GUYANA: Balram Singh Rai (1921-2022): The source of his politics – By Clem Seecharan

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

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

Balram Singh Rai

Balram Singh Rai (1921-2022), a minister in Cheddi Jagan’s government from 1959 until he was expelled from the PPP in June 1962, died in Oxford, England earlier this month. He migrated to England in 1970, and had taken no perceptible part in Guyanese politics since his Justice Party was comprehensively defeated in the first general elections under PR, in December 1964. It is arguable that he was demoralised by the scale of his defeat, and that he became something of a recluse thereafter. He was a tremendous loss to  Guyana’s political culture. I will attempt a survey of what inspired his brief political career, his philosophical promptings.         

As leader of the short-lived Justice Party in 1964, Rai was unapologetic for his espousal of the political cause of Indo-Guyanese. Yet it was an endeavour that recognised the multi-racial composition of Guyana, while disavowing claims that Marxism could eradicate deep-seated ethnic insecurity and chronic mutual suspicion. Rai’s politics was premised on Guyana’s Indian and African identities, with discrete cultural underpinnings hardened by the scramble for the political spoils and puny economic harvests, in a capricious natural environment. His politics was about the shaping of the nuts and bolts of a modus vivendi.

A resurgent political culture, therefore, must be animated by a resolve to lessen racial insecurity while establishing a political framework that empowers both major segments. Winner cannot take all in Guyana’s electoral exercises, however free and fair and free from fear they may be, for they are essentially racial censuses. A constitution framed conspicuously to minimise the prevailing sentiment of political exclusion must be accompanied by the pursuit of an imaginative education programme that promotes African, Indian and Indigenous cultural security at all levels of society.

Rai’s legacy may be framed thus: no ideological purity, however zealously pursued, will erase racial insecurity with its potential for instability and violence. Only the studied cultivation of existing cultural diversity, along with constitutional guarantees of inclusiveness, could engender long-term prosperity and a sense of nationhood. As Rai wrote in the foreword to his Justice Party manifesto of October 1964, the recent manifestations of Guyanese racial savagery demanded that the multiracial and multicultural character of the country be recognised as paramount. To deny that diversity − and the absence of a sense of nationhood − would bottle up potentially lethal animosity.

Rai agonised over the racial violence, between 1962 and 1964: ‘I have watched with increasing sadness and agony the disastrous events which have befallen our country and our people, more especially the working-class people − of all races. I have witnessed assaults, woundings, death and destruction, helpless to avert such incidents or to stem the swelling tide. I have seen the life’s efforts and savings of whole families go up in flames, the hurried dismantling of houses and their attempted re-erection in mud and water; hundreds of people hauled before the Courts, thousands of peaceful, innocent people rendered homeless and made refugees in their own homeland. I have seen people with their few, humble belongings fleeing for their lives and their children’s lives and I have attended the cremation and burial of many of our unfortunate ones. On a personal note, I have had to remove my aged father from the home and village [Beterverwagting, East Coast Demerara] in which I was born 43 years ago [on 8 February 1921], and his home is now deserted and abandoned.’

Rai repudiated Marxism’s capacity to eradicate ‘false consciousness’, such as identity on the basis of race. He also rejected the view of those who embraced 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 elections for the anti-communist National Democratic Party. He was an unsuccessful candidate. But Rai remained unconvinced by Jagan’s unfaltering faith in Marxism even when he was a minister in his government, between 1959 and 1962.

He sought to mollify Jagan’s obduracy concerning a potentially path-breaking deal between Booker and his Government that might have established a benchmark for partnership with foreign capital, while enhancing his political credibility at a crucial time. But Rai’s counsel 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, at the Travellers Club, during the 1960 Constitutional Conference in London. Although Campbell was opposed to Jagan’s extensive nationalisation plan, he made an informal offer to Jagan in which he agreed to make over 49% or 51% of the sugar estates to the government, to be paid out of profits in ensuing years. Rai urged Jagan to consider the plan because he felt it was a good deal rather than pursuing his nationalisation scheme. Jagan, however, refused to consider the plan, and he left at the end of the Conference for Castro’s Cuba. Jagan’s refusal to consider the Campbell offer regarding the sugar industry, despite Rai’s urgings, was no doubt clouded by his Marxist ideology.’

