Jung Bahadur Singh of Guyana (1886-1956): The long-overdue story of a Guyanese icon
By Dr Kumar Mahabir
When novelist Edgar Mittelholzer penned these words in 1963, he was referring to the cultural stereotypes of Indian Guyanese. By that time, Indians had long demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit that guided their willingness and steered their ambition, leading them to shatter the image of the hapless “coolie” who crossed the “kala pani” in search of opportunities outside of Mother India. Indians have long since earned a permanent place in Guyanese society.
In a recently published book, Jung Bahadur Singh of Guyana (1886-1956), Dr Baytoram Ramharack examined the life experiences of one of Mittelholzer’s so-called “coolies”, whose legacy was shaped both by the indenture and post-indenture experience in Guyana. What emerged from this narrative is a clear recognition that even though Dr Jung Bahadur Singh (JB Singh) may not have been as well-known as contemporaries like Cheddi Jagan, his contributions to the historical development of Guyana stands tall among the leaders of Guyanese society. With this publication, JB Singh’s legacy has now been recorded as part of the historiography of Indians in the Caribbean.
Born in 1886 as “Dina Nath alias Jung Bahadur Singh” to parents of Nepalese extraction, Dr Jung Bahadur Singh (JB Singh), grew up in Good Fortuin, an old Dutch plantation (the family later moved to Vreed-en-Hoop). He served as a member in the British Guiana Legislative Council for 23 years, after being elected in 1930, until his electoral defeat in 1953. As a legislator, JB Singh was a sitting member on almost every parliamentary committee, during which time he represented the members of the multi-ethnic Demerara-Essequibo constituency faithfully and with pride. His ideological perspective was influenced and contoured by his cultural beliefs and his experience as a ship doctor on the immigration ships on which he accompanied Indians as they travelled from India to the British colonies, as well as on the ships that returned the girmitiyas (contract labourers) to Mother India. He was among the few qualified medical doctors who initially returned to serve Guyanese after graduating from Edinburg University in 1919. As a founder of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, JB Singh demonstrated a steadfast commitment to his Hindu values. He was a strong advocate for the right of Indians to be cremated as part of the last funeral rites of Hindus. His most persistent and determined efforts, however, were reflected in the struggle to secure the right to universal adult suffrage, a struggle championed later by Cheddi Jagan.
Dr Ramharack has painstakingly provided hidden details about the various roles that characterised the legacy of JB Singh, by relying on interviews, archival materials, parliamentary records and the writings of JB Singh. As the subtitle of the book notes, Dr JB Singh ought to be celebrated as a “politician, ship doctor, labour leader, and protector of Indians” in British Guiana. A remarkable leader in the Indian community, and as someone well respected by African leaders, JB Singh emerged as a trusted mediator helping to use his “good offices” to resolve labour disputes between sugar workers in his constituency and management long before the formation of the Man Power Citizens’ Association (MPCA) led by Ayube Mohamed Edun. He subsequently became a leading member of two labour unions, the British Guiana Labour Union, as well as the British Guiana Workers’ League (formed in 1931).
Dr JB Singh was elected seven times to serve as President of the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), the preeminent organisation, initially established in Berbice in 1916 by JA Luckhoo, Madhoo Lall Bhose (a Bengali), and others to protect the interests and rights of Indian Guyanese. It is ironic to note that JB Singh may have contributed towards the political career of a young Queen’s College graduate, Cheddi Jagan, whose father endorsed JB Singh’s advice to “send the boy abroad” to study after they sought his guidance in 1935. As history would have it, JB Singh was defeated by a PPP-supported candidate in the 1953 elections which was held under universal adult suffrage. Jagan described the election between JB Singh and his party’s hand-picked candidate, Fred Bowman, as an election which was “the most significant”, bringing an end to JB Singh’s tenure as a member of the British Guiana Legislative Council. When JB Singh died in 1956, he was honoured with the largest funeral procession in the country which The Daily Argosy described as one “witnessed by thousands of people gathered from all over the colony”. He became the first Indian to be granted official permission post-humously to be cremated in British Guyana.
Like Clem Seecharan’s discovery of “Bechu”, the “enigmatic Bengali” who was the lone Indian voice that advocated for the rights of indentured Indians, Dr Ramharack must be complimented for undertaking this formidable task. History has come alive with this timely historical and political biography of an iconic Indian Guyanese.