Cheddi Jagan Moored away from his Indian Culture and that affected Indians politically in Guyana
Renowned Indian Guyanese scholar Dr. Bertrand Ramcharran retorting in Stabroek News to Prof. Baytoram Ramharack’s eloquent commentary of one of Dr. Cheddi Jagan’s flaws, namely embracing his ancestral culture, claims the critique completely ignored the essence of Cheddi. Another person, Sean Ori, penned: “We have found other beliefs and moved away from Indian (Hindu) culture”.
Here is my response to both:
Like Prof Ramcharran, I too had several encounters interacting up close with Dr. Jagan in New York and in Guyana and have anecdotes to share. I interacted with people in Trinidad and politicians in India who fondly remember Jagan as a humanist who totally was devoted his life struggling for social justice and uplifting the lives of the poor. I met countless West Indians, Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Mixed in New York during my university studies; they all held Jagan in awe and admired him. There is no dispute that Dr. Jagan was a simple, caring, compassionate person who subscribed to the universal God given principle that all humans are equal and must live a relatively equitable life in terms of access of opportunities and resources. I agree with Ramcharran that Jagan was a champion of human dignity and human rights. And he was also non-racial and governed for all Guyanese — no doubt the best leader that governed Guyana
In my numerous travels globally and in my vast studies and readings on comparative political or public figures, there is virtually no one like Jagan. Had he lived well beyond March 1997, I am confident that poverty would have been eradicated in Guyana and the country would have had relative egalitarianism. Corruption would have been a thing of the past. The huge gap between the super rich and the rest of the society would have narrowed considerably. But Dr. Baytoram Ramharack, whose missive Ramcharran critiqued, was not an attack on Cheddi’s kindness and generosity and his complete selfless dedication and altruistic commitment to improving living conditions of all Guyanese. It was a critique of his political naiveté (regarding his communist ideology in the American backyard during the height of the cold war) and his drift away from his Hindu cultural upbringing. Hinduism and Marxism are anathema to one another. Hindus and Indian Guyanese, in general, are not communists or subscribe to community ideology. Had Cheddi not embraced communism, the politics would have been different in British Guiana which would have obtained its independence around the same time as Jamaica and Trinidad. The US would not have needed to intervene in Guiana’s affairs toppling Jagan and replacing him with their man, Forbes. Burnham. Guyana would not have been a dictatorship and we would have been spared of Burnhamism. Indians and other Guyanese, almost a million of our human resources, would not have needed to migrate to greener pastures.
Ramharack quoted from VS Naipaul to buttress his point that Cheddi’s embrace of Marxism/Leninism threatened the interests of the Indian Guyanese community that never embraced communism in a racially bi-furcated Guyana where people voted race. Forbes Burnham, the leader of the Africans, wisely embraced the West while Jagan innocently toyed with the East bloc. That spelt trouble for Indians whose political party would be kept out of office for 28 years till communism and the eastern bloc collapsed and were no longer a threat to the West. Indians suffered tremendously during those long years with every deprivation one can think of. As soon as the east bloc collapsed, the west insured the restoration of democracy in Guyana allowing for the election of Jagan as President. My Sociology university professor, Stanley Aronowitz, himself a socialist/classical Marxist, related to me his encounters with Cheddi and Janet Jagan. He described both as very naïve in their politics. My History Professor, Arthur Schlesinger, also revealed to me that the CIA and President Kennedy were worried about Jagan’s communist moorings. In early 2018, I approached an Indian government cultural entity in Delhi to sponsor a lecture on Cheddi Jagan -being the 100th anniversary of his birth. The Chair of the entity, an elderly man, probably in his late 80s, a former VC of a university, said he could not support such a lecture. He knew Jagan well. He said Jagan’s communism led to the sufferings of his people in Guyana.
