Eyewitness: Passings…of old politician Rai

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With COVID-19 still roiling our existence, your Eyewitness expects there will be folks passing on to whatever is “over there” (?) “before their time”. And there HAS been that. But, over the past weekend, there were three men who’d all reached their “threescore and ten” – and made their mark in the world – who also joined them. In this age of social media defining what and who’re “important” – a shout out to my man Kanye West! – very few young persons might know the trio. But their story must be told, since they define the word “possibilities” for many of us.

Starting chronologically, there’s first Balram Singh Rai. He played an outsize role in the early and heady days before independence. Coming from the Triumph-BV area, he joined the Hindu Arya Samaj reform moment as a youth, and championed their central premises of equality of all -including the races and sexes – and social service. He became a lawyer, and entered politics in 1953 as a candidate of the United Democratic Party. That’s right, folks…in the beginning, there wasn’t just the PPP!! Starting with the leader John Carter – the central figure in the local League of Coloured Peoples – he always maintained good relations with the African/Coloured elite!

After Burnham split the PPP in 1955, the very popular Rai was chosen to represent the PPP in 1957 for the East Demerara Constituency – which included Buxton. The PNC backed Sidney King (now Eusi Kwayana), who declared he was an “independent”. After a dig-dong battle in which race featured, Rai won handsomely. This was an object lesson for the PNC, which was formed after the elections, when the PPP(B) merged with the UDP and Eusi Kwayana.

In the Marxist lingo of the time, Rai was “right wing”, and with the country fissioning rapidly into ethnic camps, Jagan had to dance between the raindrops to show the PPP hadn’t become an “Indian” party like its mirror image, the PNC! At a PPP Congress – after the 1961 elections, which the PPP also won – Jagan fiddled with the ballots so that Brindley Benn (an African-Guyanese) would win the party’s chairmanship, rather than Rai. The latter protested vehemently, and he was stripped of his Ministry and expelled from the party!!

With the US wanting to see the back of Jagan, it surprised no one that, in addition to facilitating the PNC and UF for the ‘64 elections, Rai was helped to float the Justice Party. He was a realist, but while very popular among Indians, he was ignominiously defeated getting only 1300 votes.
He left for England in 1970, never returned, and died at 100. For many Indian-Guyanese, he represented “what might’ve been”.

…of old business magnate Yesu

In the world of local business, probably only Peter D’Aguiar was more of a success that Yesu Persaud…known to most Guyanese as just “Yesu”. His is a classic story of rags to riches”, or “local boy makes good”! He literally started out in a “logie” – the barracks in which indentured servants were housed – on a sugar plantation on the East Bank of Demerara!! His first job was to “catch rats” in the cane fields – where he was paid based on how many “rats’ tails” he brought back as bounty!

He worked diligently, went to the UK, became an accountant, and worked his way up the ladder back home – on the same estate he’d been catching rats. He exhibited his entrepreneurial streak when he privatised the estate’s distillery, combined it with another, and formed DDL to produce and market what’s now the world famous “El Dorado Rum”!! He launched Demerara Bank and IPED to offer intermediate finance to all strata.
We need more Yesus right now!!

…of old cultural activist Bob-Semple

Ron Bob-Semple inspired audiences across the world with his one-man show, ‘The Spirit of Marcus Garvey”. Most recently, he acted in the Spike Lee-produced movie “See You Yesterday”. He was 70.