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I join with others in paying tribute to Balram Singh Rai, an iconic political figure who passed away last week. He had a towering personality with every first generation Guyanese in the diaspora familiar with his name. He completed his century last year February and received a letter of that achievement from Her Majesty.
Rai made a huge contribution to the PPP. He exuded confidence and infallibility while in government. He helped in Jagan’s early election to the colonial legislature and to the PPP’s victory and rise to power in ‘57 and ‘61. He served in an executive position of the Public Service Union that was largely African in composition. African workers adored him. During his tenure as a legislator, as Education and Home Affairs Minister, he worked selflessly for the welfare of the country, serving with distinction and incorruptible honesty.Unlike other PPP leaders, he showed Indians could be recruited in the security force more than doubling their percentage as he went village to village convincing young Indians to join the force. And he boldly de-Christianized the schools removing mandatory Christian prayers and the requirement that only Christians could be teachers. While other Ministers were in hiding during the race riot period, he braved the protesters and rioters. He was the only Minister out on the road. He was admired for his courage. Even Africans saluted him. They also held him in awe. His fallout with the Jagan’s over the manipulation of the party’s internal election for Chair led to his embracing the Americans. After he was removed from the PPP, the party was kept out of power for 28 years.
Rai was a very devout person praying morning and evening. He was of the Rajput Kshatriya (Chatri) caste and of Arya Samaj faith. He lived by his Hindu values, principles, and vision. People I spoke with said he had a magnetic, charismatic personality. Many feel he was more charismatic than Cheddi and a threat to that iconic leader. Dual leadership could not work. And so one of them had to go. At any rate, Indians do not support two leaders at the same time.
Even those who opposed Rai respected and admired him. He affectionately greeted people everywhere winning over their friendship if not their votes. After his defeat in December 1964, he left Guiana swearing he would never return. He also issued ‘a shrap’ (a curse) that the people of Guiana would pay a heavy price for embracing a socialist leader. He turned out to be right. His departure from Guyana was an immeasurable loss for the country and for those who sought to moderate socialist views. He retreated to London where he lived honourably. After his departure from Guyana, many missed his loyal friendship and erudition, speaking fondly of his looks and wisdom.
Ever since he left Guyana, Mr. Rai became an extremely private person and hardly engaged in public conversation with others on or about Guyana. He was willing to converse with Dr. Baytoram Ramharack who approached him to write his biography – a brilliant piece of work. About a decade ago, on a visit to London, I wanted to meet and interview him for an article. Pandit Rampersaud Tiwari, formerly of Buxton, East Coast, with who Rai was close and respected, introduced me to him. Rai and his wife Aunty Shannie agreed to entertain me at their home. He was residing somewhere in the Ealing area, near Heathrow, a long journey from Lewisham where I was putting up. They subsequently moved to Oxford near their son’s home as Rai’s physical condition deteriorated. We spoke several times in my trips to London as well as from my home in New York. His wife, Aunty Shannie, facilitated the conversations. He was reluctant to talk about Guyana’s politics or Cheddi Jagan. I told him I was writing on the injustice of his not getting his parliamentary/Ministerial pension. He said if I succeed, he would like for it to go to the Dharamshala.
BS Rai had a warm, charming, engaging personality. He spoke softly. He was a man of tremendous intellect, legal acumen, and wit possessed one of the sharpest political minds. He was well ahead of his times in terms of realpolitik. He recognized and knew since the late 1950s that the West would not tolerate a leftist (socialist) government in Guyana, long before Ramharack and I studied that concept. He also knew that Indians were not socialist or communist oriented people. He tried, as did Fenton Ramsahoye and several others, to convince Jagan not to embrace socialism as it would alienate the party from the US and UK governments. Jagan was doctrinaire and refused to budge over disowning communism.
Fenton confirmed that there was a Jagan conspiracy to prevent Rai from being elected as Chairman. Whoever voted for Rai will pay the consequences. Jagan chastised those Indians who supported Rai. (At the time, it was not good politics to have the leader and Chair of the same race. And given Cheddi’s endearment to the Indian population, it was not possible to defy him or for Rai to successfully challenge him).
Fenton said Rai was a man of erudition and sharp analysis but like others in the PPP he lacked the powers of persuasion over Jagan. They all failed to moderate Jagan’s socialist ways. Jagan was stubborn and ultimately paid the price as did his supporters – being removed from power in December 1964 kept out of government for 28 years through machinations of the West in collaboration with Burnham and the PNC.
BS Rai was well read. He was very articulate on a gamut of issues. Fenton told me Rai was a brilliant lawyer, articulate orator, capable political strategist, and outstanding parliamentarian whose knowledge and insights of law and politics had very few parallels in then British Guiana. He was committed to his belief – religion, people, and economic philosophy. He spoke out and fought against the injustice that Hindus faced – in public schools and in obtaining state employment. In all of his activities. He served the Queen and British Guiana with great passion & devotion.
Regrettably, Rai never received his pension benefits for serving the people of Guyana. Fenton said that was an injustice. Fenton himself didn’t receive pension for several years. They both rebuffed Burnham’s entreaties and had a falling out with Jagan and paid a price. (Rai and Fenton refused to join Burnham’s government). I tried several times to convince PPP governments to give Rai his pension but to no avail. President Granger made sure that Hamilton Green got a hefty pension. The same should have been done for Rai.
Pandit Rampersaud Tiwari urged me to plead to Rai to withdraw his ‘shrap’ on Guyana. I don’t know if he did but would laugh whenever it was brought up.
Rai will always be remembered for his towering legacy, transformative vision, non-racial politics, devotion to his faith, nationalism, and commitment to his people.
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