CHEDDI JAGAN 'S ENTRY INTO POLITICS
In the early 1940s, the history of Guyana moved into a new era with the entry of Dr. Cheddi Jagan on the political stage. Cheddi Jagan was born at Port Mourant, Berbice, on March 22, 1918. His parents were indentured Indians, who, despite their humble economic means, were determined to have their children receive a good education.
Cheddi Jagan was an able student. After attending primary school in his home village, he began at the age of 15 years to attend Queen's College, the leading boys' school in the capital, Georgetown. Leaving two years later, having passed the school certificate examinations, his father wanted him to study law but the expense of studying in England put this beyond his reach. His father therefore opted to send him in 1936 to Howard University, Washington DC, to study dentistry.
Cheddi Jagan's two years in Washington DC doing his pre-med studies opened his eyes to the condition of African Americans and the realities of legally enforced segregation in the south. He moved to Chicago, where he studied dentistry at Northwestern University and social sciences during evenings at the YMCA college where the writings of socialist thinkers broadened his education.
He also followed closely the struggle of the Indian independence movement and the work of Gandhi which had an influence on his political thought. He qualified as a dentist in 1942 by which time he met his wife, Janet Rosenberg, a student-nurse living in Chicago. Neither of their families approved of their marriage in August 1943. He returned to Guyana in October 1943 and Janet followed him a few months later.
In Guyana, Dr. Jagan, now 25 years of age, set up his dental practice in Georgetown with his wife as his assistant. While practising dentistry he felt that he must identify himself with a socio-political group aimed at uplifting the welfare of the ordinary people. At first he associated himself with the British Guiana East Indian Association which had among its leaders Charles Ramkisson Jacob and Ayube Edun. These two men were at the time very active in the Legislative Council where they demanded adult suffrage among other constitutional changes. However, he soon left this organisation which he realised looked after the interests of Indian businessmen and landlords and was not interested in dealing with problems of the ordinary Indians.
In 1945, Dr. Jagan joined the Man Power Citizens' Association (MPCA), which as representative of sugar workers, was the largest trade union in the country. Soon after, he became its treasurer. But because he objected to the high allowances paid to union leaders from the union funds, the leadership was not friendly towards him. He also objected to the tendency of union leaders to collaborate with the sugar planters, and openly voiced the opinion that the union leaders were not interested in properly representing the interests of the workers. He tried to encourage the MPCA leadership to change its pro-employer attitude and to assist in the struggle for political change for the benefit of the workers, but when he failed to bring about this, he resigned from the union.
The period of World War II brought food shortages to Guyana, but as the people adapted to the situation, they also developed a new awareness of local and international problems. People were openly discussing political ideas that were sweeping the world. Both Cheddi and Janet Jagan participated in the weekly discussion circle at the Carnegie Library (now the Public Library) where intense political debates occurred. They also began writing frequent letters to the local newspapers on varying issues. Janet Jagan sparked early controversy when she openly advocated birth control, and for this she was severely criticised by the Catholics.
West Indian politics also played a role in influencing Cheddi Jagan. In 1945, the West Indian Conference was held in Georgetown, and it was attended by leaders he admired. They included Grantley Adams of Barbados, Norman Manley and Richard Hart of Jamaica, Albert Gomes of Trinidad and Hubert Critchlow of Guyana. This meeting established the Caribbean Labour Congress, the work of which Jagan followed with great interest.
Jagan's desire to develop a deeper understanding of the problems affecting the ordinary people caused him to pay a visit to Trinidad later in 1945 to meet with progressive leaders of the trade union and political movements.
By 1946, the Jagans had completely identified themselves with the working class. They were infused with new ideas stimulated by World War II. The rule of the British over its empire was being challenged, and the Indian liberation struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi had an influencing role on their world outlook. At that period, too, the Soviet Union, which had played a major role in defeating fascism during the World War, was rapidly rebuilding itself, and the Chinese revolution led by Mao Tse Tung was winning greater support all over the world.
Other progressive thinkers in the labour movement and in middle class social circles were influenced by the same factors, and from time to time the Jagans exchanged ideas with them. These persons included Ashton Chase, a young lawyer, and Jocelyn Makepeace Hubbard, both of whom were very active in the trade union movement.
At the same time, Janet Jagan was also discussing a number of social and economic issues affecting women, and she found allies in Winifred Gaskin and Frances Stafford to launch the Women Political and Economic Organisation (WPEO) on 12 July 1945. Janet Jagan was named as general secretary of this organisation aimed at developing the political consciousness of women and encouraging their political education.
The launching of the WPEO took place at the Town Hall in Georgetown which was filled to capacity with an enthusiastic audience. In addressing the meeting, Janet Jagan explained that the WPEO would be an "organisation of working class women, housewives, trade unionists, shop girls, domestics, civil servants, social workers and all others."
The meeting called on the Government to implement the following demands:
1. Improved housing in rural and urban districts, and for electricity to rural districts.
2. Establishment of Government hospitals and improved medical services in rural areas.
3. Passing a minimum wage law for women workers.
4. Continuation of price control and educating women about price control and intelligent buying.
5. Subsidisation of essential foodstuffs.
6. Establishing an excess profits tax.
7. Improving education facilities throughout the country, and starting a system of adult education sponsored by the Government.
8. Setting up Government libraries in rural and urban districts.
9. Educating women to enable them to set up consumers and producers cooperatives.
10. Improving roads.
11. Organising a system through which radios could be made available in various communities.
12. Extension of the voting rights to housewives through the implementation of universal adult suffrage.