Tribute to Pt. Ramlall: Advocate of Guyana & NY Hinduism and Stalwart of Guyana Liberation Movement
I was in Delhi, India, when I got a phone call that Pandt Ramlall had passed on. It was only days before I spoke with him on the phone when I was in the holy city of Varanasi to attend the annual gathering of the Indian diaspora, the signature event of the government for overseas based people of Indian origin. Pandit had asked to see me and to do a small favor. Whenever I would visit India, Pt Ramlall would ask for small favors. On trips to India, I took packages for him for friends who he considered as family. On a previous return trip, I had brought back advanced copies of his biography. Pandit had asked me to write his biography, but I politely declined suggesting other writers. When the manuscript was prepared, I offered some suggestions to improve it. And I did a thorough review of the book after it was published. My association with Pt. Ramlall was “political” in nature. He knew I was/am a political analysist and advocate of the diaspora championing human rights in Guyana. We had a long history (late 1970s thru 1992) struggling against the PNC apartheid like dictatorship that oppressed Indians and Guyanese of other ethnicities. Pandit Ramlall was most impressed with the kind of activism carried out by myself and other colleagues like Dr. Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, Rennie Ramracha, Ravi Dev, and others (like Chuck Mohan, Arjune Karshan, etc.) from Guyanese oriented groups such as ACG .
I returned to New York on Monday and attended a tribute session for Ramlall-ji that very evening at the Arya Samaj Mandir (144th Street) that he helped found. (As an aside, I gave voluntary labor over two days to help to paint that mandir before it was inaugurated, and I occasionally attended services there. Pandit Ramlall, and before him Dr. Satish, always gracefully welcomed me with mala making me feel honored. They always praised me for the work I have been doing for Hinduism, and the Indian and Guyanese diaspora). The mandir was packed to capacity that Monday evening; I was told a larger assembly gathered the night before to pay tribute to the revered pandit.
It is indisputable that Pt. Ramlall is an iconic figure in the greater New York area. He was held in high esteem by followers and other religious figures. His persona and an aura about him drew people who accord him due respects and who expressed admiration for his work. He traveled globally, and wherever he went, he carried the torch of the Arya Samaj movement as an ambassador; this earned him accoldaes and respect.
Although an Arya Samajist, he was also well versed in Sanatanism, and he collaborated with Sanatanist pandits as well as attended their poojas and Ramayana discourses. He attended several international Ramayana, Hindi, and Hindu conferences including in Mauritius, Indonesia, and India where he studied Hindi during the 1960s and visited several times subsequently. He has left an indelible mark on several significant events including the institutionalization of Holi and Diwali celebrations in America. He attended Sanatanist events and remained supportive of that form of worshipping because it was the main branch of Hinduism. Ramlall-ji was described as a champion of Hinduism and a role model to be emulated. In fact, he dedicated himself to building Hinduism not only in America but wherever Indians are found. And his mission took him to many countries in Asia, Pacific, South America, and Caribbean. He was a frequent visitor to Canada and Surinam. He built partnerships with groups abroad. Wherever he traveled, he received accolades for leaving an indelible imprint on Hindu leaders globally.
In my countless encounters and exchanges with Pt. Ramlall, he was fiery but humble in his views. As an activist, Ramlall-ji was frank, forthright, and fearless. And he was effective at opening doors for championing causes relating to Guyanese and Indians in America and in Guyana. He was a stalwart of the liberation movement in Guyana. His life symbolized the struggle for the preservation of basic human values in the native land. His contributions to the struggle for democracy in Guyana will remain etched in the hearts and minds of those of us who were part of the struggle; he was very supportive to those of us who were the fulcrum of the struggle. We had our differences but we were united in the struggle for the upliftment of Indians and restoring democracy in Guyana. (As an aside, we had an exchange over his refusal to allow then URP leader Dr. Leslie Ramsammy to speak at the Phagwah parade in 1991 or 1992; the stage was a flatbed truck parked at an open lot on 131 Street, Liberty Ave, not the Arya Samaj ground on 133rd St, off Liberty. I felt all opponents of the Guyana dictatorship should be given a voice at the parade; but Ramlall being a Jaganite and I being “a Guyanaite” had opposing view on who should speak at events with opponents of Jagan disallowed from the stage. On his anger of my criticism of him over the Ramsammy issue, he mellowed over time and we quickly patched up our differences collaborating on activities to promote democracy in Guyana).
Ramlall-ji was perhaps the last of the older revered figures who knew Guyana history first hand having experienced critical events. Those of us still writing on Guyana’s liberation struggle, would tap into his knowledge as a resource. He will be sorely missed for his knowledge on Hinduism as well as on the history of the struggle of independence of Guyana. Ramlall-ji was part of that struggle having served time at Sibley Hall for advocating for Guyana’s freedom. He was a Jaganite to his last breath. And he made an invaluable contribution to the liberation of the homeland for which he was honored (with a medal of freedom) by the Guyana 50th Anniversary Committee based on my recommendation.
