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- Seeks security, other help from India
By Neil Marks
Guyana’s High Commissioner to India, Ronald Gajraj.
IN THE diplomatic enclave in New Delhi, Guyana’s High Commissioner to India, Ronald Gajraj says it is generally peaceful and is a far cry from the environment he was accustomed to when he held the reigns of the security sector here.

Battling the idiosyncrasies of spoken and written Hindi, and trying to convert his taste buds to north Indian cuisine, he seeks to get Indian experts to come down here for training programmes to boost the security sector, despite significant developments since he was forced out of office by the diplomatic community.

“It is not a question of being wrongly accused. It was definitely a political move that picked up some momentum from those who were opposed to the government,” he says of the “phantom” squad allegations that saw protesters even outside his Bel Air, Georgetown, home, where he was earlier chastised for not knowing dangerous criminals were his neighbours.

“This idea of a phantom group has always bothered me. What is a phantom group?” he asks, settling in for a candid discussion with the Sunday Chronicle.

The former minister was in Guyana for the visit of a high level Indian mission, led by Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Mrs. Shashi Tripathi.

Gajraj resigned as Minister of Home Affairs at the end of May last year after the diplomatic community voiced strong objections to him being returned to the position, with the U.S. even threatening cutting certain programmes. He was on leave for the 11 months a Presidential Commission of Inquiry took to clear him of allegations that he was involved in a “phantom” death squad.

The Ian Chang-led Commission, however, found that he was guilty of serious procedural irregularities, including contact with suspected criminals, and issuing gun licenses. The international community felt that was enough reason for him to be relieved of his duties, and despite strong backings from President Bharrat Jagdeo, Gajraj asked to demit office, just the same when he asked for the inquiry to be carried out and proceeded on leave.


High Commissioner Gajraj (left) with members of visiting Indian team and their local counterparts last week at the Providence Stadium.

However, the University of the West Indies educated lawyer still feels he did nothing wrong, and he has no apologies to make.

“I did what I ought to have done,” he declares of his actions at a time when he acknowledges public confidence in the Guyana Police Force was at its lowest and when Policemen, scared for their lives, might have acted hastily.

“One must appreciate the limitations under which we were operating,” he counters. The Police Service Commission had not sat for some time and promotions could not be adequately addressed. The Police Force had a smaller number of officers then, and they were not equipped to deal with the sophisticated methods of the criminals, he said of the 2002/3 crime wave that saw Georgetown transformed into a ghost town at nights.

“We had cause to believe that certain criminal elements were being imported in the country to carry out certain nefarious activities,” he says, adding that vehicles were modified to provide some degree of security for the criminals.

He remembers a situation at Nabaclis, East Coast Demerara when a criminal was found with a bullet proof vest that had certain modifications. He recalls too at Ogle, also on the East Coast, when the vehicle in which a Trinidadian was travelling, had a steel plate affixed to the backseat to provide protection to the criminals.

“You had certain crimes committed by certain people with overseas connections. It created some worry…Anxiety within the force mounted,” he admits.

Police on patrol were very apprehensive, he says, and self-preservation, being the first law of nature, they took certain courses of action that were “a little impatient” because it was a question of fearing for their lives.

“They came under fire from weapons in the hands of criminals who had no rules and regulations by which they were governed,” he explains.

In the two years under Minister Gail Teixeira, he says there have been many improvements, with tremendous resources plugged into the Police Force. He said he helped acquire armoured vehicles and rapid response types from India. With the acquisition of more firearms and matching ammunition, the Force has been better able to do its job, he acknowledged.

By the latter part of 2004, crime had abated significantly, social life was restored, and decency had returned to the capital.

“Much water has passed on under the bridge. There has been fear and anxiety and different points. Minister Gail Teixeira is doing her best to deal with the situation,” he says.

It is easy for people on the outside to be critical, but if they were better informed, their views of him might have been different, he suggests.

He sees that the media had a part to play in the events that led up to his having to clear his Brickdam, Georgetown office, which was channa bombed during the crime wave.

The allegations against him were levelled by a self-confessed informant, who suffered personal loss, and in order to attract publicity, “he would have identified, as he did, some senior person.” He is clear that the press at that time, “seeking to grasp at anything that would create some sensationalism,” latched on to the issue and blew it out of proportion.

