Obituary - Janet Jagan, OE, October 20, 1920 – March 28, 2009
Posted By Stabroek staff On April 5, 2009 @ 5:08 am In Features, Sunday | No Comments
Janet Rosalie Jagan, née Rosenberg, former President of Guyana, died on March 28 aged 88.
Janet Jagan was the most prominent woman in this country during the last century. A former President, she also held official positions as First Vice-president and Prime Minister, Minister, Senator, Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly and member of the National Assembly at various times over her sixty-six years of public life. Her career − spread over more than the entire second half of the 20th century − was extraordinary.
A complex person, it was on the Talmud, Judaism’s holy book, that she swore the oath as a member of the Legislative Assembly in September 1961 but she never claimed to be religious. On special occasions in the 1950s, she would wear a sari, a gesture that endeared her to the Hindu population. Time magazine in 1963 called her “the most controversial woman in South American politics since Eva Peron” and others branded her “one of the most dangerous communists” in the hemisphere. Indeed, to the end of her days, she defied easy political characterisation.
Several factors influenced Janet Jagan’s world-view. The most important, perhaps, was the poverty of the lower classes evident in the Depression-era living conditions in her native Chicago. Her father, Charles Rosenberg, was a plumbing and heating salesman. She recalled that both anti-Semitism and the Great Depression took its toll: “Business was awful. My father could not make a good living.” Her Jewish parents were conservative Republicans and her father, in an effort to escape the stigma of his Jewishness, changed his name from Rosenberg to Roberts in order to secure work.
Racial and religious discrimination aggravated poverty. Janet herself – a Jew descended from Czechoslovak immigrants – felt marginalised. She recalled being moved by the fact that one of her college friends of Chinese origin was obliged to work in a laundry every evening after classes to support herself. Although as a young woman she enjoyed a variety of middle-class athletic sports − archery, fencing, speed-skating, swimming and rifle-shooting − she was disturbed by the discrimination which was so evident everywhere. Perceptions of inferiority affected her education and, after attending Michigan State College, she went to the predominantly Catholic University of Detroit where, as a Jew, she considered herself an outsider and sought the company of other outsiders and non-Catholics among the small, non-white student population. Finally, she attended the more liberal Wayne State University but never completed even her first degree.
In December 1941, the USA declared war on Japan and she felt that “it seemed a patriotic thing to do” to switch to nursing in order to contribute to the war effort. As a result, she started studies at the Cook County Hospital Nursing School. But romance with a dark stranger forestalled her graduation, dispelled thoughts of war and brought her formal academic education to an unexpected end. What happened next changed her life completely. Quite fortuitously in December 1942 while still a nursing student at Cook County, she met Cheddi Jagan, a dashing dentistry student who was then at Northwestern University Dental School. Both were interested in the liberal politics of the day and, at a party hosted by a friend who was leaving to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, they began talking about topics of mutual interest.
Not only was Cheddi Jagan a gentile and a Hindu but he came from a country that no one in her family even knew existed. Strong-willed in the face of strenuous objections of her Jewish and his Hindu parents, the couple married eight months later on August 5, 1943, in a civil ceremony. The father of the bride was so infuriated that he threatened to shoot his prospective son-in-law on sight and her grandmother suffered a stroke. Years later, she and her father were reconciled but Charles Rosenberg never actually met Cheddi Jagan.
Janet’s Jewishness, she believed, meant permanent discrimination in Chicago and, rather than accept that indignity, she chose to leave and to seek self-esteem elsewhere. The circumstances of her quasi-exile and alienation from her father aggravated her feelings of victimhood which had attracted her to Cheddi Jagan in the first place. Her innate insecurity, uncompleted academic record and unorthodox marriage against the wishes of her father, compounded her feelings of inadequacy and explain much of the tenacity she displayed in later life.
After Cheddi Jagan’s US visa expired in 1943, he returned to British Guiana. Janet stayed in Chicago, earning money as a proofreader for the American Medical Association, and followed in December after her husband was able to raise enough for her passage. Cheddi set up a dental surgery with Janet working as his assistant.
Cheddi and Janet Jagan could not realise their political ambitions and aspirations without the concrete base of an organization, so they actively sought to meet leading labour organisers and to join existing trade unions. Jocelyn Hubbard, who would become General Secretary of the British Guiana Trades Union Congress, was one of the first and most influential persons to befriend and introduce them to other liberal persons and trade unionists in Georgetown. They met Ashton Chase and Hubert Critchlow of the British Guiana Labour Union and Dr Joseph Lachhmansingh of the Guiana Industrial Workers’ Union. Mrs Jagan herself became Assistant Secretary of the British Guiana Clerks’ Association. They also joined a discussion group which met at the Public Library. These ideas, individuals and institutions formed the foundation of the Political Affairs Committee in 1946.
