These words were uttered by a male Guyana Member of Parliament to a female Member when she was talking about cars being purchased by the Government for Ministers. I will not reveal her or the tormentor’s name, a well-known heckler of his time (I attribute this story to Kamal Ramkarran). With the rise of the @MeToo movement and opposition to degrading remarks about women, such a comment would not be appropriate today. For the same reason, neither would Winston Churchill’s alleged remark to Bessie Braddock when she told him ‘Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk.’ He retorted: “Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow, I will be sober and you will be disgustingly ugly.’ There is some uncertainty as to the truth of the exchange. But it has entered the Churchill folklore.
But there are other kinds. In the early 1980s, a report appeared in the press that Ms. Viola Burnham had a ‘frozen’ shoulder. The state-owned Guyana Chronicle was the only daily newspaper being printed and so the rumour mill was extremely vigorous and widespread. Word immediately went out that Burnham had assaulted Mrs. Burnham. By that time Burnham had a self-cultivated, towering stature and few would risk approaching him without leave, much less joking with or about him.
Just after the news and rumour, Parliament was in session and Burnham entered in his usual slow, erect and haughty fashion, as much as his then corpulent body would allow. As soon as he entered, a hush descended over the Chamber. As he was sitting, the same Opposition MP of the ‘broomstick,’ who was not enthralled by Burnham and never showed him the deference that was required of the PNC’s ministers and MPs, gently asked across the aisle, in the midst of the artificially generated, awed, silence: “Odo, how’s Vi?” The uproar from the Opposition benches was so loud that it elicited a smile from Burnham after which PNC officials then dared to modestly smile, albeit tremulously. I had gone to the Parliament to drive my father home and the session was still in full swing. I waited in the gallery and was present for this one. Neither joke, nor insult, it was well-timed and unforgettable.
I had the honour and privilege of speaking at the Full Court ceremony two weeks ago commemorating the passing of Mr. Sase Narine, the longest serving Speaker, from 1973 to 1992. As lawyers together, (Sase was far more senior to me), we met frequently in what lawyers know as the ‘corridor.’ It is the large corridor of the High Court in the northern section of the Victoria Law Courts where lawyers congregate to gossip, talk law, politics or more salacious matters, while waiting for their cases to be called. Over the years I built a relationship with him even though Sase Narain was a hated man in the PPP. He maintained authority in a rigged Parliament by any means necessary – the reason for the hostility to him.
On one occasion, his arch enemy, being a competitor in Hindu affairs, Reepu Daman Persaud, was speaking in Parliament and said something to offend him. Sase Narine demanded an apology. A voice erupted from the member of the ‘broomstick’ fame. It intoned: “Never the day Brahmin apologise to Chamar.” Brahmin is the highest caste and Chamar describes the group of lower castes. For Sase Narain, a Hindu activist, caste meant a great deal and implying that he was from a lower caste constituted a grave, unbearable, insult. He did not wait for an apology. He refused to allow Reepu Daman Persaud to speak. The actual offender offered an apology to Sase Narain which he refused, professing not to have heard the offending words, which everybody else did. Reepu was not allowed to speak for one month. Cheddi Jagan was banned from speaking for five years between 1987 to 1992 because he refused to apologise for a remark he had made.
I have read many of the articles, letters and comments concerning the behaviour of MPs during the debate on the Budget. The press is absolutely right to bring this slow descent into vulgarity into the public domain and to print in its disgusting detail what Members are saying. The press is fully and absolutely protected from any liability of any kind for their accurate reportage. The Speaker has a duty to stop the vulgarity and there are provisions in the Standing Orders to deal with members who violate the rules as to order by shouting across the aisle or making vulgar or otherwise offensive remarks, even while sitting. There are also the Speaker’s vast discretionary powers that are not written in any rule book but can be exercised to great effect. Parliament has to be brought to heel. It has been allowed to go to rot and has become a den of misogyny, homophobia, disparagement, denigration and rudeness. The hurling of aspersions may appear to injure the victims, but among opinion makers, they do more harm to the offenders, who must be named.