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 …
As the first wave of emigrants in India’s modern history went to the far corners of the globe as indentured workers in the 19th century, they began to progressively move from the margins of their adoptive societies into the mainstream of their newfound citizenship in their countries of adoption. This they achieved through sheer effort, and their succeeding generations produced a whole bouquet of leaders whose contribution in the nation-building process left a lasting impression on their fellow countrymen.
Cheddi Jagan, who became Chief Minister of British Guyana in 1961, and later President of the independent country in 1992, is one such distinguished icon, whose forefathers had emigrated to Guyana from the Basti district of eastern Uttar Pradesh. He rose to become undisputed leader of his country by sheer dint of hard work and public service, with a particular focus on the working class.
Cheddi Jagan was born on March 22, 1918, as Cheddi Berret Jagan in Port Mourant, in a sugar plantation to plantation workers Bachoni and Jagan, whose parents had in turn emigrated to Guyana as indentured workers in 1901. His middle name Berret is actually a localized version of Bharat. His early life was one of hardships and scarcities with his father unable to earn enough to support his education. So, he had to work to earn some money while attending the school. His primary and secondary schooling took place close to the plantation. He later went to the country’s capital, George Town, to complete his secondary education.
Lack of opportunities and limited avenues in Guyana for further education took him to the USA in 1936 after school to obtain a degree in dental surgery. While in USA, he met and married Janet Rosenberg, an American citizen in 1943, who remained his life-long companion in arms, fully participating in both his professional and political work.
On return to Guyana in 1943, he began to practice dentistry. His social context and milieu influenced him enough to then begin articulating the cause of the working class in Guyana. He went on to found the Political Affairs Committee aka PAC, that championed the rights of plantation workers. PAC later transmogrified into the PPP (People’s Progressive Party), through a merger with another party, the British Guyana Labour Party aka BGLP.
His first election win came in 1953 in the British Guyana and he took over the mantle of its Chief Minister. But could not run the government as the British dismissed his entire cabinet and suspended the constitution, suspecting him of harbouring pro-Soviet leanings in the context of the raging cold war between the East and the West. He returned to power once again as the Chief Minister through the 1961 elections, but lost support in Parliament in the 1964 elections. He stayed on as the opposition leader for nearly three decades before he was elected the President of the country in 1992. Jagan suffered a heart attack in February 1997 in Georgetown and was taken to USA for surgery, where he died on 6th March 1997. On his death, the highest tribute paid to him was by his successor Sam Hinds, who declared a six-day mourning and described him as “the greatest son and patriot that had ever worked this land” of Guyana.
His wife Janet Jagan was elected the Prime Minister and President of Guyana, a recognition to the outstanding service he had rendered to Guyana. After Janet Jagan, his party elected Bharrat Jagdeo as the President.
For the Indian Diaspora, Cheddi Jagan is the first PIO to have adorned any public office as the Head of a Government. He enjoyed a mass adoration in his country of adoption. He is a true icon of the Indian diaspora. This year marks the 20th anniversary of his death, and the next year is his birth centenary. Both days deserve to be commemorated appropriately.