Independence and Armed Forces Indian Exclusion

Independence and Armed Forces Indian Exclusion
Photo : Ravi Dev

As we approach another “celebration” of our Independence from Britain, crime once again threatens to overwhelm the country. Even as President Granger sits on the last of a string of British-funded proposals to “professionalise” the Police Force, which appears to be permanently on its back foot. It is more than passing strange that none of these plans recommend that the Disciplined Forces in general, and the Police Force in particular, be made more ethnically representative of the country’s population - much as the British Police have attempted to do with great success in their country. It is an article of faith in all multicultural countries that police drawn from the various groups are more effective in crime fighting.

What makes all of this more peculiar is that in one of its last acts before granting Independence to Guyana under the PNC, the British had witnessed the dangers of having ethnically skewed forces during times of tension between the groups. In 1964 Wismar, the Volunteer Force and Police stood by while hundreds of homes were razed to the ground, three persons were killed; dozens of women raped; hundreds beaten and eventually 2300 Indians were forced to flee the community permanently.

The British Governor formed a “Special Services Unit” that year with equal number of African and Indian Guyanese, even though Indian applicants exceeded Africans. The SSU was commanded by an Indian Major Ramon Sattaur, a Sandhurst graduate, who served under the British officer Colonel Pope. Six persons were selected for officer training in England at the Mons Officer Cadet School. They were Pilgrim, Naraine, Morgan, Roberts, Budhu and Ishoof (3 Indo-Guyanese and 3 Afro-Guyanese).

Elite soldiers from all over the world were students at that prestigious military academy. All Guyana was proud when Naraine won the coveted Sword of Honour, and Ishoof won top prizes for marksmanship and military knowledge. He went on to lead military units in Guyana on two dangerous military operations – the New River Triangle Operations when soldiers from Suriname were driven out from that area, and the Ankoko Operations that repelled Venezuelan incursions into the Essequibo.

As part of the agreement for granting Independence, the British insisted the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) would investigate and make recommendations on the composition of the police and army, with the goal of making them representative of the country’s ethnic make-up. The ICJ then recommend Indians be recruited in higher proportions than Africans until the numbers were balanced. On November 1, 1965 however, Burnham created the Guyana Defense Force and went completely against the ICJ’s recommendations.  

 According to the CIA factbook, “The SSU was renamed the Guyana Defence Force in 1965. The transition to complete Guyanese control of the GDF began in 1966, shortly after independence was granted. Prime Minister Burnham, who also served as Minister of Defense, oversaw the transition.


“Major Raymond Sattaur, an Indo-Guyanese officer and graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, was heir apparent to the British GDF commander. But perhaps because of ethnic considerations, Burnham selected an Afro-Guyanese officer, Major Clarence Price, as the new commander. After the 1968 election, Burnham began to purge Indo-Guyanese from the GDF’s officer corps. By 1970, Afro-Guyanese dominated both the officer and the enlisted ranks of the GDF.

“The PNC attempted to both consolidate and expand the loyalty of the GDF by manipulating racial symbols and by materially rewarding loyal soldiers. Politically minded officers portrayed the PNC as the sole protector of Afro-Guyanese interests. These same officers also portrayed the opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) as an Indo-Guyanese organization whose victory would result in economic and political domination of Afro-Guyanese by Indo-Guyanese.

“In 1973, an aide to Forbes Burnham openly advocated that the GDF pledge its allegiance to the PNC in addition to its loyalty to the nation. This recommendation was made policy the following year. Although the recommendation was unpopular among career officers, disagreement was not voiced openly for fear of losing high salaries, duty-free cars, housing, and other privileges. Nevertheless, throughout the 1970s and 1980s an undercurrent of tension existed between officers who favoured a politically neutral GDF and those who favoured political activism.”

Now President David Granger and ex-Brigadier, was one of those who favoured “political activism”. Isoof did not and left in 1972. Ironically, Granger sat on the 2004 Disciplined Forces Commission but conveniently forgets he recommended their composition be reflective of our ethnic composition.