Dr. Fenton Ramsahoye (the Attorney-General, 1961-64) offered the following explanation for why Jagan (Burnham, too) had no appetite for private enterprise: ‘He had a misunderstanding of how wealth and employment were created. He felt that the best opportunities for the realisation of these were through a Marxist approach to development…That was a fundamental flaw in his political thinking − that managerial skills and risk-taking were irrelevant; that state ownership would achieve everything; entrepreneurial skills were not necessary. Guyana’s two main leaders had a basic antipathy to private enterprise − the private creation of wealth and employment. Other countries in the Caribbean retained their businessmen, bankers and entrepreneurs after Independence: people with skills. That set the others apart from Guyana’.

As late as the early 1980s, Cheddi Jagan continued to inveigh against the ‘tactic of partnership’ devised by the ‘imperialists’ to exploit the Caribbean and Latin America: ‘In pursuit of its objective of maintaining the dependency status of these territories through penetration as distinct from domination, imperialism has resorted to incorporate nationals and even governments as share-holding partners, even to the extent of 51% ownership. This new manoeuvre of joint venture was aimed at creating a wider social base for capitalism-imperialism for the defence of foreign rather than national interest’.

But Rai was never enamoured of Jagan’s panacea, his Marxist creed. In 1964, in his Justice Party manifesto, his rejection of communism and belief in private enterprise, including joint ventures between foreign and local capital, were clearly enunciated: ‘The Justice Party advocates the establishment of a WELFARE STATE − a state in which the poor are protected and the strong are just. It is irrevocably opposed to Communism. It is opposed to State control of all economic activity. It is opposed to the ownership by the State of all means of production, distribution and exchange. It is opposed to 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 welfare schemes and welfare legislation to promote and safeguard the welfare of workers. The Party is of the view that underdeveloped countries can be most quickly and effectively developed by private enterprise, both local and foreign, acting under the supervision of and in participation with the Government’.

Rai was a devout Hindu, an Arya Samajist, the reformist Hindu movement based on the teachings of Swami Dayananda (1824-83), the 19th century Gujarati nationalist who sought to cleanse Hinduism of some of its more unsavoury excrescences — sati or the immolation of widows, caste prejudice, ritual excesses, child marriages, prohibition against widow remarriage (including child widows), sacerdotal monopoly by Brahmins. The bedrock of his reform mission was the reclamation of textual authenticity: a return to the source, the Vedas. By rejecting Brahminism, so crucial to Caribbean Hinduism, the Arya Samaj had kindled a subversive spirit among some Indians in the region. It is arguable, therefore, 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 that was inclined to see Cheddi’s politics, though reformist, as Brahminical in its dogmas and inflexibility. It was imprisoned by a received creed.

Rai articulated the source of his own politics thus: ‘[I]t is my firm conviction that there can be no good government until statesmen and kings are imbued with religion and philosophy. Swami Dayananda’s contribution to Indian nationalism, to social regeneration, to religion and to philosophy is immense. Future generations will be grateful to him for the reforms he effected and the attitudes he inculcated. Before his birth in the year 1824, there were many abuses in Hindu society: child marriages, prohibition against remarriage of widows, even child widows, suttee [sati], the inferior position of women in society, discrimination based on ancestral origin (caste distinctions) and untouchability, spurious scriptures and false interpretations of the scriptures. All this and more the Swami set himself to reform and when his soul departed his body in October 1883, he had boldly tackled these problems and had offered working solutions to them all. He was able to point out that in ancient India women had an honoured position in society equal to that of men, that the Vedas did not authorise the practice of idolatry or belief in more than one Deity, that all souls were alike deriving their just position in life not upon any heredity caste system or upon predestination; that child marriages were a social evil having no sanction in the Vedas’.

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

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  • neena maiya  On 01/25/2022 at 4:27 pm

    My mother, as a little girl, knew him as Uncle Bal. He was friends with my great uncle, and he visited my grandparents’ home often.

    He was a lovely man, treated my mother, then a little girl, with kindness and affection. She tells me stories of his visits to her parents’ home. I’ve just told her the news, and I could see the sadness on her face, another part of her childhood memories, gone.

    Our deepest sympathies to his family and all who loved him.

  • wally n  On 01/25/2022 at 4:44 pm

    nothing changed, now look at that… excellent article..shows vision from one of Guyana’s great statesmen.RIP
    Winner cannot take all in Guyana’s electoral exercises, however free and fair and free from fear they may be, for they are essentially racial censuses. A constitution framed conspicuously to minimise the prevailing sentiment of political exclusion must be accompanied by the pursuit of an imaginative education programme that promotes African, Indian and Indigenous cultural security at all levels of society.

