The article on Janet Jagan in the Guyana Review had subtle distortions
Posted By Stabroek staff On May 17, 2009 @ 5:01 am In Letters | 16 Comments
It was quite interesting to read ‘Janet Jagan: politics, party and the pursuit of power’ in the Guyana Review. Interesting, as I sought to understand what appears at first to be an objective piece of work, but has subtle distortions, rendering a preconceived image of a woman whom history has not treated too kindly. While I am in no position to analyse the legacy of Janet Jagan, I am sure that it was much more than just the stable but anachronistic PPP through which she expected to transform society. Were her struggles really about securing power for herself (through her husband and the PPP) to overcome a victim consciousness? And did she really turn a blind eye to race-based politics and violence as is subtly suggested? Some of the themes that seem to stand out in the essay lead me to question the lenses worn by the author of this piece, or maybe it was the victim consciousness lenses that I wore while reading.
Take Janet Jagan’s telegram to her parents in April 1953, which said, “Cheddi, myself and party won overwhelming victory.” Was this really an instinctive prioritization (in 1953) that showed that Janet never saw a difference between herself, her husband and the PPP (including Forbes Burnham and others)? Or was it rather the case of letting her parents know that the marriage and the husband they so disapproved of, as well as the daughter with the rebellious world view, had amounted to something in a British colony? Her parents were not only conservative Jews who opposed the marriage, but they did not see it lasting a year if she migrated to British Guiana. This in itself is very telling of the character of the person that was Janet Jagan. Mrs Jagan would indeed come to view the Jagans as being synonymous with the PPP, but this was a view that was shaped many years later as the PPP struggled not just against imperialism but against division within the party itself, both of which it surmounted.
And then one wonders did Janet Jagan really leave the independent US where Jews were prominent in the civil rights movement because of her father’s hatred for her husband and her different ideological outlook for self-imposed exile in a British colony where political freedom was not even on the agenda and there was serious poverty and unemployment? Or was it really because Cheddi, a non-US citizen, could not take the Illinois exam to practise dentistry in the US nor was he qualified to become a US citizen being classed as an Oriental, and hence her life choices were defined by those circumstances? Then again, how is self-imposed exile reconciled with a ban on her travel to visit her dying father in 1953 and the revocation of her citizenship by the American government during the campaign to get the Jagans and the PPP out of office ‘by hook or by crook’?
I am also intrigued by the author’s perception of what may have led to Janet Jagan’s obstinacy and tenacity. These are characteristic traits that I share. I do not carry a victim consciousness nor feel deficient in any way to harbour it. Janet Jagan was simply always strong willed, taking flying lessons when she was a girl to the fright of her parents. She did not need an incomplete academic record, Leninism or an unorthodox marriage to get there. It was in her make-up to fight for what she believed in to her last breath. Strangely, she did so with the PPP. But on the note of victim consciousness, it seems to be a plague that has hit the entire country. For the PPP and most of the Indian population it is the 28 years of misrule and dictatorship at the hands of the PNC and outside forces, while for the African Guyanese, it is about the sufferings of their ancestors during slavery and their victimization at the hands of the government. Even Indians will have their own victimization stories to tell with Burnham who not only remembered slights but harboured them and repaid them tenfold.
This takes me to the purges the writer alludes to. To imply that the nationalistic movement of the 1950s was “torn asunder” by Janet Jagan’s desire to transform a loose, mass-based, factious, argumentative assemblage into an efficient, monolithic, electoral machine is really taking creativity too far. The split was all about the greed for power! Winston Churchill’s return to office slowed the pace of decolonization and thwarted the nationalistic movement in Guyana. The chain of events associated with this not only saw the suspension of the British Guiana constitution in 1953 but led to political and ethnic fissions not seen earlier. Burnham was led to believe that Guyana would not gain independence with the ‘communist’ Jagan and hence the struggle for control of the PPP. Of course this meant there were two factions, but the political ideology was never different as Burnham proved when he nationalized foreign enterprises and established ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, reneging on his promises to the USA.
