Cheddi Jagan and politics was part of the landscape for a child born in the 1950s – as was Burnham. The first time I remember discussing politics was when my friend Roy Rawlins promised me that ‘we will win next time’. Based on my very hazy memories, this must have been after the 1957 elections and even though Roy and I were bosom buddies at Uitvlugt Church of Scotland School, we both knew what the ‘we’ meant when he made the promise. He assumed that I was a “Jaganite PPP” as he was a “Burnhamite PPP” – or more to the point that our parents were.
But the reality was a bit more complex for me. While my father was a firm supporter of Jagan by then, I had been sent to live with my Nana and Nani that year. My Nana was a supporter of Dr Jang Bahadur Singh, whom he’d voted for both in 1947 and 1953. I still remember the arguments between he and my father during family get-togethers. My Nana felt that Dr Jagan, unlike Dr Singh, gave too short a shrift on the cultural questions of the day.
My father, then a cane-cutter who’d just transferred into the new rural constabulary formed to ‘protect’ the Uitvlugt Estate from the rabble (presumably), was much taken by the radical programme of Dr Jagan. He and his friends were excited by the new world that would unfold after the PPP “kicked the white man out of British Guiana”. He had become an Arya Samajist to engender change within the Hindu bloc. He always remembered, also, that Dr Jagan’s “man” George Bowman had attended the funeral of his older brother who’d died suddenly as a result of poor medical care.
The riots that began with the ‘sit-ins’ of the 1963 ’80 day’ public workers’ strike was to change many of the old premises. I first experienced tear gas as the police tried to clear protestors at my school. That school soon became off limits to me and new ‘bottom-house’ schools sprouted in other sections of the village. Roy and my other African friends became strangers as the village became segregated following ethnic cleansing by both ‘sides’.
But most interesting was the change in the attitude of my grandfather towards Jagan: in the 1964 elections he and my Nani both voted PPP. One had to pick one’s side. By then there was no choice in how one voted: biology became (political) destiny. Jagan was now the man for Indians. However those same Indians never tired of complaining about “Jagan trying to please everyone” – a code for his insistence on multiracial politics.
Jagan’s ouster in 1964 – ‘cheated not defeated” – further forced Indians under the PPP’s tent because of the PNC’s “jobs for the boys’ policy. Burnham insisted that his decisions were ‘political’ and not ‘racial’. To Indians it was a distinction without a difference.
I left Guyana in 1972 having never met Jagan or joined the PYO as most of my friends in the village did. The reductionism of communist ideology never appealed to my Hindu sensibilities even as a youth. I’d been made president of my village mandir at the age of sixteen and was pretty full of myself as a ‘vedantist’.
I first encountered Dr Jagan a decade later when I attended a lecture by him at the seedy 14th St. & 6th Ave “Casas de las Americas” building. As I have written before, he responded to my questioning that violence in the Guyanese context would precipitate a race war and he was opposed to that. He wasn’t afraid to be called a ‘coward’. I next met him towards the end of the ‘80s when I came as part of the organising committee of GOPIO to invite him (and others) to the 1989 inaugural gathering at the Sheraton in NYC. I was to have several conversations with him at Freedom House and then in New York during the Conference.
He was an avowed Marxist in his analyses and would use whatever fora available to bring pressure on the PNC to agree to free and fair elections. But he could not avoid the racial consequences of the PNC’s rule. At the conference, he was to meet and make his case to Ron Brown, then chairman of the Democratic Party. When I asked him for advice on my return to Guyana, by then gathering that I was “Indian oriented’, he suggested that I take on “bourgeois’ rich Indians like “Hemraj Kissoon”. Hemraj and some other Guyanese Indian businessmen including Yesu Persaud, had attended the conference. Unlike many others, he never took a racial position – even in private.
I was to meet him several times subsequently in Guyana, when I attempted to organise a Conference on “Race and Politics in Guyana’. Interestingly, on behalf of the PPP he agreed, as did Malcolm Parris on behalf of the PNC. It was the WPA that balked and tanked the initiative. I am still amazed that some in the present day would suggest that he was ‘racial’.
(My deepest condolences to the family of Wendell George. He was a true Guyanese patriot.)
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