As I read the article `Re-imaging Cheddi Jagan: Cultural Moorings and Political Recklessness’ by Baytoram Ramharack (Sunday Stabroek, November 28, 2021) I was reminded of the proverb “Give a dog a bad name and hang him”. In my view, the article makes use of numerous quotes and assertions but lacks rigorous academic analysis, leaving one to question some of the conclusions.
Two of the quotes are from Martin Carter and Sydney King, now Eusi Kwayana, former close colleagues of Jagan in 1953 and two of the most radical leftists in the PPP at that time. However, after the 1955 Jagan-Burnham split, they subsequently left the Jaganite faction of the party as it embraced conservative members of the Indian community. Their quotes refer to Jagan’s “lostness of culture”. The Carter’s quote makes no mention of Indian culture or Hindu religion but it is linked to Kwayana’s “…he [Cheddi Jagan] had a cultural problem. If he had been a devout Hindu, even in his youth, he would have had a more workable, a more human frame of reference…”
In a letter published in 2009, Clarence Ellis stated that in 1956 when Jagan was restricted to Georgetown and the PPP congress was scheduled to be held in Berbice, he (Jagan) sent a recorded speech to Kwayana for comments. In the speech, “Jagan ranted and raved at the left wing of the Party … He accused the left of leading from too far in front, a concept that he had borrowed from Mao Tse Tung”.
In Kwayana’s response which was published, he “accused Jagan of his refusal to put down racism when it raised its ugly head in the PPP”. This indicates that Jagan was likely trying to change the course of the PPP’s future in light of the 1953 suspension of the constitution; however, Kwayana was seeing it as “refusal to put down racism”. Many years later Kwayana headed ASCRIA, an African rights organization and Carter became a Minister in a PNC government. Had Jagan been a devout Hindu who parlayed his Indian culture in 1953, would Messrs Carter and Kwayana have joined him in the only genuinely national political movement in the country up to that time?
If Jagan’s “lostness of culture” caused him to embrace inflexible marxism, what caused Burnham’s devolution into despotism and impoverishing the country? He was urbane and well read, not a plantation “patwa” like Jagan, a good Christian, was supported by the Christian church leaders and the leaders of Hindu and Muslim organizations. It was his policies that drove thousands to flee their homeland, not Jagan’s “marxist nirvana”. And of those thousands, nearly half were Burnham’s supporters, including Lionel Luckhoo who first labeled Jagan a “Communist” in 1952, badgered Jagan to say in 1962 that he is a communist, appointed High Commissioner to the UK by Burnham, and contributed to the fraudulent overseas votes cast in the UK in the 1968 elections. Likewise was Richard Ishmael, the President of the MPCA (then the official sugar workers union) and Head of the Trade Union Council who was a tool of the CIA in the ouster from government of Jagan. It is incredible that Indo-Guyanese academics keep on writing books to trash Cheddi Jagan but no one has seen it fit to write a book on Burnham. We should be mindful that “what is not recorded is not remembered”.
Of the named individuals who Dr Ramharack claimed “committed political hara-kiri for pointing out the fallacy of Jagan’s communist calling”, I believe only Balram Singh Rai falls in this category. He had mass political support among Indo-Guyanese and he was treated unfairly by Jagan. Lionel Luckhoo was antagonistic towards Jagan from the very beginning. He never won a seat to the legislature and his relations with Jagan appears to have resulted from personal rivalry to be the foremost political leader of the Indo-Guyanese community and possibly the first Prime Minister of Guyana. Jainarine Singh and Dr Lachmansingh went with the Burnham faction of the PPP after the 1955 split, the former becoming the General Secretary of the PNC and the latter the Vice Chairman. Their political career ended ingloriously shortly thereafter. As for Debidin, he flirted with the PPP but formed his own party (Workers and Farmers Party) to contest the 1953 elections and his political career ended with his election loss. In an Internet article of November 30, 2003, titled ‘Cycling to a better place’ which is a review of one of Dr Kean Gibson’s books, Eusi Kwayana writes, “Dr Gibson made the point that in 1957 the Jagan faction used race. There was no need to place the ‘apan jaat’ poster in the PPP hands. That was a specific slogan used by DP Debidin mainly against the PPP. So westernized was Debidin, that he did not at first pronounce the Hindi correctly.”
Apart from Rai, none of those mentioned by Dr Ramharack grounded with the masses of ordinary folks, especially in the countryside. It was Cheddi Jagan and his white American born wife, Janet, who visited their villages and sugar estates where they lived, their dwellings, their workplaces, their temples and mosques, talking with them and taking up their causes, and educating them to fight for their rights. With her common touch and grassroots involvement with the poor and downtrodden, Janet Jagan was extremely popular and effective as a campaigner. Her relationship with the labouring class was unprecedented not only for a white woman but for any woman in the colony. As such she, even more than her husband, became a thorn in the side of the local colonial establishment and its beneficiaries who depended upon colour and class to maintain their status.
