Senior Legislator and Indian Diaspora Leader
Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh was a name which Guyanese of his day associate with the Hindu community of British Guiana. He personified the finest attributes of Hindu heritage and culture and wore the mantel of leader of the community for decades with honour.
Dr. Singh, as he was popularly known, won the hearts and minds of Guyanese and the confidence of the powers that be, and became a senior member of the Government of British Guiana. This distinction he worked hard to achieve, as a son of indentured immigrants, in a colony of the British Empire where the Indian indentured labourer was socially at the bottom of the social mobility ladder.
Jung Bahadur Singh was born in 1886 in Goed Fortuin, West Bank Demerara, in the then British Guiana. His father was Dhan Singh, and mother was Soubhagea. He was the eldest of thirteen children. Dhan Singh was indentured from Nepal. Soubhagea was the only daughter of Babu Khedarnauth of Bengal. He was a compounder (dispenser) on the immigrant ships. After completing his indentureship Dhan Singh set up a small tailoring shop. The business flourished. It included peddling goods as far as Berbice.
Jung trained as a compounder like his grandfather Babu Khedarnauth and his uncle, his mother’s brother, Babu Rampersad. From age 16 to 28, for 12 years, Jung worked in the medical service on immigrant ships making 24 trips in all, transporting indentured immigrants from Kolkata (Calcutta), India to overseas colonies such as British Guiana, Dutch Guiana, the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji. He witnessed the spread of the Indian diaspora across the globe.
On 23 February 1910 Jung married Alice Bhagwanday, daughter of Hurdutt Sital Persad from Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana. Her father and Jung’s uncle Babu Rampersad were good friends. They agreed on this arranged marriage years earlier.
Hurdutt Sital Persad was 14 years old when he and his mother Phoolhjharia, came from Basti in the Faizabad district of Uttar Pradesh, India. They had been indentured to Suriname. They were devout Hindus. Hurdutt, at that young age, was well schooled in languages and he grew up to be a learned man, and an interpreter of the Indian languages, Hindi and Urdu. He rose to Chief Interpreter in the immigration department in Dutch Guiana.
Alice’s mother, Mary Dully came from a devout Christian family. Her father was a Kshatriya from Bengal who came to Grenada as an interpreter. He was later seconded to British Guiana, then to Nickerie, Suriname as an interpreter.
The marriage of Alice and Jung was a big affair. There were three wedding ceremonies – a civil marriage, a Christian ceremony and a Hindu wedding. They were married at the office of the marriage officer – the Burgerlijtstand in Paramaribo, followed by a Church blessing, then a Hindu marriage in the evening.
An extravagant affair, the Hindu wedding was held in the Immigration Depot loaned for the occasion and decorated with beautiful maro (Hindu wedding pavilion), in the presence of hundreds of invitees, Indians and others, and all the Pundits in the land, who took part, to show ‘their approval of the union between a Brahmin girl and a Singh.’ The ceremony ended at 12 midnight with fireworks, music and feasting, after which they set sail for British Guiana at 2 am. At the house in Goed Fortuin, there was feasting and fireworks in the evening.
Jung’s work on immigrant ships took him away from his family for long periods. The young family suffered for a number of years this way when their children were babies. Jung began his pre-medical studies in Kolkata between trips on immigrant ships.
In 1914, Jung decided he would go to the medical college at Edinburgh University, Scotland to become a doctor and he would take his wife and children along. He became a prominent member of the Edinburgh Indian Association, which comprised students from India.
After completing his studies in 1919, Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh returned to British Guiana and became a GMO – Government Medical Officer – stationed at Leonora. Then in 1923, he went into private practice in Georgetown and bought a home at Lamaha Street.
