Dr Tara Singh has made a very important intervention in his letter, “Restorative justice for Indian immigrants and descendants” (GT 9-8-23). This was an issue that had been raised even before the last ship repatriating Indian indentured labourers and/or their qualified descendants, “the Resurgent”, sailed on Sept 4, 1955 carrying 258 men, women and children to India. The previous ship had left in 1949, and on 2nd June, 1950, MPCA leader Ayube Edun raised the status of the Immigration Fund with the Secretary of State.
The return passage was an integral part of the contract to induce Indian indentureds to leave their native Bharat. And even though, towards the end of the 19th century, the Government amended the laws, forcing the immigrants to pay between one-half (men) and one-third (women), Labour Ordinance Chapter 104 in 1864 still compelled the Government to allocate funds for the return contingency.
As Guyana’s Independence approached, and it became apparent there would be no more returnees, a delegation of five major organizations representing the Indian Guyanese community, with Dr Balwant Singh of the Mahatma Gandhi organization playing a leading role, met with the PNC Government to discuss the issue. They recommended that an “Immigration Fund Committee” be established to examine how the monies in the Immigration Fund could be utilised for the benefit of the descendants of the Indian immigrants generally.
After extensive consultations, they then recommended that the Fund be transferred to the control of a Board of Trustees of an “Indo-Guyanese Educational and Cultural Movement”, and also be used for assisting the needy among those who originally came from India. One of the specific recommendations was to launch a Guyanese Indian Cultural Center in each of the three counties, which would foster and encourage cultural and art forms more specific to the Bhojpuri and “Madras” belts, from where most of the Guyanese Indians had originated.
In 1969, fresh from its “mandate” out of the rigged 1968 elections, the PNC Government rejected the recommendation and, in 1971, unilaterally announced it would use the funds to build a National Cultural Center to host the first Carifesta, scheduled for August 1972. Dr Balwant Singh launched trenchant denunciations of the decision, and vowed to organize a boycott of Carifesta that was to be centered at the Cultural Center in Georgetown, away from the predominantly rural Indian Guyanese masses.
There is an interesting footnote that exemplifies Burnham’s vindictiveness towards those who opposed his unilateral decisions as he inexorably created his dictatorship. Dr Balwant Singh had been roundly castigated by Indian Guyanese for supporting the TUC 1963 eighty-day strike as head of the Civil Service Union, and was voted out that year as Chairman of the Maha Sabha. His successor Sase Narine, ironically, became a staunch supporter of Burnham, brought the Maha Sabha literally under the wing of the PNC, and was rewarded with the Speakership of the National Assembly.
Following his success in mounting opposition to Burnham’s pet project Carifesta, trumped-up charges of larceny of pharmaceuticals were brought against Dr Balwant Singh. Even Dr Frank Williams, Burnham’s personal physician and Andaiye’s father, protested this move. In July, 1972, just a month before Carifesta’s launch, the case was called and Dr Singh’s presence was demanded, even though he was ill. He was eventually brought in a stretcher, and the case was adjourned and never concluded. In the meantime, he lost his job as the long-serving Government Chief Bacteriologist and Pathologist, but was never able to claim his pension and gratuities because the charges were never withdrawn.
But back to the matter at hand, the Immigration Fund. We had raised the matter in the late 1990s, and one ROAR-affiliated group of young Indian activists, under the name of Guyana Organization for Indian Protection (GOIP), had conducted extensive research into the issue. They recommended that a class-action suit be filed against the Government for the recovery of the monies (with 6% compounded interest), which should be used in accordance with the recommendations of the 1965 Immigration Fund Committee.
Their activity on the Fund was overtaken by the massive decade-long societal violence that started in 1998 with the murder of thirty Indian Guyanese and one African Guyanese businessman. Maybe it is time for their recommendation to be revived.