Happy Birthday—But No Candles?

A look at racial imbalance 50 years ago

By Frank A. Campbell

It’s the kind of birthday you can easily forget. It’s not in your diary; there’s no reminder on your cellphone. There will be no parties, no flowers, no media coverage. Not even an exhibition at the national museum.

Yet, there’s value in remembering that 50 years ago, on Tuesday, April 6, 1965,

Prime Minister L. F. S. Burnham asked the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) to conduct an impartial inquiry into racial imbalance in “all significant areas of governmental activity and all other areas of public life in which the racial imbalance may be harmful to the welfare of the community and to the public’s interest generally.”

Frank A. Campbell
Frank A. Campbell

Mr. Burnham had become premier a mere 113 days earlier. Why the urgency? I think of three possible reasons.

There’s one you will find in People’s Progressive Party (PPP) literature on that historical period: Burnham had no choice. He had come reluctantly to this action through pressure from both the PPP and the British government. Some semblance of settlement of the race question was a precondition for the granting of independence on his watch.

A second possible explanation was that, just as today’s census figures confronts the PPP with the reality that it cannot win elections solely with Indo-Guyanese votes, the demographic reality of 1964 was that Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) had no hopes of winning an election solely with the Afro-Guyanese votes, even when buttressed, as it generally was, by the support of Guianese of mixed races.

There’s a third explanation. British Guiana had just emerged from the 1964 disturbances, in which, according to the commission of inquiry report, “the Indians suffered more than any other racial group.” According to this third explanation, Burnham was in part fulfilling the commitment implicit in his inaugural speech to run his government on the basis that no ethnic group was “pan top”.

Among the most memorable words of that speech were these: “This government holds that that all the people of this country are important, whether they belong to a large group or to a small group. To us, the Amerindians are important. To us, the Chinese are important. To us, the Portuguese are important. To us, the Europeans are important. To us, the Africans are important. To us, the Indians are important. In short, all Guyanese are important and valued members of our community, and we cherish them, and consider that, as a government, it is our duty and privilege to guard, protect and further the real interests of all.”

My conviction is that all three might have played into Burnham’s decision. Whatever the motivation, his administration embarked on this enterprise diligently, expeditiously and with at least an appearance of impartiality and political distance.

This impartiality was reflected in the choice of the ICJ, an organization that had no known axe to grind as far as Guyanese politics was concerned. The ICJ, not the government, selected the three members of the commission, accomplished jurists from Austria, Greece and Ireland. Also, the ICJ itself selected the registrar to the commission. The government’s interests and the supportive role were overseen by the country’s new, popular and distinguished attorney general, Mr. S. S. (“Sonny”, now Sir Shridath) Ramphal.

The commission seemed no less in a hurry to get things done than was the Burnham government. A large and representative number of witnesses appeared at well-attended public sessions as well as in private. Fewer than six months after Burnham’s letter to ICJ secretary-general Sean MacBride, Mr. MacBride, who would later head the famous UNESCO commission on the new world information order, transmitted the British Guiana Commission of Inquiry’s final and unanimous report.

In his introduction to the report, Mr. MacBride noted, “This is the first Inquiry of this nature which has been conducted into the problems of public administration in a multi-racial society. It is hoped that the Report may set a useful pattern for the solution of such problems wherever they may arise.”

The commission’s work was not without controversy. The PPP boycotted. The party’s main complaint related to the commission’s terms of reference. “The issue,” according to the PPP, “is that there is an imbalance in the most important of all services—the security and police services . . . The issue therefore is how to correct it. To narrow investigation and recommendation to procedure is an attempt to sidetrack the vital issue.”

The terms of reference, according to the public record, were not imposed by the government, but, according to the report, were crafted by the ICJ. In a note explaining their understanding of the scope of their mandate, the commissioners wrote: “It will be seen therefore that every kind of imbalance, present or future, in the public services concerned, which has the effect of being harmful to the public interest by operating unfairly against any racial group within the society falls within the scope of the Commission’s terms of reference.”

In the end, in almost every area that the commission examined, it did not find such imbalance as existed to have been the result of any deliberate attempt to exclude members of any group. Not even in the land settlement schemes mentioned in the report where “the number of Indians is overwhelming,” 3864 Indian as against only 550 African settlers.

The commission conceded that “it is clear from a consideration of the statistics that the overwhelming majority of settlers under the Land Settlement Schemes are Indians” and that “at first view” this might suggest the procedures were discriminatory. But according to the commissioners, given the emphasis of the schemes on rice and sugar cultivation, “the Indians usually happened to be the only persons with the necessary experience in such cultivation, and consequently the land passed almost exclusively to them.”

