This week’s ‘Special Person’ is Ralph Ramkarran
“Because I have a leadership position in the PPP, the challenge as Speaker of the National Assembly is ensuring that all sides develop and maintain confidence in my management of the business of the House and that all parties are given a fair shake.
“Judging from the fact that both sides of the House are at times unhappy with me, I believe I am succeeding.”
Most are accustomed to seeing him perched majestically in his regal seat where from his panoramic position he presides over the proceedings of the National Assembly.
Others know of his prowess, dexterity and efficiency in the legal fraternity and the courtroom over the last thirty years which has caused him to be part of countless prominent cases.
Everyone he has come into contact with can attest to his humble, down to earth, unassuming nature and his infectious personality.
But few may know of Mr. Ralph Ramkarran’s immense role over the last forty years in fighting to bring about political, democratic, constitutional and parliamentary reforms in Guyana.
In his role as Speaker and Chair of the Parliamentary Management Committee, Mr. Ramkarran has presided over the widest and most extensive body of reforms to the National Assembly in its history, which have significantly enhanced its role in governance in Guyana.
He was elected unopposed as Speaker of the National Assembly of Guyana in 2001 and again in 2006.
He was an elected member of the National Assembly in 1997 and resigned in early 2001 to become a member of the Guyana Elections Commission to assist in managing the elections of that year.
He had previously served on the Commission for the 1973, 1992 and 1997 general elections and the 1994 local government elections.
While serving as a member of the National Assembly, he was elected as Chair of the bi-partisan Constitution Reform Commission, the report of which was unanimously adopted by the National Assembly and formed the basis of extensive reforms to the Constitution and the National Assembly.
Mr. Ramkarran qualified as a lawyer in 1972 in the United Kingdom as a member of Gray’s Inn and returned to Guyana the following year when he entered private practice.
He joined the law firm of Cameron & Shepherd, Guyana’s oldest, largest and best known, in 1977 and is now its senior partner. He became a Senior Counsel in 1996.
Immediately upon his return to Guyana he became deeply involved in political activities and as the only lawyer in the PPP leadership at that time, he became involved in the defence of dozens of youths, mainly from the sugar estate and PPP activists, who were consistently charged and placed before the courts on public order charges as a form of continuous harassment.
The highlight of this activity was his role in the defence of Arnold Rampersaud who was framed on a murder charge and tried three times in 1976, 1977 and 1978, eventually being acquitted after international interest and condemnation. He has since appeared for the PPP and the Government in many important constitutional and elections cases including in relation to the last general elections in 2006.
Mr. Ramkarran has spoken and lectured widely on behalf of the PPP and was the editor of its official journal, the Thunder, between 1992 and 2002. He was elected to the PPP’s Central and Executive Committees in 1974 and 1975 respectively and remains a member of both.
Over the years he has demonstrated that despite his prestige , he is a ‘people’s person’.
In those early years he worked with the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union as a legal advisor and member of its executive committee.
Since that time he continues his work of lecturing and participating in meeting with workers, party members and supporters all over Guyana. He continues to do this whenever the opportunity is afforded.
In 1994 he was elected as the Guyana Facilitator to the United Nations Good Officer Process under the Geneva Agreement relating to the Guyana-Venezuela Border controversy. He has met under the aegis United Nations Good Officer since that time. During this period relations with Venezuela has remained stable and have in fact improved.
Mr. Ramkarran was elected to the Council of the Guyana Bar Association in 1979 and served for twelve years as Treasurer, Assistant Secretary and Secretary.
During this period the Guyana Bar Association was very active and outspoken in promoting free and fair elections, fundamental rights of citizens including freedom of speech and freedom from arbitrary police action. Back then the Guyana Bar Association was an active member of civil society which aided the return to democracy in 1992.
Like most great people Ramkarran’s beginning was very modest.
He grew up in Bel Air in the very compound where his father and grandfather lived.
He attended the Central and Bel Air Primary schools and Queen’s College. While at Central he met a student, Janet, and was immediately smitten. They went to the UK together to study. He became a lawyer and she a professional nurse.
They celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary on Monday and have two sons, Nikhil and Kamal, both lawyers who are partners in Cameron & Shepherd.
On his return from the UK as a young lawyer, Ramkarran remembers working on the East Coast of Demerara joining a group of lawyers who have remained friends, including Bernard De Santos and Richard Fields.
