• 20 Jul, 2024

Memories of the 1968 and 1973 Guyana Elections

Memories of the 1968 and 1973 Guyana Elections

Memories of the 1968 and 1973 Guyana Elections

I was very young, but I remember well the Guyana elections of 1968 and 1973 in Ankerville, Port Mourant, where I was born and raised till my migration in 1973 for college. I did my part to get the voters out to the benefit to the PPP and to sell the Mirror newspaper, organ of the PPP.

The general elections were held 16 December 1968. It was a Monday. Everyone was ready and prepared to vote. From early morning, the villagers set out for the polling stations. They descended on various polling stations at St. Joseph Anglican Primary school in Ankerville, St Xavier Roman Catholic in Portuguese Quarter, Port Mourant Hospital in Haswell, Tain Primary School, and other locations to cast their ballots. Port Mourant was primarily an Indian village -- over 99% Indian. There was only one Mixed family in Port Mourant I could recall.

In Ankerville, I ran errands on election day to round up those who had not cast ballots to get them out to the polling booths. There was a list of electors that party (PPP) agents had in possession. At the entrance of the polling stations, names of those who voted were crossed out. The party agents knew exactly who voted and didn’t cast ballot as yet. Being in the company of elders, I was instructed to go to homes and get the non-voters out. I ran from street to street delivering messages and urging those who had not yet voted, to go the polling stations. Everyone came out!

And I remember chatting with some old folks about the election and their discussion of its importance for the PPP and Ankerville’s own Cheddi Jagan, the home son of the soil. Isaac (also known as Chai)’s mother across from my home talked about the necessity to win. We call her Mai and I knew of no other name for her. When I visited to meet her grandson my friend Stanley, Mai said: “Beta, dis election prapa (very) important. Abee Jagan got to win. Otherwise abee guh suffer. Dem rob abee last time. Abee must win now”. Old lady, Lagnee (Dhanraj’s mother and who we also called Mai), also across the road, echoed the same message. (All the very old folks, older than our parents were called aja, aji, mai, pai, nana, nanni, among other loving kin terms). The two old folks across the street and their yards, separated by another street going in the back towards Jagn's home, spoke with one another in Hindi (or Bhojpuri). Jagan's mother also spoke Hindi (Bhojpuri) and she also communicated her desire for her son to win. Deed (Dandai’s Mother), our right side neighbor, also spoke in the same tone about the importance of the election to Indians and to the country and to Jagan. Her husband, Babna but who we called “Aja Bhai”(grandfather’s brother), also stressed the significance of the election, praying for a Jagan's victory. Our left side neighbor, Dowdin (who we also called Mai)(Kaku-ji’s mother) and her husband Bhaiju (maker of dholak drums) also spoke of importance of the election. They all did puja that morning, as they did almost every morning, for a Jagan's win.  All the folks (Paan, Rampeer butcher, Shaw Khan, among many others) that lived on the long street stressed the importance of voting and of a PPP victory. Every person in the Indian village of Port Mourant voted and all cast ballots for the PPP. People voted race; it was like a census of adults in the village or country by ethnicity. Indians voted PPP while Africans and some Mixed voted PNC. Whites or Portuguese and Amerindians with some Mixed voted UF. A few voters, very few, did cast ballots across ethnic or party lines. The result of the election after the ballot count was disappointing. The election was rigged massively in favor of Forbes Burnham and the PNC. The PPP and its (Indian) supporters were robbed of victory; Indians were a majority of the population in end of 1968. A PPP victory was inevitable except for the flagrant rigging.
 

The July 16, 1973 election remains etched in my memory. I remember vehicles armed atop with gun-toting machine guns and African soldiers patrolling the Port Mourant area that day and several days later. The troops set up camp in Tain and Whim and they were all over Berbice, stronghold of the PPP. Their vehicles with their gun toing soldiers and para-military units intimidated and terrorized Port Mourant and other villages on the Corentyne. I was told the same was done in other Indian villages throughout the Corentyne Coast. It may well have been the case all over the country as Burnham implemented his plan to rig the voting.

