Wismar Indian Massacre Commemorated
Photo : Cross-section of audience at Seminar on the Wismar Massacre
A seminar and interactive session on the Wismar Indian Massacre drew a packed hall in Richmond Hill last Friday May 26. Various presenters spoke about the massacre of Indo-Guyanese that took place on 26th May 1964 when over 3,000 were physically and psychologically brutalized and expelled out of this multi-ethnic community losing all their possessions and jobs. According to the speakers, and members of the audience who were eyewitnesses, several Indians were murdered, hundreds of women raped (including children), over two hundred and twenty five Indian homes and dozens of businesses razed to the ground, and temples and masjids desecrated as Indians fled for their lives.
Last Friday event was organized by the 100th Indenture Anniversary Foundation (led by Dr Tara Singh) and co-sponsoring groups. It was billed as an occasion of atonement, reflection and remembrance that included prayers for the victims. Emblazoned on a banner was “a MASSACRE NOT to FORGET”. The event served as a reminder to all Guyanese that the 26th May is a date of infamy and not an occasion for celebrations for the former colony’s independence. Speakers pointed out that May 26 was deliberately chosen by the PNC for independence to celebrate its victory over Indians to teach them a lesson.
The speakers reiterated that May 26 1964 was an act of shame and it must be used as a date for mourning and reflection because of the harm inflicted on over three thousand Guyanese. Speakers called for removing May 26 as a date for Guyana independence, and they chastised the PPP for not doing so during its 22 years in office.
Speakers said Wismar was a pre-planned and well-organized massacre of the more than 3,000 Indo-Guyanese just from that community alone. The independent international media described the attack on Indians, who were an ethnic minority in the area, as a PNC orchestrated orgy of violence. The violence and the seizure of their property uprooted the lives of Indians.
A member of the audience noted that right after the “triumphalist” massacre of Indians, the PNC held its party congress in Mackenzie (Wismar is a suburb) and gloated about it. The PNC subsequently came to power in a coalition with the UF in December of that year. The PNC leader, Forbes Burnham, blatantly chose the 26th May as the date for Guyana's independence from the British as a reminder of his party supporters’ victory over the Indians. Dr. Cheddi Jagan, the leader of the PPP, who Indians voted for regularly, opposed May 26 as the date of independence and never celebrated the day. The British ignored him as Burnham insisted on May 26 as Independence Day.
The remembrance and mourning on the occasion of the 53rd anniversary was done to remind the world of what took place at Wismar and to remember the thousands of victims. Speakers included attorney Rakesh Rampertab, Ravi Dev, Rev Seopaul Singh, PPP MP Dr Frank Anthony, and Iqbal Mohammed Khan, the brother of PYO activist Mohamed (Richard) Khan who was the first to be killed at Wismar. Iqbal Mohammed Khan said his brother Richard was so badly beaten that his head was as soft as a marsh mellow. Richard’s mother died shortly thereafter from grief. Iqbal, Rampertab, and Rev Seepaul Singh noted how neighbours of Indians, who lived like families for decades, in support of their race, partook in the attacks savagely beating Indians, and looting as well as ransacking their homes.
With regards to recording of what transpired in Wismar, Ravi Dev said it was the first violent incident of ethnic cleansing in the Americas. He advised that it is high time that Indo Guyanese begins to write their own narrative about their experiences in Guyana and their history instead of others writing it for them from a non-Indian perspective. Dev explained that in the case of Wismar, Indo Guyanese were not the victors who penned the history of the violence. It was done from the perspective of others and often it was not factual and whose tone made the other groups looked good. This, he said, helps to explain why the Wismar Massacre of 1964 has not been in the public domain.
On the politics of Guyana, Dev was asked why he did not form a new party. Dev said the political situation will remain the same for time to come and that the two main ethnic parties (PNC and PPP) will continue to dominate the scene. Thus, he said, there is no useful purpose to form a new party, and that the effort must be to ensure there is free and fair elections.
Dr Frank Anthony, former PPP Minister and still a MP, praised the organizers for holding a remembrance ceremony on Wismar massacre and urged that similar lectures be held on other historic events. Dr. Anthony spoke more about the current political situation in Guyana. He highlighted the dangers of closing sugar estates and the declining price of rice. He noted that large numbers of sugar workers are being laid off and the closure of estates destabilizes the economy. Emphasizing he was on a private visit to the USA, the popular politician called for more attention to be given to the plight of families of workers who have lost their jobs.
The Rev Seopaul Singh gave a chilling account of what happened to Indians in Wismar and in several other locations. He also made reference to how recording of history is biased against Indians. He noted how David Granger, now Guyana President, gave a one sided account of events in Guyana in his writings and in presentations at conferences without ever mentioning the attack on Indians. Rev Seopaul, like other speakers, said Indians need to document their own history.
From the audience, Dr. Tara Singh reiterated the importance of Indians recording their own history and narrative of events.
Attorney Rakesh Rampertab made a power point presentation showing graphic images of the Wismar massacre with large swaths of areas of homes and businesses that were burned down. The slides showed buildings ablaze, children and women battered and in a daze with blood streaking down on their heads wrapped in bandages. Slides also showed passengers (as refugees) disembarking the ship, RH Carr, and other ships.
Rampertab, as Dev did earlier, noted that much of what happened 53 years ago is still to be documented and he urges that writers focus on collecting information from victims and eyewitnesses on this sad experience of Indian history. He did point out that based on media reports and the official commission of inquiry report the atrocities were committed intentionally on or about May 22-27 to drive East Indians from that area permanently. The prominent attorney explained how the expatriate British police commissioner. P.G. Owen did not respond to entreaties by the PPP Home Affairs Minister Mrs. Janet Jagan to send reinforcements to Wismar before the attack began. The Afro commander in Wismar also refused to take action to deter the attack. Listeners were told about the laid back attitude of the police and the non-cooperation of the British Guiana Volunteer force who did not come to the assistance of the terrorized Indians in Wismar. During the violence, the police and the voluntary force did not take effective actions to quell the attacks on Indians. In some cases, some of the police joined in the attack on the helpless Indians and setting their homes on fire.
Rampertab feels May 26 should never have been chosen as the date of Guyana’s Independence. He is calling for a date change. Rampertab said for unknown reasons, the PPP has failed to articulate this position during its recent administration (1992 to 2015). In the past, the PPP, under the leadership of Dr Cheddi Jagan, had recorded its objection to the use of May 26 as the date for independence, in light of the atrocities that occurred in the Wismar-Christiansburg-Mackenzie area (i.e., today’s Linden).
Rampertab, as indeed the other speakers, stated, when Guyana’s Independence Day is celebrated on May 26th, Indo-Guyanese should take time off to reflect on the day and to acknowledge those who suffered and died in the Wismar-Christianburg-McKenzie massacre. As he said, “we must not forget how and why it occurred and all Guyanese must ensure it never happens again”.
In closing the program, Faiuze Ali moved a vote of thanks to those who supported the event including Vijay Shivraj, Dr. Tara Singh, Reuben Khusial who made introductory comments, Balram Rambrich who assisted with refreshments, and Nisha Ramracha who spoke about the importance of recording history, remembered the victims with a minute of silence from the audience.