Guyana needs to return to spirit of 1953-Ashton Chase
By Chamanlall Naipaul
Guyana Chronicle
April 27, 2003

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Guyana needs to return to the spirit of 1953, when under the banner of the working class oriented People’s Progressive Party (PPP), there was national unity and an absence of racial hostility, Senior Counsel Ashton Chase urged, while delivering a lecture at the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre (Red House) to mark the 50th anniversary of the achievement of Adult Suffrage.

Chase who was a founder member of both the Political Affairs Committee (PAC-the forerunner of the PPP) and the PPP recalled that at that time there was not racialism with the Guyanese people being an “amalgam” devoid of ethnicity. He noted that at that time despite the existence of two racially based organisations, the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) representing Guyanese of African descent and the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), representing Guyanese of East Indian origin, the PPP was able to mobilise and organise Guyanese of all racial backgrounds under its banner in the struggle for independence and for the implementation of Adult Suffrage which was eventually achieved in 1953, with the PPP emerging victorious, winning 18 out of 24 seats under the First Past the Post electoral system. Unfortunately, the PPP government lasted only 133 days in office, following the suspension of the constitution by the British, despite winning the first elections held under Adult Suffrage overwhelmingly, Chase recalled.

Reminiscing on the racial and working class unity forged by the PPP in the 1950s, Chase recalled how Fred Bowman, a PPP candidate of African descent defeated Dr. J.B Singh in the predominantly East Indian Boeraserie constituency.

He also pointed out the strong links of the PPP with the trade union movement which was very supportive of its policies, recounting that four of the six ministers of the 1953 government were active members of trade unions.

“The party had strong links and amalgamation with the leading trade unions in this country and indeed from the list of ministers….four of the six ministers had strong links with the trade union movement, Burnham was connected with the BG Labour Union as it then was, Dr. Jagan with the Sawmill Workers Union, Dr. Lachman Singh was the head of the GIWU which later became the GAWU, and myself was one time Assistant Secretary and then the General secretary of the BG Labour Union which has strong backing from the waterfront and other workers,” Chase declared.

He added: “So that the picture you must envisage is that the party that was fighting for success in 1953 was a party of working class people seeking to bring democracy and changes in the country of British Guiana.

However, Chase expressed bitter disappointment about the split of the PPP in 1955 as a result of the struggle by L.F.S Burnham for the leadership of the PPP, noting that the working class suffered terribly as a result of that split.

He lamented the use of terms such as Afro and Indo-Guyanese, urging that they should be removed from usage, instead Guyana should be put first and there is need for the reorientation of the mental thinking that perceives Guyanese as Afro or Indo.

Recalling some of the achievements of the PPP government in that era, Chase pointed out that minimum wages were increased for workers who were employed in stores and holiday with pay implemented, while a commission to investigate the working conditions of domestics was established. However, by the time it presented its report the PPP was already removed from office.

The PPP government revised the regulations to include the years of service of public servants to be counted in qualifying for benefits prior to a break in service, Chase noted.

A notable step Chase observed was the introduction of the Labour Relations Bill, patterned after the Wagner Act in the US, which was passed in the Legislative Council but could not have been enacted because of the removal of the government. The Labour Relations Bill sought to allow workers to elect a trade union of their choice.

He expressed pleasure though that the Labour Relations Act became a reality under the PPP/C government in 1997.

However, he observed that while Guyana has attained political independence much more need to be done to be become economically independent.

Ashton Chase is a distinguished member of the legal profession, practicing law for over four decades, specialising in labour law and was a former President of the Guyana Bar Association.

He was also a former Minister of Labour, Trade and Industry in the PPP government and has written extensively on the labour scene in Guyana. Two of his most notable publications are “A History of Trade Unions in Guyana” and “133 Days to Freedom.”