Dr J.B. Singh was a prominent member of British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) which had done yeoman’s service in championing the cause of Indo-Guyanese. However, in his speech at the Centenary Celebration of the Arrival of Indians to British Guiana (1838-1938), the President of the BGEIA, Hon C.R. Jacob, after mentioning the many achievements of Indians in the colony, stated “But we have not done as much as might have done if we had united to a greater extent. It is no use disguising the fact that some of our leaders in the past and even at the present time have not played their part creditably, and very few of them are prepared to give real service and make sacrifices for the upliftment of their less fortunate brethren. This is evidenced by the fact that although the B.G.E.I. Association was established twenty years ago, thousands of our people in various parts of the Colony are not fully acquainted with its activities”. This weakness in the BGEIA leadership continued after 1938 and allowed for the emergence of Cheddi Jagan as a national Indian leader. His election to the Legislature in 1947 sidelined the BGEIA.
Dr Ramharack states “The observation of de Caires mirrored what many PPP Indian supporters had already suspected about Jagan’s cultural flaw: “It was such a fundamental contradiction because many Hindus and Muslims were strongly against Marxism…”. It is said that a drowning man will clutch at a straw. What is not recognized here is that Indo-Guyanese at that time could be equated to the “drowning man”. Jagan did not promise them Marxism. He educated them to understand their plight and promised them a better life. Further, Ramharack writes “Jagan angered the imperialist gods, but the political guardian angel, considered a “god” by his Indian supporters, could not deliver them to the promised nirvana”. Who knows what he would have done if he had been given a chance in 1964? The US chose Burnham, contrary to the advice of the Governor of the colony and Iain Macleod, former Colonial Secretary, both men who knew Jagan and Burnham from their own personal experience over several years. As well, according to William Blum, former State Department official, the US ignored Jagan’s proposal. In his book, Killing Hope, he wrote “ In an attempt to surmount the hurdle of US obsession with the Soviet Union and “another Cuba in the Western hemisphere”, Jagan proposed that British Guiana be “neutralized” by an agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union, as the two powers had done in the case of Austria. Officials in Washington had no comment on the suggestion”. However, according to John Prados in his 2020 publication Covert Operations: The 1964 Overthrow of Cheddi Jagan in British Guiana, the US accepted Schlesinger’s advice on June 21, 1962 that “a Forbes Burnham government would cause many fewer problems for the U.S. than one led by Cheddi Jagan”. So, the decision was based on what was best for the US, not what was best for Guyana.
In my view, Raymond Smith in his 1962 book, British Guiana, provides possibly the best analysis of Jagan’s major flaw: “When Dr Jagan says he is a Marxist but not a member of the Communist Party he is perhaps expressing his desire to accept some of the main principles of communist political philosophy without worrying too much about the implications of its application in the real world. It is evident that in the present state of world power politics it is not possible to ignore the practical implications of ideological commitment…” In his book, The West on Trial, Jagan acknowledges his strength and weakness: “In my early political career (1945-1953) I had taken a radical stand, pro-working class and socialist. Had it not been for this militant radicalism… there would have been neither the raised political understanding of the Guyanese people nor in such a short time our remarkable 1953 electoral victory. Having preached to the workers the gospel of scientific socialism, I could not somersault. The art of deception is a quality I find detestable and difficult to practice”.
In his 2005 book, Sweetening Bitter Sugar, Jock Campbell, The Booker Reformer in British Guiana 1934-1966, Professor Emeritus Clem Seecharan records the views of Jock Campbell who, as a 22 year-old in the 1930s, spent his apprenticeship in Guyana. According to Campbell who later became Chairman of the Bookers parent company in the UK, “… Conditions of employment (in the sugar estates) were disgraceful; wages were abysmally low; housing was unspeakable; workers were treated with contempt as chattels. Animals and machinery were, in fact, cared for better than the workers because they cost money to buy and replace…the sugar industry had been founded on slavery, continued on indentureship and maintained by exploitation”. Those were the conditions which Jagan experienced as a child growing up on a sugar plantation in Port Mourant, Guyana and which he was trying to change from 1947 onwards. Yet in 1954 (as recorded by Colin Palmer, in his book Cheddi Jagan and the Politics of Power: British Guiana Struggle for Independence),“Jock Campbell (then Chairman of Booker Brothers, McConnell and Company) had begun lobbying the Americans to take a more aggressive interest in British Guiana to forestall a communist intervention”. In 2005, Seecharan records Campbell as saying “…he (Cheddi Jagan) was a good man, and he was trying to do his best for the people of Guyana”. Finally, Campbell, like Schlesinger in 1990, had “discovered the epiphany”.