V.S Naipaul on Cheddi Jagan & Burnham

The great Indo-Caribbean writer Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul had a high opinion of (idolized/revered) the late Indo-Guyanese politician Dr Cheddi Jagan for his integrity and incorruptible honesty while he described Jagan’s nemesis Forbes Burnham as a racist tyrant.

V.S Naipaul on Cheddi Jagan & Burnham
Photo : Cheddi Jagan

The great Indo-Caribbean writer Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul had a high opinion of (idolized/revered) the late Indo-Guyanese politician Dr Cheddi Jagan for his integrity and incorruptible honesty while he described Jagan’s nemesis Forbes Burnham as a racist tyrant. VS, as he was popularly called, considered Jagan as being different from all other politicians he met. He saw Jagan as belonging in a unique political category – as a man of principles and as someone who was genuinely concerned about the poor and the working class. He felt Jagan was perhaps “too honest” to be a politician as Rajendra Rampersaud related a conversation he had with VS (Stabroek News Aug 13, 2018) perhaps because it is a profession known to attract crooks.  In fact, Basdeo Panday of Trinidad also saw Jagan as too honest to be in politics telling an audience at a seminar in Chaguanas on the “Life of Jagan” in May 2018 that he told Jagan that “he (Cheddi) should have been a pandit or priest instead of a politician”.

But in addition to showering laudatory praises on Dr. Cheddi Jagan and his wife, Janet, for their character traits, VS Naipaul was also very critical of their politics (specifically their ideology that did a lot of damage to their supporters). Naipaul noted how Jagans’ were a critic of western democracy but at the same time contradicted themselves in embracing another alien western ideology (Marxism/Leninism). The Jagans’ were proud consumer and promoter of Marxism (an ideology alien to Guyana and the Caribbean region). It is indisputable that Jagan was a proud nationalist and anti-imperialist, and a non-racialist – qualities that should be admired but which did not win Jagan multi-racial support. And Naipaul also noted that Jagan embraced another quality that did not win him wide appeal -- he was an opponent of armed struggle against the Burnham dictatorship and the racialism that Burnham practiced – a Gandhian method of political struggle that was ill suited to Guyana.

Naipaul faulted Jagan for the persecution that Indians experienced in Guyana attributing it to Jagan’s uncompromising commitment to communism that was responsible for Jagan’s PPP and Indians being out of government. Naipaul wrote about the Jagans in several informed pieces including an essay titled, “A Handful of Dust: Cheddi Jagan and the Revolution in Guyana” describing his impressions of the Jagans’. And when we met by chance in New Delhi at the government of India organized Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Convention in Jan 2003, we had an exchange on Guyanese politics centering on Jagan. Naipaul assailed Dr. Jagan for not comprehending the significance of regional or even global geopolitics in his political development and in the practice of politics in colonial and post-colonial Guyana. VS described Cheddi Jagan as being “politically too naïve” and not understanding geo-politics. He said the Jagans did not grasp the implications on their supporters and on the entire colony of their anti-colonial struggle for political independence of Guyana. Naipaul noted that Jagan’s political ideology cost him the Prime Ministership as well as the opportunity to lead British Guiana to independence and that would eventually lead to the racial tyranny that the country would experience post independence. Naipaul also said Jagan was too soft in his struggle against Burnham’s racist dictatorship post independence. While, VS offered laudatory remarks about Jagan, he also held him accountable for the suffering of the country during what Naipaul described as “the racially tyrannical rule of Forbes Burnham and the PNC”. Naipaul was scathing in his criticisms of Burnham’s racist dictatorship.