Close colleagues from those years who have remained friends and with whom Ramkarran is still actively engaged in legal matters include Edward Luckhoo and Robin Stoby. He was associated with Doodnauth Singh, the current Attorney General, for many of those early years on many cases of a political character.
One such case was that of Tula Ram v Vishnu Ramdass, which is the first of several of his cases reported in the West Indian Reports and for many years was on the syllabus of the Hugh Wooding Law School. Ramdass was a political activist who was charged with threatening language during a period of political unrest.
In representing him, Ramkarran challenged firstly that there was no evidence that the case was being heard in the right court. In those days the prosecution had to prove “jurisdiction” and Ramkarran contended that there was no such proof.
However Ramdass was found guilty and fined. Ramkarran then moved to the Full Court of Appeal where his appeal was successful. This was challenged by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the Court of Appeal but once again Ramkarran’s argument was upheld.
So impressed was the Court that the then Chancellor of Judiciary JOF Haynes was prompted to make some very generous remarks about Ramkarran’s research and presentation of the case.
And even though it was unusual in those days the newspapers published not only his name but the full remarks of Chancellor Haynes which his son Kamal has framed and on his wall.
Maybe it was natural for him to become a politician, since he was born into a political environment. His father Boysie Ramkarran, a founder member of the PPP, was active in the 1947 elections in Central Demerara in favour of Cheddi Jagan. He had been a member of the Political Affairs Committee, a precursor of the PPP.
The elder Ramkarran contested general elections of 1953 and won a seat in Legislative Council. However, the Constitution was suspended by Great Britain, the colonial power in those days 133 days after elections.
He was restricted under emergency regulations to between Kitty and Plaisance and was required to report every morning at a specified time to the Kitty Police Station.
He was imprisoned in March 1954 for six months for being in breach of the emergency regulations by failing to report as he was ill and could not do so.
Boysie Ramkarran served as Minister of Works and Communications in the 1957/61 PPP government and Minister of Works and Hydraulics in the 1961/1964 PPP government and was the General Secretary of GAWU between 1975 and 1985.
“A Chip of the old block”
The junior Ramkarran was a ‘chip off the old block’ in terms of political aptitude. He joined PPP as a teenager but came into his own as a student in the UK as a member of the UK Branch.
He participated in demonstrations and picketing exercises against election rigging and worked hard to collect evidence and expose the fraudulent overseas electoral roll. He provided information and gave interviews to the London Times which formed basis of a report on planned electoral fraud and was a facilitator for the famous Granada TV film, ‘The Trail of the Vanishing Voter,’ which exposed electoral fraud.
Ralph Ramkarran actively participated in struggles against apartheid, the Vietnam war, the freedom of Angela Davis and support for other liberation causes and was active in almost every other progressive and democratic event at the time which included meeting a wide variety of groups and bodies and lecturing and talking about Guyana, as well as lobbying MPs and other organizations for democracy in Guyana.
Ramkarran noted that even though he didn’t anticipate playing a role in parliamentary building he was happy to have been given the opportunity to serve as Speaker of the National Assembly for the last seven years. He is credited with presiding over the establishment of the Standing Committees which play an oversight role over the executive. He chairs the Parliamentary Management Committee which manages the business of the National Assembly.
He also presided over the amendment of the Standing Orders to make them more modern as well as improving the physical infrastructure of Parliament building with government support.
He described his role in the House as a challenge.
“Having a leadership position in the PPP, the challenge is ensuring that all sides develop and maintain confidence in my management of the business of the National Assembly and that all parties are being given a fair shake”
Judging from the fact that both sides of the House are at times unhappy with him, he believes that he is succeeding in this regard.
Ramkarran, who is 62, said that he plans to continue making a contribution to Guyana as long as possible. He believes that there is a vast amount more that has to be done in the area of governance and reform which have become the areas in which he has made the most contribution.
Part of his plans for the future includes doing more writing on political and constitutional matters.
Responding to questions of his role in Guyana post 2011 elections, he committed to continuing to give of his best in whatever capacity he is “invited, selected or elected”
Commenting on his life’s work, Ramkarran said he sincerely hopes that his inputs into the society has been beneficial to Guyanese thus far, since that was the sole aim of all he has done.
He describes his life and political vocation as “challenging but rewarding” and noted that the only other career he might have wanted to pursue was journalism.
“Outside of law and politics, the only alternative career for me would probably have been journalism. The combination of creative writing, intellectual stimulation and investigative work and is quite attractive.”
He made it clear that as long as he is able to, he will continue to serve the people of Guyana and to dedicate himself to improving the country in whatever way he can.