Unlike Cheddi, Burnham embraced his cultural roots and was committed to his people and his African culture, frequently dressing in African garb and partaking in African ceremonies. Cheddi did not strongly embrace his cultural practices. While waiting for a flight at JFK to travel to Guyana for Cheddi’s funeral, I encountered Pandit Churkeeman Tiwari of Corentyne. Pt. Churkeeman, elder to Jagan, began narrating his encounters with the political hero and his mother Bachaoni who we youngsters in Port Mourant referred to as Aji. The narration continued in flight, at the ‘wake’ at Jagan’s home in Ankerville, and at the crematorium at Babu Jahan in Haswell leader Jagan. TV personality Roy Ramsaran videoed and showed it on TV in New York. Pandit Churkeeman related how Bachaoni, who he called Maa, pleaded to him to redirect Cheddi to his Indian (Hindu) cultural moorings, to perform pooja, and to attend mandir services. I know the old lady very well as I used to deliver her goods when she shopped at Aunty Bethlyn’s grocery where I was a helper packing groceries. Aji was a very devout Hindu who worshipped at the kutiya (mandir) at the entrance in the yard and at the Shivala Mandir on the sideline dam. Churkeeman, also a PPP activist and party organizer on the Corentyne, said he spent a few weeks supervising and working on the construction of Jagan’s home in Bel Air. “I spent my days and nights there”, he proudly stated. And he related how Jagan’s mother pleaded upon him, Churkeeman, to beseech Cheddi to do a puja on the premises before he formally moved in. Churkeeman said he approached Cheddi and related his mother’s wish as well his own wish that Cheddi perform a puja. Cheddi gave an adamant ‘no’. Churkeeman said he would like to conduct his own puja in the building and that Cheddi does not have to be the shrota or yajman. But Cheddi won’t yield. “I said a prayer in my own mind. I was very disappointed. His mother was also disappointed”.
Having narrated the above, I must note that that it was related to me that occasionally Cheddi did attend Indian weddings (Hindu and Muslim) and puja as an invited guest dressed in a simple Indian kurtha. Most of the times, he wore his trademark shirt jac. He was not a man of suits or formal wear.
When aji Bachaoni died, Cheddi, Janet, Burnham, and a large delegation of MPs from town attended the funeral. Cheddi’s younger brother Uncle Oudit performed the shraad (funeral rites) and the one year anniversary rite – shaving his head as prescribed in the scripture. In Hindu custom, the eldest son performs the funeral rites and several males shave their head. No one can confirm whether Cheddi performed aarti over the body of his deceased mother; it is the norm for all siblings to aarti an older deceased family member, especially their mother and father or those who raised them. Also, he did not shave his head. But at his death bed, his son Cheddi Jr. stated that his father wanted to be cremated which is a Hindu custom; a pandit presided over rites. His brother Oudit performed rites. Joey and Oudit and three others circled the body as is the custom before setting the funeral pyre alight. His sister, Nadira, joined in lighting the fire. Joey also shaved his head.
Sean Ori says he (and some others) have found another belief, rather than remain immersed in Hindu values, and that “it worked for him”. What aspects of Hindu values don’t work for him and what values of other faiths work for him, he did not say. Did the other faith’s values make it possible “to work for him” or was there something else that made it possible? His response is very naïve. He needs to clarify his statement.
In Cheddi’s case, he did not abandon Hinduism and embrace another faith unless Communism is accepted as a religious faith. Many Indians have drifted away from the Hindu faith but not the Indian ethos or Hindu culture. Subscribing to another faith does not mean one has to forget about ancestral culture. Cheddi didn’t need to abandon his Indian (Hindu) cultural values in order to gain acceptance or to move ahead politically. In the end, his non-racialism and his socialist ideology he did not win over non-Indians, not even after 28 years of oppression by the PNC. Indians, Amerindians, and others suffered as a result of his drift away from his Indian cultural moorings. Had he embraced his ancestral culture, he would have not been lured towards communism and a slave to an atheist ideology. He would not have scared away the Americans who were forced to embrace Africans against the Indians. Indians were supporting a communist while Africans were supporting a pro-American racist. The US closed its eye to human rights abuses in Guyana. Indians and other ethnic groups not supportive of the PNC were the victims.
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