Guyanese who have served their country with distinction can once again look forward to being recognized. National Awards to three persons, Brynn Pollard and Llewelyn John, the latter a vintage politician going back to the 1940s, and Hamilton Green, a politician from the 1950s with a controversial past, revive the possibility that distinguished service given in the distant past by those ignored by the PPP can still be recognized. I refer to Fenton Ramsahoye and Balram Singh Rai, of the same era as the above three, but this article is about the latter. The atmosphere may now be more conducive and the time opportune to raise the issue of Rai.
Balram Singh Rai has remained an iconic political figure in Guyana’s political history, even though the last political event in which he was involved, the general elections of 1964, occurred fifty years ago. A book, Against the Grain, by Baytoram Ramharak, was published in 2005 about him. Although sympathy for Rai drips from its pages, it indicates the considerable interest that his name still evokes. His great successes and enormous contribution as well as the respect in which he was held across the board, come out clearly. Apart from Cheddi Jagan, no other leader of that era has been subject to such academic scrutiny.
Fully contextualized is his Hindu faith of the Arya Samaj persusion, which was probably the cultural and religious foundation for his anti-communism and defence of Indian interests against PPP’s ‘communism.’ At that time, among some circles in the PPP, intolerance was high for anti-communist views. Had Rai been active today his defence of ethnic interests in the same manner would not have been unusual. Eusi Kwayana, who has spoken well of Rai, was substantially more vocal during Rai’s time in defence of African ethnic interests and is today regarded as an ‘elder.’ I understand that Rai made an effort at reconciliation with Cheddi Jagan in 1992 but received no response.
Rai had an early interest in politics. Together with Ashton Chase and Eusi Kwayana, he is the only other towering political figure who is still alive today from the 1947 era when he supported Cheddi Jagan in his successful contest for a seat in the legislature. He opposed the PPP at the elections in 1953.
By 1957 he was a well-known lawyer. He emerged into political prominence when he won a seat in the legislature on behalf of the PPP in that year and served as Minister of Education and later, of Home Affairs, in both of which he performed with distinction. It was when he decided to challenge Brindley Benn, for the post of Chairman at the PPP’s Congress in 1962, that all hell broke loose.
At that time the Chairman was the next most important position after Leader, the post which Jagan held. Brindley Benn, a prominent African Guyanese, had held the post of Chairman for some time. He was supported by the PPP leadership because he was popular, having emerged from the youth ranks and, a well-liked Minister of Agriculture and an African Guyanese, an important consideration in the context of Guyana’s divisive politics. Although Rai had become a respected and popular figure by 1962, he could not compete in the eyes of the leadership with Benn’s credentials, even omitting the issue of ethnicity.
The campaign against Rai mounted by the PPP leadership became increasingly bitter and culminated in his defeat at the Congress. The famous statement by Fenton Ramsahoye, then Attorney General, that “the PPP works in devious ways,” was made at the Congress. Rai was expelled from the PPP for accusatory remarks he had made.
His Justice Party secured only about 4,000 votes in the 1964 elections. He then migrated to the UK and has remained silent ever since. He is in his nineties and the state of his health is not known.
The PPP should have long recognized Rai’s contribution to Guyana. Brindley Benn left the PPP in 1968, a mere six years after, and became a fierce critic for 20 years. Welcomed back in 1992, he served as High Commissioner to Canada and in other positions. He was recognized with a national award. Ranji Chandisingh, considered to be Jagan’s deputy in the 1970s, crossed over to the PNC in 1977 with great bitterness, causing much consternation and upheaval in the entire PPP. He served as a Vice President, General Secretary of the PNC and Ambassador to the USSR. He remained loyal to the PNC to the end. However, at Chandisingh’s funeral in 2009, Donald Ramotar, then General Secretary of the PPP, spoke for the PPP in glowing terms about Chandisingh.
We should not allow Rai’s contribution to Guyana to be defined by the PPP’s antagonism, which has already devolved to another generation. Rai’s achievements in government have been recognized by many outside the PPP. Hamilton Green, Eusi Kwayana, Llewelyn John and Ashton Chase have become recognized as national icons. The time has come for Balram Singh Rai to be given due recognition in some way for his contribution to Guyana – to be literally brought in from the cold – and for his parliamentary pension, which he has sought for many years, to be paid to him. The Government’s magnanimity, not only for Rai, but for so many others deliberately ignored by the PPP, including Fenton Ramsahoye, would go a long way in correcting egregious historical omissions.