The same year, Janet Jagan joined with Winifred Gaskin, Vesta Lowe, Frances Stafford and several other women to bring the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation into being. After that organisation was dissolved, she, along with Jane Philips Gay, Jessica Huntley and others, transformed the idea into the Women’s Progressive Organisation in May 1953.
By 1950, the Jagans also joined with Forbes Burnham and others to establish the People’s Progressive Party. Janet was elected party’s general secretary, a post she retained for two decades. Since then she remained a member of the party’s General Council, Central Committee and Executive Committee and also served as International Secretary and Executive Secretary.
She sought other public office eagerly, competing unsuccessfully for a legislative seat in the 1947 elections. She was the first woman to be elected to the Georgetown Town Council in 1950 and, with Jessie Burnham and Jane Phillips-Gay, was among the first elected women to enter the House of Assembly (ie, the National Assembly) in 1953. She could have gone further. Her husband, the leader of the legislative group, hoped that she would be one of the six ministers appointed to the Executive Council − a sort of proto-cabinet. Forbes Burnham, the party’s chairman, however, preferred to have Dr Joseph Lachhmansingh, Dr Robert Hanoman-Singh and Mr Jai Narine Singh appointed. A compromise was reached to elect Mrs Jagan as Deputy Speaker of the House instead. In any event, the constitution was suspended and the ministers were all expelled by the UK government four and a half months later.
At the core of Janet Jagan’s belief in organisations as vehicles for change was the Leninist concept of democratic centralism. This meant mainly, “freedom of discussion, unity of action;” it also meant a high degree of centralisation of power and imposition of discipline within the hierarchy of the organisation. From the outset, the People’s Progressive Party, like all other post-war national movements, was a congeries of diverse interests, and the adoption of democratic centralism and socialism as the unifying ideology led to all sorts of problems both internally and internationally. Some in the party’s left wing interpreted socialism to mean ‘sovietism.’ During the Cold War, Janet Jagan’s visits to Eastern European countries, and the party’s affiliation to pro-Soviet international organisations, uncritical support for Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe and friendship with the undemocratic communist regime in Cuba, generated the hostility of the US and UK governments. Although the socialist rhetoric created an impression of ideological consistency and conformity, others saw it only as outdated and dangerous dogma.
Janet Jagan was perceptive enough to discover early that it was her husband’s charismatic appeal, especially among the voting rural masses, rather than socialist ideology, that was the party’s most priceless political asset. He had the ability to transcend class, social, religious and occupational barriers in ways that other political ‘doctors’ − Dr Joseph Lachhmansingh, Dr Robert Hanoman-Singh and Dr Jung Bahadur Singh, for example − never could. Her commitment to her husband, therefore, was pragmatic and she fought to protect his reputation through all of the crises that he confronted.
A woman of undoubted toughness and single-mindedness, Janet Jagan steered the party through the great schism that spawned the Jaganite and Burnhamite factions in 1955; the decamping of Sydney King, Martin Carter, and Rory Westmaas; the expulsions of Edward Beharry and Balram Singh Rai; the defections of Ranji Chandisingh, Vincent Teekah and, most recently the defenestration of Khemraj Ramjattan. Owing to her prominent position, political tactics, strong personality and enduring presence, she had always been perceived as the party’s most powerful political tactician.
Her greatest political legacy has been the engineering of an efficient election machine − the PPP − enriched by legends of struggle, embellished with a pantheon of martyrs, and sustained by an ever-faithful constituency. The Jagans have always been at the heart of that party. Even after his death in March 1997, Janet Jagan ensured that Cheddi Jagan’s image remained embedded in the next three election campaigns and his memory was perpetuated by the publication and reprinting of numerous books, and his legacy preserved in the Cheddi Jagan Research Institute.
Despite her political talents, Mrs Jagan was dogged by tribulation. By the late 1940s, several West Indian colonies, including Grenada, St Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago, had deemed her and her husband prohibited immigrants, making inter-colonial travel problematic. She relinquished her American citizenship in 1947 and was declared persona non grata by the United States government in the 1950s. During the state of emergency which accompanied the suspension of the constitution and the expulsion of PPP ministers from the administration in 1953, the party launched a civil disobedience campaign in 1954. Mrs Jagan was charged for two offences related to the emergency regulations – addressing an illegal meeting, said to be a Hindu religious ceremony, and possessing a secret Police Riot Manual – and brought before Magistrate Harold Bollers. Her defence counsel, Forbes Burnham, tried to prove that the manual had been planted in her home by the police during a search for prohibited literature but the magistrate convicted her and sentenced her to six months in prison. She was released in January 1955.
