Balram Singh Rai: The source of his politics

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By Clem Seecharan
Professor Emeritus of History
London Metropolitan University

This is an abridged version of my introductory essay to a biography of Rai by Baytoram Ramharack, Against the Grain: Balram Singh Rai and the Politics of British Guyana (Trinidad: Chakra, 2005).

Editor’s Note: Over the past two weeks, we have lost several Guyanese who have made significant contributions to political, economic and cultural life. This week’s column pays tribute to one of them, and is also dedicated to the memory of Ron Bobb-Semple and Yesu Persaud.

Balram Singh Rai (1921-2022), minister in Cheddi Jagan’s government from 1959 until his expulsion from the PPP in June 1962, died in Oxford, England earlier this month. He emigrated to England in 1970 and had taken no noticeable part in Guyanese politics since his Justice Party was soundly defeated in the first general election under PR in December 1964. Arguably he has was demoralized by the extent of his defeat, and that he became something of a recluse afterwards. He was a huge loss for Guyana’s political culture. I will attempt an overview of what inspired his brief political career, his philosophical impulses.

As leader of the short-lived Justice Party in 1964, Rai was unapologetic about his embrace of the political cause of the Indo-Guyanese. Yet it was a venture that acknowledged Guyana’s multiracial makeup, while disavowing claims that Marxism could eradicate deep-rooted ethnic insecurity and chronic mutual suspicion. Rai’s politics were grounded in Guyana’s Indian and African identities, with low-key cultural underpinnings reinforced by the rush for political spoils and meager economic harvests, in a capricious natural environment. His policy was to fashion the cogs of a modus vivendi.

A resurgent political culture must therefore be driven by a desire to reduce racial insecurity while establishing a political framework that empowers the two main segments. Winner cannot take it all in Guyana’s electoral exercises, however free and fair and fearless they are, as they are essentially racial censuses. A constitution ostensibly designed to minimize the prevailing sense of political exclusion must be accompanied by the pursuit of an imaginative educational program that promotes African, Indian and Indigenous cultural safety at all levels of society.

Rai’s legacy can be framed as follows: no amount of ideological purity, no matter how zealously sought, will erase racial insecurity with its potential for instability and violence. Only the studied culture of existing cultural diversity, accompanied by constitutional guarantees of inclusivity, could engender long-term prosperity and a sense of nationhood. As Rai wrote in the foreword to his October 1964 Justice Party manifesto, recent manifestations of Guyanese racial savagery demanded that the country’s multiracial and multicultural character be recognized as paramount. To deny this diversity – and the lack of a sense of national identity – would repress potentially deadly animosity.

Rai agonized over racial violence, between 1962 and 1964: “I watched with increasing sadness and agony the disastrous events that befell our country and our people, especially the working class people – of all races . I have witnessed assaults, injuries, deaths and destruction, unable to avert such incidents or stem the rising tide. I have seen the efforts and life savings of entire families go up in flames, the hasty dismantling of homes and their attempt to rebuild in mud and water; hundreds of people dragged before the courts, thousands of peaceful and innocent people rendered homeless and refugees in their own homeland. I saw people with their few modest possessions flee to save their lives and those of their children and I attended the cremation and the burial of many of our unfortunates. On a personal note, I had to remove my elderly father from home and the village [Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara] where I was born 43 years ago [on 8 February 1921], and his house is now deserted and abandoned.

Rai repudiated Marxism’s ability to eradicate “false consciousness”, such as identity on the basis of race. He also rejected the view of those who adopted Marxism as a superior instrument of economic development. Although Rai was deeply involved (along with Eusi Kwayana) in Jagan’s first legislative campaign in 1947, he contested the 1953 election for the anti-communist Democratic National Party. He was an unsuccessful candidate. But Rai was unconvinced by Jagan’s unwavering faith in Marxism, even when he was a minister in his government between 1959 and 1962.

He sought to appease Jagan’s stubbornness over a potentially groundbreaking deal between Booker and his government that could have set a benchmark for partnership with foreign capital, while bolstering his political credibility at a crucial time. But Rai’s advice could not lessen Jagan’s visceral aversion to private capital, as Dr. Ramharack observes: “Sir Jock Campbell, Chairman of Booker, had hosted Jagan, Rai and Brindley Benn at a dinner party, at the Travelers Club, during the 1960 Constitutional Conference in London. Although Campbell opposed Jagan’s sweeping nationalization plan, he made an informal offer to Jagan in which he agreed to cede over 49% or 51% of the sugar estates to the government, to be paid out of the profits in future years. . Rai urged Jagan to consider the plan as he felt it was good business rather than continuing with his nationalization plan. Jagan, however, refused to consider the plan and left at the end of Castro’s Cuba Conference. Jagan’s refusal to consider Campbell’s offer regarding the sugar industry, despite Rai’s entreaties, was undoubtedly clouded by his Marxist ideology.

