The current constitution should be put to a referendum

Dear Editor,

In his riposte captioned ‘PPP/C delivered constitution reform’ (SN, Mar 3) to my critique of the PPP and the late Dr Jagan’s position on the Burnham constitution, Anil Nandlall posits, among other arguments, that the PPP implemented many reforms to the fraudulent constitution. There was never any criticism of the PPP over constitutional reforms. In fact, the party is applauded for the several changes to the document. My critique of the party or Jagan’s position was not over cosmetic reforms or overhauling the constitution but on the total replacement of the Burnham constitution and the failure of the party to carry out its repeated promise to do so.

I never accused the PPP of being reluctant to amend the constitution. The Burnham constitution was fraudulent and therefore illegal. It was never approved in a referendum. The population never gave their assent to replacing the Westminster independence constitution as required by that document. The people preferred the 1966 constitution; even Jagan, communist that he was, favoured it at the time of the referendum. The legal method of replacing the Westminster model was never carried out. I am disappointed that Mr Nandlall, brilliant legal mind he is, never addressed this point and would accept a document illegally imposed on an oppressed population.

The erudite legal advocate incorrectly accuses me of peddling a falsehood that Jagan and the PPP committed to replacing the Burnham constitution. He also indicts me with making careless statements on constitutional reform. He contends that it was impossible for the PPP right after assuming power to implement constitutional reform. He errs or is misinformed on all counts.

Going by his writings in the media over the last decade, I consider Nandlall to be among, if not the, most brilliant legal minds in the country. But he is guilty of the very accusation he levelled against me: he is careless and ill-informed in explaining Dr Jagan’s position on the Burnham constitution as well as Jagan’s reluctance to replace Burnham constitution.

Dr Jagan did commit from 1978 till his election to the presidency in October 1992 to replacing the Burnham constitution. Countless articles support my contention in the international media such as Caribbean Contact and Caribbean Perspectives in the late 1970s and 1980s as well as the local organs of the PPP, the Mirror and The Thunder, WPA’s Dayclean, and the Catholic Standard.  Dr Jagan gave several interviews to the international press and to this writer assailing the fascist Forbes Burnham and the PNC dictatorship for the rigged referendum of July 1978 and the resulting document constructed by Dr Mohamed Shahabuddeen and others.

In lectures overseas, including in New York, Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua, etc, Dr Jagan and Mrs Jagan committed to replacing the Burnham constitution. Their position was firm that the constitution was illegal and must be replaced (revoked) by any democratically elected government. I was at several fundraisers in NY where Dr Jagan restated the party’s position on the constitution. Mike Persaud, Pandit Ramlall and others were at some of these events and can validate my contentions. In NY, in late Spring 1992, in his last trip to the US before he was elected the country’s first democratic president, Dr Jagan reiterated that the constitution would be replaced once the PPP formed the government. He repeated the same in public meetings in September and October 1992 in Guyana. Yesu Persaud would lend credence to my contention that Jagan committed at forums with the business community to replace the constitution. Perhaps it was an overstatement of mine that replacing the Burnham constitution would be the first act of a Jagan government. But it is indisputable that neither Jagan nor any of his successors made any serious effort to carry out that promise made countless times between 1978 and 1992.

After he was elected President, Dr Jagan was asked about replacing the Burnham constitution, and his response was he would not abuse the executive powers enshrined in the fraudulent document.  He never stated that the political atmosphere did not allow for constitutional change. He stated he could not throw out the baby with bath water. He repeated the same points when he was asked by reporters in NY and in an interview I conducted with him for the Caribbean Indian American News and Guyana Abroad in 1993. Contrary to what Mr Nandlall argues, the atmosphere in 1993 was perfect for replacing the Burnham constitution. The population wanted radical change because they were oppressed for too long by the PNC dictatorship. They wanted to replace and forget everything related to Burnhamism. The army, police, bureaucracy, and the population were supportive of Jagan to carry out radical reforms. Jagan would have gotten comprehensive support to dump the Burnham constitution.

I also begged Dr Jagan to revoke the constitution when we met in his office in April 1993, but he would not budge – not because the atmosphere would not allow it but because he did not like anything that was related to the British imperialists. He told many people he was not embracing anything that was tied to the imperialists; he told me he was not returning to any imperialist connection. He preferred the Burnham constitution over the imperialist constitution never mind that the former was authoritarian and the latter democratic.

Based on the arguments put forward by Mr Nandlall, he seems interested only in piecemeal reforms of the Burnham constitution. In contrast, I have been advocating complete replacement of the constitution. It is indisputable that the constitution is illegal because it was not approved in a referendum as required by law. Like, the PPP, the PNC has been comfortable with the constitution because it was created by the party’s leader. And the party leadership has indicated that it is returning to Burnhamist principles. When it was in opposition, the PNC called for constitutional reforms. Now that it is in control of the country, reforms are far from its objective.

An off-course PPP, looking forward to replacing the PNC in government in August 2020, says nothing is wrong with the constitution – a complete reversal of its position prior to 1992.

Since both parties accept the Burnham constitution, and the AFC has lost interest in constitutional change, also a reversal of its 2015 position, why not put the Burnham constitution to a test before the population. Mr Nandlall can introduce a motion in parliament that will be backed by the PNC, of which all of 64 of his parliamentary colleagues will approve, and then it can be put it to a national vote. Let the people choose between the Burnham (of what would then become PPP, AFC and PNC) constitution versus the Westminster constitution. If the Burnham (or PPP, AFC and PNC) constitution is accepted, then it would be legal. Surely, Mr Nandlall would not object to such a democratic concept of the people deciding how they should be governed.

Yours faithfully,

Vishnu Bisram

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