Activism benefits society

By Ryhaan Shah

It is more than passing strange that President David Granger, in clarifying who he deems “fit and proper” for the GECOM chairmanship, does not only insist that the nominees be judges or be qualified to hold that position, but states that he would not consider anyone who is an activist for any cause, whether “gender, racial, religious, etc.”
This is indeed strange, since activism – political, social or cultural – is a cornerstone of the freedoms guaranteed in a republic and democracy. It is the proven, and often the only, way that the populace can persuade those in authority to improve policies that affect everything, from the nation’s education (as in the protest against VAT on private school fees) to health, housing and employment (as in the protest against sugar estate closures); or promote any bias or prejudice within society.
Activism is about identifying causes or sources of inequality and organising protest action to bring about improvements. These can be small and localised, as in a village; or be as global as the green movement to reverse the world’s carbon footprint and ensure humankind’s survival on this planet.
Consider what the world would have been like had we not had the political activism of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jnr., and Nelson Mandela. Closer to home, where would Guyana be without the stalwart struggle against colonial rule led by Dr Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham?
As an Indian rights activist, my activism focuses on the social injustices and cultural marginalisation directed at Guyana’s largest ethnic group – Indians; who are relegated to a minority status, are subjected to tokenism, are invisible in the national narrative of history, literature and culture, and are often the targets of brazen attempts to erase their very presence.
One way of discrediting a movement is to discredit its leaders, and my insistence on fairness and equality for Indian Guyanese at all policy and institutional levels of Government and society continues to draw public attacks, which do appear to be socially acceptable to most.
While most activism is peaceful, Guyana has experienced violent political protests from the 1960s through to the street demonstrations organised by the PNC post-1998 general elections — with that disorder culminating in runaway crime and home-grown terrorism that was centred in Buxton. No one would disagree with the President for rejecting any nominee who organised and supported such violent racial/political action.
Guyana has, however, had a healthy history of activism for freedom and justice since the days of slavery and indentureship, and through to the historic formation of trade union movements, which continue to represent workers’ interests. The leaders of such movements are people with management and organisational skills, who display valour and commitment, sometimes against public and state hostility.
Since activists are often people of integrity who stand by a principled position for fairness and equality, and are passionate, energetic and committed to their cause, they have the very attributes most needed for the GECOM chair. But, as if disqualifying some of the most courageous and committed Guyanese from being contenders for this position is not enough, Granger further insists that the person must be a judge, or have such professional qualifications. This insistence does not hold up to any principled scrutiny either.
He could not possibly mean that no other profession produces people whose judgement can be fair, transparent and equitable. And if so, is he, ipso facto, disqualifying himself and most of his Cabinet from their respective leadership positions?
Teachers, religious leaders, environmentalists, doctors, accountants, business executives and, yes, military men, can all be trustworthy and fair-minded.
This argument is purely academic, however, since the Constitution is clear on the qualifications and qualities required of the person selected for the GECOM chairmanship, and the validity of the first list of nominees presented by Opposition Leader Bharrat Jagdeo and rejected by Granger is to be decided by the courts. Granger’s misrepresentation of the law, when he himself was nominated twice by the PNC while in Opposition, is the kind of brazen hypocrisy that Guyanese have come to expect from his Government. It is an unsettling lawlessness.
We all know what would have happened had the PPP/C Administration ever rejected any of the PNC’s list of nominees for the GECOM chair, and most people suspect that Granger’s quibbling over the selection is intended to frustrate the system and procedures to the point where he would justify the installation of his unilaterally selected chairperson and set the stage for unlawful general elections, as occurred under the previous PNC regime.
Hopefully, nationwide protests will prevent such a recurrence.