Pt. Ramlall was also a pioneer of the socio-cultural and religious development and institutionalization of Hinduism and the Guyanese and Indo-Caribbean community in America. He was a pioneer of the Arya Samaj movement in NYC. He would travel around to conduct havan services throughout the greater New York area. And he organized celebrations of various festivals when mandirs were not around. He was among the founders of the Arya Spiritual Center and was behind the acquisition of the ground on Liberty Avenue and 133rd Street where many a functions are held throughout the year over the last two decades. He organized events to bring Guyanese together. Few did as much as him to help build the Indo-Caribbean community in NYC. And few were as genuine as him in the political struggle of Guyana from abroad. He looked forward for nothing in return for his altruistic work.
He has had a large following in NYC. And he was held in high esteem by everyone (Indians and non-Indians) who knew him. Several Afro-Guyanese, Hispanics and Whites patronized his mandir and attended his annual birthday celebrations showering glowing praises for his work over the last four decades in America. A few decades ago, at a public event organized by the Guyana United Democratic Movement (GUDM founded by Ravi Dev) in Jamaica, Queens, the elder Eusi Kwayana praised Pt. Ramlall for his contributions to the struggle for Guyana’s independence and for free and fair elections.
At the tributes for Pt. Ramlall, everyone expressed sadness of his passing and some anecdotes of their encounters with him. They were all praiseworthy. I had a long experience with Pt. Ramlall. We are both Berbicians, he from Skeldon and I from Port Mourant, home of Dr. Jagan. Pt. Ramlall, as an Arya missionary, would frequently visit our village and engage community leaders on politics and Hinduism (his Arya versus the Sanatanist path to salvation); there were strong, militant debates. It was there I learn of Pt. Ramlall and his work as a champion of the Arya Samaj movement and as a PPP activist. Pt. Ramlall had Jagan’s ears and his recommendations for PPP scholarship to study abroad carried with weight. Several Berbicians studied in the east bloc as a result of Ramlall’s nominations for scholarships and they all spoke fondly of him. Without Ramlall’s help, they would not have obtained a tertiary education.
And sometime in late-1970s, Ramlall migrated to New York where we met by chance late 1970s or early 1980s through religious activities. I lived in the Bronx initially and we met at a religious event. In those days, Guyanese would take advantage of public events to meet fellow Guyanese for exchange of news about back home. Later, I moved to Queens and we collaborated in the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana.
Pt. Ramlall was a fearless leader with strong principles – for him, Guyana must be a democracy and even though members of my group were not PPPites, that common goal of restoring democratic governance to Guyana drew us together. He was among a few pandits who provided his mandir and poojas for a discussion on Guyana and also gave support for a liberation movement. Most other mandirs closed their doors to us fearing political backlash from the authorities in Guyana. And for this, my group of former activists is eternally grateful to Pt. Ramlall and the Arya Samaj mandir. I appeared at his mandir countless times to share political literature and or to speak on Guyana.
Pt. Ramlall was not initially inclined to politics in his new homeland. But he was quite impressed with the political activism (relating to Guyana) of a few of us like Dr. Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, Ravi Dev, Rennie Ramracha, myself, etc., and he provided much encouragement to continue this political activism. During the 1970s thru 1990s, we produced political newsletters on Guyana and Pt. Ramlall allowed us to distribute them at his religious events. He provided much support at his religious functions and at his mandir – giving a forum (a stage) for the likes of myself and other Guyanese nationalists to champion the cause of Guyana and Indians in the diaspora. We attended several of his religious activities during the 1980s and up to 1992 so we can have an audience to discuss human rights violations in Guyana and to appeal for help to end the life of the dictatorship. We also teamed up to raise issues pertaining to Guyana at global forums including the one at the World Hindu Conference at Madison Square Garden in July 1984, the 4th Conference of Indians in the Diaspora at Columbia Univ in July 1988, and the First Global Convention of People of Indian Origin at the Sheraton in August 1989. Pt. Ramlall and I also attended conferences together in Delhi, Guyana and Trinidad.
In 1990, Pt. Ramlall supported a group of us that included Mahadeo Persaud, Ravi Dev, Vassan Ramracha, etc. lobbying the U.S. government for Free and Fair Elections. Pt. Ramlall joined the Fast and Vigil we organized outside the United Nations where Brother Baichoo (of My Indian Brother fame) fasted for five days. The objective was to focus international attention on rights violations and mass starvation in Guyana. This got the attention of Members of Congress who subsequently issued releases calling on the Hoyte dictatorship to restore democratic rule.
I would visit Pt. Ramlall regularly at his home over the last several years to check on his well-being. He always welcomes me and ordered his maid to prepare tea and snacks and at times a full meal. I also drove him around on some errands or transported his maid for shopping. In fact, in our last conversation, he asked when I return to NYC to come to see him. Regrettably, that I will have to do at his funeral rite.
Guyana, the Indo-Caribbean community of North America, and the Indian diaspora has lost a distinguished leader. He will be greatly missed by all, and his impact on the community in Queens will be felt for generations to come.