Struggle for School Diwali Celebration at Corentyne High, Guyana; & Introduction of Diwali at City College New York

Struggle for School Diwali Celebration at Corentyne High, Guyana; & Introduction of Diwali at City College New York
Photo : Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Diwali is being celebrated in schools in Guyana and at university (college) campuses across America. But Diwali celebration was not permitted in public schools in Berbice (not sure if was allowed in schools in Demerara or Essequibo) prior to 1976. Christmas and Easter celebrations were allowed. It was quite a struggle to get recognition and permission to celebrate Diwali at Corentyne High School (CHS) where I was a student. Government had taken over the school a year earlier. Corentyne High was private prior to September 1975. CHS was the leading school in Berbice in terms of performance; it was rated just behind Queens College in Guyana.
I and a few other student activists led the struggle for the right to form a student council (government) and student clubs and to celebrate Diwali at CHS. The school's management, led by JC Chandisingh and his son Rohan and Asst. Headmaster Mr Deonarine, was opposed to formation of student organizations leading to a long struggle for its acceptance.  The management must have felt it would earn brownie points from the Burnham dictatorship by disallowing group formations. The Burnham government was afraid of organizations fearing these would rally forces to oppose his dictatorship. The late Walter Rodney had said at a public meeting that if a group of donkeys had gotten together to graze, Burnham would have gotten nervous and break down up; he was so afraid of animals and people coming together. People were fearful of the all powerful dictator and his cronies as several lost their lives or limbs for challenging the whims of the dictatorship. And few dared challenge the dictatorship. But the CHS students were restive and and wanted to assert their rights. They rebelled and received support from some staff members and community elders; the other staff members afraid of losing their “wuk” or being targeted by the Burnham dictatorship. The struggle for club formation and the right to celebrate Diwali became a pioneering effort with far reaching influence in Guyana and even in colleges and Guyanese in America. Students (like myself) from CHS and or those involved in the student rebellion on the Corentyne helped to organize and plan Diwali at City College and at schools in New York as well as withing the Guyanese diaspora.
I helped to organize Diwali celebrations at Corentyne High in 1976 and the following year at City College (CUNY) continuing several years thereafter during my undergrad and grad studies where I obtained several MA degrees before proceeding to earn PhDs. I and a few others also helped to organize the first major Diwali celebration in New York City at the Washington Irving high school in Manhattan in October 1984; our Indo Caribbean group held the first Miss Diwali Pageant in America that was jointly put together by Mr. Nohar Singh and held at Washington Irving HS auditorium. The skills and success in organizing Diwali celebrations in America were largely the result of the pioneering experience obtained at Corentyne High School (CHS), now renamed JC Chandisingh H.S.
The (CHS) Diwali celebration was organized by the newly formed Hindu Society whose faculty mentors were Dr Chaitram Singh, Dr. Indradat Jagnandan, Ms. Vijaya Poonwassie Tewari, Mr. Iserdhat Ramdehol, Mr. Permaul, Mr. Aslim Khan, among others. Initially, the school administration agreed to the formation of a Student Council (Society) but then had a change of heart and banned it. The leadership, including this student (Vishnu Bisram), Thejram Raghubir, Ann Ramoutar, Shanti Oneshwar, Diana Peters, Debbie Lalchan, Basmattie Girdharry, Geeta Singh, Susana Rawana, and a few others, were directly instructed and threatened with consequences (by the principal J.C Chandisingh and his son Rohan who was an Assistant Principal) to cease and desist from activities relating to the student organization. I was summoned into the principal' s office and threatened with serious consequences if the organization hosted any activities. This led to a school strike by students (who walked out of the school) over several days including picketing of the building. I led the walk out and was ably supported by other students.  I was serving as roving Head Prefect at the time; myself and a few other prefects assumed leadership positions for the students’ strike. I was subsequently removed as Head Prefect. The students appealed to (petitioned) Berbice Education Officer (Mr. Solomon) for intervention to end the strike (boycott of classes) with the restoration (rescinding of the ban) of the Students Council society; I personally delivered the letter to the EO at his home in Portuguese Quarter. The EO initially refused to meet with the students’ leadership unless they ended the strike and returned to class. But the students objected to the condition and remained on strike until the EO agreed to meet their demands. The EO relented (caved in) and met with students and later staff members who were sympathetic with striking students. The EO and administration agreed with the students’ conditions to end the strike – that included rescinding the ban on and recognition of the Students Society and the formation of religious clubs. Another demand was staff would not be penalized for supporting the students – a condition that would later be violated by the administration and the EO (Ministry of Education). Hindu, Muslim and Christian Clubs (Societies) were subsequently formed. All four student organizations endorsed the idea of a Diwali celebration as it was the first major festival after the launching of the four organizations. A Diwali concert was organized in a collaborative effort with students of all three faiths (Hindus, Muslims, Christians) assisting in the planning and organizing of the festivities.
With voluntary labor from students and staff, and the caretaker (Watchie as he was called), classrooms were re-arranged into a huge hall (auditorium) and aesthetically decorated (festooned with balloons and party favors) for the occasion. A make shift stage was constructed and decorated. A band volunteered to play music gratis. It was a festive atmosphere at the school. Students displayed their singing, drumming, and classical dancing talent. Diana Peters, dressed in a sari, performed a classical dance. It was the largest celebration of any event at the school. Schools followed pattern and hosted Diwali celebrations in subsequent years.
Students from CHS that migrated to the US used their experience of Diwlai celebrations in Guyana to help organize Diwali programs that are very popular in areas where Indo-Caribbeans are settled especially in the New York area. They helped plan and partook in the tradition of public celebrations of Diwali at schools, parks and catering halls. They used organizing skills obtained from Guyana to introduce Diwali celebrations in America. Students at CCNY were able to observe first hand Indo-Guyanese culture in 1977 with Diwali and later Phagwah celebrations. There were concerts and dinners thereafter for Diwali and Holi at CCNY organized by myself and members of the Indo Cultural Club. Foods included sweet delicacies and vegetarian dishes (dhal puri, alou curry, bhara, baiganie, phulourie, etc.) prepared for the occasion. I spearheaded the planning and organizing of those events and the preparation of meals ably assisted by members of the Indo-Caribbean Club. That pioneering effort of Indian cultural celebrations set the precedent for celebrations at other campuses. Guyanese and Trini Hindus (like Vassan Ramracha and Baytoram Ramharack) were part of the effort to spread Indian culture like Diwali celebrations at schools and college campuses across America. We were ably assisted by the student government of CCNY of which Ramracha and I were elected officer. We championed the effort to obtain funding for those activities.
The experience from the struggle to gain recognition for Diwali at CHS paid handsome dividends. That struggle helped in educating me about the importance of Diwali to Indians and in influencing and providing the experience for me to plan and organize Diwali at CCNY and in introducing it in America.