The life and work of Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues represent and symbolize much more than his individual efforts, courageous though they were. The violent rigging of the 1973 elections facilitated by the seizure of the ballot boxes by the Guyana Defence Force and their sequestration at Camp Ayangana, enabled the PNC to declare a two-third majority victory. This frightening event gave an impetus to political activities. Opposition to the PNC had been led mainly by the PPP through parliamentary debates, political meetings, industrial action by GAWU and modest civil society activity for civil liberties orchestrated mainly by the PPP. The traumatic rigging of the elections, in which two PPP activists, Bholanauth Permanand and Jagan Ramessar, were shot at No. 63 Village, Cornetyne, arrested, and bled to death over hours at the back of a police land rover, shocked the nation. It brought additional forces in the campaign for free and fair elections, civil liberties and human rights. The launching of the WPA in 1975 introduced new and dynamic voices, mobilised additional support and created optimism. Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues was one of these voices.
It is unlikely that Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues would have openly associated with the WPA and political activities, barely disguised as civil society activity, without a nod from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This is a certainty because the late Fr. Andrew Morrison placed the Catholic Standard, of which he was editor, at the forefront of the demands for free and fair elections when the Mirror was sidelined by a contrived newsprint shortage. The presence of two light skinned Catholic priests among a sea of black and brown faces was incongouous when juxtaposed with a Catholic Church, just 15 years earlier, openly and successfully joining the PNC/UF bandwagon to remove the ‘communist’ PPP from office. With increasing collaboration between the PPP and WPA, Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues was welcomed by Freedom House, notwithstanding the past. Freedom House addressed everyone as ‘comrade.’ The use of the word indicated a person of similar views, a ‘friend,’ a term of endearment, or to show respect. The respectful prefix of ‘Fr’ was alien in Freedom House. Thus it was not unusual to hear the phrase ‘Comrade Malcolm’ around Freedom House, in and out of Fr. Rodrigues’s presence.
This period is significant in Guyana’s political history for two reasons. It confirmed the possibility of expanding the political base to fight for free and fair elections and also to create an powerful civil society movement to oppose authoritarian rule, in accordance with the strategy of the PPP. This was especially so after 1964, although the first rigging took place in 1968. The other reason was surprise, from the PPP’s perspective, that the leadership of the large Christian communities could have been so readily mobilized. It was the first time in the history of Guyana that the Christian, through the Guyana Council of Churches, took such a militant and overt stand on freedom in Guyana. It was nothing short of a revolutionary development. Probably the last occasion on which the Christian church gained such prominence, although the situation was completely different, was in 1823 when the martyred Rev. John Smith was wrongly accused of using the church to aid the enslaved revolutionaries.
The high point of the political campaign in the latter years of the 1970s was against the referendum which took place in July 1978. The PNC wanted to impose a new constitution on Guyana and needed a referendum to abolish the need to put the proposed constitution to a referendum. Two parallel processes were organized, political activity by the CDD (Committee in Defence of Demcracy) comprising all the opposition political parties and the CCC (Concerned Citizens Committee), a grouping of civil society members. Mass mobilization took place and it was established that only 15 percent of the electorate turned out to vote by simply counting the number of persons entering polling stations by persons ensconced in neighbouring houses. The official results showed a turnout of 97 percent with 71 percent supporting the referendum. Fr. Rodrigues was active in the work of the CCC as well as in the struggle to free Arnold Rampersaud whose three trials were ongoing between 1977 and 1979. All the while Fr. Rodrigues was a noted academic at the University of Guyana.
If asked the motivation for his work in civil society for democracy in Guyana, Fr. Rodrigues would have had a ready and simple answer with his ever-present smile – he was doing God’s work. The brutal stabbing of Fr. Bernard Darke, a fellow Jesuit, with a knife meant for the equally courageous Fr. Andrew Morrison, editor of the Catholic Standard, a true ‘standard’ bearer for democracy at the time, must have been painful to him and the Catholic community, as it was to us all. Fr. Rodrigues continued on fearlessly.
It had been suggested at the time that ‘liberation theology,’ a movement in Roman Catholicism, emerging in Latin America in the late 1960s, that sought to apply the teaching of Jesus Christ to aid the poor and oppressed by political and civic activism, was responsible for the involvement of Catholics in the struggle for democracy in Guyana. Whatever the reason, Fr. Malcolm Rodrigues would be remembered for his outstanding contribution to democracy in Guyana.