Basdeo Panday died on New Year’s Day. A state funeral was held for the former Prime Minister on Tuesday January 9. His funeral rites (Hindu) and tributes to him brought back memories of the funeral of Cheddi Jagan who passed away in March 1997 as well as of their lifelong political struggle. The duo shared several similarities in life and in death (accorded state funeral and cremationd).
Both Cheddi and Bas, as Panday was commonly known, were widely venerated in their respective countries, at first when they launched their movements by their entire ‘nations’. After racial divisions ensued, they were cheered by and views as heroes within their own ethnic groups; others also accepted them as heroes. They were also widely respected throughout the rest of the Caribbean region for their left-wing politics and for championing the rights of the downtrodden and the working class.
Bas and Cheddi were remarkable men born in different decades – Cheddi in 1918 and Bas 1933. Cheddi was some 15 years older than Panday, but their paths intertwined in politics and (ethnic) culture. They both came from the bosom of the sugar plantations and rice fields. Their parents came from India from the same sugar growing state of Uttar Pradesh. They both experienced abject poverty at birth and growing up secondary schools. they walked bare feet until secondary school. They both were extremely bright, did well in school, and won scholarships for studies. They received support from family members to pursue higher education – Cheddi to USA and Bas to England. Panday returned as perhaps the greatest orator produced in the region. Cheddi was also a great speaker. They were charismatic and charming personalities. They also had at least one commonality — loyal to a cause to uplift the lives of the poor.
They were engaged in somewhat different political journeys but joined in a common struggle for construction of fair, just, and equitable society. They had their strengths, differed in some ways, and yet shared common goals (for the working class) as well as the kind of society they would like to build.
They met several times, discussing strategies and viewpoints. They would first come into contact in passing in the 1950s in Trinidad where Cheddi visited for political support for his struggle for restoration of self-rule independence of then British Guiana. After Panday left for tertiary studies in London in 1957 and returned to Trinidad in 1965, engaging in political struggle against the PNM for a racially equitable and just society. He would meet Cheddi again in Trinidad where the Guyanese political leader repeatedly visited lecturing around the island to build support for free and fair elections in Guyana. Panday and Cheddi would become close friends sharing political views and positions, and when Jagan visited the island they repeatedly met particularly after Panday became Opposition Leader in 1978. The duo also met in Guyana whenever Panday visited. They also engaged in talks in New York at various Indo-Caribbean events. Guyanese Americans who supported Jagan coincidentally organized fundraisers for Panday.
Cheddi and Panday were friends, political associates, and colleagues at CARICOM for a short period.
In their intertwined lives and in their relationship, amid all their differences, is a story of deep friendship, affection, and respect for one another. They founded and led political parties and they defined their parties’ future. And they were both involved in hard work to build their party. Bas helped build five parties (Workers and farmers, ULF, National Alliance, NAR, and UNC) whereas Cheddi co-founded only one (PPP). While their party became ethnic in nature, they remained consistent with the mission on which the parties were founded, that is building a nation in which the multi-ethnic and multi-religious people of all stripes and color would be proud to call home although multi-racial unity eluded the parties. It should be noted that when they returned home they initiated or engaged in socialist movements. Though they fraternized at first with ethnic parties or movements, they founded their own multi-ethnic working-class parties that became ethnic because of the division of the society. They helped build the party organisation from scratch. And they also groomed an entire new generation of leaders in their respective party – UNC and PPP.
Both owed their loyalty to sugar workers and to Indians who supported their political struggle, causing them to win elections. They were the leading light of Indians in their respective society. And they were undoubtedly de facto leaders of Indians in their respective society. They both had interests in economics, literature, journalism, and the arts (Bollywood, pan, etc.); Panday loved chatney and Indian classical songs and music. Panday was also an instrumentalist playing dhantaal and tabla.
They had deep respect for each other although they had political differences on ideology. Panday was a moderate, democratic centralist socialist while Jagan was a radical Marxist. Their political beliefs led them to a somewhat common struggle on behalf of the working class and the poor. Coincidentally, they led sugar workers unions in their respective nations and were loved like no other labor leader. Their political struggle was somewhat similar – Cheddi was mostly fighting for free and fair elections while seeking betterment for the working class. Panday was also pursuing electoral reform while committed to the struggle for the betterment of the working class. In their intertwined lives lies the history of Indian people’s struggle for equality in their countries of domicile and the politics of the left as well as the story of how Indian parties came into government. Coincidentally, PPP and PNC would become the majority parties in terms of popular support.
In government, they became economically practical. Though groomed in socialism, they ran moderate liberal, capitalist economies. They brought new energy to the party from the working class through their leadership with their unions. A massive wind of social change followed their period of governance and was the foundation on which their parties built unmatchable and profound social change in their countries – using legislative action and executive power to address the pain, suffering and humiliation of the working class and the Indian majority who historically were marginalized before the coming of Cheddi and Panday to government.
There have been complaints that their party’s dreams and visions and their struggle for a more equitable, just society and the gains they made while in office are on the brink of reversals. Panday and other founders of the UNC have been excommunicated.