Op-ED: National unity is not an elusive goal – 65 years ago Cheddi proved it possible

In 1950, the Waddinton Constitution Commission, appointed by Winston Churchill’s British Government, recommended universal adult suffrage elections for Guyana, following decades of rebellion, ongoing poverty, hopelessness and a clamor for a voice among the citizens of Guyana. That recommendation came with a backdrop, vividly captured by Newsweek, of almost the entire population being underpaid and undernourished, freed of slavery and indentureship, but living nothing more than serfdom. As a result, the first ever universal adult suffrage elections in Guyana was held on April 27th 1953.

April 27 this year will mark the 65th anniversary of the PPP’s victory at the first ever election held under universal adult suffrage. The PPP won eighteen (18) of the 24 seats, even though the PPP contested only 22 seats, forgoing contests in 2 interior districts. Almost 75% of the listed electorate voted and the PPP won 52% of the votes. Almost 209,000 Guyanese registered to vote in that election, with almost 157,000 actually voting. In all previous elections, the voters list never reached 50,000 voters. For the first time women and youth were able to register and they not only registered to vote, they came out to vote in record numbers. The 75% turnout was in stark contrast to the turnout in elections under universal adult suffrage in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other British Caribbean and African territories. The masses came out to stand united behind Cheddi and the PPP.

The PPP’s victory was massive by any standards. There were 138 candidates fielded by the five political parties. The PPP fielded 22 candidates, choosing not to contest the 2 interior districts because of cost and logistical difficulties. Of the 14 contested districts in which the candidate won by over 51% of votes, the PPP won 13 of these. All twenty-two of the PPP candidates either won or came close to winning. Of the 78 candidates in the 1953 elections that lost their deposits because they failed to garner enough votes, none was from the PPP. Had the PPP contested the interior districts, it is possible that the PPP would have won more seats and would have gathered up to 60% of the votes. Of the 18 PPP MPs, 9 were Indo-Guyanese, 6 Afro Guyanese, 2 whites and 1 Chinese. Truly, the PPP brought the people together for Guyana’s first mass-based political party.

The PPP’s massive victory was testimony to an unprecedented national unity. The Cheddi Jagan-led PPP defied all odds and united the populace against the colonial masters and their local representatives. The victory crushed a deliberate effort by the British and their local representatives who worked hard to sustain and promote division. British Government officials had promised Prime Minister Churchill that the country was so divided that no political party could win an outright victory. In fact, the British Government, with encouragement from the US, worked with their local representatives, the media, the church and the race-based parties to ensure a division, driven by the well-honed “divide and rule” tactic, that would prevent Cheddi and the PPP from winning.

The April 27th 1953 victory solidified Cheddi’s conviction that unity of our people is possible. From that day on until his death, Cheddi believed that national unity was possible and achievable. Throughout his political career, he reminded everyone that national unity must remain the goal of our political lives. There were many things that Cheddi believed, wanted and fought for. But at the very top of his list was national unity. This was his life’s goal. The PPP’s victory on April 27th 1953 was an instance in time, fleeting though it might have been, when the Guyanese people came together as one.

As we reflect on the 65th anniversary of the PPP’s victory in the 1953 elections, there are some significant milestones that became etched in our political history. One important milestone is that the movement for women’s rights in Guyana gained legitimacy as the Guyanese people voted to elect the first women to serve in the legislature. The fight for recognition of women’s rights had started with the Janet-Jagan-led formation of the Women’s Economic and Progressive Organization (WEPO, now the WPO) in 1946. The 1953 election victory saw the seating of three magnificent women in Parliament – Janet Jagan, Jessie Burnham and Jane Phillips Gay.

Janet became the first woman to serve as a Deputy Speaker of Parliament and later served as a Minister, a Prime Minister and a President. She was prevented from serving as a Minister in the 1953 Cabinet because of the objection of Forbes Burnham. Today, Guyana’s Parliament with almost 33% women MPs stands as among the leading Parliaments in the world for women representation. The 1953 victory of the PPP established a clear pathway for women to fight for and assert their rights. That Guyana, however, has failed to ensure full rights of women and children is because the movement towards national unity was fractured soon after the 1953 election, driven by the colonial masters effective “divide and rule” policies and by the blind ambition of some of the early political leaders, like Burnham.

As we further reflect on the significance of the PPP’s massive 1953 elections victory, we recognize that the formation of the PAC in 1946 and its transformation into the PPP in 1950 mobilized the Guyanese people across race, ethnicity, religion, economic status and geography for the first ever mass-based political movement. The 1953 victory signified that Cheddi and his PPP succeeded for the first time to bring about the political involvement of the masses, consciously seeking to bring about the liberating force of the masses walking and working together. The PPP was the only mass-based of the 5 political parties that participated in the 1953 elections. The other political parties, the National Democratic Party (NDP), the People’s National Party (PNP), the United Farmers and Workers Party (UFWP) and the Guyana National Party (GNP), each represented only a narrow part of the population.