  • Michael Smith  On 01/25/2022 at 6:59 pm

    An exceptionally and honest man.He was a nurse with my dear mom and was from the same village. They grew up together in Betervatwagting with the Bacchus Family who raised my mom and her sister after their parents passes when they were young children. RIP Dr. Balram Singh Rai.A great son of Guyana.

  • guyaneseonline  On 01/25/2022 at 7:32 pm

    Posted by Mohabir Anil Nandlall — OBITUARY

    Two iconic Guyanese have departed this mundane world within days of each other.
    Balram Singh Rai age 101 and Dr. Yesu Persaud age 93, certainly lived fuller lives than most mortals
    and rightfully so as they were not mere mortals. Their professional accomplishments alone, being
    products of the logie, are by themselves achievements without more, worthy of emulation. But they did much more.

    In the pre- and post-colonial era, Balram Singh Rai was a dominant political figure. Some rated him as the most popular political persona of that period, second only to Dr. Cheddi Jagan.

    He was a Barrister-at-law; he was a Member of Parliament; he was a Minister of Education and a Minister Home Affairs, under different Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) Governments prior to Independence.

    Ba;ram Singh Rai played a significant role in British Guiana’s quest for independence. Unfortunately, he left these shores in the prime of his life, never to have returned. Many then felt and now feel that he could have made a greater contribution had he remained. Nevertheless, his contributions are well recorded, controversial to some and commendable to others.

    Dr. Yesu Persaud will certainly rank among the top business magnates of not only Guyana but the Caribbean. He was a Chartered Accountant by profession. His achievements and accomplishments are simply too many to even summarize in this post. He almost single-handedly created a commercial empire of international standing and repute. His rum has won Guyana many accolades for decades across the globe. Demerara Bank Limited which he conceived remains Guyana’s first and only indigenous privately owned bank.

    These are only two accomplishments in a compendium too numerous to elaborate upon here. Dr. Persaud also played a role in the restoration of democracy by an organization which he formed and headed, Guyana Action for Reform and Democracy (GUARD) established in 1989. He was honored by many international organizations. It will certainly take a long time and much energy to objectively assess Dr. Persaud’s contribution to Guyana and the wider world. No doubt it is legendary by any standard.

    To the relatives and friends of these icons, I extend my most sincere condolences.

  • guyaneseonline  On 01/27/2022 at 12:53 pm

    Balram Singh Rai: Indian Rajput and political maverick

    By Stabroek News – January 26, 2022
    By Dr Baytoram Ramharack

    [Against the Grain: Balram Singh Rai and the Politics of Guyana (2005) was written by Dr. Baytoram Ramharack]

    It is safe to assume that Guyana will probably never again be graced by charismatically iconic figures like Balram Singh Rai, Cheddi Jagan or Walter Rodney. Much is known about Cheddi and Walter, less is known of Rai by a younger generation of Guyanese. This is partly due to the fact that Rai lived in self-imposed exile in London since 1970.

    I “discovered” Rai while reading Cheddi’s political biography, The West on Trial. Cheddi had written favourably about him, but not nearly enough. Like Cheddi, Rai’s name was still frequently being talked about among my elders. From the little I knew then, I felt that the memory of Rai, like so many other Guyanese, deserved a seat at the table of history. Rampersaud Tiwari, a Buxtonian and cabinet secretary in Jagan’s government, arranged a meeting between Rai and myself. Rai had previously ignored similar requests – I surmised that he was probably deeply, and psychologically bruised from the bitter political experience he left behind. While I found him to be charming and humble, I was struck by the high level of formality he displayed. Rai introduced me to his wife, “Auntie Shanie” (Shankalli), the daughter of Johny and Siragia Hanoman from New Amsterdam, to whom he was wedded in June 1949. He referred to her as “my equal partner” who stood by his side in their life’s journey. He insisted there was no need for a biography of any sort – his political history was a matter of public record. I learned a lot about the legacy he left behind during the few days I “grounded” with him in his semi-detached home in Ealing, London.

