Exiled and being in the diaspora in New York, and missing home while thinking about the political and racial persecution of fellow Guyanese at home, there emerged during the early 1970s a movement to focus attention on rights violations and lack of democratic governance in Guyana. A handful of Guyanese eagerly started individual activities (leafletting) that would be transformed into a group movement to focus attention on rights abuses in their homeland. These individuals were influenced by Dr. Cheddi Jagan who nudged them to begin a Guyana democracy movement in America. These Guyanese were also self-motivated to commence this movement or struggle to bring international awareness on what was happening in Guyana and to appeal to international forces to bring pressure to bear on the Burnham dictatorship to restore democracy in the homeland. This struggle or movement in NY commenced during the early 1970s with Arjune Karshan and Chuck Mohan being the pioneers. They acted unilaterally with prodding from Cheddi Jagan. Karshan used to produce a newsletter when he was residing in lower Manhattan on the West side (garment district) and Chuck was associated with an organized labor movement where he would discuss rights abuses pertaining to Guyana. The two would meet and plan activities pertaining to Guyana. They were joined by Berbician Mel Carpen and Demerarian Flattie Singh. They didn’t know each other but were brought together through mail communication from Cheddi Jagan who was in Guyana. They all were laborites and PPPites before migration to America. Instead of engaging in activities individually, Cheddi advised (instructed) that they should work together. Emerging right after their grouping, another group of Guyanese and Trinidadian students, not affiliated with the PPP, would also be launched out of City College focusing attention on violations of rights, anti-Indian racism, and rigged elections in Guyana.
Engaging in this struggle, especially at the leadership level, for the liberation of Guyana from dictatorship (1966 thru 1992) carried a heavy burdensome responsibility (raising funds, preparing literature, organizing activities, sacrificing studies, communicating with others, meeting people, planning meetings, arranging refreshments, etc.). Some are still feeling the effects of that burden, the sacrifices they made to liberate their former homeland for they have little financial wealth of their own to provide for themselves in old age and extended families. Was it a mistake to commit one’s entire life to a struggle for which there are no personal benefits, a struggle that bore fruits to (selfish) others who hardly ever contributed to the liberation movement? Those who participated in the struggle (and there are several whose names are not mentioned herein) are applauded for their courage and kindness to support the movement.
It was an almost full-time exercise and very costly in terms of finances as those involved committed their earnings to building the movement and internationalize the struggle and lobbying politicians in Washington. The struggle also took a heavy toll on social life, health, mental well-being, and family life on those committed to the struggle. Those deeply involved in the struggle gave almost everything in their material possession to the movement. They did so to the almost complete neglect of themselves, akin to the struggles of Gandhi in India, Mandela in South Africa, MLK in USA, among others. The Guyanese liberators had no time to pursue business or to accrue savings to purchase buildings and vehicles. They did not purse self-wealth or material things. They invested their earnings in the struggle to help liberate Guyana. They lived for the struggle. They even neglected their education. Without their commitment and contributions and the enormous sacrifice made, Guyana may well have remained a dictatorship. Several of those diaspora Guyanese involved in the struggle against the Guyana dictatorship (1966-1992) still feel that heavy burden of self-sacrifices led to almost material dispossession or near poverty like conditions till this day. Hardly anyone, except myself, has bothered to inquire about their status, health, social welfare, and economic well-being. Hardly anyone, not even the beneficiaries of their struggle in Guyana and those who now earn a lot of money in liberated capitalist Guyana, has ever offered the freedom fighters any assistance, a job, and or a simple recognition for their contributions to Guyana.