Dr Fenton Ramsahoye (the Attorney General, 1961-1964) offered the following explanation for why Jagan (also Burnham) had no appetite for private enterprise: “He had a poor understanding of how wealth and jobs were created. He felt that the best opportunities for achieving these were through a Marxist approach to development… This was a fundamental flaw in his political thinking – that managerial skills and risk-taking were irrelevant; that state ownership would realize everything; entrepreneurial skills were not required. Both of Guyana’s top leaders had a basic antipathy to private enterprise – the private creation of wealth and jobs. Other Caribbean countries kept their businessmen, bankers and entrepreneurs after Independence: qualified people. This distinguished the others from Guyana”.

Until the early 1980s, Cheddi Jagan continued to speak out against the “partnership tactic” devised by the “imperialists” to exploit the Caribbean and Latin America: “In pursuit of his goal of maintaining the status of dependence of these territories by penetration as distinct from domination, imperialism resorted to incorporating nationals and even governments as shareholder partners, even up to 51% ownership. This new joint venture maneuver was aimed at creating a broader social basis for capitalism-imperialism in defense of foreign rather than national interest”.

But Rai was never seduced by Jagan’s panacea, his Marxist creed. In 1964, in his Justice Party manifesto, his rejection of communism and his belief in private enterprise, including joint ventures between foreign and local capital, were clearly stated: “The Justice Party advocates the establishment of a WELFARE STATE – a state in which the poor are protected and the strong are just. He is irrevocably opposed to communism. He opposes state control over all economic activity. It opposes state ownership of all means of production, distribution and exchange. It opposes the confiscation and expropriation of private property – local or foreign. On the contrary, it will encourage and guarantee the ownership of private property, but it will promote social protection schemes and social legislation to promote and safeguard the well-being of workers. The Party is of the view that underdeveloped countries can be developed most quickly and efficiently by private enterprises, both local and foreign, operating under the supervision and in collaboration with the government”.

Rai was a devout Hindu, an Arya Samajist, the reformist Hindu movement based on the teachings of Swami Dayananda (1824-1883), the 19th century Gujarati nationalist who sought to cleanse Hinduism of some of its less desirable excrescences – sati or the immolation of widows, caste prejudices, ritual excesses, child marriages, prohibition of the remarriage of widows (including child widows), priestly monopoly of the Brahmins. The foundation of his reforming mission was the reconquest of textual authenticity: a return to the source, the Vedas. By rejecting Brahmanism, so crucial to Caribbean Hinduism, the Arya Samaj had kindled a subversive spirit among some Indians in the region. It can therefore be argued that the germ of Rai’s opposition to Jagan’s Marxism and his monopoly of Indian leadership stemmed from his immersion in the Arya Samajist creed who was inclined to see Cheddi’s politics, albeit reformist, as Brahmanical in its dogmas and its inflexibility. He was imprisoned by a received belief.

Rai articulated the source of his own policy thus: ‘[I]It is my firm belief that there can be no good government until statesmen and kings are steeped in religion and philosophy. Swami Dayananda’s contribution to Indian nationalism, social regeneration, religion and philosophy is immense. Future generations will be grateful to him for the reforms he made and the attitudes he instilled. Before his birth in 1824, there were many abuses in Hindu society: child marriages, prohibition of remarriage of widows, even widowed children, suttee [sati], the inferior position of women in society, discrimination based on ancestral origin (caste distinctions) and untouchability, fallacious scriptures and false interpretations of scriptures. All this and more, the Swami set about reforming and when his soul left his body in October 1883, he had boldly tackled these problems and offered working solutions to them all. He was able to point out that in ancient India, women had an honored position in society equal to that of men, that the Vedas did not allow the practice of idolatry or the belief in more than one deity, that all souls drew their right position alike. in life, not on a hereditary caste system or predestination; that child marriages were a social evil having no sanction in the Vedas.

Rai’s politics were inspired by a reformist essence in his religious beliefs of which he was immensely proud. Much of it remains relevant to Guyana today.


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