Is the `Cause' what it used to be?
Reflections on Enmore Martyrs in the new situation
By Moses Veerasammy Nagamootoo
June 17, 2001
I RETURNED recently to my country from a stint of studies to hear some folks on television bandying words like "fighting for the cause" in a frenzied celebration every time a tyre is lit, a channa bomb is ignited or the road is blocked.
It made me wonder whether the meaning of today's "cause" is what it used to be, and whether this "cause" could be situated in an historical context of continuity of struggles for political, economic or social change.
As a focal point I wish to reflect on the Enmore Martyrdom, the 53rd anniversary of which was marked yesterday - June 16.
The facts are well known: on June 16, 1948 colonial police shot and killed five young sugar workers after they had entered the Enmore factory compound during a two-month protest strike. Fourteen others were wounded in the cowardly hail of bullets.
The slain workers were Rambarran, Lall, Lallabagee, Surujbali and Harri, now revered as the "Enmore Martyrs".
The Enmore tragedy has assumed epic proportion. While it took place in the 20th century, it echoes in the new 21st century, in a new millennium.
The lesson is that while some men and women in heroic moments should perish for a cause, their examples could live on. Their ideals of justice would embody the soul of generations past, and yet to come.
In 1948, the Enmore Martyrs fought for favourable conditions of work and for union recognition. That was considered a just cause. For this reason, the cold-blooded and calculated suppression of a peaceful industrial protest shocked the conscience of those who were before indifferent to the plight of sugar workers.
It was a struggle that would lead to change not only to benefit sugar workers but all workers in general. In this way, it was an authentic proletarian revolt. It was to herald a new epoch in nationalist struggles, dialectically, as it were, putting an end to old politics.
The Enmore tragedy held important lessons of the inter-connection between labour rights and economic entitlements on one hand, and political rights and freedom on the other.
That was why the Enmore episode was the catalyst for the formation of the country's first national liberation movement, the People's Progressive Party, which brought together at that time the country's most progressive leaders -- Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham. The death of the Enmore Five became the battle cry for higher forms of struggle for self-determination, resulting in universal adult suffrage and the formation of a short-lived but revolutionary nationalist government in 1953.
While progressive amelioration of working conditions was to follow at the estate level, a revolution in the system of representative and elected governance, reform in working people's laws and enlargement of socio-cultural rights took place at the national level.
Since the Enmore events, political leaders continuously looked back and would pledge not to disappoint the sacrifice of those workers, and earlier heroic examples in African struggles, that the continuity of struggle led to independence, republicanism, and the profound constitutional reforms now under way.
In 1992 when electoral democracy was restored, a new vista was opened in the "cause" for a better life that had long been espoused at the political and economic levels. Widespread expectations followed for social rights, for the radical improvement in the quality of life.
However, the vengeful politics of the past made it easy for the incoming PNC opposition to exploit fears and insecurity of sections of the people. The PNC irresponsibly warned about a spectre of "ethnic cleansing" under the Jagan government. It had become an objective necessity then for President Jagan to assure that there would be no recrimination, no discrimination, and no political or racial persecutions.
Dr. Jagan introduced a new moral government that brought in mechanisms for race relations, integrity in public life and revolutionary notions of "partnership". That was to be brought about by an inclusive democracy, mainly through cooperation between the two major races, and eventual power sharing among the political parties. The experiment with the so-called "Mandela formula" at the Georgetown Municipality failed, but the idea of bi-partisan cooperation was planted in the evolving political culture.
It was not by chance therefore that "political inclusion" became buzzwords during the eclipsed Janet Jagan and, now, the Bharrat Jagdeo presidencies.
The intention of all this, I believe, was to effect profound changes at the socio-cultural levels, and to bring about institutional reforms. It was a recognition that the country could no longer be governed in the old autocratic or authoritarian manner; nor people be ruled in the old way.
There had to be laws that outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, gender and religion; laws that protected workers and their unions; and laws opening up opportunities at all levels for the self-realisation of the aspirations of all our peoples.
Those aspirations are many, and have a broad spread. It was therefore not inconsistent with the process of continuity that there should be rebellion against the senseless carnage on our roads, outrage against criminal activities, growing demands for housing with concomitant utilities such as water, roads, electricity, telephones.
In this context, the recent Corentyne or Albion social uprising was rooted in a cause to attain public safety. Public safety issues cannot be divorced from the notion of emancipation. Libertarians fought not only for freedom, but also for security of the person, for protection of the family and of the home.
No struggle can be complete; no freedom is worth anything unless there is security of the person from criminal attacks and for equal rights under the law to protection.
Today, the Enmore struggle is taken to a higher level. Workers now realise that the right to become free bargaining agents with economic justice is jeopardised if they are menaced by criminals and ravaged by crimes. They needed an answer for the social scourge of crime, and it is a just cause to stand up to bands of brigands and bandits.
Freedom is nominal when bandits can invade and plunder homes with apparent impunity. The injustice of crimes against the innocent is multiplied when it is perceived that it is fuelled by racist passions.
Then the loss of savings is compounded by the loss of self-esteem. Victims who are demeaned are prone to thirst for vengeance. The greater cause disappears. Suspicion abounds that African policemen were doing nothing against African thieves.