It must be noted that only a small number of Guyanese were initially involved in the liberation struggle in New York that started in early 1970s – by Chuck Mohan, Arjune Karshan, and Mel Carpen who were later joined by Flattie Singh, John Drepaul (known as Slingshot), and others. The men met loosely at first and later formalized their meeting in 1976 as a support group of the PPP. It was called the Committee for Democracy and Majority Rule in Guyana. Some time later, the name was criticized as Majority Rule was interpreted to mean “Indian Rule” because Indians were a majority of the population and were denied the democratic right to their ballots; Burnham voted for them. It was changed to ACG. The organization started publishing a newsletter in 1976. Before the group’s publication, Karshan used to publish his own newsletter giving updates on Guyana. The men were all Jaganites and were deeply committed to the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana. As more and more Guyanese came to New York in the late 1970s and subsequently, they also joined this (Jaganite) movement or started their own. A few of us, Dr. Baytoram Ramharack, Vassan Ramracha, Rennie Ramracha, and me (Vishnu Bisram), college students at CCNY of CUNY, formed our own movement in 1977. For lack of a better term, our movement can be described as “Guyanaites” and “Indianites”. It started out as Indo Club and took on other incarnations in subsequent years. This group dedicated and committed themselves to combating racism against Indian Guyanese and return Guyana to democratic rule. Struggling for Guyana became a drug for them. In fact, everyone who initiated the struggle, as well as some others, against authoritarian rule became hooked on it like a drug. They lived and breathed struggle even after the authoritarian regime was removed from office. They retained their interest on development in Guyana until they became disenchanted with governance. (Most are no longer involved in a Guyana struggle with one exception. Although democracy has long been restored in Guyana, I am still involved in and committed to further democratization in Guyana).
Everyone who was involved in the liberation struggle – Jaganites, Indianites, and others — was motivated by a desire to help free their fellow Guyanese from Burnhamism — racist authoritarian rule, persecution of opponents, confiscation of properties, and the banning of basic goods, among other evil doings. But by 1980, the nascent movement was still very small relative to the size of the Guyanese population in NY or America and was largely Indian in composition (with a sprinkling of African Guyanese and others) although race was not a factor in recruitment, participation, or the movement’s formation. Indians gravitated towards the ACG and the Indo Club. (It is noted although tens of thousands lived in the NY area, only a handful was committed to a struggle to free their homeland. Hundreds of Guyanese departed annually for America as students during the late 1960s after independence in 1966. The 1965 Immigration Act opened up the country to non-White immigrants and Guyanese started heading for America. Facing discrimination from the Burnham regime, Indians began migrating and settling in NY. The numbers of Guyanese immigrants increased rapidly during the 1970s to thousands annually. And during the 1980s, when Guyana’s economy tanked, almost twenty thousand migrated annually to USA. Similar numbers continued to settle in the USA during the 1990s. The number of Guyanese immigrants to USA dropped to 10,000 annually post 2000). The number of Guyanese of immigrants would have touched 100,000 by 1980. Of the hundred thousand Guyanese, only a couple dozens were actively involved in the anti-dictatorial movement. Others were on the sidelines busy eking out a living. Guyanese were very scared to become involved in any anti-Burnham movement – that their families would be victimized in Guyana or that they would be arrested when they returned home or denied travel documents to visit Guyana. Most were very fearful of seen speaking with us in public. Many Guyanese did not wish to publicly active in the movement but were supportive. Guyanese in America were too immersed in their own lives to be bothered with what was happening in the homeland about which they had lost interest and was doing everything possible to bring out their relatives from Guyana. Guyanese, facing their own difficulties of life in America, made minimal financial contributions though the ACG was successful in raising funds through appeals for donations and fundraising parties. ACG activists also sold PPP publications to raise. ACG activists raised a lot more funds than other groups combined. A lot of proceeds from ACG’s varied fundraising activities were sent to Guyana to fund PPP activities. With regards to funding the Indianites movement, such as printing literature for distribution, mailings, applying for protest permits, lobbying Washington, etc., Indo Club depended mostly on personal resources earned form part time work to fund the movement. A few kind benefactors also chipped in with resources, two of who were Trinidadian business folks (Narine Singh and Robin Parray) and a Guyanese who owner a gas station in Jersey City. Funds were also raised in the form of Indian cultural concerts that I organized, dances (organized by Fred Mallay and a few of us), raffles, and food sales.