In his early years, it seemed Jung was being prepared for a life of service to his community and country. His parents had instilled in him a strong pride in his Hindu heritage. In between trips to India and living in Kolkata he had studied rigorously the Hindu scriptures and became a formidable scholar of Avadhi, classical Hindi. He also studied sacred music and learnt to play the sarangi, widely used in folk and classical music ensembles. Working on immigrant ships, he witnessed the injustices meted out to Indian indentured labourers. He became a devotee of India’s great tradition of Raghuvanshi, the noble life epitomised by King Ramchandra. As a Kshatriya, he saw it as his duty to be a warrior and defender of the people.
As early as 1924, Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, as member of the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIA), fought on behalf of workers in the Ruimveldt Massacre. Between 1920 and 1949, he served as President of the BGEIA six times.
He was a founder of the premier Hindu organization, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, and served as its president from 1934 to 1955. He saw the necessity of such an organization for the preservation of their ancient and revered religion in the colony. He was also a founder of the Pandits Organization.
As a prominent Hindu, he fought for the right of a large, labouring population to practice its values with the same freedom, and the same privileges accorded European values and Christianity by the Government of British Guiana. During the colonial era, Hinduism was considered a heathen and pagan religion, its customs and traditions denigrated. There was no public recognition of Hindu festivals, their languages, customs and rituals. Hindus could not cremate their dead. Dr. Singh, as head of the Sanatan Dharma movement, eventually reversed these prohibitions, and won an equal and respected place for Hindus in the country.
Dr. Singh fought long and hard for the legal recognition of Hindu and Muslim marriages. Hindu and Muslim priests, unlike Christian ministers, could not be state-registered marriage officers.
In 1929, this leader of the Indian diaspora was host to the Reverend C.F. Andrews, a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi. He was deputed to report on the conditions of Indians who had made their permanent home in British Guiana.
Dr. Singh launched into politics in 1931. He was elected to the Legislative Council, and became the first Hindu to be elected to the country’s parliament. The Hindus bestowed on him a gold medal and the title of Vickram (Victorious/Courageous One). Later, he became a member of the Cabinet, the Executive Council, presided over by the British governor.
In 1931, The Honourable Dr. J.B. Singh, was selected to contribute an article to the publication, The British Guiana Centenary Year Book, 1831-1931, to celebrate the centenary of the unification of the colony of British Guiana in 1831. The Year Book contained essays written by four prominent citizens – African, Chinese, Indian and Portuguese. Dr. Singh’s essay was titled, Our Place in Guiana: The East Indians.
In his long career in the Legislature, Dr. Singh served on many official committees and boards. As a member of the Franchise Commission, he advocated universal adult suffrage. He was a pioneer of land settlement schemes for independent farmers at Vergenoegen and Cane Grove. His work and contribution to the development of his people extended to education, labour, health, drainage and irrigation, social welfare, information and publicity, and civil rights. In 1944, he was awarded the OBE.
He represented British Guiana at these historic events: the Montego Bay Conference of Caribbean leaders in Jamaica in 1947 convened to discuss a Federation of British colonies in the Caribbean, the inauguration of the Legislative Council of Trinidad and Tobago in 1950, and the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
The Singh household was a powerhouse for public service. Alice, from her early married life, grasped opportunities to serve in public life. She came from a family of great achievers, including her parents and her grandparents.
In June 1927, Alice founded the East Indian Ladies’ Guild, to address Indian concerns, social, cultural and religious. In April 1929, they produced the play Savitri based on the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. Alice founded the British Guiana Dramatic Society and for nearly two decades, the society was “a cradle of Indian culture” in British Guiana. She was President and directed several of the plays produced by the Society.
Alice was active in social welfare projects. She was a member of the Red Cross, the YWCA and served as a prison visitor. In 1936 Alice founded the Balak Sahaita Mandalee – a voluntary child-welfare society, which focused on addressing the desperate poverty on sugar estates. She was awarded the MBE.
Alice and Jung had been blessed with seven children, four girls and three boys. Their daughter Rajkumari Singh became a prominent cultural activist. She was a multi-talented broadcaster, producer, director, playwright, poet and songwriter. Among many challenges she faced in her life, she had contracted polio at age six, but she rose above it all to make her mark in Guyana’s political and cultural life.
