I refer to N. Sahadeo’s letter published in Stabroek News Sunday April 11, 2021 edition captioned, “It seems that few are keen to explore and document our history.” Having read the caption, it reminded me of Freddie Kissoon’s advocacy on the subject. From the first sentence it became clear that the letter was another of the many tributes in remembrance of our national cultural icon, the late Mahadai Das and the role the Guyana National Service (GNS) played in her subsequent life and demise. The majority of the letters critical of GNS were written by Indians, who like me were not members of the GNS, hence our views on the institution are not based on direct experience. This is not in any way an attempt to diminish the importance of second-hand information and its reliability as the vast majority of the information we acquire generally comes through this route. My reason for making this observation is the expressed attitude of your letter writer in the context of her call for more exploration and documentation of our history.
N. Sahadeo, writes “It was the common sentiment that Burnham wanted to stop this influx of Indian intellectuals so he introduced National Service to stymie this. Burnhamites can argue until they are blue in the face and it will not make an iota of difference to myself and the numerous young Indian females whose lives were affected one way or the other; or to Indian youths who had to flee their homeland in order to further their studies.” Here, I am not concerned about the correctness or incorrectness of the position. It is her reluctance/unwillingness to justify her position even in the face of “historical exploration,” which she demands, that reveals a narrative different to her held view. My earlier observation on first hand and second-hand information was made to point to the need for flexibility in dealing with information on matters political or otherwise. Before I continue, I wish to make it known to readers that I was among the opposition to National Service. My opposition was “political” and to date I hold firm to that conviction since I have not heard anything to cause me to change.
N. Sahadeo, in her missive, cited Alexander’s letter in KN (04.10.21) as an example of Burnhamites’ attitude to National Service. I read the letter but saw no defense of GNS, instead Alexander sought to correct Kissoon’s inaccurate utterances. Alexander points to the fact that National Service was voluntary, and only compulsory for University students. Ironically, Alexander’s information, in my view, was directly what Sahadeo and Kissoon called for, that is, the documenting of our history. Having stated the above, in all seriousness there is value in N. Sahadeo’s letter. The letter is not an objective discourse on National Service, instead it was written to present to the public Sahadeo’s position on GNS and Burnham’s intentions. In this context it stands as a stark reminder to us as a nation how far we are from reconciliation and national cohesion. And if for no other reason the letter must be treated with seriousness because it challenges us as a nation to re- examine ourselves objectively and in a non-partisan way. She writes, “… why was National Service created in the first place? Was it political and racism, plain and simple?” “… Was it to simply spite the Indian supporters of Cheddi Jagan? Was it the more sinister plot to stop the Indian youths from furthering their studies? “. Her questions are worthy of reflection. Given Guyana’s political/racial reality it is almost impossible for us to arrive at national consensus on any of these questions.
In my considered opinion National Service was created for partisan political reasons as Burnham saw it as an effective way to indoctrinate the youth of the nation to be loyal to the then government and ruling party which had declared paramountcy of the party over the state. This was in effect an unconstitutional imposition. Another question raised by Sahadeo was whether GNS was an effort to spite Indian supporters of Cheddi Jagan. If spite was an element in the decision, it will be more correct to say that it was directed against opposition supporters in general, the PPP and others. On the question of preventing Indians from furthering their studies, my position is that to the extent Indian youths were affected, youths from all other races were also affected. I have stated my political objection to National Service given its partisan motive. In reflecting on the controversy over rape (here I am deliberately not being gender specific) in the GNS in the historical public debate there was never a strong denial. The departing line was how prevalent were these incidents.
My position has been that the failure of the then government to prosecute alleged offenders of rape in the National Service made this matter political. And it was another reason for my opposition to GNS. My information is that victims of rape in the National Service were of all races, and it was likely more male aggression than racial aggression. While rape was not centrally directed, the fact that officers were involved, and the practice of “cover up” by the leadership of GNS and the government was the order of the day, is an indictment of the then ruling party and government. In conclusion I welcome N. Sahadeo’s letter since it challenges us as a nation to self-examination and confirms the reality of how deep racial convictions are on issues in our society.