A new book examining the life of 1950s politician Balram Singh Rai was launched on Monday amidst controversy over its portrayal of the country's late President, Dr. Cheddi Jagan.
Baytoram Ramharack's Against the Grain: Balram Singh Rai and the Politics of Guyana has earned both praise and revilement since its publication last year, feelings that rose to the surface when it was officially launched on Monday. "I take affront to some of the things you have been saying. A lot of affront,"
Unity Party leader Dr. Cheddi Jagan Jnr told the author at the small ceremony, before launching into an attack on the book's claims about his father's cultural shallowness as well as the magnitude of Rai's contributions.
Dr. Jagan also singled out political analyst Freddie Kissoon for his column in Monday's Kaieteur News where he offered an endorsement of Ramharack's work.
"I would slap him in his face for what he wrote today (Monday) in the Kaieteur News," Jagan said, while surveying the room.
Dr Jagan Jnr defended the late president while arguing that Rai was not worthy of equal appraisal. He admitted he had not read the book but said he was au fait with the claims. He acknowledged Rai's usefulness but pointed out that all of the initiatives credited to the man were agreed upon and implemented by Jagan. "My father was the ...leader of this country and he always believed in collective government long before Balram Singh Rai could even think of it," Jagan said. "Cheddi Jagan was in a league all by himself, don't tell these people here that Cheddi Jagan didn't understand life among people and put on his modesty," he said, while charging that Rai had even made racist statements to him. Jagan Jnr also called Rai a quitter for "running away" to England instead of staying here but others in the audience noted that Rai's leaving might have been what allowed him to live a long life. Rai is now 85.
Ramharack asked Dr Jagan Jnr to see it for what it was. He said others would also write biographies and these might also be upsetting. "I understand your point, but things happened. We have to find a way to interpret those things. Cheddi Jagan made mistakes," he pointed out to Jagan Jnr, who retorted that his time on the campaign trail substantiated that as much as 95% of the country love Cheddi Jagan. "You are only making Rai worse off in the end. To denigrate Cheddi Jagan to bring Rai into focus makes no sense," he said.
Ramharack said Rai's contribution could not be understood unless Jagan was also understood. He said he had spent six years completing the book and he thought it an attempt to fill a piece of the puzzle of the country's political history. He noted that initially Rai's name was often attended by controversy and he viewed the man's legacy as an opportunity to explore the country's history from a different angle. He said Guyana's history was often seen from the perspective of Jagan's West on Trial but he pointed out that there were other perspectives.
He said the West on Trial paints Jagan as a saviour in Guyana but he noted that a lot of missed opportunities and contradictions were exposed by Rai who left Guyana in 1974. However, he cautioned that he was not making Rai into a messiah, as there were also weaknesses in his character. He said one of them was his decision to migrate, though even on this point he acknowledged that he could not understand his psyche at the time. He said this was in great part due to the work done to assassinate his character by the PPP and its youth arm the PYO.
In this regard, he said from a historical context it was clear that the PPP was an organization with a pattern of aggressively going after Indian political actors and organizations that it felt were threats to them. He said the campaign against ROAR bore evidence of that.
However, Ramharack was hopeful that the book would offer readers an opportunity to reflect. Chairperson of the ceremony Ryhaan Shah expressed similar sentiments and she said the contents of the book were still very relevant to the country today and she said it gave pause to re-examine the choices that have been made and the many missed opportunities.One of the lasting stories about Rai's experiences with the PPP was being cheated in rigged party elections.