Those deeply committed to the struggle, and it was only a handful, sacrificed family, social life, job, wealth, property acquisition, and more for the struggle. They engaged in the struggle with utmost dedication and devotion as though they were worshipping a God. Some, like Chuck Mohan, Arjune Karshan, Mel Carpen (who had returned from Chicago where he was a university student), Flattie Singh, among others were inspired by Dr. Jagan to initiate the struggle and recruited members in the formation of Association of Concerned Guyanese (ACG) around 1976. Richard Hoyen, a Chinese Jamaican who was an admirer of Jagan, contributed to the formation of the movement. Others not affiliated with that organization, such as Dr. Ramharack, Vassan and Rennie Ramracha, and me, formed our own grouping (started with Indo Club) in 1977. Though enamored by Jagan’s commitment to the struggle against Burnham’s dictatorship, we felt a movement linked to Jagan would not win over the USA and the West in the struggle to remove the Burnham dictatorship from office. After all, it was the US and UK that conspired to remove the leftist Jagan from office in December 1964 and install as well as propped up the Burnham dictatorship. Any America-based movement that would succeed in restoring democracy to Guyana had to have friendly relations with Washington. Our grouping operated under different names (cultural, social, religious, and political) to win over international support in the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana. We gained access to Members of Congress and the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations. Indian nationals, with who our Indian organization was close with, opened doors for us in Washington as well as Albany and NYC government. In the 1980s, particularly during the latter half of the decade, other diaspora based groups were formed in America as well as in Canada, UK, Trinidad, and elsewhere. Ravi Dev and a handful of other Guyanese founded the Guyana United Democratic Movement in 1986; it later became dysfunctional and around 1990 was absorbed into the Indianite movement. Each political party in Guyana had a support group in the USA by 1990 for fundraising purposes. The various groups collaborated in the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana. Rallies, protests, marches, and picketing exercises were organized from time to time especially every year in the Month of September in front of the UN, and we published newsletters about Guyana and also engaged in leafletting on 14th Street as well as on Liberty Avenue and wherever we learn of a Yagya or a puja and at mandirs. Pandit Ramlall and Prakash Gossai, among a few other religious figures, were very supportive of our movement.
After a long arduous struggle in NY and elsewhere in the diaspora, and following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, democracy was restored in Guyana in October 1992 with her first free and fair election. Dr. Jagan and the PPP won, and deservingly he was restored to office after being kept out through fraudulent elections between 1964 and 1992.
Apart from Karshan who was appointed as Ambassador to Suriname for over a decade, those who initiated and led the struggle from the diaspora from America, were never officially recognized or rewarded for their activism. Dr. Jagan praised several by names and the diaspora in general for their contributions to the struggle for the restoration of democracy to the homeland. As noted, the movement for the restoration of democracy in Guyana was a heavy burden on its leadership – raising funds and neglecting family, education, employment, and more. Families were also broken up and education interrupted if not altogether abandoned. The struggle also had a psychological toll on some of the liberators as they were left penniless and their physical health in decline. Virtually no one bothers to inquire about them. They have been forgotten.
Those who contributed to the struggle from the diaspora they were/are liberators; they were/are heroes. They ought to be recognized for their work.
(Update: Karshan has passed on. Mel Carpen is not in the best of health but Guyana remains in his mind. Flattie Singh has retired and occasionally visits Guyana. Chuck Mohan is in academia and still active in a labor movement. Vassan and Rennie Ramracha have retired from teaching and occasionally visit Guyana and write commentaries on socio-political issues of Trinidad and Guyana. Ramharack teaches at a SUNY Community College and writes books on various prominent Indian Guyanese personalities as well as commentaries on varied social issues. And I pen reports and commentaries on varied issues in the mass media as I have been doing since the 1970s, and I also contribute to various charitable causes. I remain active in political struggles. I was deeply involved in the five months struggle, March to August 2020, lobbying appropriate personnel and governments to get the Guyana government and Gecom to respect the will of the voters in the 2020 election. There are several other Guyanese who participated in the struggle in America for the restoration of democracy in Guyana and whose names are not mentioned herein. In no way, do I mean to belittle or demean their contributions. I salute everyone who participated in the movement for FFE).