March marks the 21st death anniversary and the 100th birthday of the late Cheddi Jagan who died in 1997. Widely regarded in Guyana as the “Father of the Nation,” Dr. Jagan was born on March 22, 1918 in Port Mourant on the Corentyne, the eldest of 11 children born to parents who came from India as indentured labourers to British Guyana in 1901.
His upbringing on a plantation exposed him to conditions of physical hardship and economic exploitation that imbued him with a passion for justice and freedom from oppression.
In 1933, Jagan attended Queen’s College and in 1936 he studied at Howard, an American university in Washington, DC. Later he attended Northwestern University Dental School in Chicago.
In the United States, the realities of legally enforced segregation and racial discrimination against African-Americans further stimulated his passion for justice and freedom from oppression. The struggle for India’s independence, the work of Gandhi and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital helped to broaden his political views and socialist beliefs.
However, his socialist beliefs was influenced and strengthened by Janet Rosenberg; she was an American student nurse, who later became his wife despite their families’ disapproval.
Dr. Jagan returned to Guyana as a dentist in 1943, where had the option of a comfortable, middle class life in a typical colonial society that was structured on the basis of race, class, and colour, with whites at the top, browns in the middle, then Indians with blacks at the bottom.
Instead, he ventured into realm of politics, which became a lifelong struggle to break the unequal structure and achieve freedom and equality for Guyana. Three years later, the political landscape changed with the creation of the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946 by Jagan who was subsequently elected to the state legislature in November 1947.
In 1950, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was founded with the merger of the PAC and the British Guyana Labour Party led by Forbes Burnham.
Jagan won elections in 1953 and became the first Guyanese to be elected Chief Minister of Guyana. However, the British government was convinced that Jagan was a Marxist-Leninist and suspended the country’s constitutionand installed an interim government. Jagan was disappointed with the political happenings in British Guiana.
The suspension of the constitution; the jailing of him and his wife;the severing of ties from the PPP by Forbes Burnham, the contesting of the 1957 elections with the Jagan and Burnham factions of the PPP and the formation of the People’s National Congress (PNC).
Despite these developments, Jagan again led his party to convincing electoral victories in 1957 and 1961. He served as Chief Minister from 1957 to 1961, Premier from 1961 to 1964 and as President from 1992 until his death in 1997.
In 1962, the country was paralyzed by strikes and political violence, and in 1963, the electoral system was changed from first-past-the-post to proportion representation. However, in the 1964 elections, the PPP won a plurality of votes, but the PNC and the United Force held a majority of seats and formed a coalition government. For 28 years, Jagan remained in wilderness as opposition leader, which is a Guinness World Record for a democracy.
As a fighter, few could match his political stamina. He was one of those rare leaders who guided Guyana’s politics for over 50 years and put the interests of people above all other considerations. He was a creative and principled humanist who sought innovative solutions to problems.
Dr. Jagan was undoubtedly an outstanding politician who dedicated his life to the furtherance of the political and national interests of the country and the pursuance of the ideals.
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