MARCH 28, 2022, marks 13 years since the passing of former President Mrs. Janet Jagan. Born in Chicago, USA, on October 20, 1920, she left her country at a relatively young age to join her husband in a struggle that would change the power dynamics of the then British colony to one of internal self-government and then to full political independence status.
She co-founded the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) in 1946 and four years later, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) in 1950, which remains the dominant political party until today.
Janet Jagan stands tall among the great women of history. She was named by the TIME Magazine as one of 16 of the most ‘rebellious’ women in world history.
It is important to put into perspective the term ‘rebellious,’ which in no way conveys any negative connotation, but was meant to recognise the role played by her in challenging the then colonial status quo which was in the main oppressive and anti-people.
The important point to note is that the recognition of the TIME magazine was not limited to this century, but went back to past history which makes the citation all the more historically significant.
Other popular names mentioned by the magazine’s citation included Aung San Suu Kyi, whose democratically elected government was overthrown by the military junta and who had earlier spent 15 years under house arrest. Others named were Jian Suing, wife of former Mao Zedong and Phoolam Devi, who became famous for taking up the plight of India’s ‘untouchables’ and earned in the process the nickname ‘Bandit Queen.’
The PPP, of which she was a founder-member, and the Guyanese people in general, have been lifted by such a recognition. It is unfortunate that she did not live to experience how the world felt about her and her contribution to world history.
The TIME citation ranked Mrs Jagan among historical figures such as Joan of Arc, a 15th century French peasant girl who fought against the British and who played a key role in the lifting of the siege of Orleans. Joan was eventually burnt at the stake by the British for ‘heresy,’ but was later cannonized by the Vatican.
In the case of Mrs Jagan, the citation read in part: ‘For Chicago born Janet Jagan, the vibrant Labour struggles in the mid-20th century of her own country was not enough. After falling in love with Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese dentistry student at Northwestern, Janet followed her future husband, with Lenin’s writings in hand, to his homeland in 1943. Setting up a shop as a dental assistant, she set on a path that would lead her to becoming Guyana’s first woman President.
In 1950, she and her husband formed the People’s Progressive Party which sought to promote Marxist ideals as well as decolonization from the United Kingdom. Strikes by domestic workers in what was then referred to as ‘British Guiana in the late 1940s, had been inspired by the Jagans and the movement attracted the ire of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who put the Jagans in jail.
But Jagan proved to be a political survivor, remaining in the game despite various attempts to politically purge her from leadership roles.
The citation by the TIME Magazine provides a panoramic view of the epic struggles waged by Mrs Jagan and her husband Cheddi for the liberation of Guyana from the yoke of colonialism, and later from the tentacles of PNC dictatorial rule. This is why the PPP, of which they were both founding members, remains wedded to the ideas and ideals which they passionately embraced and defended throughout their political life.
Despite her undoubted bravery and extraordinary courage, there was also a softer side grounded in her simplicity, integrity and her love for humanity. She was a people’s person who often would go out of her way to help those in need.
Apart from her active political life, she also found time to write and was Editor of the Mirror and Thunder, her party’s theoretical organ. She also wrote several children’s stories. These are stories with strong moral and ethical overtones, of good over evil and justice over injustice, which in fundamental ways, reflected her own personality and character.
Like all mortals, age in the end had taken its toll and slowed her down. She resigned from the presidency before the end of her tenure because of failing health, but she remained committed right to the very end for the cause of a strong, cohesive and prosperous Guyana.
To say that Mrs Jagan has made her contribution to her party and country would be an understatement. She helped to shape the political and social landscape of Guyana in fundamental ways, and in the process, transformed the lives of Guyanese in deeply profound ways.
Like her husband, Mrs Jagan never had an easy life, but they never sought an easy life. She endured several hardships in her life, including being jailed by the British colonial administration and being ‘vilified’ by the PNC regime because of her ‘whiteness,’ but she took them all in stride without malice or ill-will, which spoke highly of the nobility of her spirit and character.
A Guyanese leader, indeed a world icon, had departed the world stage 13years ago, but her vision of a better and more humane society continues to influence the thinking of the PPP and the PPP/C administration.