THE OUTBREAK OF RACIAL DISTURBANCES IN 1964
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On 17 February 1964, the Guiana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) called a country-wide strike to demand recognition as the bargaining agent for the country's sugar workers. The union, backed by the PPP, was the successor of the GIWU of the early 1950s, and when it was resuscitated in 1960, it was known as the Sugar Workers' Union before its name was officially changed. The established recognised union was the MPCA which was strongly anti-Government, but which had very little support among the sugar workers who were fiercely supportive of the PPP.
Throughout 1961, 1962 and 1963, GAWU demanded that a poll should be taken among sugar workers to determine which union should represent them, but the employers' organisation, the Sugar Producers' Association (SPA), in close alliance with the MPCA, firmly opposed any such action. The MPCA leadership was part and parcel of the leadership of the TUC which naturally opposed a poll among sugar workers.
The strike actually started after cane-cutters at Leonora were told on 6 February by the management of the estate that there was work for only half of them. The workers begged for work to be provided for all of them, but the management refused their request. As a result, all the workers called a strike on the following day, and by the 17 February cane cutters on all the estates decided to join the strike in solidarity. They called on GAWU to act on their behalf saying that they had no confidence in the MPCA.
The strike received overwhelming support from sugar workers and all the sugar estates were seriously affected. The workers showed their total disdain for the MPCA and bluntly refused the pleas of the leaders of that union to return to work. Dr. Jagan, the Premier, requested the Governor, Sir Ralph Grey, to order a poll among sugar workers, but he refused to do so. However, on further advice from Dr. Jagan, he appointed a commission of enquiry headed by a respected Supreme Court judge, Guya Persaud, to determine which union should represent the sugar workers. Immediately, the MPCA filed an injunction in the Supreme Court to block this enquiry. As a result, the chairman of the commission decided that the enquiry could not begin until the Supreme Court made a ruling. The enquiry was thus suspended and was finally abandoned when the PPP Government was removed from power.
Faced with the serious problem of no production of sugar, the SPA began to hire scabs in the effort to break the strike. In doing so, the employers' organisation disregarded the existing political and racial sensitivities in the sugar estates. At that period, the overwhelming majority of sugar workers were Indians, and were supporters of the PPP. What the SPA did was to hire mainly inexperienced African cane-cutters who were generally supporters of the PNC. In strike situations, it was natural for workers on strike to try to prevent strike-breakers to get to the workplace; in the case of this strike, Indian workers attempted to block the entry of African and also some regular Indian cane-cutters (who refused to strike) from reaching the fields or factories.
Many of the African recruited to break the strike were also employed by the management of the sugar estates as "vigilantes" to protect the property of the estates from sabotage. Inevitably, violent racial clashes took place between these "vigilantes" and the Indian population residing on or near to the sugar estates. Soon after, these clashes extended to other areas as well. On 4 March, at Tain on the Corentyne, a bomb was thrown at a bus transporting scabs to Albion estate and two persons Gunraj, an Indian, and Edgar Munroe, an African, died.
Violent attacks involving beatings and murders occurred mainly on the East Coast Demerara, Mahaicony, West Demerara, Wismar-Mackenzie and Georgetown, and the entire country was in a state of tension. In Georgetown, Indians were brutally beaten on the streets, and some business places were looted and set on fire.
Reprisal beatings, destruction of property and killings occurred with great frequency. Indians attacked Africans and Africans attacked Indians in some communities, houses and business places were looted were burnt down and Government and privately owned buildings were bombed. In some villages, where Indians or Africans formed the minority, they abandoned their homes and resettled in villages where their respective group had dominance. A dusk to dawn curfew in the affected communities did little to prevent the violence.
But despite the violent attacks and killings, most of the country remained relatively peaceful even though Africans and Indians regarded each other with suspicion. And even in the areas where racial violence occurred almost daily, there were numerous cases where Indians were protected by Africans, and where Africans were protected by Indians. In many instances, Indians and Africans, on abandoning their home communities, obtained the assistance of friends from the opposite race group to temporarily occupy their homes in order to prevent them from being destroyed by arsonists.
In most communities, residents organized "vigilante groups" and "home guards" to patrol in groups during the night. Some of these communities also set up imaginative alarm systems to warn of suspicious intruders. While these groups provided some protection, in the absence of regular police patrols, there occurred some incidents in which they attacked and killed innocent persons passing through some areas on foot or in motor vehicles.
While the violence was escalating, the sugar industry strike continued. One very notable incident occurred at Leonora Estate on 6 March when a female sugar worker, Kowsilia, was run over and her body severed in two by a tractor driven by an African strike breaker. She and other women workers on strike were squatting on a bridge near to the factory to prevent strike breakers from crossing when the incident occurred. Fourteen other women were seriously injured. In the ensuing fracas, the police arrived on the scene and used tear gas to break up the demonstration. Kowsilia became an immediate martyr for the cause of sugar workers in their struggle for democracy in the trade union movement in Guyana.
Meanwhile, a new Governor, Sir Richard Luyt, arrived in Guyana to succeed Sir Ralph Grey and he was sworn in on 7 March. The PPP Government objected to his appointment, saying that Grey's successor should be a Guyanese and the PPP Ministers refused to attend the swearing-in ceremony. No doubt, this objection to Luyt's appointment was one of the reasons the new Governor was to display a bias against the PPP Government for the remainder of 1964.