The Mighty Sparrow & Guyana’s Independence

British occupying forces

May 26th, 2016, Guyana’s 50th independence anniversary, presented a perfect opportunity for the APNU-AFC coalition government to revel in Guyanese nationalism. The 50th independence anniversary also closely coincided with the APNU-AFC’s 1-year anniversary in governance. To take advantage of this confluence of occasions, the government held a grand flag raising ceremony and government was able to rally the country to celebrate a half-century of self-governance and independence from the former colonial masters in Britain. To this day many Guyanese have their homes decorated in the commemorative memorabilia from the 2016 independence celebrations.

On the occasion of the country’s 51st anniversary, partially due to it being less of a momentous milestone and partially due to the many scandals the government has found itself in since last year, the celebrations have been more muted. It is in this somewhat more sober atmosphere we must try to understand what independence means for a country like Guyana. To do so we must return to the tumultuous period of Guyanese history which led up to our independence on May 26, 1966.

The Socialist Worker’s Alliance recently republished Martin’s Carter’s article “No Separate Salvation” that was published on the eve of the racial split in the People’s Progressive Party in 1955. To understand independence we must then ask what happened in the period between 1955 and 1966 that led to Forbes Burnham and the People’s National Congress (PNC) instead of Cheddi Jagan and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) taking the country to independence?

It would appear very few Guyanese want to discuss this period, however, it suffices to say that under British military occupation, with collusion from the American Central Intelligence Agency, Burnham and the PNC allied with the United Force to beat the PPP at the polls under a new system of proportional representation. This form of “independence” helped to reinforce the partisan and racial divide in Guyanese politics, which remains with us to this day.

Interestingly, President David Granger, in his remarks on the 51st independence anniversary paints Guyana’s independence in much rosier language,

The ‘free state’ that we established on 26th May 1966 recognised our commitment to social cohesion through which we learn to accept and respect each other’s values and beliefs and to share the common space we call our homeland. The ‘free state’ is one that is free from discrimination; it is one that is built on the basis of respect for cultural diversity, political inclusivity and social equality.

 Maybe the president understands the extent to which a neo-colonial nation exists under the dominance of imperialist nations like America, Britain and Canada and this is why ‘free state’ is put into quotation marks. What is more important here, however, is the concept of social cohesion. This has been an oft-repeated theme from president Granger and his administration and under their rule a Ministry of Social Cohesion has even been created.

Why do we need social cohesion though? It must mean that something is adrift in the ‘free state’ where “cultural diversity, political inclusivity and social equality” are supposed to be respected. Incredibly, president Granger often cites former PNC president Forbes Burnham as the “father of social cohesion.” If independence is to have real meaning, it is about time we tackle this assertion.

It is hard, of course, to speak in an objective manner about the racial and political divide in Guyana. Criticism of the PNC is taken to mean implicit support of the PPP and vice versa. So before talking about Burnham’s role in social cohesion and independence, and to assuage the minds of the readers who see implicit support for the PPP, it is important to note that the country’s racial divide in politics cannot be placed on any one party.  It is well known that Cheddi Jagan did not do enough to combat the “Apan Jaat” ethnocentrism of Indo-Guyanese in the PPP. This of course led the basis for the more open ethno-centrism of the current leader of the PPP and former president Bharat Jagdeo who in his “Apan Jaat” as he alleges, without evidence, that Indo-Guyanese people and businesses are under attack since the rise of coalition government.

Returning to Burnham’s role in the independence movement, we must tackle the assertion that Burnham was the father of social cohesion. How can the man who engineered the split of the multi-racial PPP be thought of as the father of social cohesion? The answer, oddly, lies in a song by the Mighty Sparrow called B.G. War. Chronicling the rioting which erupted in the era preceding independence in 1966, Sparrow sings,

Well they drop a hydrogen bomb in B.G., Lord Have Mercy,

Riot in town mama, I hear the whole place on fire,

From Kitty to the waterfront, all that burn down flat flat

Sparrow pivots then pivots from describing the violence in leading up to independence to the military occupation by the British and Burnham’s role in ending the disturbances.

They send for soldiers quite up in England, with big confusion,

They bring down warship with cannon like peas, to shoot Guyanese,

But Burnham say alright now, I’m the only man to stop this row,

He give we the signal, and that was the case,

Now we have peace and quiet in the place.

 As Guyanese people celebrate our 51st anniversary of independence from British rule we need to ask what power Burnham had that he could just give a signal and end the disturbances. Moreover, why did the US and British ruling class see Burnham as a better option than Jagan and the PPP? Moreover, how can the man who had the ability to end riots with just a signal, but allowed them to continue until ending them was politically advantageous for him be called the father of social cohesion? Keep in mind this Guyanese saying: “Teacher don’t beat for the question, but the answer.”

