Remembering Cheddi Jagan

By Raffique Shah
April 04, 2018

Raffique ShahHe was the most sincere, humble, decent political leader I’ve known, Of course, mere mention of sincerity, humility and decency as being the foremost character traits of any politician, especially when he was the leader of a main party in any country, axiomatically infer that he was also a failure if success is measured by winning elections and holding on to power.

All of the above were true of Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s first Chief Minister (in 1953, when the colony was named British Guiana), a patriot whose birth centenary passed very quietly on March 22. In fact, I, who considered Cheddi a friend and comrade, would have not remembered the occasion had my columnist colleague Ricky Singh not written about it.

Ricky noted that the pettiness that has always undermined Guyana’s politics was alive and as nasty as ever: incumbent President David Granger, whose grip on office is by the narrowest of margins—one seat—vetoed the issuance of a commemorative stamp to mark the birth of this gentle giant whose disarming smile and ease of immersing himself among the masses spanned 50 of the 79 years he lived, 28 of them walking in the wilderness of opposition.

One of the tragedies of our colonial history is that it is written or rewritten with unapologetic distortions such that heroes are portrayed as villains and self-serving egomaniacs who enriched themselves and their friends whilst wielding power are made to look like selfless patriots.

Worse, because we neither know nor care about our own history, most Caribbean people who belong to the post-Independence generations have no idea who freedom fighters like Jagan were. Hell, they know little or nothing about Dr Eric Williams or Dr Rudranath Capildeo, and the few of us alive who remember Caribbean stalwarts who fought for universal adult suffrage and independence—whether or not we liked them or agreed with their ideologies is immaterial—have already morphed into dinosaurs even as we live our last few years.

But back to Jagan: rising from poverty that was endemic to most colonies, he returned from studying in the USA and graduating as a dentist in 1943, and rather than focus on his profession and amassing wealth, which was easy to do, he almost immediately plunged into fighting for better living and working conditions for the poor. He formed the Political Affairs Committee whose members included his wife Janet and trade unionist Ashton Chase, and in 1947, he won a seat in the legislature as an independent.

He went on to woo other “freedom fighters” into forming the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), among them young lawyer Forbes Burnham and teacher/activist Sydney King (later Eusi Kwyana), forging a truly multi-ethnic, ideologically diverse party that swept the polls in 1953, winning 18 of 24 seats.

That Jagan and some of his comrades were self-declared communists at a time when Marxism was fashionable mattered not to the electorate. But it provoked a sledge-hammer response from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who sanctioned armed intervention by British troops, the suspension of the Constitution, dismissal of the 133-days-young Government, and the detention of several frontline PPP members.

Thus began an active campaign by British and US intelligence agencies to exploit the division of the Guyanese people along race-lines, a strategy that was widely employed in the Empire, but which had devastating effects in Guyana. The Afro- and Indo-Guyanese who had joined to give the PPP a commanding mandate in 1953, descended into a cauldron of ethnic strife and bloody violence that dealt a death blow to Jagan’s quest for unity.

Burnham broke with Jagan and two factions of the PPP contested the 1957 elections that were marred by racial violence. Jagan’s faction polled 47 percent of the votes and nine of 14 seats while Burnham’s faction secured 25 percent and three seats. So the British were again saddled with Jagan and the PPP. To cut a long story of electoral gerrymandering short, Britain introduced proportional representation in 1964 that enabled Burnham’s People’s National Congress to join with the obscure United Force to oust Jagan.

Robbed of his rightful place, Jagan would endure 28 years in opposition. He never lost his composure or succumbed to bitterness. Instead, he catalogued the sins of the US State Department, the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in a book “The West on Trial”, accusations that were later confirmed when secret documents were declassified, and he stoically bore his banishment from power as he traversed the region promoting the interests of the country he never ceased to love.

He would eventually win the 1992 elections convincingly (53 percent to the PNC’s 42 percent), and become President. But ill-health had set in and he died in office in 1997.

In his long political life, he was never accused of dishonesty or corruption, such was his integrity in public and private life. The same cannot be said of his foes, especially Burnham, and his PPP successors, many of whom stand accused of amassing personal wealth. In fact, there is hardly another politician in the entire region whose integrity is comparable with Jagan’s.

He and I disagreed over ideology: he was orthodox Marxist, almost slavishly loyal to the Kremlin, and I considered myself a New Age revolutionary with a free spirit anchored in the Caribbean. But I had enormous respect for Cheddi, for the simplicity of his lifestyle, his aversion to opulence, his dogged determination to engage even the superpowers in the battle for a better, prosperous Guyana.

A general salute for you, my friend.

