Starting with this issue, NRI Achievers proposes to every now and then feature some of the more iconic among our Indian Diaspora, who have carved a place for themselves under the sun, doing their adoptive land proud, and while doing so, doing India proud as well. We start with some of the truly more iconic personalities, all of whom battled all odds to serve their communities, societies and countries, and hugely succeeded. Read on …
Jagernath Latchmon, whose statue stands in Paramaribo at the Independence Square in front of the National Assembly of Suriname, played a pioneering role in the political empowerment of the Indo- Surinamese community, at a critical time when it was emerging from the shadows of the indentured system. In the process, he emerged as a leader of Suriname itself by fostering multi-ethnic harmony and co-existence, and nurturing democracy in both letter and spirit in the face of formidable challenges.
Latchmon was born in 1916 in the district of Nickerie, not far from Paramaribo, to immigrant parents from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh who had been taken to Suriname – then known as Dutch Guiana – as indentured labourers to work in sugar plantations. On expiry of their indenture obligations, his parents ventured into running a small dairy farm.
Latchmon underwent his schooling in Nickerie and Paramaribo, and thereafter went for legal studies under a Creole lawyer. He was among the first immigrants to commence their own law practice in 1940, and was soon drawn into politics when he founded the Hindoostan-Javanese Political Party (HJJP) with himself as the chairman in 1947. The HJJP later merged with several other ethnic parties in the country to form the ‘United Hindustan Party’ (known as the VHP by its Dutch initials), which too elected him as its chairman. He was then re-elected to that position continuously until his death. The VHP in later times transformed into the Progressive Reform Party, and by a quirk the initials of the Party in the new dispensation remained the same – VHP.
Early in his political career, Latchmon made it his firm conviction that the future of Indo-Surinamese lay in sharing power with other ethnic groups in the country. In 1949, he won a seat for the first time in the States of Suriname, an elected body that later became the National Assembly, but his own party failed to get a majority. Latchmon reached a political understanding with the Afro-Surinamese leader J A Pengel, to give effect to ethnic fraternization and shared power from 1958 to 1967. This period is notable for political stability, economic growth and inter-ethnic peace and harmony. In one of the elections, Latchmon withdrew one of his candidates in support of Pengel.
Latchmon was elected Chairman of the States in 1964 which position he held until 1967 and later from 1969 to 1973. However, ethnic fraternization was perceived differently by Latchmon and Pengel. For Latchmon, it meant sustaining multiculturalism (“unity in diversity”) which allows each ethnic component to maintain its distinct identity in harmony with other groups without assimilation into an amorphous entity; while Pengel saw in it the path for assimilation and social integration. This divergence led to Latchmon, otherwise a supporter of independence for Suriname, advocating a deferment of the Surinamese independence from the Dutch, who however were ready to leave Suriname in 1975. Latchmon feared domination of the Indo-Srinamese by the Afro-Surinamese in a hastily drawn independence. He felt the colonial Dutch would be better placed to ensure continued socio-political equity for all. He called for a referendum on the subject of independence, arguing that in the 1973 voting that brought to power Henck Arron as PM, independence was not an issue. However, the Dutch were not agreeable to the proposal. His sense of realism led him to change his views just before Suriname attained independence on 25 November 1975. Nevertheless tens of thousands of Surinamese, mostly of Indian origin, preferred to relocate to the Netherlands.
The newly independent Suriname had to undergo through a period of painful deterioration in political and socio-economic harmony, leading to a military take-over that lasted from 1980 to 1987. The VHP under Latchmon entered into an alliance with different political parties to win the elections in 1987. VHP formed part of the government and Latchmon became the Chairman of the National Assembly. He held that position a total of 5 times in his entire career. His name was reported to have entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1989, as the longest serving parliamentarian in the world.
Given the very nature of practical politics, some members of his party left to form their own groupings, alleging arbitrary and authoritarian functioning on the part of Latchmon. Such developments did not however affect his standing and stature. Latchmon passed away while on an official visit to Amsterdam in 2001. He was succeeded in the party by Jules Ajodhia, who later became the Vice-President of Suriname.