The NDP received the support of the League of Colored People, a movement that was dominated by some of the academic, professional and economically powerful Afro-Guyanese. The NDP was led by WOR Kendall, the King of New Amsterdam. The party also included prominent professionals and certain big business personalities, such as Dr. Jacob Alexander Nicholson, John Carter and John Fernandes. Big business, the colonial representatives, the church and the media backed the NDP, as did also, the MPCA, the planter class handpicked trade union in the sugar industry. Nothing in the makeup and in the policies of the NDP was in the interest of the masses. The NDP’s main line of attack was that the PPP was an Indian-dominated party, accusing Burnham of selling out to the Indo-Guyanese. The NDP which prior to 1953 was the main political party was crushed in the 1953 elections, winning only two seats.

The other political parties also mobilized people based on their race and religion and other narrow confines. For example, the Lorris Rohan Sharples-led United Guyanese Party was established by the Planters Class to mainly oppose Cheddi Jagan in Berbice. He was a very popular doctor in Berbice, revered by all, especially sugar workers, lived within stone throw of Cheddi’s father in Port Mourant and regarded as next to God in the Jagan family household. Sharples would become depressed over the overwhelming rejection by the voters. The UFWP was headed by Daniel Debidin who was a member of the legislature. Far from representing farmers and workers, the UFWP sought the support of middle class Indo-Guyanese. His line of attack was that Cheddi and the PPP had sold out to the African Guyanese interests. Debidin opposed Independence for Guyana, one of the main goals of the PPP, charging that Independence for Guyana would erode the interests of middle class Indians.

The PPP rejected these narrow confines and brought the masses together under a single political party. In the unity demonstrated by the PPP’s victory, people voted for the policies and programs and rejected the racist and class cocoons that the other parties represented. For example, the PPP’s candidate in West Demerara, a mostly Indo-Guyanese constituency, was a sugar worker named Fred Bowman. His opponent was Dr. JB Singh, a massively popular doctor who was the Head of the Maha Saba and who regarded himself as the chief spokesman for the Hindus. He was a long-standing member of the legislature and popular with the colonial representatives. In the end, even though Dr. JB Singh played the race card, people rejected the appeal to race and voted for Bowman and the PPP.

Not only did the PPP brought out and organized the masses across race, ethnicity and culture, they ensured that women and youth became part of the formula. Earlier, I noted the election of the first ever women and the election of Janet as the Deputy Speaker. Janet was included in the list of the 6 candidates to be included in the first ever Cabinet, but in a compromise to Burnham, Janet was replaced by Joseph Latchmansingh as a Minister.  But the hallmark of the 18 new MPs and the first PPP Cabinet was its youth-orientation. Cheddi himself as Guyana’s first Premier was only 34 years old. Burnham was barely 30. Ashton Chase (25) became the youngest ever Minister anywhere in the world up to that time.

The PPP’s 1953 manifesto for the first time represented the interests of the broad masses, instead of the colonial masters, eloquently demanding independence for the territory. The 1953 manifesto emphasized the rights of workers, women and youth, universal access to education and health. The manifesto confronted labor relations, promising fair workers compensation, holidays with pay, protection for domestic workers and fishermen. Land ownership and security of tenure for the masses was a major manifesto promise. The manifesto demanded universal access to education at the primary and secondary levels, advocating for public schools to end the religious domination of the education sector. The PPP manifesto and its campaign in 1953 elevated the issue of censorship for books to a major policy plank, rejecting the British-backed government’s habit of banning books. These were revolutionary ideas at the time, frightening to the colonial masters and big business.

National unity as projected in 1953 frightened the British and American colonialists and imperialists and they immediately strategized to fracture that unity Cheddi and the PPP inspired. The imperialists decided they had to act and dismantle the Guyanese unity platform. There were two immediate tactics that led to the fracturing and 65 years later Guyana is still a victim of this deliberate and vicious assault on national unity. First, they sowed the seed of division by exploiting the boiling ambition of Forbes Burnham, with the complicity of a handful of ambitious middleclass professionals. Because Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese, was challenging Cheddi Jagan, an Indo-Guyanese, for leadership, the imperialists recognized that advancing Burnham’s unprincipled effort to grab power would create racial division. They set about to imprison the Jagans and those leading PPP members who were supportive of Cheddi and allowed Burnham and those that supported him to have free reign to sow dissent. Second, the British suspended the constitution, then invaded Guyana with its military, overthrowing the popular PPP government after only 133 days in office and installing a puppet interim government.

In remarks in 1963, Duncan Sandys, the British Foreign Secretary, the man who imposed an electoral system in Guyana designed to overthrow Cheddi and the PPP, deemed racialism the “curse of Guyana”, a curse that the imperialists aggressively promoted. There are many, perhaps the majority of us, who treat unity as an elusive goal. But Cheddi united our country behind the PPP in 1953. That unity started the journey to independence and sovereignty and the dismantling of colonial power in Guyana. In 1992, we accomplished a “mini” unity train once again. Without some level of unity in 1992, we could not have deposed the dictators and restored democracy. Unfortunately, success in unity-building has been fleeting. For this reason, many believe that a united Guyana is not in our destiny, an elusive dream. Yet Cheddi proved in 1953 that national unity is achievable, even if daunting. As we reflect on the 65th anniversary of the unity that brought victory on April 27th 1953, let us aspire to achieving a lasting unity, realizing the dream of this great man. It is our beacon and guarantee for a better and prosperous Guyana, our navigator towards Eldorado.

Dr. Leslie Ramsammy


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