6 thoughts on “Remembering Cheddi Jagan”

  1. “Apanjat”. According to history, Jagan and Burnham went to visit Nehru. Whilst walking in Nehru flower garden Nehru pulled him aside and said to him “Apanjat”. Burnham had taken some time to learn Hindi and knew what the word meant. Nehru was India first Prime Minister and given to British ambilivance on important matters. It was said when Nixon came to India, Nehru did not go to the airport to greet him and fed him hydrogenated vegetables. An angry Nixon then went to Communist China, where Mao treated him like a royal long lost Chinese Emporer returning home. Thus began an economic relationship with China that became the envy of the world.

    Guyana civil unrest was brutal with rapes, murder, Thiefing inflicted on the Indian population. I have met many Guyanese from that era and they shared stories that are frightening. From a young lady jumping into a cesspit to avoid rape and so traumatized after that the sight of a black man imputed horrible fear. To a young man who show me the gunman, bullet wounds on his hand narrowly escaping for his life as his mother threw a sheet over him and covered him, she being killed in the process. The skinning of Indian children whilst shouting “kill the coolie”. Over 300,000 mainly indo Guyanese fled and settled all over the world mainly in the US, Canada and UK.

    The Jagan era was very traumatic and the festering wound of racism remains to this day. Indians and Africans just keep to themselves. Jagan did what he could but should have understood American and British sensitivities in that post colonial era. They did not want another Cuba. His American wife Janet, being strongly pro communist did not help. The Indo Guyanese loved the Jagans and will always think highly of them despite their lot in life.

  2. I had the pleasure to listen to Jagan in the launching of his book ‘the West on Trial’ in ’68 or ’69 (memory is failing me) in London. I was also at Chalk Farm for the requiem service for the deceased Capildeo (known as Cap by his Univerity colleagues), the stalwart of an academician 1970 (the heights of the Black Power Revolution in T&T). What is supplanted in my mind is during that service half of the congregation was Guyanese and the other half was professors mainly from Imperial College of Science and Technology and mainly white. I was speaking with a South African physicist at the time and I was amazed the respect that was accorded the work Cap was producing.To mention Kamla Persad and Gregory Bissessar were students at Norwood Technical College and were not present including not a single representative from the T&T Embassy. The ambassador at the time was Andrew Rose.

    With respect to Jagan he was a man of integrity and like his Indo Caribbean brother ‘Cap’ both were professionals but Jagan was the honest broker in politics firstly and like Eric Williams let his bucket down at home. Cap was just notoriously brilliant in math, physics, law, fluent in 6 languages and had a problem setting aside his passion for academia with politics playing a close second.

    Jagan and Cap were honest, genuine, well intentioned in removing their homelands from colonialism and had a love for their fellow human beings. No one can ever claim any corruption charges against these 2 gentlemen. Both men lived their lives to their fullest in simplicity, in Cap’s case he succumbed at the age of 50. As the saying goes ‘Prophets are not recognized in their own Kingdoms’.

  3. Anyone aspiring to public office, Trade Union leadership or the everyday activist, would learn a great deal from a tremendous man in the caliber of Chedi Jagan, Colonialism has taught us not to respect or learn from the likes of Marcus Garvey and Chedi Jagan. Growing up in the 70′, even though being ostracized in the Caribbean, when ever passing through Trinidad, his statements would always be one of Unity. His politics, we as a people, need to take a closer look at. Attending school of higher learning in the bastion of division USA, enculturated in him the great man he became, the best years of his political life was taken from him by the forces of subjugation, USA and England. His vision of Unity between the Ethic groups, was hijacked, replacing it with what we have presently.Today, Communist China is preeminent, one can only imagine what an ally China would have been to Guyana, with all its Natural resources. Of all the leaders descending from Indentureship, Dr Jagan stands on a pillar all by himself, it is my belief, that Raffique Shar was cut in that very same caliber, but something went wrong some where, we are left with Basdeo Panday, who had the tools to be great, but made a mess of it, and KAMLA, who ended up being an opportunist. Yes, a lot can be learnt from Dr Cheddi Jagan, his Maxist ideals practically squash away all aspects of Racism among the predominant ethic groups of the Caribbean Basin.

  4. “the simplicity of his lifestyle, his aversion to opulence”, his ideology should have been Buddhism from his ancestral homeland instead of some imported fashionable european mess

  5. Lt. Shah, Dr. Cheddi B. Jagan was a five star general as far as politics is concerned. This man endured decades of the evil, wicked vote-rigging regime of Burnham. There is no politician like him world over. Thank you for keeping his legacy in remembrance.

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