Party agents in Port Mourant and surrounding areas meticulously planned and organized how to get all the voters out. People woke up early that Monday morning July 16 and headed for the polling stations to cast ballots.  They came out in their numbers. As in 1968, those who had not cast ballots by mid-day were reminded. I did errands, going house to house, for the party agents rounded up those who had not voted. Near the polling stations, the agents kept a list of voters and crossed out the names of those who voted. In this way, they knew exactly who cast ballots and how many votes the party received. Since people voted race, it was expected that almost every Indian voted PPP. Ditto Africans and many Mixed for the PNC. Portuguese, Chinese, Amerindians, and some Mixed voted UF (That year it was the Liberator Party with the UF). At the end of the polling day, party agents knew how many votes the party expected to receive in each polling station. They could aggregate the numbers for the entire country for each party, plus or minus a small percentage. the ballot boxes were seized. 

Polling agents were not allowed to accompany boxes. Soldiers confiscated the boxes. At polling stations, when the boxes were seized, there was uproar. The soldiers used their bayonet threatening agents who simply watched helplessly as their ballots were stolen and with it the election . 

We learned of the fatal shooting Bholanauth Parmanand (Jack) and Jagan Ramessar both of No 64 Village were cut down by soldiers’ bullets because they insisted on accompanying the ballot boxes to the place of count. The soldiers switched the ballot boxes and dumped the real boxes with authentic ballots reflecting the will of the voters in PPP strongholds.

 

Cheddi Jagan called for peaceful protests and public gatherings, protesting the rigging. The village of Port Mourant came out in full support onto the roads in protest against the rigging. Workers downed their tools. The entire road from Rose Hall to Bloomfield and beyond came out in full support. I remember walking from my home to the road top in front of Rambalass shop in Ankerville on Tuesday and Wednesday. Hundreds gathered on the roadside each day. Armed gun-toting carriers mounted on the roofs of GDF vehicles and soldiers carrying rifles or machine guns stood menacingly directing their guns at us, instructing us to go home. Not moving, they rolled on with their patrols.

The Corentyne and the country remember the pain of the family of the Ballot Box martyrs of the Corentyne. The supporters of the PPP were resigned to their fate -- rigged from office. Democracy was rigged! 

Dr Vishnu Bisram

Dr Vishnu Bisram is Guyanese born who received his primary and secondary education in Guyana and tertiary education in the US and India. He is a fourth generation Indian. His great grandparents from both his mother and father’s sides were born in India -- Gurbatore from Ghaizpur, Amru from Azamgarh, Sau from Chapra, Mangri from Mau, Bhuri and Bhura Singh from Bharatpur, among others. They all came at different times to then British Guiana (1880s and 1890s) to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. After serving ten years, they were freed laborers. They remained on the colony rather than returned to India, married and had children. They used the savings from indentureship to purchase landholdings to cement their ties to their adopted land. They were not given free land. Vishnu Bisram is ninth of twelve children of Gladys and Baldat, rural farmers, she also was a seamstress and he a taylor and they attended to a kitchen garden as well. Vishnu attended the St Joseph Anglican (called English) primary school from 1966 to 1972. In 1972, he passed the annual nationwide Common Entrance exam winning a scholarship place to attend the government Berbice High School in New Amsterdam, some 17 miles from his home village of Ankerville, Port Mourant. He declined the placement scholarship and opted instead for the private Chandisingh High School to which his family pad to pay a tuition. He entered for eight subjects at the Cambridge University Exam in 1977. Vishnu migrated to the USA in 1977 to further his studies. He enrolled at the City College of City University of New York September that year at age 17, studying Bio-Chemistry and also completing a major in Political Science. After his BSc in Bio-Chem, he pursued graduate studies in International Relations earning a MA. He went on to complete multiple post graduate degrees including doctorates in Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science and Educational Administration. Dr Bisram taught for over forty years in various subjects in the US. He also served as a newspaper reporter and columnist for over four decades and is a well-known pollster in the Caribbean region. He is a specialist on the Indian diaspora traveling extensively around the globe to research and write about Indian communities. He published countless articles on various subjects in the mass media, journals, and books. He also organized international conferences on the Indian diaspora and presented papers at many conferences. He was a guest lecturer at universities in Mauritius, India, Fiji, South Africa, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, USA, and other countries. He is a well regarded political analyst on American and Caribbean politics. He makes him home in Guyana, Trinidad, and America and travels frequently to India.