No Separate Salvation by Martin Carter

martin carter
Martin Carter, Guyanese Poet & Politician 1927-1997
Note from the Socialist Workers Alliance: We republish below an editorial by renowned Guyanese poet Martin Carter which was written on the eve of the split in the People’s Progressive Party in 1955 between Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. Carter skillfully investigates the role of race and racism under British colonialism and provides insight to overcoming the racial and political divide in modern day Guyana which has only grown wider since the document was written.

Source: Editorial from Thunder, Vol. 6 – No. 48, Organ of the People’s Progressive Party, March 5, 1955, p.  1 Georgetown, British Guiana.

Everybody living in this colony ought to know that people of African, Indian, Portuguese and Chinese descent dwell here only because in the past the sugar lords found it necessary to bring their ancestors to this part of the world to work in the cane fields. While Indians, Chinese and Portuguese came as indentured immigrants, the Africans came as slaves. All of this is well known, but some people behave nowadays as if they simply do not know these facts, or that even if they do know them, they still do not realize what these facts signify.

There are some people who are using the split in the P.P.P. as an opportunity to foster racial feelings among the mass of people. Some of these people claim that the Party has broken into two sections – an Indian and an African. And some on the one hand call upon the African element to support that wing led by Mr. Burnham while others call upon the Indian element to support that wing led by Dr. Jagan. Presumably both of the groups of racial minded people believe they are acting in the best interests of the particular racial group in which they belong. But far from acting so, these people are only acting in the interests of those who brought them here and who have kept them down ever since. All of this without being understood, in the same way as people may know a man is dying without understanding what he is dying from.

Before going further let us see the racial composition of the leadership in the two Wings. On the one wing we have Mr. Burnham, Dr. Latchmansingh and Mr. Jai Narine Singh and on the other Dr. Jagan and Sydney King. Looking at it we can observe that on both sides are Indians and Africans working together, unless of course, Sydney King has mounted overnight like some grass bird, or Dr. Latchmansingh has suddenly been transformed into another man.

1953 PPP cabinet
Before the Split: Burnham (third from left) seated next to the Jagans and other PPP Cabinet members in 1953

When we come to the broad masses of the people the situation is somewhat different. For example, among the people of African descent there has been a history of a feeling of superiority over the Indians because it was felt that the Indians came to Guiana to do the work the slaves refused to do after Emancipation. On the other hand there has also been a history of feelings on the part of the Indians that the people of African descent were inferior because at one time these people happened to be slaves. Further, the cultural position of the two groups is important in this matter. Indians proudly retain certain ties with India in religion custom etc. while the people of African descent, torn form Africa as they were with bleeding roots had to build right up from the ground. These positions give confidence to the Indians while to the Africans they lead to a certain self pitying attitude and consequently an emphasis on rather to a resolution of the problem.

Further to all this is the social and economic grudges which exist. It is claimed for instance that Indians occupy all the big positions in commerce and the professions. So therefore, the argument goes, Indians are getting on while those of African descent are stagnant. This argument seems to ignore the fact that Indians are the majority in this country and that although some seem to be doing well, thousands are seeing hell. Nevertheless because Indians happen to be in the majority there is a tendency for some of them to believe that of necessity they must assume the dominant role in everything. While little argument can be brought against the fact of numerical strength, Indians must realise that under colonial rule only the British Government dominates. Indians on the other hand complain that the Africans dominate the Civil Service, the police force and the teaching profession and that appointments are limited where Indians are concerned. Witness the appointment of all Negro interim ministers and realize the trick in the thing.

Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan

But repeating these facts is one thing. We can see quite easily as shown above that historical circumstances and social accident have more or less laid a foundation out of which serious racial antagonisms could emerge. Instead of contemplating this reality we must master it. And the achievement of the PPP in the past gives us hope for the future.

The PPP succeeded in uniting the people of Guiana because it showed that only unity among themselves would make them strong enough to fight the imperial government effectively. This was demonstrated at the General Election when the P.P.P candidates of African descent won seats in decidedly Indian constituencies against Indian candidates. That means that if the people would only understand the major issue of the people’s struggle against imperialism some good will be done. Thus it would be better for a person of Indian descent to support Mr. Burnham for ideological reason for the same person, while agreeing with Mr. Burnham to support Dr. Jagan only because he happens to be an Indian. The same holds good for a person of African descent. For this would mean that the action was dictated by reason and not by racialism. In the long run reason would lead to truth while racialism would lead to disaster.

There is no separate salvation for Indians in Guiana, no separate salvation for Africans. There is only salvation for a united Guianese people fighting as a people against imperialism for National Independence. Let those who advocate racialism in any form among the people confute this. (M.C.)