Photo : VS Naipaul

While praising Jagan as Mr. nice guy and gentleman and condemning Forbes Burnham’s racism and authoritarianism, Naipaul could not comprehend how a political leader (meaning Jagan) in America’s backyard could defy and challenge the West and flirt with the Soviet Union and Cuba at the height of the cold war and expected to remain in power. For Naipaul, it was unthinkable to thumb one’s nose at the US or Britain when these two powerful countries controlled and would determine the destiny of your colony or country. And he, Naipual, as a non-politician, recognized the US and UK would not tolerate any defiance to their political hegemony over Guyana and the greater Caribbean region. Naipaul felt Jagan was “politically too naïve” and even though he was engineered out of office for his socialism, he still did not learn any lesson that anti-Americanism and pro-Sovietism would not be tolerated.

Naipaul was also critical of Jagan on the issue of ethnicity and nationalism. He said Jagan ignored the significance of race that had defined Guyanese society in the name of democratic equality. Jagan disregarded the racism experienced by Indians and other groups that were not supportive of Burnham and his PNC government. Jagan had hoped that not bringing up race would help in national healing and bring the races together. Naipaul noted that Jagan was very sincere about wanting to build a non-racial society. His Indian ethnicity did not influence his thought process or his policies. Jagan strayed from his ancestors’ culture and belief unlike most other Indians who remained committed to an Indian nationalism.

Jagan was ethnically neutral and universalistic on matters of race championing equality for all regardless of race, religion or status.  For Jagan, race or ethnicity was immaterial in the politics of his party and his government and in his behavior and in political institutions. He wanted to establish color or race blind state institutions. Jagan wanted Guyana to become a nation bound together under a common identity and by a sense of shared destiny and not by race. For Jagan, “non-racialism” was a non-negotiable human and social value. It was part of his ideology. Jagan’s non-racialism emerged out of his socialist beliefs. But Jagan’s socialism was not comforting to his supporters. Race historically has played a defining role in every aspect of life in Guyanese society.  Non-racialism was not a description of Guyanese reality given the history of racial acrimony in Guyana since the 1830s when Portuguese first arrived to be followed by Indians and Chinese. It is indisputable that non racialism was an ideal for Guyana, a promise about the future of the nation, but it was not about reality in Guyana on ethnic relations. Jagan’s non-racialism meant reversing the trajectory of Guyanese history, politics, economy, society, culture, and behavior.

Jagan’s politics and ideology stood in sharp contrast with that of Burnham. Burnham was a corrupt Black nationalist and a pan-Africanist whereas Jagan was an honest, classical Marxist and Guyanese (not Indian) nationalist. Burnham was proud of his African roots and identity whereas Jagan did not reveal any emotional attachment to India or expressed any kind of interest in an Indo-Guyanese nationalism. Jagan lacked Indian nationalist sentiment and was unwilling to support any Indo-Guyanese causes or culture although he supported India’s freedom struggle from Britain, but he did so from a purely anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist perspective. Burnham pursued policies for and advocated issues on behalf of Afro-Guyanese whereas Jagan shied away from championing Indian causes or pursuing policies beneficial to the Indian community. Jagan remained a communist at heart for all his life whereas Burnham was a wheeler and dealer doing what was necessary to remain in office. Burnham was interested in power for power’s sake and to secure the interests of Afro-Guyanese whereas Jagan was interested in sharing power with Burnham to advance a socialist, non-racialist agenda. Burnham closely observed how rulers in Africa governed as well displayed an interest in the affairs of African nations, learned from them, and incorporated their programs and policies to benefit Black Guyanese and in his own personal strategies to retain power in Guyana for himself and his supporters. Jagan, on the other hand, was devoid of the characteristics of ethnic partisanship and was a democrat, a firm believer of democracy and fair play, and lacking the character of an autocrat. Jagan was a nice guy who lacked the killer instinct of a tough politician. He was a humanitarian at heart. He was a people’s person, not out of any political pragmatism or for personal political gain. It was his character, his nature of he is, of the man that he really was.  Jagan was in no position to challenge Burnham who controlled the armed forces, police, and the bureaucracy. Jagan saw a future for Guyana as a nation where the six races would be equal and all would be an integral part of free Guyana. Jagan’s calling was to fight on behalf of the poor working class. He was not loyal to any particular ethnic group but to the working class, to those without power, and to those who were the weakest in the society. Burnham, in contrast with Jagan, wanted a Guyana in which Africans would dominate the country and property would be owned by the state for the supporters of the PNC. For Jagan, small private businesses and land ownership would be untouched, unlike what happened under Burnham in which almost 80% of the economy was nationalized. Jagan wanted an open economy whereby people would continue to have access to a wide variety of goods and services. Burnham, on the other hand, restricted imports and access to certain goods and forced people to use local products. This led to shortages of basic goods and foods and mass starvation. Naipaul wrote about these widespread shortages.

