VS Naipaul on Cheddi Jagan and Burnham


By Dr. Vishnu Bisram

The great Indo-Caribbean writer Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul held “a high regard” for the late Indo-Guyanese politician Dr Cheddi Jagan for his integrity and described Forbes Burnham as a racist tyrant.

VS, as he was popularly called, considered Jagan as being different from all other politicians he met. He saw Jagan as a man of principles and as someone who was genuinely concerned about the poor and the working class. He felt Jagan was perhaps too honest to be a politician as Rajendra Rampersaud revealed in a conversation he had with VS (Stabroek News Aug 13, 2018). In fact, Basdeo Panday of Trinidad also saw Jagan as too honest to be in politics telling an audience at a seminar on the “Life of Jagan” in May 2018 that he told Jagan that “he (Cheddi) should have been a pandit or priest instead of a politician”.

But in addition to showering laudatory praises on Dr. Cheddi Jagan and his wife, Janet, for their character traits, VS Naipaul was also very critical of their politics (their ideology). Naipaul noted how Jagan was a critic of western democracy but at the same time contradicted himself by being a proud consumer and promoter of Marxism. Jagan was a proud nationalist and anti-imperialist, a non-racialist. And he was also an opponent of armed struggle against the Burnham dictatorship and the racialism that Burnham practiced.

Naipaul faulted Jagan for the persecution that Indians experienced in Guyana attributing it to Jagan’s uncompromising commitment to communism that was responsible for Jagan, the PPP and Indians being out of government. Naipaul wrote about the Jagans in several pieces including an essay titled, “A Handful of Dust: Cheddi Jagan and the Revolution in Guyana” describing his impressions of the Jagans’. And when we met by chance in New Delhi at the government of India organized Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Convention in Jan 2003, we had an exchange on Guyanese politics centering on Jagan.

Naipaul assailed Dr. Jagan for not comprehending the significance of regional or even global geopolitics in his political development and in the practice of politics in colonial and post-colonial Guyana. VS described Cheddi Jagan as being “politically too naïve” and not understanding geo-politics. He said the Jagans did not grasp the implications on their supporters and on the entire colony of their anti-colonial struggle for political independence of Guyana. Naipaul noted that Jagan’s political ideology cost him the Prime Ministership as well as the opportunity to lead British Guiana to independence and that would eventually lead to the racial tyranny that the country would experience post independence. Naipaul also said Jagan was too soft in his struggle against Burnham’s racist dictatorship post independence. While, VS offered laudatory remarks about Jagan, he also held him accountable for the suffering of the country during what Naipaul described as “the racially tyrannical rule of Forbes Burnham and the PNC”. Naipaul was scathing in his criticisms of Burnham’s racist dictatorship.

While praising Jagan as Mr. nice guy and gentleman and condemning Forbes Burnham’s racism and authoritarianism, Naipaul could not comprehend how a political leader (meaning Jagan) in America’s backyard could defy and challenge the West and flirt with the Soviet Union and Cuba at the height of the cold war and expected to remain in power. For Naipaul, it was unthinkable to thumb one’s nose at the US or Britain when these two powerful countries controlled and would determine the destiny of your colony or country. And he, Naipual, as a non-politician, recognized the US and UK would not tolerate any defiance to their political hegemony over Guyana and the greater Caribbean region. Naipaul felt Jagan was “politically too naïve” and even though he was engineered out of office for his socialism, he still did not learn any lesson that anti-Americanism and pro-Sovietism would not be tolerated.

Naipaul was also critical of Jagan on the issue of ethnicity and nationalism. He said Jagan ignored the significance of race that had defined Guyanese society in the name of democratic equality. Jagan disregarded the racism experienced by Indians and other groups that were not supportive of Burnham and his PNC government. Jagan had hoped that not bringing up race would help in national healing and bring the races together.

Naipaul noted that Jagan was very sincere about wanting to build a non-racial society. His Indian ethnicity did not influence his thought process or his policies. Jagan was ethnically neutral and universalistic on matters of race championing equality for all regardless of race, religion or status. For Jagan, race or ethnicity was immaterial in the politics of his party and his government and in his behavior and in political institutions.

He wanted to establish color or race blind state institutions. Jagan wanted Guyana to become a nation bound together under a common identity and by a sense of shared destiny and not by race. For Jagan, “non-racialism” was a non-negotiable human and social value. It was part of his ideology. Jagan’s non-racialism emerged out of his socialist beliefs. But Jagan’s socialism was not comforting to his supporters. But race historically has played a defining role in every aspect of life in Guyanese society. Non-racialism was not a description of Guyanese reality given the history of racial acrimony in Guyana since the 1830s when Portuguese first arrived to be followed by Indians and Chinese. Non racialism was an ideal for Guyana, a promise about the future of the nation, but it was not about reality in Guyana. Jagan’s non-racialism meant reversing the trajectory of Guyanese history, politics, economy, society, culture, and behavior.

Jagan built a political party around socialism, and he was prepared to accommodate and promote socialism in Guyana at the expense of Indians. And in the process, Guyana got ethnic dictatorship, oppression, and an apartheid system of government for 26 years. Jagan allowed his supporters to suffer holding on to his communist belief rather than make a deal (moderating his ideology) with the West to end racist fascist rule in Guyana under Burnham.

At the time of the Cold War, the PPP was seen in the western public eye as a communist party. Jagan had described himself as a Fabian socialist when he met President John Kennedy. But the US did not differentiate among the varied forms of socialisms – all were seen by Washington as communism. And it was beneficial for the capitalist west to keep the ‘apartheid’ racist PNC Burnhamite regime in place to prevent any communist PPP takeover in Guyana and to counteract the influence of the USSR in Guyana. It was only after the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc in 1990 that the west finally pushed for the end of racist rule in Guyana. Keeping the PNC in power was no longer favourable or necessary to the interests of Britain or America.

Naipaul condemned Burnham’s and the PNC’s injustices against Indians and other ethnic groups. Naipaul refers to Burnham’s rule as “racial tyranny”. He stated that Guyana was worse off under Burnham’s rule than under colonial rule. And he felt that had Jagan been an ideological pragmatist, Guyanese would not have experienced that very long period of suffering (1964 to 1992).


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.