“I have done what I did within the confines of the law,” he maintains. He was not home during the period of anxiety and fear when Minister Satyadeow Sawh, his siblings Rajpat Rai and Pulmattie Persaud, and guard Curtis Robertson were slain at Earl’s Court, LBI.

He doesn’t want to say much on the issue, except that Minister Sawh lived at an area that probably lent itself much easier to the commission of criminal activity without detection.

He refused also to speculate on whether the killings were politically or criminally motivated. However, he bases his take on the issue on the fact that ballistics tests showed that the weapons used in the April 24 attack were the same that were used in a massacre at Agricola on the East Bank of Demerara earlier in the year.

He posits it does not mean that since the same weapons were used, the same operatives used them, but he said it would not be unreasonable to infer that.

Looking to the upcoming elections, Gajraj has more of a concern, rather than a fear, of the violence which has plagued the polls since 1992. He was appointed in 1999 and so knows well of the experiences of 2001. In fact, the day he was being sworn into office in early April that year, an entire city block went up in flames in uncontrollable anti-government protests.

“The President has said the security forces would be on alert and deployed as necessary. I think people have grown to realise that elections are the main planks on which our democracy rests, and they have begun to recognise the importance of elections and to ensure that it is peaceful, free and fair, and free from fear,” he says.

When he demitted office at the end of May 2005, President Jagdeo named him High Commissioner to India. He left unceremoniously. No official announcement was made. It was perhaps for good reason. A controversy that started to seep in after it was leaked to the media, died down quickly.

He stood as an integral part of the government as Minister of Home Affairs, and he took on the new appointment with similar pride.

“Foreign Affairs is a very important ministry; to be given the opportunity to represent one’s country is a signal honour,” he says.

Gajraj was intrigued too by vast India. With over a billion people and an emerging super power, he was being assigned to New Delhi to cash in on India’s changing fortunes. The High Commission was closed in 1991, but with two visits by President Jagdeo, the decision was taken to reopen the High Commission, especially so given India’s US$20M financing of the Providence Cricket Stadium being built to host the quarter final matches of Cricket World Cup 2007. Gajraj saw first hand the construction last week when he visited with Tripathi.

He admires India and its unique standing in the world. Having emerged out of a perilous economic state in the early 90’s to a booming economy, India, under the leadership of economist Manmohan Singh, is on an upward trend, growing at eight per cent per annum.

He sees similarities between Guyana and India – both former colonies of the British - and with an agriculture base. India has a lot of potential that Guyana can benefit from.

Gajraj was hand in hand with the discussions in Georgetown last week that will see new projects for Guyana. Upon his return to New Delhi, he will focus his energies on these, one being the establishment of an Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) village for Guyana.

Through Tripathi’s visit, the Indian government has expressed willingness to explore this possibility and he intends to pursue it aggressively, including securing the hardware and other logistics that would be necessary for implementation.

“The ICT village can be a reality in the very near future,” he said optimistically.
Trade between Guyana and India has improved. He did not have direct figures to be quoted, but says it is significant. Reflecting on the India trade fair last year and this year, he says 100 businessmen came down to showcase their products.

Further, he has spoken with both Guyanese and Indian businessmen who have expressed interest in doing business, and the result, he is sure, can only redound to the benefit of both countries. There is an increase in trade of forestry products, and Guyana is looking at a request to have sugar sold to India.

Gajraj too wants to see the number of Guyanese benefiting from free training in India increased. One hundred students are pursuing studies in various disciplines in India, but he wants to see more there.

However, Gajraj’s plan is to see Indian experts come to Guyana to conduct training programmes in various fields, including security and culture.

He feels a large number of persons will benefit this way, as opposed to one person travelling to India to study a particular field.

While he is doing that, Gajraj is also working on getting Guyana known in India, not only in New Delhi, but in Mumbai, Chennai and other key states. In fact, he says Guyanese studying in India are doing their lot.

He informs too that there are several Non-Governmental Organisations that are friendly with the Guyana High Commission. A Guyana-India Friendly Relations Association has been set up and this year organised celebrations for Arrival Day and Independence Day.

Free from controversy, Gajraj is brimming with the successes of Guyana-India relations.

Sunday, July 23, 2006