When democratic elections were restored in 1957, Janet Jagan was returned by the constituency of Essequibo-Pomeroon to the Legislative Council and appointed Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. This was probably her finest hour. Her performance evinced serious attempts to improve the living conditions of ordinary folk. In Labour, for instance, a Shops’ Ordinance was passed in 1958, restricting shop assistants’ working week to 40¾ hours instead of 47 and providing for annual holidays with pay. The Workmen’s Compensation Act was also amended to extend protection to domestics and other marginalised workers for the first time. In Health, several cottage hospitals, health centres and maternity and child welfare clinics were constructed in rural and riverain districts. In more remote areas, teams of dentists, doctors and dispensers were dispatched to deliver medical care. In Housing, the Rent Restriction Ordinance was extended beyond urban areas and the construction of low-cost, working-class housing was continued.
After the next general election in 1961, Claude Christian was
appointed Minister of Home Affairs, but he died suddenly. Mrs Jagan was nominated to the Senate and replaced him in 1963. It was a time of riots and a public service strike in which the CIA as is now known was indirectly complicit. The next year in February, the Guiana Agricultural Workers’ Union – a PPP affiliate – started a strike ostensibly to gain recognition in the sugar industry but this soon degenerated into serious inter-ethnic violence which continued with widespread arson on the sugar estates and horrible murders for several months. After the outbreak of violence at Wismar, however, Mrs Jagan resigned as minister in June to protest the slow response of the police to the incident.
Janet Jagan did not return to ministerial office until thirty-three years afterwards in March 1997 when her husband died. Under Samuel Hinds’s caretaker administration, she was appointed first Vice-President and Prime Minister but without a portfolio. Elections fell due in December of that year and, already 77 years old, she decided to run for the presidency. It might have been a measure of her growing isolation from public opinion that she felt confident enough to do so. When her brother, James Rosenberg, learnt of her intentions, his opinion was that she was tired, “but somebody’s got to carry on the work …The last time we talked, she said she wanted to take her dog and cat and go back home.” Her decision might have been motivated by a desire to avoid infighting to succeed Cheddi Jagan but the débâcle that followed suggested that her confidence was misplaced.
Her tenure as the sixth president was a troubled one, marred by political unrest over the election results and the manner in which she was sworn in and plagued by the paralyzing strike by the Guyana Public Service Union. Although the elections commission declared victory for the PPP, only a few persons were invited to her strange swearing-in ceremony. This was followed by a public reception at which High Court marshals, unaware that she had already been sworn-in, attempted to serve a prohibitory order. Mrs Jagan tossed the order aside, explaining her action later in a newspaper article. Ruling on an election petition subsequently, High Court Judge Claudette Singh eventually declared the 1997 elections “unlawful.” After only twenty months in office, Janet Jagan decided to resign in August 1999 because she felt that that she was no longer capable of “vigorous, strong leadership.”
A great believer in the importance of communication, Mrs Jagan contributed countless articles and letters to the press from the earliest days. Most important, in political terms, when the PAC was founded, it was she who became editor of the PAC Bulletin. Similarly, when the PPP was founded, she became editor of the party’s paper – Thunder. Later, when the Thunder was converted to a quarterly journal and the Mirror was launched as a commercial newspaper, it was she again who became editor. She mobilised reporters at the Mirror newspaper into the Union of Guyanese Journalists, as a counterpart to the Guyana Press Association, with herself as its first president.
Over the decades at the Thunder and Mirror, she wrote innumerable editorials and articles, some of the longer and weightier ones – The Army Takeover in the Guyana Elections; National Service, An Act of Coercion, for example – being reprinted and distributed as pamphlets. She also wrote other small books such as the History of the PPP. More recently, she turned to writing children’s books – The Legend of the Enmore Martyrs; Uncle Cheddi; When Grandpa Cheddi Was a Boy and Other Stories; Children’s Stories of Guyana’s Freedom Struggles; Anastasia the Anteater and Other Stories; Alligator Ferry Service; The Dog Who Loved Flowers; and Patricia the Baby Manatee. Mrs Jagan will be remembered also as the subject of the sympathetic and heroic film Thunder in Guyana made by her cousin Suzanne Wasserman in 2003.
Janet Jagan 
She was returned repeatedly to the National Assembly in every election after independence and also served as her party’s nominee on the Guyana Elections Commission. She was appointed Ambassador-at-large and Guyana’s Ambassador to the UN in October-December 1993 and was chairperson of the Committee of Management of the National Art Gallery and of the National Commission on the Rights of the Child. She is recipient of the Woman of Achievement Award from the University of Guyana and, in 1997, the UNECSO Director General’s Gandhi Gold Medal for Peace, Democracy and Women’s Rights. In 1993, she received the Order of Excellence, the nation’s highest award.
Janet Jagan, neé Rosenberg, was born at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, to Katherine and Charles Rosenberg on October 20, 1920. She married Cheddi Jagan who died in March 1997. Their two children, Cheddi junior and Nadira, survive her.
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