To label the Jagan faction the militants, implies that the Burnham faction was the moderate one. History belies this with the strife and ethnic violence incited by Burnham which remains part of the politics of Guyana until this day. No doubt, the attempted coup for control of the party saw the Jagans becoming tactical, something Janet Jagan became a master at. The forced resignations of Keith and Martin Carter, Sydney King and Rory Westmaas did leave Janet Jagan the most powerful person in the party.
She was not just a tactician, but extremely shrewd and feared nothing more than losing the PPP to disparate individuals. With the PPP victory at the following elections, this no doubt sprouted the symbiotic relationship and view of the Jagans as being synonymous with the PPP. The distrust of and for individuals with strong views, which are contrary to those of the Jagans, also has its genesis in the 1953 period of backstabbing and struggle for supremacy. This explains why democratic centralism remains the party cry long after it remains useful or is compatible with notions of democracy. For me, that is a euphemism for dictatorship because of the way the party machinery works. Will we ever see two PPP presidential candidates facing off in public for popular support? Not with democratic centralism.
That her legacy is interlinked with race-based politics is not in doubt, as we all remember the ‘Apan Jhaat’ cries of her party. But providing the context of events is important so that history is not distorted. The PPP did not start ethnic politics in Guyana but the party has benefited from it and continues to manipulate to benefit from it. No wonder, it will never agree to power-sharing. This is ironic as Dr Jagan was always willing to share in power as he was ‘nationalistic’ and ‘patriotic’ and not power drunk!
Janet Jagan and the PPP’s grave mistake in 1964 was to transform a strike for recognition of GAWU (not achieved until 1976) into political pressure against proportional representation in an environment where the cards were all stacked against the PPP and the Jagans. The CIA was on the ground in a covert operation against the PPP administration, the unions were involved and so were the PNC and the UF. The violence began in March of 1964 and within two months it took on a massive scale. The police force, which had its pulse on the ground, was not effective under Janet Jagan’s control. Ethnic tensions were already high, since the departure of Burnham from the PPP. What the strike on the estates did was to set the ethnic tensions into an inferno as Blacks were brought in as strike-breakers. When this spread out of control across the country, the predominantly black police force no doubt had psychological issues to deal with that had nothing to do with the force’s motto to serve and protect. What decisive action Janet Jagan could have taken in the circumstances is debatable. If Mrs Jagan is to be blamed for not acting decisively, blame also has to be placed with the then Commissioner of Police and even the Governor of the colony who later assumed emergency powers. Mrs Jagan had delegated her authority to call in the troops to the Commissioner of Police to avoid delays, a fatal miscalculation. What role the CIA might have played in the 1964 violence is not clear cut, as the records are still classified and some of them destroyed. Context goes a far way to situate events. The sugar workers’ fight for recognition was also a political fight against the Manpower Citizens Association led by Richard Ishmael who was anti-Jagan/pro-Burnham and was resisting sugar workers’ right to a union of their choice. It was not just Janet Jagan’s darkest hour, but the darkest hour for Guyana. As Ashton Chase then put it, the events in 1964 brought “shame and tragedy” to Guyana. The PPP knew that the pack of cards would come tumbling down, as the externally driven pressure escalated. One is left to wonder if taking advantage of the strike on the sugar estates may have been a temporary act of insanity on the part of the PPP, given that any clashes would only redound to the detriment of its East Indian supporters. Burnham is on record as having said in April 1964 that “If it comes to a showdown, the East Indians must remember that we could do more killing than they could.” (Hugh Tinker, 1977)
And to say that the PPP lost office in the December 1964 elections after all the declassified documents have been released and research has been done, is to dismiss the significance of its ousting from power.
While I differ with the ideology of the Jagans and the PPP, I have enormous respect for Dr and Mrs Jagan and their struggles, fight and sacrifices for Guyana. Their legacies are intertwined in the political history of Guyana, the full political history, not the parts conveniently remembered or nuanced.