Speaker of the National Assembly and Senior Counsel, Ralph Ramkarran tracing the evolution of constitutional development in pre and post independent Guyana observed that the 1953 Waddington Constitution, despite its inadequacies was far advanced compared to the one of 1928, and was among the most advanced in the Caribbean at the time.

Ramkarran recalled that Adult Suffrage came into law on March 8, 1952 following a motion on the matter moved by a member of the Legislative Assembly Theophilus Lee.

The 1953 constitution allowed for a three-tier system of government comprising the Legislative Assembly, Senate and Executive Council with the latter being elected rather than being appointed, Ramkarran pointed out.

He recollected that in the 1953 elections under Adult Suffrage there was great enthusiasm by the people with a voter turn out of 74.8%, the highest in the Caribbean and the PPP capturing 51% of the 156, 226 votes cast, gaining a resounding victory with 18 out of 24 seats.

He recalled too that the Moyne Commission (West India Royal Commission) was established in 1939 to investigate economic and social conditions. However, he pointed out that the Guyana constitutional system which was inherited from the Dutch and later modified by the British represented the interests of the planter class with workers and farmers having little or no say in the affairs of government. Nevertheless disputes between the planters and the colonial power unintentionally led to developments which benefited the working class.

British Governor Sir Gordon Lethem supported the recommendation by the Moyne Commission to establish standing committees of the Legislative Council, but insisted that they must be appointed by him, Ramkarran related.

The Speaker observed that from 1957-1969, except for 1961, there was no development of the standing committees system while in other commonwealth countries the system was being advanced. Between 1969 and 1992 there was a standstill in the development of the system, until 1994 when the standing orders were amended to allow for greater access and input from the public transforming parliament into a more deliberative body, he added.

Touching on the more recent Constitutional Reform Committee, Ramkarran opined that much has been achieved, noting that greater democracy helps everybody and expressed optimism that all parties concerned want the Parliament to function in the interest of all Guyanese and have a sense of ownership.

Former President and founder member of the PAC and PPP, Mrs. Janet Jagan reminiscing the 1953 period described as “fantastic” with its “highs and lows” recounting the vicious campaigns against the PPP from all sides.

The struggle for Adult Suffrage was a tough one and many penalties and hardships had to be endured by those who led and participated in that struggle with many being imprisoned and harassed, Mrs. Jagan remembered.

She fondly recollected having the distinction of pulling out the cup from a box to determine the symbol of the party. Each party contesting the election of 1953 had to pull from a box to determine their respective symbols.

The system of symbols was introduced to facilitate voters who were illiterate, and there were many at that time, Mrs. Jagan explained.

The successful struggle for the introduction of Universal Suffrage was a big step forward because under limited suffrage only those who owned property and held certain jobs with a designated income had the opportunity to vote, the former president noted.

Mrs. Jagan proudly recalled that on May 18, 1953 the elected PPP members marched from Freedom House in white outfits to the Public Buildings to be sworn in. She noted too that along with herself, the late Ms. Jane Philips-Gay and Ms. Jessie Burnham became the first women to enter Parliament.

However, she observed with nostalgia that only herself, Ashton Chase and Eusi Kwayana (then Sidney King) are the only veterans of that period that are alive.

General Secretary of the PPP, Donald Ramotar said that on April 27, 1953 when the PPP emerged victorious at the polls, was a significant date and a tremendous step forward with the masses having an opportunity to influence the direction of local politics.

He added that the victory dealt a solid blow against colonialism, a bigadvance towards independence and the beginning of the movement towards democracy.

Ramotar said that the victory demonstrated what a united people can achieve in the face of tremendous odds.

He pointed out that some political forces have become worried about the significant cross over of votes to the PPP/C in areas which were not their traditional strongholds, like Regions 10, 9, 7, and 1, consequently they are resorting to racism.

However, observing that racism was and is being used as a tool by divisive forces to achieve their diabolical ends, he emphasised that like in the past those forces will be defeated again with a return to the spirit of 1953.

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