The East Coast Demerara upheavals, mainly in Buxton, did not create but heightened suspicions and fears on the Corentyne. The tragic drama outside the Albion police station was as much a protest against police inaction as against violent attacks on Indian commuters by African extremists in East Demerara.
The hapless police were caught in the vortex of contradictions. They defiantly faced insurrectionary African mobs in the city, but are attacked for intransigence by Indian crime victims in the countryside. They were summoned to action when criminals eliminated innocent citizens, but were condemned when criminals were eliminated.
A brave police rank was killed by a criminal in the line of duty, but protest was mounted for a criminal who was killed in confrontation with the police.
This is part of the social dilemma facing our country where principal players see what is right and wrong only through the cobwebbed prisms of partisanship and ethnicity.
This in turn distorts what could be legitimate self-expression. Take, for example, the initial protests in Buxton and environs. Those appeared to have had the potential of highlighting feelings of ethnic insecurity in our society. Whatever the political analysts may claim were the immediate reasons for this insecurity needs continuing examination. But it remains real in my mind, as I now review the events, that Buxton (East Demerara), then Albion (Lower Corentyne), opened (not for the first time) the vulnerability of our communities to the fears by, and the myths of, our major groupings about their place and role in our multi-ethnic and multicultural society.
The question was what prevented the potential of the Buxton protest from becoming a social movement for change, like the Enmore struggle? Enmore had a defined cause and leadership that sustained the struggle. In the end, martyrdom was achieved by commitment and sacrifice. The target was always the establishment, the object of their exploitation and alienation. Never were innocent people attacked, robbed or beaten.
The recent East Coast protests quickly lost out in the bizarre episodes of senseless and inhuman violence, destruction of social properties, intimidation, terrorism, brigandage and extortion. Those criminal acts have done more to tarnish the integrity of struggle, what Walter Rodney in another context had described as a defilement of the glorious tradition of struggles, and desecration of the memory of those who fell for lofty causes.
Uprisings in the East Coast are nothing new. In the mid and late 1970s, landless Africans waged a courageous fight for land, which was put down by the then Burnham regime. The defiance to oppression by Buxton in the numbered days of Rodney remains an epic story.
And when Buxtonians stopped the funeral procession for the late Cheddi Jagan to give "respect due" to the leader who indisputably had given his life for racial unity, it was clear that a non-racial consciousness had emerged.
So no one can deny that at the root of the social commotions on the East Coast are genuine need for assurance as well as actualisation in policy and practice that poor Africans must have access on a non-discriminatory basis to the nation's resources - land, jobs, contracts, education, housing, etc. But the way that this cause has been prosecuted distorted that intention.
Identifiable instigators seemed obsessed to punish Guyanese of Indian origin for their loyalty to a political party of their own free choice. They argued that the perceived prosperity of Indians was the cause for the relative poverty of Africans; and that African marginalisation was the effect of Indian property.
In this way, disgruntled, opportunistic and highly ambitious African activist types hijacked what could be legitimate protests on the East Coast for social reforms favouring Africans. They hope by some obscene logic to achieve "ethnic cleansing" through a sustained "guerilla-type" campaign of violence and terrorism to force a reduction by attrition in the number of the targeted Indian grouping.
What differentiates the Enmore struggle from the protests of Albion and Buxton? The Enmore struggle was indivisible from the struggle of all workers for change and progress. Albion highlighted mainly Indian insecurity, and Buxton dramatised African fears.
I am heartened that President Bharrat Jagdeo rose above the dangerous tide of communalism and the clamour for vengeance, with his proclamation that he is "President of all the people of Guyana". The alternative to this would inevitably be a racial zero-sum game in Guyana. It may sadly be also the end game for our beloved Guyana.
By placing himself above the fray the President of the Republic has shown a profound recognition of the need for the removal of the insecurities and fears, whatever might be the cause, that lie in the way of improved ethnic relations, and national progress.
President Jagdeo would recognise that the journey started by the African heroes and the Enmore martyrs is not yet over. It should be transformed into a quest for total emancipation from all forms of oppression and disabilities that are exploited from time to time to promote racial insecurities.
But total emancipation must be a goal. It will not be attained unless Guyana sees wide-ranging transformations. There must also be new thinking. The destruction of state property, sabotage of strategic interests and development of "apartheid" or apartness mentality have to give way to a compromise of all interests for our common good.
The gateway to such compromise is dialogue and negotiation. If meaningfully pursued it can narrow the differences among the political elites and incrementally lay the basis for the establishment in Guyana of an inclusive, all-party national democracy.
From the above, does it seem possible that our people can definitively achieve some day the utopia of multi-racial and multi-party cooperation?
I can only share the enthusiasm and emotion over this prospect of Nelson Mandela, the finest 20th century resistance politician. When he was first charged in 1956, Mandela shared prison with his black freedom fighters, 21 of whom were Indians. They faced a common charge of high treason. But in jail they learned to sing and dance together.
Mandela recalled one such poignant occasion in these memorable words:
"Suddenly there were no Xhosas or Zulus, no Indians or Africans...we were all nationalists and patriots bound together by a love of our common history, our country, and our people...In that moment we felt the hand of the great past that made us what we were and the power of the great cause that linked us all together."
Let us remember the great cause of Enmore. Together we can, Indians and Africans and all other Guyanese, leap out of our momentary adversities.
We can take our destiny into our own hands.