The early afternoon of Monday January 14, 1991 started like any routine assignment for us covering Parliament but by the end of the dramatic day, we would witness historic scenes of acerbic anger, unprecedented disorder and ugly uproar. At every sitting of the House, the Speaker is preceded by the smartly-dressed Sergeant-at-Arms solemnly bearing the golden shining Mace of authority on his right shoulder.
In the British tradition we inherited, it is no longer a feared ancient weapon but a respected civic symbol to be reverently installed on the table of the Clerk of the National Assembly, who reads opening prayers before any business is entered upon in the graceful mahogany-walled hall.
A silver gilt Mace would be used for the first time in British Guiana in September, 1957. When we became a Republic in February 1970, our Coat of Arms would replace the British Royal equivalent at the helm. The original stem features fancy stylised motifs of our key crops rice and sugar cane, and it depicts the largest water lily, the Victoria Regia introduced to the admiring world during the long reign of that Queen.
Unique and beautiful like the elegantly-embossed Mace, our parliamentary invocation is a three-verse mix carefully reflective of the multicultural nature of Guyanese society. It features several lines from the poem “Chitto jetha bhoyshunyo” meaning “Where the mind is without fear” composed by the Indian poet, philosopher and polymath, Rabindranath Tagore for his most famous 1910 Bengali publication “Gitanjali.” In the title, “gita” refers to sacred song, and “anjali” also has a strong devotional connotation, so it can be interpreted literally as a “prayer offering of songs”. “Gitanjali” is drawn from his “Naivedhya” anthology, a Sanskrit word which also means “offering to God” and could range from special foods to a particular resolution or promise.
After years of reporting on the National Assembly, we at the press table knew it almost by heart and there were times we even downed our heads and quietly mumbled along. The opening stanza intones, “Almighty God, we, who are here gathered together, do most humbly beseech thee to guide us in all our consultations so that we may together build a land where knowledge is free, where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, and where words come from the depth of truth.”
Everything went as normal until the item “Personal Explanations” was reached on the Order Paper. Leader of the main Opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Dr. Cheddi Jagan, increasingly annoyed by the attempts to delay the national polls after decades of fraud, had been gagged by the iron-handed Speaker of the House, Sase Narain at a previous sitting.
Up for a second reading was the controversial Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1991 seeking to extend the life of the Fifth Parliament which opened in 1986, and postpone general elections beyond the due date of March 1991. In his characteristic tailored “shirt-jack” suit and with his wife Janet looking on beside him, Dr. Jagan stood up to speak on the impending move as a matter of public importance. The impassive Speaker continued to ignore him and instructed the waiting Clerk to continue with the business of the House.
Under the Standing Orders, members can only officially contribute if they are recognised by the Speaker. Dr. Jagan loudly insisted he had a right to speak, but the burly, sharp-tongued Narain disregarded him and then disallowed supporting arguments by frontbencher Reepu Daman Persaud who repeatedly rose on a point of order.
We stared engrossed as Persaud remained standing, while the then Finance Minister, Carl Greenidge attempted to read a different Bill above the increasing noise even as a frustrated and furious Dr. Jagan hammered his table with a hefty paperweight and the other Opposition members heckled and hollered, joining in the steady drumming.
Amidst the din, then Attorney General (AG) and Legal Affairs Minister, Keith Massiah prepared to give the second reading of the Bill which prompted the PPP backbencher, Isahak Basir to leap to his feet and question indignantly how Massiah could be allowed, when the AG had previously introduced legislation validating the questionable voters’ list. Instead Narain immediately ruled Basir out of order. An audibly and visibly-upset Dr. Jagan continued to complain opposite the standing Massiah. Gesticulating wildly, and with both hands, in a tantrum, Dr. Jagan suddenly shoved the volume of law books, cold water pitcher and all, in front of him, straight to the greenheart floor. Basir strode to the front, quickly grabbed the heavy Mace from its usual place before the stunned Sergeant-at-Arms could lift a finger, and formally presented it to the Opposition Leader.
