THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONFERENCE IN 1962
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Shortly after winning the 1961 election, the House of Assembly passed a resolution urging the British Government to fix a date in 1962 for independence. In December 1961, Dr. Jagan met in London with Reginald Maudling, the Colonial Secretary, and asked him to announce the date for the independence conference, and to propose a date for the granting of independence. Maudling refused to do either, and shortly after, Dr. Jagan went to New York where he addressed the UN Fourth Committee on 18 December. He used the occasion to appeal to the world body to support Guyana's demand for independence from Britain. Both Britain and the United States tried to block him from addressing the UN Committee, but they were unsuccessful and a draft resolution supporting Guyana's independence was due to be presented to the Committee when it reconvened in January. However, just before the Committee was expected to meet, the British Government announced that it would hold the conference in May 1962 to fix the date for independence.
In preparation for this conference, Dr. Jagan proposed in the House of Assembly on 9 February 1962 the appointment of a 16-member constitutional committee - 8 from the PPP, 6 from the PNC and 2 from the UF, with the Speaker as Chairman - to examine a draft independence constitution. The Opposition members refused to discuss this proposal, and using their opposition to the budget as a pretext, they staged a walk-out from the House.
The British Government, after the disturbances of 16 February, announced the postponement of the independence conference from May to 16 July on the grounds that the report of the Commonwealth Commission of Inquiry would not be ready until then. But the report was still not ready by July, so the conference was not held until 23 October.
Two months after the February disturbances, Dr. Jagan requested the Governor to revoke the appointment of Balram Singh Rai as Minister of Home Affairs. Rai was expelled from the PPP after its April 1962 Congress for "anti-Party activities". He had challenged Brindley Benn in the Party elections for the post of PPP Chairman, but after he lost, he and some of his supporters claimed that the elections were rigged, a charge stoutly denied by the Party leadership. Claude Christian was subsequently appointed as Minister of Home Affairs, but Rai refused to resign as a member of the House of Assembly where he sat as an independent member.
Meanwhile, the PPP Government, optimistically expecting independence during 1962, initiated important preparations for such an event. Through its initiative, the House of Assembly appointed a "select committee" to choose a new name for the independent nation. Eventually, in June 1962 the committee submitted a report recommending the choice of the name "Guyana", and it was quickly approved by the Assembly. During the same period the Government held an international competition for the design of national flag; a design submitted by an American, Whitney Smith, was chosen from a large number of entries.
At the constitutional conference in London chaired by Duncan Sandys, the new Colonial Secretary, Dr. Jagan called on the British Government to grant early independence noting that Trinidad and Jamaica, whose political advancement was at the same level as that of Guyana, had already achieved independent status.
Both Burnham and D'Aguiar, the leaders of the PNC and the UF respectively, opposed independence and demanded new elections under a system of proportional representation. The opposition leaders argued that the PPP was not elected by a majority of the electorate, but Dr. Jagan countered by pointing to the fact that the 1961 election was contested on the basis of the amount of seats, and not on the amount of votes, and that was the reason the party contested in only 29 of the 35 constituencies. Dr. Jagan pointed out that the electoral system was already agreed upon in 1960 and that the boundaries of the constituencies were drawn up by an appointee of the British Government.
The opposition leaders had not objected to the system of voting agreed to by the 1960 constitutional conference; it was only after their parties failed to win in 1961 that they renewed their demand for proportional representation, which had been rejected in 1960. The PPP in opposing the opposition's demands, called for the retention of the existing electoral system, no new election before independence and for the voting age to be reduced from 21 to 18 years. The opposition vehemently opposed this proposal for the reduction of the voting age.
The PPP objected to new elections since it had already been agreed that whichever Party won the 1961 election would lead the country to independence in 1962. The Party argued that it was unfair to force a new election, especially when the controversial budget was given a skewed analysis by the press and the opposition parties. But in order to prevent a collapse of the conference, the PPP agreed to the holding of new elections but under the existing first-past-the-post constituency system. However, the opposition rejected this offer.
The PPP also presented some compromise proposals. These included the establishment of two inter-party committees on social and economic issues, with equal representation from the government and the opposition. The Party added that it was willing to agree to a bicameral legislature. And in a private meeting with PNC member Neville Bissember, the PPP offered to the PNC 4 of the 10 ministerial posts and the Head of State with veto powers on vital national questions in a coalition government. This offer was rejected by the PNC.
With no agreement in sight, the Colonial Secretary, Duncan Sandys, suggested arbitration by the British Government. The PPP opposed this and told him that he should make proposals to the conference on ending the deadlock. When he refused to do so, the PPP stated that it would agree to arbitration provided that the British Government would impose a constitution given to any other territory recently granted independence. Sandys bluntly refused to accept this suggestion.
The conference thus failed to reach an agreement and it was clear that the British Government had allied itself to the opposition. And despite delaying the conference on the grounds that it was awaiting the report of the Commission of Inquiry, the British Government did not introduce that report for discussion at the conference. No doubt, the decision not to introduce the report was because the report blamed both the PNC and the UF for instigating the February disturbances. At the end of the conference, Sandys asked the parties to carry out further consultations in Guyana, and he announced that if the political situation worsened in Guyana, the British Government would consider "imposing a settlement". This statement was seen as giving the opposition forces in Guyana the green light to mount violent actions against the Government.
The British Government's decision not to grant independence and to side with the opposition in this conference came about as a result of decisions reached between the British and American Governments. Senior administration officials from both governments had met in London and Washington throughout the year to plan a political strategy to remove the PPP Government from power.