    Rai was born in Beterverwagting Village, a farming community established by Africans in 1838, the same year Indian girmitiyas (indentured Indians) first arrived in British Guiana (BG). Both of his parents were indentured to Plantation Lusignan. Radha, his mother, originally from Thana Bauthara, Lucknow district (Uttar Pradesh), arrived in BG in 1893 on the SS Elbe. Ramlachan, his father, who came to BG on the SS Forth, was recruited at the age of 20, on June 18, 1901 from the village of Majholia, Thana Chapra (Bihar). Rai’s father, instrumental in establishing the initial foundations of the Arya Samaj movement in BG, was the local village councillor and a part-time Hindi teacher.

    Having been educated in a Hindu household, it was not surprising that religion played a pivotal role in Rai’s outlook in life. As a youngster, he emerged as President of the Beterverwagting/Triumph Arya Samaj. Much public hubbub was made, by some, of his deference to being a Hindu Rajput, as if it was a point of derision. Truth be told, the Emigration Pass of Rai’s father (#No 296/1053), issued by the BG Government Emigration Agency, listed his “caste” as a “Rajput”. Pandit Ramlall, another Arya Samajist and PPP loyalist from Corriverton, and who figured prominently in disrupting JP political meetings, explained that “Rai’s reference to being a Rajput …was an attempt to portray himself as a fighter, a warrior…he did not believe in caste distinctions”. Paul O’Hara, a journalist, recalled that “Rai may have had a touch of arrogance because of his ‘chhatri’ background.”

    As an Arya Samajist, Rai drew inspiration from the reformist teachings of Swami Saraswati Dayananda. In one of his Deepavali messages, citing the activities of Dayananda, he confessed “it is my firm conviction that there can be no good government until statesmen and kings are imbued with religion and philosophy”. These words were a reflection of the enduring, and undeniable cultural influences upon his political inclinations. His long-time friend, Rampersaud Tiwari, remembered distinctly that Rai had delivered illuminating discourses on the teachings of the Vedas, Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita at community yagnas, hawans and pujas. As a Minister, he gave several addresses on the life of Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Dayanand and Mahatma Gandhi.

    A question has been raised as to why Rai did not remain in Guyana and “beared the chafe”, opting, instead, to migrate to England with his wife and twin sons. The simple explanation was that he would have had to contend with the wrath of Forbes Burnham. In 1962, following Rai’s expulsion from the PPP, Burnham shared his opinion: “the minister’s [Rai] dismissal meant that the last vestige of intelligence was removed from the PPP”. It was an opportunity to recruit Rai with the hope of bolstering his [Burnham’s] Indian support in a desperate move to convince his American handlers that the PNC could garner multi-ethnic support in the crucial 1968 elections. In a letter to Bhaskar Sharma on May 14, 1996, Rai revealed that Burnham enticed him with several lucrative appointments: Queen’s Counsel, first Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Ambassador/High Commissioner to any country of his choice, and Appeals Court Judge. Not wanting to be seen as a collaborator, he rejected them all.

    The other explanation has to do with the fact that Rai felt that Indians had rejected his leadership outrightly. The inability to capture enough votes (his party secured 1334 votes, less than 1%) in order to create an impact on the political landscape was a reflection of the failure of the Justice Party (JP), as much as it was equally a failure of Indians to heed his dire warnings. The 1964 electoral campaign demonstrated that Jagan’s charismatic appeal was paramount, and, compared to a nascent Indian-led party like the JP, the PPP was an impregnable force. The PPP argued that Rai was an “opportunist” and “Indian racist”, claiming that Bookers and the US had poured millions of dollars into his campaign and provided his party with electoral equipment. Rai, according to the PPP, was encouraged by Burnham to run for election so that he could “split the Indian vote”.

    During the campaign, Rai warned Jagan’s supporters that Jagan would be denied political power because of his carte blanche support for Colonial Secretary Duncan Sandy’s imposition of a new Israeli-type list system of election based on proportional representation. Rai argued instead that in the interest of political harmony and social justice there should be a referendum to decide on the electoral system, and fresh elections should be held, followed by independence. The new PR electoral system meant that the PPP would not be guaranteed 51% of the votes it needed to be part of the government because Indians were outnumbered by the rest of the population “by about 23,000 – 25,000”, enough to give the combined opposition a majority over the PPP.

    Rai’s argument was simple, and seemed logical. Given the racial configurations, Jagan’s Pro-Moscow Marxist ideology and external manipulations, Jagan and his supporters would be left out in the cold, EVEN IF ALL INDIANS voted for the PPP. Since the new coalition government would be formed by Burnham and D’Aguiar, and in an already ethnically divided society, Indians would have no meaningful representation in government. He identified two positions the JP would bargain for, both central to the welfare and security of Indians, should the JP secure substantial support from the Indian electorate: Home Affairs (with which he was already familiar) and Ministry of Agriculture (most Indians were rural/agricultural based). Rai, as well as Jainarine Singh, defended this position on the campaign trail, as well as in the party’s manifesto.

