a communist party, but it remained silent about the invasion. I wrote a letter to the press condemning the invasion and saying that this was not Marxist policy. From the time we read the 1956 Congress paper prepared by Dr Jagan, we knew that we could not follow where the PPP was going. Before the Congress some of us had met with Jagan illegally at Lionel Jeffrey’s house in Queenstown, sitting on the floor to avoid police attention in the emergency. We had met to discuss differences with Jagan. He sat on the floor with us for about two hours and listened to us but said nothing. It was clear that he had settled on a course of action. He had already prepared his Congress paper, ‘On the Political Situation,’ which we saw only after the Congress in New Amsterdam. We were all barred by restriction orders from attending, but Jagan’s voice was in his paper.
Although Jagan and Burnham were top leaders and much admired as a pair until1955, in the rural areas people were well aware of the long joint activity among them of other people, including Jagan and me. After the 1955 split, which agonized the whole nation,
I did not want to give more comfort to the rulers. Although I opposed the split, I had disagreed with Jagan well before the split when he broke his restriction order against the policy of the Executive Committee in 1954.
It was not Dr Jagan who visited me about the chairmanship of the party, which Mr Brindley Benn, who did not even know me at the time, thinks “Eusi wanted it” (Beerbalsingh: Oral History of PPP). He sent two men, one a senior GIWU trade unionist and Mr CR Jacob, a Water Street merchant, faulted both in The West on Trial (Jagan) and History of Trade Unionism in Guyana 1900-1961 (Ashton Chase) as a man “not to be followed.” The ultra-left comrades, in Georgetown, still in the party, knew that Mr Bhadase Mahraj of Trinidad and Tobago had advised Jagan to “make King Chairman.” Mr Ramkarran does not like anecdotes though he admits that they “weave back into the broader historical tapestry.” Dr Jagan and Mr Ramkarran’s father and one other person visited me before the 1957 elections to “offer you a seat.” I declined. Dr Jagan left saying, “We will fight you.” To do that effectively, he chose a fellow supporter with me in his 1947 campaign, namely Mr Balram Singh Rai, a person with strong links to the Hindu community. Dr Jagan acted according to his values. He was surely affected by the split
I am glad that Mr Ogunseye had commented on the PCD process. In spite of my differences with him, I regard him as one of the finest homegrown activists Guyana has produced. I have said before that any race-leaning politics in Ogunseye springs from his disappointment with the PPP. A decade after him others of less history but of fine quality, men and women, emerged in sugar and bauxite and elsewhere. I shall have the greatest joy in bringing them to light. They should be writing books about their vision and their experiences.
What I have never said to anyone is that during the more recent PCD agonizing a PPP member told me that the member thought I would make a good consensus candidate. My response was in the negative. I had already made my “generation” statement. I am not prepared to name the member so it is no point believing or not believing. The member is alive and well. I mention this anecdote as unsworn evidence of my lack of political ambition. It is seen as foolish, but it is how I want to be. It rivals no one, cheats no one.
Whether we see race as an objective or real factor or not, look what havoc it is creating in Guyana and how ethnic differences are becoming at least the setting of so many conflicts. Common sense demands that it receive every attention. If we are discussing political issues in Guyanese society and ignore the subjective side of things, or the ethnic factor, as though they are unreal, I can risk naming the century when we arrive at a solution.
The question though is whether the PPP should apologise. Mr Ramkarran seems to think that only “one side of a historical narrative of guilt” should apologise. To be subjective again, in 1978 I apologised not for making race a part of the debate, but for the way I handled it in 1961. No one had urged me to apologise. An apology is worth something only when it comes from inside a person or collective. I can perhaps ask whether X or Y has anything to apologise for. Both sides, if they are serious, have need to take responsibility or apologise to the nation.
My little book, Guyana: No Guilty Race, did three things. First, it blamed PNC supporters for the January 1998 citywide assault on Indians as Indians. Secondly, it defended Africans against historical framing and slander. Thirdly, it set down in terms no one has yet contested the growth of political violence in Guyana and the responsibility for each outbreak (1961-1964 and not 1962-1964). I can say, without fear of contradiction, that each side sparked its carnage and that the carnage grew as time progressed. The only year in which I found no central direction was 1961. I used to think that the absence of “central direction” was a positive factor.
Mr Ramkarran gives credit to Walter Rodney as an icon for having good relations with the PPP and Dr Jagan, unlike Dr Hinds. He gives no credit to a young country boy, David Hinds, who on his own decided to bring others to the Workers Stage, a cultural unit of PPP persons and to work in it. He gives him no credit for his anti-gunman activity in the bad days when PPP supporters were under attack. He gives no credit to Ogunseye, now an outcast, who defended PPP’s Arnold Rampersaud on the streets, something the PPP could not do for itself. He does not give Dr Jagan credit for being so flexible as to turn his back on Walter Rodney and mock him publicly after his execution. During the 1980 election campaign at Grove Jagan put the worst possible interpretation on Rodney’s phrase about a “Christmas present” and added, “All they got was Walter Rodney’s head on a platter.” If Mr Ramkarran relies on approved sources of the PPP all he will find is “one side of a historic narrative of guilt.”