By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Arjune Karshan contributed to the freedom struggle for Guyana from in New York the way few did. He was a tireless campaigner for Guyana.Only a few of us championed Guyana from afar; others were busy establishing their lives and or trying to get permanent residency status in America. They hardly had time for Guyana. Karshan was deeply committed to the struggle and he did so at a time when few cared for or about Guyana or helped in the struggle.
Karshan led the Association of Concerned Guyanese (ACG), NY branch, passed away a few days ago in the US. He was a political mentor and an inspiration to ACG colleagues in the struggle against racism meted out to Indians and other ethnic groups in Guyana.
As Guyana mourns his passing, and as the nation battles against electoral fraud, people should reflect on his life and the very important role he played in the restoration of democracy in Guyana. He is a role model of the kind of struggle being waged right now for counting of the ballots. We must remember the important role he played in championing free and fair elections for the homeland. I honor his memory with this simple tribute with anecdotes and encounters with Karshan.
Karshan served as Guyana’s Ambassador to Surinam, appointed by Dr. Jagan after the restoration of democracy serving in the position for over a decade. He was a true Guyanese patriot, a champion of human rights and one of the most outspoken NY-based activists prior to the 1992 election. He organized grassroots social and media movements and chaired countless functions relating to Guyana. He dedicated his life to the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana. I can’t think of anyone else who was like him. He lived and breathed for Guyana. He was also passionate about tackling social injustice in America, unwavering in his belief in humanity. He was uncompromising in his socialist leaning. But after Jagan embraced glasnost and perestroika, Karshan, like several others in the ACG, fell in line. He was greatly admired by everyone who knew him.
Karshan is from Enterprise. He worked as a teacher at Cove and John Primary school before migrating to NY in 1972 living for a period of time in Manhattan around 32nd Street. He used to produce a newsletter that was laid out from a typewriter and then mass produced. It was a lot of work that required an abiding commitment and time.
After the PPP won the October 1992 elections, Karshan went to Surinam in 1993 as Jagan’s appointee. His death brought back memories of the struggle for the liberation of Guyana.
I met Karshan in late 1970s in New York during the struggle for free and fair elections in Guyana and took a liking to him for his dedication to a struggle though not his left wing political ideology. I came to the US in 1977 enrolled at City College where a group of us from Guyana and Trinidad formed a student organization and launched a newsletter to raise awareness about human rights violations in Guyana. That student activism allowed me to come into contact with Karshan who was working closely with Chuck Mohan and Jeewan Singh, both of who were also students at CCNY though not members of our club. Karshan would visit CCNY for guest lectures. Karshan, who came to New York in 1972, and lived for a while in Manhattan on 32nd street, also produced a newsletter. Karshan would visit CCNY, a hot bed of radicalism, during the late 1970s and 1980s. He frequently addressed students of Prof Margarita Samad Mathias classes of the Black Studies Department. Chuck also addressed students of the classes including me who took several courses in Black Studies. Prof Mathias was sympathetic with Cheddi and Janet who she regularly hosted.
I came to admire Karshan, Chuck, Mel Carpen, and other stalwarts who were pioneers of ACG for their zeal, enthusiasm, and commitment to the struggle for the restoration of democracy in the homeland. They were true Jaganites and patriots. They would do anything for the Jagan’s and Guyana. No one was more committed to the Jagan’s than them.
Karshan championed the restoration of democracy the way few of us did, demonstrating grit and determination to succeed in the struggle to liberate Guyana from the dictatorship. He was behind the organization of countless rallies and protests all over the city. There was hardly a public event (including immigration rallies and Ramayanas, India Day parades, Holi and Indian Arrival Day celebrations, etc.) in New York thru 1992 that I did not see Karshan distributing pamphlets on Guyana. My friends, Vassan Ramracha and Baytoram Ramharack and I would bounce up with him (accompanied by two nephews and sometimes others) on 14th Street early Saturday morning from the late 1970s to 1992 and occasionally on Liberty Avenue on Sundays or Saturday evenings leafleting literature on Guyana.
Karshan and I spoke at several rallies, student forums, and meetings and whenever we met he would applaud the activism of Vassan, Ramaharack and myself. Whenever we met and or spoke on the phone, he would reminisce about confrontations on the ideological divide; he was pro-USSR and we were pro-America. We could not be living in America that provided us a home and be ungrateful. We had several aggressive encounters – on how the liberation struggle for Guyana should be fought. And at times he was arrogant dismissing our views. We supported militant confrontation; Karshan was for the Ghandian method.
Whenever Cheddi and Janet visited New York, Karshan was foot to foot behind them including at the 1988 Columbia Univ conference I helped to organize to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Indian Arrival where Jagan, and I spoke at the same panel. Karshan also accompanied Cheddi at the week long GOPIO event in New York where we both spoke on the same panel with Ravi Dev on human rights violations in Guyana. Cheddi, Karshan, and I had several exchanges there.
I can attest that Karshan raised a lot of funds for PPP in NY and was behind a regular monthly PPP publication for almost two decades.
Karshan, Janet, Cheddi, and other stalwarts addressed several lectures at CCNY, CUNY Graduate School and other locations. I was an elected leader at CCNY around 1978 and at CUNY Grad Center around 1987 and both student governments facilitated and or sponsored events pertaining to Guyana. Several forums on Guyana were held at these institutions.
Karshan organized many public forums for Cheddi and Janet at other locations. The duo were regular features at Pandit Ramlall’s (ASC) mandir in Jamaica accompanied by Karshan.
Karshan’s contribution to the Guyana struggle has made him an icon of resistance against dictatorship and of the struggle for social justice in America and in Guyana. I salute him and thank his family for allowing him to commit so many years to the struggle that freed Guyana from the yoke of an oppressive dictatorship. He did so at a time when few were willing to be associated with any movement relating to Guyana and at a time when Guyanese did not have resources to contribute to a struggle; they weer just establishing their presence in a new homeland having been iull-treated and marginalized in the land of their birth.
Although we belonged to different organizations and saw the struggle from different perspectives, and we had major differences in ideology, I never belittled Karshan’s role, or affiliation, or method of struggle. And he always praised the work of myself and colleagues Vassan and Baytoram. He would often tell me, “You all are political giants in this struggle. And the country owes you all a debt of gratitude. Few were as committed to the struggle like you all. You all deserve the highest awards and accolades for play such an important role in the liberation of the homeland”.
Karshan invited me to visit Surinam when he was Ambassador. When I finally visited, he had left his post. We communicated a few times after that and he would continue his songs of praise of our involvement in the struggle to liberate the homeland from a fascist, racist dictatorship.
In light of what is happening in Guyana, Karshan’s legacy of struggle for democracy must serve as an inspiration for the younger generation. Only a few pioneers of the early movement for the liberation of Guyana are still around. They should pen their encounters with Karshan and their experience in the struggle; we were often humiliated by several Guyanese including those who today claim rights to Guyana and even lifted a hand or gave a penny to assist in the struggle for the liberation.