Unlike Burnham who built a party around ethnic nationalism, Jagan built a political party around socialism, and he was prepared to accommodate and promote socialism in Guyana at the expense of Indians. Jagan’s interest in protecting and defending the Soviet Union was not aligned with the interest of his supporters. And in the process, Guyana got ethnic dictatorship, oppression, and an apartheid system of government for 26 years. Jagan allowed his supporters to suffer holding on to his communist belief rather than make a deal (moderating his ideology) with the West to end racist fascist rule in Guyana under Burnham.

At the time of the Cold War, the PPP was seen in the western public eye as a communist party.  Jagan had described himself as a Fabian socialist when he met President John Kennedy. But the US did not differentiate among the varied forms of socialisms – all were seen by Washington as communism. And it was beneficial for the capitalist west to keep the ‘apartheid’ racist PNC Burnhamite regime in place to prevent any communist PPP takeover in Guyana and to counteract the influence of the USSR in Guyana. It was only after the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc in 1990 that the west finally pushed for the end of racist rule in Guyana. Keeping the PNC in power was no longer favourable or necessary to the interests of Britain or America. In fact, retaining the PNC in power was an embarrassment to the West that was supposed to be the champion of democracy.

Naipaul condemned Burnham’s and the PNC’s injustices against Indians and other ethnic groups. Naipaul refers to Burnham’s rule as “racial tyranny”. He stated that Guyana was worse off under Burnham’s rule than under colonial rule. And he felt that had Jagan been an ideological pragmatist, Guyanese would not have experienced that very long period of suffering (1964 to 1992). Jagan’s desire of a political revolution that will make his dream of a democratic socialist society a reality was impractical. It was an almost impossible proposition given the US position during the cold war and the invasion of several neighboring countries that experimented with socialism.

Given Jagan’s reading of politics of what happened in so many countries that defied the UK and USA, he would have known how things work in geo-political strategies. He was too naïve not to know that the US would not permit a socialist government in the Americas when all socialist regimes in the region were toppled. It was very naïve of him to put his trust in politicians in London or Washington to determine what was best for Guyana. Jagan naively thought President John Kennedy would support him or grant him financial aid because he was very honest in his policies and in his frankness in telling Kennedy he was a Fabian socialist. Jagan could not understand that America could not fund his brand or any kind of socialism.

As Naipaul stated, Jagan’s socialist policy was not in the interest of his supporters who were largely capitalist oriented. Jagan alienated himself from people (particularly business folks) with his advocacy of socialism. As Naipual reminded us, Jagan was hopelessly naïve when it came to political strategy to win over powerful interests. Jagan was simply too innocent in his thought process to believe that America would support or trust him because he is very honest.  Politics is not based on honesty but on championing and honoring the interests of supporters and showing deference to the security and financial interests big powers. Jagan expected too much from capitalist US and Britain and from fellow socialists in the UK. He should have expected the US to behave like a global power opposed to communism and or socialism. And once Burnham was prepared to cut a deal with imperialist America and Britain, which he did, Jagan should have moderated his anti-American anti-UK stance and embraced both for the sake of his capitalist supporters. As Naipaul said, had Jagan taken the pragmatic approach to politics and in his political struggle for Guyana’s independence, his supporters and the country would not have found themselves in the difficult