By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
I WRITE to condole the passing of Balram Singh Rai who died over a week ago at 102 in Oxford, England. He was formerly of Beterverwagting (BV) and also lived on Main Street, Georgetown. Rai made a huge contribution to Guyana. He served in an executive position of the Public Service Union. Dr. Jagan recruited him into politics. Dr. Jagan would pick him up at BV and the two would go campaigning. He helped in Dr Cheddi Jagan’s election to the colonial legislature in 1947 and to the PPP’s rise to power. He remained actively involved through 1964, serving as a legislator and minister of government. After his defeat, he left Guyana in 1970.
Rai was a very religiously devout person, an Arya Samajist. He was of the Rajput Kshatriya (Chatri) caste. People spoke fondly of his looks, wisdom, and integrity. He lived by his Hindu values, principles, and vision. He was committed to his belief. He spoke out and fought against the injustice that Hindus and Muslims faced – in public schools and in obtaining state employment.
During his tenure as a legislator, as Education and Home Affairs Minister, he worked selflessly for the welfare of the country, serving with distinction and incorruptible honesty. Under his watch, the number of Indians in the police increased as was recommended by the International Commission of Jurists. He went village to village convincing young Indians to join the force.
Under his watch as Minister of Education, Rai boldly removed mandatory Christian prayers at public schools and the requirement that to become a teacher, Hindus and Muslims had to convert to Christianity.
During the period of racial violence in the 1960s, Rai braved protesters and rioters. He won the admiration of the public. Even critics and opponents respected him. People I spoke with said he had a magnetic, charismatic personality. Even those who opposed Rai respected and admired him. He affectionately greeted people everywhere winning over their friendship.
Rai had a fall out with Dr. Jagan and was expelled from the PPP. He founded the Justice Party that contested the December 1964 election. It was decimated. Rai left Guyana with his wife and two sons a very disappointed person never to return. He retreated to London where he lived honourably. After his departure from Guyana, many missed his loyal friendship and erudition.
Ever since he left Guyana, Rai became an extremely private person and hardly engaged in public conversation with others on or about Guyana. He was willing to converse with Dr. Baytoram Ramharack who approached him to write his biography – a brilliant piece of work. About a decade ago, on a visit to London, I wanted to meet and interview him for an article. Pandit Rampersaud Tiwari, formerly of Buxton, East Coast, with who Rai was close and respected, introduced me to him. Rai and his wife Aunty Shannie agreed to entertain me at their home. He was residing somewhere in the Ealing area, near Heathrow, a long journey from Lewisham where I was putting up. They subsequently moved to Oxford near their son’s home as Rai’s physical condition deteriorated. We spoke several times in my trips to London as well as from my home in New York. His wife, Aunty Shannie, facilitated the conversations.
BS Rai had a warm, charming, engaging personality. He spoke softly. He was a man of tremendous intellect, legal acumen, and wit. He was well ahead of his times in terms of realpolitik. He recognised and knew since the late 1950s that the West would not tolerate a leftist (socialist) government in Guyana, long before Ramharack and I studied realpolitik.
I happened to spend some time with Fenton Ramsahoye who was a colleague of Rai in Parliament. Fenton spoke fondly of Rai. Fenton said Rai was a man of erudition and sharp analysis. BS Rai was well read. He was very articulate on a gamut of issues. He described him as a brilliant lawyer, articulate orator, capable political strategist, and outstanding parliamentarian whose knowledge and insights of law and politics had very few parallels in then British Guiana.
Fenton noted that both Rai and himself rebuffed Burnham’s entreaties to join his government after 1965.
Rai will always be remembered for his towering legacy, transformative vision, non-racial politics, devotion to faith, and commitment to his people.