In the same way that it accounted for the exclusion of Afro-Guyanese from land settlement schemes on the basis of certain practices, or lack of such practices among that group, the commission thought that history and culture explained the poor representation of Indians in the civil service, as the public service was then called. The report noted: “The Indian community in British Guiana has in the past been more interested in private enterprise than in Government service.”

Regarding the security forces, the commissioners’ comments and findings with regard to the Police Force, the Volunteer Force and the Special Service Unit were particularly interesting. The Volunteer Force provided perhaps the only case where the commissioners made an explicit finding of the existence of racial discrimination.

The Volunteer Force, except for a recent experiment, was not represented in any police division with an Indian majority. Plus members of the selection committees were all Afro-Guyanese.

Was this the doing of the PNC-UF coalition government? No one would even have made that claim. That government, after all, had existed for just over 100 days. It had followed seven continuous years in which the PPP had been in office, admittedly under the governorship of the colonial power.

While not using the term racial discrimination to account for the situation in the police force, the commission did point to a number of issues regarding recruitment and service in the Force as militating against the entry of Indians into the Force. Qualifications relating to height, weight and chest measurement favoured Afro-Guyanese. Earlier marriage among Indians placed them at a disadvantage given the rules against recruiting married persons. And dietary requirements of Hindus and Muslims were not properly provided for.

The commission recommended loosening these rules. Also, given the racial imbalance in the Force, despite new recruitment rules introduced during the PPP government, the commission recommended that for five years, 75% of recruits should come from groups other than Africans. It also recommended, “Rates of pay should be reviewed and increased to a level sufficient to attract both Indians and other non-Africans of sufficient caliber.”

The Special Service Unit (SSU), which later became the GDF was the only entity studied by the Commissioners that enjoyed parity. This was no accident. Parity was built into the order-in-council establishing the SSU in February 1964.

This provision was intended to prevent and perhaps even compensate for suspicions against the Police Force resulting from the events of the 1964 disturbance. According to the commission report, “Confidence in the police has been undermined by their having to try to deal with a situation that was for them—and probably would be for any comparable police force—unmanageable, by the inefficiency or culpability of a limited number of policemen, and by a campaign to discredit them as a corrupt, inefficient and racially-biased Force.”

This is why in mid-1965, the SSU consisted of 72 Indians, 72 Africans and two mixed races. This parity continued at independence when the SSU morphed the GDF. At the leadership level, there were, at least for a while, three Indians, one African and two mixed race officers.

Venezuela’s invasion of Ankoko spelt a death knell for this happy balance. The rush to increase military strength to deal with this new post-independence reality meant having to recruit not on the basis of parity but according to who showed up to enlist.

The existence of parity in the GDF, as well as any attempts to achieve it in the Police Force, took a further beating through political and economic developments in the years ahead. More than one armed forces leader told me how attempts, by both Indian and African officers, to take recruitment to a cross-section of Guyanese communities failed. Potential candidates compared what they were earning from farming, the smuggling of wheat flour and other pursuits with the pay they would receive in exchange for leaving their families behind to endure harsh barrack conditions in the interior and elsewhere.

I was unable to obtain any proof of any formal and systematic process to implement the commission’s report. This does not mean nothing was done. Apparently, it took some time for meaningful efforts to be made with regard to dietary requirements. Eventually, however, even the peculiarities of vegetarians were taken into account in the GDF and, I believe, in the Police Force.

While the requirements regarding height, weight, chest measurement and marital status have probably still not been formally removed, they are, I am advised, often suspended to attract candidates of all races who bring particular academic, professional and other talents to the table. One potentially important institutional outcome of the commission’s report was the establishment of the office of ombudsman, an office that has had mixed fortunes over the years.

The commissioners noted that racial imbalance in the public service could not be separated from the part played by race in the wider community. They pointed to the importance of economic development, the tone of political discourse and the role of the media in national healing.

So, where do we stand 50 years later? Would a post-May-11 administration need to establish a new commission of inquiry into racial imbalance? I doubt.

Already, unless totally blinded either by political prejudice or a spirit of pessimism, we can see some light at the end of the tunnel. The number of Indo-Guyanese in top officer positions seems to have increased. At one stage, during a PNC administration, both the Commissioner of Police and the Chief of Staff of the armed forces were Indo-Guyanese.

What about the PPP? Would it be calling for a new commission of inquiry if it lost power? Again, I doubt. After having formed the government for half of the last 58 years (1957 to 1964 and 1992 to 2015), that party must certainly know that it would bear at least half of the responsibility for any kind of imbalance that might remain.

For me, the only question is whether it’s time for a big celebration. I’d say no. But maybe, we can venture to have a small one. Does anyone have 50 small candles or a little birthday cake to spare?

Frank A. Campbell was an ambassador, a minister of information and an executive chairman/editor-in-chief of the Guyana National Newspapers Ltd during the Burnham administration.

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