By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Jung Bahadur Singh of Guyana (1886-1956), a book written by Dr. Baytoram Ramharack, Professor of Political Science, focuses on the legacy of one of the most outstanding figures of Guyana during the first half of the 20th century.
Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh (JBS) was prominent not only in politics but also in the culture and education of Indo-Guyanese. He was one of the most notable figures in the early period (beginning in 1930, long before people knew the name Dr. Cheddi Jagan) of Indian involvement in politics of British Guiana. Dr. JBS was an amazing character, a professional, and an incorruptibly honest man. No one like him exists any more in his native land.
Because of the silencing of the history of Indians in the school texts on West Indian History, I didn’ have the opportunity learn much about the work of JBS (or other prominent Indians) until I started college and read up on indentureship during my undergraduate studies. As learned, JBS contributions to Guyana and his dedication to uplifting peoples’ lives helped to transform the country and championing the causes of Indians. Because of this biography, we now know how crucial was the role of JBS in building a modern Guyana and in promoting Indian culture. History will be kind to Dr. JB Singh and he will get due credit for what he has done for Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese and those who were ungrateful for how much he helped them.
Kudos to Dr. Ramharack to do justice to JBS’s political life in writing this amazing biography. A lot stands out in the author’s writing – relevant interviews, access to hitherto undiscovered materials, diary entries, notes, and letters from JBS, and other archival materials. It is a thorough research of not just JBS’s life, but also some of the noteworthy people he interacted with including his helpful wife. The book reads well.
As the title of the book notes, Dr. J.B Singh (as he was popularly known) was a “politician, ship doctor (of the long journey between India and Guyana during indentureship), labor leader, and protector of Indians on the colony.” As Dr. Ramharack, rightly stated, JBS was a pioneer in so many activities (politics, culture, education, language) in the Caribbean especially among Indians. He was one of the most prominent leaders in the Hindu community and a trusted mediator between sugar workers and the management of the sugar estates. And as a medical doctor, he treated thousands of patients virtually for free at his clinic.
Dr. JB Singh was elected seven times as President of the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA). He served in parliament for 23 years (1930-53). He introduced Dr. Cheddi Jagan to politics and helped to build his political career. He consistently and relentlessly advocated for universal adult suffrage. Regrettably, when it was granted in 1953, Dr. Jagan campaigned against him. JBS was not re-elected by an ungrateful Indian community for whom he dedicated his life, championing their causes, and helping so many personally. JBS became dejected in defeat but continued to serve the Indian community till his last breath. When he died in 1956, he had the largest funeral in the country; thousands came from all walks of life. He became the first Indian to be granted official permission to be cremated in British Guyana. All of the above facts are well documented in Dr. Baytoram Ramharack’s brilliantly researched work.
Jung Bahadur Singh of Guyana is a definitive biography of the forgotten iconic Indian leader who served the nation with honor and distinction. It is a well-written work of a modern Indian Guyanese politician who long deserved a worthy account of his life and times. There are great insights into JBS’s life and philosophy. There are anecdotes from others and illustrations, in addition to, of course, first hand knowledge and memories of others about JBS. The book can’t right the marginalization of JBS as a political leader. But at a minimum, it tells us who he was and what he did and he as well as the book will go into the annals of Guyanese history.
From this book, one can understand the indenture system, life on the plantation, politics of the colony, and the country after independence. The author, Dr. Ramharack makes us privy to so much unknown information.
The author gathered much information from Dr. Cheddi’s semi biography West on Trial and Dr. Mohan Ragbeer’s The Indelible Red Stain (a critique of Dr Jagan’s leftwing politics). Documents were also obtained from newspapers and other primary and secondary sources including works of others. There are also several photos of JBS and family members. Tables and illustrations help readers understand aspects of historical events of the time. The book is divided into five parts each with multiple chapters: literature of Indians in the Caribbean; historical background to Indian migration to the Caribbean including contractual conditions and the miserable life on the plantations; multiple roles (political and cultural leader and medical doctor, among others) of JB Singh and the role played by his wife, Alice; interactions with the junior Dr. Cheddi Jagan and other political actors; and an appendix of original sources (including JBS personal memos and letters and remarks in the legislative council).
The writer, Dr. Ramharack, provided exclusive information on Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh’s never before revealed personal life thanks to access to private information (from JBS family members) and interviews with people familiar with the late iconic figure.
Tracing his early life in West Demerara and Georgetown through his marriage to a Surinamese, his service in parliament, and finally his ‘humiliation’ (brought about by an ungrateful Dr. Jagan who set out to destroy the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA) in political retirement. The writings focused on the inner man, his difficult years in parliament, his family life, his assistance to the Indian community, and his political relations with Jagan.
Dr. JB Singh was a key player in preserving and protecting an Indian identity. No one has done more on this front during the 20th century. But as Dr. Ramharack penned JBS remained an obscure political leader and an unknown historical figure buried in the annals of Guyanese history. Lesser known was his wife Alice Bhagwanday Persad, born in Surinam, who also played a key role in the education and activities of JBS. She helped to make the man. She also helped to preserve Indian culture through her pioneering work and leadership of the British Guiana Dramatic Society (BGDS). Much credit has not been given to JBS who helped to launch and build the political career of a young Cheddi Jagan. JBS spent some seventeen years in the legislature before Jagan was elected in 1946. JBS was honored several times by her Majesty’s government and various organizations for his role in social, cultural, religious, and political life on the colony and for his philanthropy.
I hope Dr. Ramharack takes on the next biography project like on the life of Jainarine Singh or CR Jacobs, Ayub Mohamed Edun, J.B Luckhoo. Lionel Luckhoo, Peter Ruhomon, Joseph Ruhomon, Bechu, or on D.P Debidin or some other of Guyana’s unsung hero or gigantic figure from Indian politics who were Dr. Jagan’s seniors or contemporaries.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.