“You take the Mace and speak!” was Basir’s immortal declaration. With Narain demanding and failing to get “Order! Order! Order!” and then threatening to summon the Police to restore such in the House of “Commotion”, Dr. Jagan truly took Basir’s advice and told the Speaker off in such a forceful manner, Narain uncharacteristically turned to the media benches and warned us not to carry any of Dr. Jagan’s wonderfully coloured unparliamentary utterances in clear and proper English.
The acrimonious Assembly had to be adjourned for a short break, before resuming. The mood did not improve. Narain directed Massiah to continue with his drowned-out presentation seeking to put off the polls, amidst the shouts from the Opposition culminating with a really rankled Basir picking up his empty glass and hurling it in Narain’s direction, but the tumbler fell to the ground.
Majority members of the ruling People’s National Congress (PNC) would reply with their own pugnacious pounding of feet and terrible thumping of tables. As the vote was being taken, Dr. Jagan led a walkout, followed by his wife, Persaud, Clinton Collymore, Feroze Mohamed, the co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance, Eusi Kwayana and Michael Abrahams of the United Force.
The next day, I laughed out loud when I picked up that day’s copy of the Stabroek News in the Guyana Chronicle’s newsroom, and realised that I, like Anand Persaud now the private newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief had started our rival reports with the unusual word, at least for Parliament, “Pandemonium.”
Some six weeks later, the House would agree to a related motion to expel Basir on the grounds that “without lawful permission (he) removed the mace from its accustomed place on the table of the National Assembly” and he “assaulted the Speaker by violently throwing his drinking glass at him.” It was made, given that “such misconduct on the part of Comrade Isahak Basir, is an insult to the Speaker and the dignity of the Parliament; and whereas the assault on the Speaker constitutes a crime punishable by law” and “grossly disorderly conduct.”
More than a quarter of a century on, given last week’s rowdy behaviour of the PPP/Civic members who held up large placards inside the Chamber and streamed steady verbal abuse to voice their disapproval of the unilateral appointment of the Elections Commission Chairman, it seems perhaps prophetic that some of Tagore’s telling words from the powerful Gitanjali verse are missing from our parliamentary prayers.
“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” states a memorable omission. Tagore crooned, “Where words come out from the depth of truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action – Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”
I remembered times when the drone of a particularly dull debate lasted far too long in the heat of the afternoon or late into the night, and we watched prominent politicians and one or two of our colleagues slowly slip into somnolence, drifting off into daydreams, seemingly doomed of national and racial unity. When we struggled to stay interested, I would gently tease my cheerful friend Gitanjali about the significance of her name within the hallowed 1834-opened Parliament Building, or study the ornate plaster ornamentation of swirls, rosettes, volutes and medallions on Cesar Castellani’s magnificent sunken ceiling, thinking how much the pretty pastels and patterns reminded me of fine rich icing.
Both sides of the widening political divide seem to have forgotten what they implore before the Speaker at every sitting. Usually restrained, President David Granger, whose speech was interrupted during the uncivil wave of protests would later describe the Opposition parliamentarians as “vulgarians.”
The second verse of our Parliamentary prayer beseeches: “Grant us, oh God, thine aid and guidance, so that we may deal justly, with the several causes that come before us, laying aside all private interests, prejudices and personal preferences, so that the result of our counsels may be to the glory of thy blessed name, the maintenance of true religion, the preservation of justice, the safety, honour and happiness of the President and the peace and prosperity of Guyana.” It concludes with an abridged piece from Tagore, “Grant us, oh God, the vision so to lead, that all the people of this fair land may enter into that state of brotherhood and unity, where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action.”
ID chortled at the recent sign proudly displayed in Parliament by the Opposition Leader in all block black letters with maybe an apt echo of archaic English: “Social cohesion – A farce stop deviding (sic) people using race.”