She mentored some of Guyana’s most talented personalities in the post-independence era – Gora Singh, Mahadai Das, Rooplal Monar, and Gushka Kissoon. For her contribution to Guyanese cultural life Rajkumari was one of the first Guyanese to receive the Wordsworth MacAndrew Award, introduced in 2002. She received Guyana’s Arrow of Achievement in 1970.
Rajkumari’s children have kept the torch alight, through the Rajkumari Cultural Center in Richmond Hill, New York. Her son, Gora Singh, became a Kathak dancer and choreographer. Her daughter Pritha Singh, Executive and Artistic Director of the Center, integrates the performing arts with public service, continuing the noble works started by her parents and her grandparents.
Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, this beloved leader passed away in 1956. He had introduced a Bill in the Legislative Council to permit cremations but this was unsuccessful. However at his death, permission was granted for his cremation. This historic event in the struggle for civil rights took place on the beach of the Atlantic Ocean at Plantation Ogle foreshore. He was the first person to be cremated in the country. For the last rites and farewell his ashes were taken on a steamer and ceremonially immersed in the Demerara River, off the village of Goed Fortuin, where he was born. Thousands came to pay their last respects, and many in the country whose soul was heavy with sadness, followed the ceremony that was broadcast on radio. The Daily Argosy in 1956 reported that a mammoth crowd watched the cremation which was the largest funeral ever witnessed in the country.
Dr. Singh was given the name ‘Deenanath’ at his birth. This is generally understood to mean “Protector of the Poor.” His father, gave him the name of Jung Bahadur after a famous Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana, of Nepal who is credited with benevolent reforms, especially in the legal system. Jung Bahadur means “brave in war”. It had long been used in India and Nepal as a prestigious and militant name for both Hindus and Muslims.
Dr. Singh was a fearless and progressive member of the colonial parliament for 23 years. A wise leader of the Indian diaspora in Guyana, he was a dedicated and pious elder of the Hindu community.
By an Act of Parliament the home of Dr. Singh became a national monument. The National History and Arts Council of Guyana honored Dr. Singh with a commemorative silver plaque on his home.
At a solemn memorial ceremony attended by the Premier, Ministers of the Government, and others Dr. Singh was eulogized as a physician and surgeon of great skill and compassion. He was also remembered as a respected legislator who pioneered the growth of an independent native agricultural class and advocated universal adult suffrage, a Trustee of the Man Power Citizens Association representing trade union rights of sugar workers, founder of the British Guiana Nurses’ Association, co-founder of the Indian Educational Trust College, scholar of the Avadhi and Hindi Languages and Examiner of the first Board of Hindi Languages in the country, Sanatan Dharma (Hindu) elder, and President of the British Guiana Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha. The plaque was unveiled by Mrs. Janet Jagan. In 1991, a street in Georgetown, was renamed J.B. Singh Drive to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence.
Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh had made a significant contribution to the life of Guyanese. A Scholarship in his name has been set-up for the benefit of students of the Saraswati Vidya Niketan. This is a newly started private Hindu Secondary School in Guyana.
This son of Guyana, an olympian as a leader has made a sterling contribution towards transforming the image of his people into one of high respect whose heritage and culture have enriched that of his country of Guyana. From Nepal and Bengal ancestors, Jung, Alice and their children have set high benchmarks of service and dedication for many to aspire to joyously.
For information in this article, the author acknowledges with
grateful thanks the help of Karna Singh,cultural historian,writer and poet and grandson of Dr. Singh. Also, helpful in the preparation of this
research note were the sources listed below, accessed on May
2. http://www.stabroeknews.com/2009/guyana-review/01/ 29/history-glimpses-of-guyanese-history.(text and photo)
3. http://www.indocaribbeanworld.com/archives/june18/ guyana.html