Photo : Ravi Dev
In his column, “Cheddi Jagan on the WI Federation: CLR James on Cheddi Jagan” (SN4-25-18) former long-term PPP executive, Ralph Ramkarran wrote: “Divided societies like Guyana suffer from a phenomenon whereby historic events which, when they occurred, gave rise to allegations of ethnic bias, never seem to go away. The West Indies Federation, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, is one such. It is an historic event which is hardly relevant to contemporary Guyana today. Yet the debate on Jagan’a attitude to the Federation rages, as if the event occurred yesterday, and not more than 50 years ago.”
Mr Ramkarran should harken to Faulkner’s aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And in fact, Ramkarran answered his own implicit question as the continuing salience of Jagan’s Federation stance: “It is contextualized to the current ethnic controversies, one of which is to seek to continually paint Jagan as a racist, or at least to allege that he was motivated by ethnic considerations.” The point is about why Jagan insisted his rationale for rejecting Federation had no “ethnic considerations”.
Ramkarran quoted Jagan from 1986, wherein he regurgitated the answer he gave in the fifties and in his book “The West on Trial” (1966): that Guyana would only join the WI Federation if it was first approved by a referendum. But Jagan misses the point made by CLR James in the same 1958 speech from which Ramkarran lifted James’ praise of Cheddi: “Dr. Jagan is no petty racialist, not at all…[I]n regard to his aims for British Guiana, and for the West Indies as a whole, they are those of an enlightened modern person.”
But Jagan himself explained in 1986 why the “Referendum before Federation” stance was taken: “The PPP went into the 1953 general elections…in favour of a West Indies Federation, with the proviso that a referendum would be taken before entry. This formula was adopted to take the controversial issue of Federation out of the elections because the PPP leadership was being attacked by racialists from two sides: the East Indian Association stating that I was selling out to the African L. F. S. Burnham and the Indians would be swamped in a predominantly African Federation: the League of Coloured People stating that Burnham was selling out to ‘coolie’ Cheddi Jagan…”
But by 1958 Burnham had embraced his African support base, Carter of the LCP and the Federation, yet Jagan refused to state clearly why he still demanded a referendum, when he wasn’t “selling out” to Burnham any longer. James pointed out: “The question of the plebiscite or the question of Federation is not an abstract question or a political question which can be left hanging in the air too long. Racial rivalry is involved…In the last analysis, the people have to decide everything in a democracy. But no one ever holds an election in which everybody walks around and tells the people, “Well choose some people.” They offer the people definite choices.”
James had clearly laid out the ethnic concerns of both African and Indian Guyanese: “We heard that the East Indians in British Guiana were opposed to Federation and these were the reasons given. They had a numerical majority over the other races, they hoped to establish an Indian domination of the colony; Federation would bring thousands of Africans (or people of African descent) from the smaller islands to British Guiana.... They would place the Indians in British Guiana in an inferior position...
We heard also that the African population of British Guiana was now eager for Federation particularly for the reason that it would bring this reinforcement from the smaller islands, once more establish African numerical superiority, and so check the East Indians.”
Jagan’s equivocation about stating clearly his position vis a vis the concerns of his Indian supporters -because it had an ‘ethnic” rather than a “class” nexus on the issue of the Federation is a trope for his stance on other issues, This was unlike the case with the PNC and their African supporters’ concerns. Jagan ignored CLR James’ classic formulation on the politics of race and class:
“The race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental.”