    Rai’s argument, based upon the declining percentage of Indian votes, as well as the results of the 1964 elections was borne out by the evidence demonstrated below, which showed that Indian votes had declined from 51% to 42% between the elections of 1953 and 1961:

    There is no denying that Rai was considered by the Kennedy/Johnson administration as an alternative to Jagan. The Americans were searching for a political solution during the Cold War to prevent the Pro-Soviet PPP from taking British Guiana to independence. Rai was critical of “the external alignments Jagan [was] forging” and the policies he threatened “to pursue under the guise of communism”. He argued that “Dr. Jagan and the PPP have alienated Western sentiment in favor of the Guianese people, all of whom, but particularly the Indian section of the community stand suspect of conspiring with International Communism, thereby posing as a security threat to the Western Hemisphere.” Given the vitriol and violence directed against Rai and the JP during the 1964 electoral campaign, the PPP successfully made a singular fact abundantly clear – To be Indian was to be PPP.

    The conflict between Rai and Cheddi Jagan harks back to 1959 when Janet Jagan threatened to expel several top PPP members who supported Rai for Party Chairman. The events of the April 1962 elections for Party Chairman, which the Jagans were accused of rigging in favour of Brindley Benn, precluded any future possibility of reconciliation between the two most popular Indian leaders in the Colony. Rai’s expulsion from the PPP, and subsequent revocation of his appointment as Minister of Home Affairs on June 15, 1962 triggered a series of rebellions throughout the PPP base in the form of resolutions from support groups urging Jagan to retain Rai as Home Affairs Minister. As a foot note, Brindley Benn, Jagan’s choice for Party Chairman, would eventually leave the PPP in 1968 when the party was in opposition, formed the Maoist Working Peoples Vanguard Party (WPVP), was very critical of Dr. Jagan and the PPP, and his WPVP flirted with the WPA. Jagan later extended an olive branch to Benn, recruited him as a member of the “Civic”, gave him a seat in Parliament and later appointed him as High Commissioner to Canada. For Cheddi, communist loyalty goes a long way, even for comrades who defected from the party.

    When the results of the elections were declared, Rai expressed confidence that the JP had exposed the Pro-Soviet/Marxist policies of the PPP. He regretted the fact that the JP did not win any seats “especially for the future security and stability of the country, but more especially for the Indians in the country”. He warned that “history will judge that the stand I took and the course I adopted were courageous and public-spirited” particularly in the attempt to “secure genuine representation for the Indian community whom Jagan was misrepresenting and misleading” (Chronicle, December 16, 1964).

    Given historical hindsight, Rai was ahead of his time. He had foreseen the fact that Cheddi would be excluded from power and his largely Indian followers would feel the brunt of the Burnham dictatorship. The fact that the PPP is now fully in bed with the perfidious American imperialists, after 28 years of exile, is further indication that Jagan’s recklessness and Pro-Soviet Marxist ideology situated him on the wrong side of history.

    There is a spirit of callousness embedded in the assumption that a person who migrates to a foreign country does not face new life challenges. It is a greater egregious impingement on social justice when pension is spitefully denied to someone who served his country honourably for 7 years. Between 2001-2006, ROAR Member of Parliament Ravi Dev attempted to have the PPP make a necessary legislative adjustment to allow Rai to collect his Parliamentary Pension. He was peremptorily rebuffed. Attorney General Anil Nandlall must be credited for working with Patricia Rodney to bring closure to the Walter Rodney affair. One can only hope that Nandlall, a “chhatri” who recently paid tribute to Rai, will be guided by the same benevolence to correct a grave historical injustice perpetrated against a former member of his own political party.

  • wally n  On 01/27/2022 at 1:19 pm


  • Bryan Rodrigues  On 01/31/2022 at 5:51 pm

    In 1960 my common entrance test papers disappeared and my mother and i went to meet the minister of education Balram Singh Rai. He was a real gentleman…showed great empathy but said that there was nothing he could do about it. However he promised us that he would make sure that if i sat it again the next year it woyld not happen again. One year later i was fourth in the country exam. I can still see him sitting at his desk in his office.

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