Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Lea Ventre
Jung Bahadur Singh was first named ‘Deenanath’ at birth, meaning ‘protector of the poor’. His father preferred the name Jung Bahadur, after a famous Nepali Prime Minister. However, quite prophetically he went on to become an advocate for marginalised colonial subjects in British Guyana. Funnily enough, his efforts were recognised by the colonial forces and he was appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for social welfare services (London Gazette, 1944).
Born a Hindu Guyanese, he worked on immigration ships across the globe. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1919, he became a medical official and a politician who fought for universal suffrage, workers’ rights and religious freedom in the Guyanese colony. His life story is one piece among innumerable testimonies in need of uncovering.
Dr. Singh was born in Guyana in 1886. Between the age of 16 and 28, he worked as a medical dispenser on immigration ships and made 24 travels transporting indentured labourers from India to other overseas colonies, including Guyana. He came to Scotland in 1914, when he enrolled to study Medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His stay in Edinburgh was documented poorly. He travelled with his wife Alice Bhagwandy Singh and their children, they stayed at 15 Melville Terrace and he was friends to a Genge/George Berry, who helped them find accommodation on their arrival in June 1914 (Patil & Seenarine, 1997). Unfortunately, Alice’s autobiography was left unfinished right at the start of her recounting of their experience in Edinburgh.
Dr. Singh was a prominent member of the Edinburgh Indian Association (Dindayal, 2013). He was dedicated to representing the plight of diasporic Indians. His father Dhan Singh being indentured from Nepal, and his mother Soubhagea being Bengali, he grew up as a member of the Indian community in British Guyana. In 1931, Dr. Singh himself wrote, “The East Indians [totalled] over 120,000 or 42% of the population of the colony” (Singh & Stoby, 1931). After the abolition of slavery in Guyana, colonial forces started recruiting indentured labourers from South Asia. In 1838, the first 406 labourers arrived, marking the early presence of the South Asia diaspora in British colonies.
Dr Singh’s influence in politics
After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1919, his life changed quite substantially. He became a Government Medical Officer first, and a private doctor later, all while dedicating a major part of his public life to politics. At the time of writing the essay in 1931, Dr. Singh had already been President of the British Guyana East Indian Association in the colony six times, member of the Legislative and Executive Council, co-founder of Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the premier Hindu organization, and of the Pandits Organization (Dindayal, 2013).
Dr. Singh’s influence on the politics of British Guyana extends towards several trajectories. “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” (Dindayal, 2013). As member of the British Guiana East Indian Association (BGEIS), he contributed to the mobilisation of workers around Georgetown in March 1924 to unionise against “low wages, poor working conditions and possibly child labour” (Spackman, 1973, p320). In conjunction with the pioneering British Guyana Labour Union (B.G.L.U.), the BGEIA. had managed to create solidarity among Indian and African workers, which led to a strike starting on the 1st of April in 1924. Dr. Singh and the BGEIA, presided by Mr. Francis Kawall, took part in the negotiations to grant workers’ rights to better working conditions and higher wages. The peaceful strike culminated with the intervention of the colonial forces led by Colonel Ramsay, who ordered his men to shoot into the crowd (Spackman, 1973). Thirteen people were killed and twenty-four were wounded in this event remembered as the Ruimveldt Massacre. As a continuation of his efforts in line with workers’ rights,“In 1933” Odeen Ishmael writes, “Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, a member of the Legislative Council, became [the British Guyana Workers’ League’s] senior vice president” (Ishmael, 2013, p353).
In 1931 he was elected to the Legislative Council, becoming the first Hindu to be elected to the colony’s Parliament. As a member of the Council, he sat on the Franchise Commission, where he advocated for universal adult suffrage. He was also “a pioneer of land settlement schemes for independent farmers at Vergenoegen and Cane Grove” (Dindayal, 2013).
As head of the Sanatan Dharma movement, Dr. Singh fought constantly to have Hindu and Muslim institutions and rites legally recognised. Under the colonial government, only Christianity was awarded recognition, because “Hindu and Muslim priests, unlike Christian ministers, could not be state-registered marriage officers” (Dindayal, 2013). Dr. Singh, who personally had three marriage ceremonies with Alice Bhagwandy Singh – one civil marriage, one Christian Church blessing, one Hindu marriage -, was at the forefront of the civil fight for Hindu and Muslim rights. In his 1931 essay, he talks about the successful co-existence of Hindu and Muslim religions in the Indo-Guyanese community.
As a member of the Legislative Council, he introduced a bill to permit cremations, which resulted unsuccessful. However, at his death, the colonial authorities permitted his cremation, which took place on the beach of the Atlantic Ocean by the Plantation Ogle. His funeral is regarded as a historic event, as a cornerstone for Hindu-Guyanese civil rights’ struggles. He was the first person to be cremated in the colonial country, an event that was witnessed by thousands of people. The Daily Argosy reported it to be “the largest funeral ever witnessed in the country” (Dindayal, 2013).
Jung Bahadur Singh’s story narrates a particular context that should feed into broader studies on cross diaspora movement across the colonies. Colonial subjects were allowed and indeed encouraged to navigate Empire in a manner that imitates freedom of movement. However, their movement was possible in as far as their existence could be integrated in the broader, internal mechanisms of imperial institutions and governance. Son of diaspora, Dr. Singh travelled the seas as a medical dispenser, a father, a husband, a Hindu Guyanese attempting to build himself, his family and his community, a space for self-governance and autonomy (financial, physical, social, political etc.).
He was raised in a colony, travelled as a colonial labourer, graduated at the University of Edinburgh, and, largely unnoticed, returned to fight for the right of people to participate in governance, their right to have their non-Christian rites and institutions legally recognised, for workers to be better paid and represented, and against the seemingly unlimited imperial power of white settlers and officers. Dr. Singh fought for communities at large to decolonise.
Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood, Supplement to the London Gazette, (8 June, 1944), p.2591.
Patil, S and Seenarine, M, 1997. Autobiography of Alice Bhagwandy Sital Persaud.
Dindayal, V, 2013, Dr Jung Bahadur Singh – Senior Legislator and Indian Diaspora Leader, Journal of Indo Caribbean Research, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2013, p. 81-89. Geosphere Press. Printed in Canada.
Spackman, A, 1973, Official Attitudes and Official Violence: the Ruimveldt Massacre, Guyana, 1924, (1973), p. 320.