Jagernath Lachmon

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Jagernath Lachmon, politician: born Nickerie, Suriname 21 September 1916; Founder, Hindostaanse-Javaanse Politieke Partij 1947, Verenigde Hindostaanse Partij 1949; Speaker, National Assembly 1964-67, 1969-73, 1988-2001; married Fawziya Abdul Sovan; died Amsterdam 19 October 2001.

Jagernath Lachmon was a central figure in the complicated, ethnically based politics of Suriname for more than half a century, since long before it became an independent country. He was elected to parliament in 1949 and kept his seat until his death, with just one interruption – during the military dictatorship of 1980-87 parliament was closed and all political parties banned.

Lachmon was the son of immigrants from British India; both of his parents came from Uttar Pradesh. They arrived in Suriname, a Dutch plantation colony on the shoulder of South America, as indentured labourers, brought in to fill gaps in the rural workforce left by slave emancipation in 1863. Jagernath studied law, graduating in 1939, and in the following year he opened his own practice in the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo.

At the same time he became active in the politics of the Indian (known locally as Hindustani) community in Suriname in the period leading up to the colony's first fully democratic elections in 1949. In 1947 his law office was the scene of the founding of a political alliance between the Indian and Javanese communities, known as the Hindostaans-Javaanse Politieke Partij (HJPP). He was first secretary and later chairman of the new grouping, which was supported mainly by small farmers of Indian and Indonesian origin.

The HJPP campaigned for universal suffrage, and in January 1949 it joined forces with the Muslim Party and the Suriname Hindu Party to form the Verenigde Hindostaanse Partij, or United Hindustani Party (VHP). Lachmon became its first chairman, and occupied the post until his death.

Lachmon tried to make the VHP more welcoming to other ethnic groups by changing its name to Vatan Hitkari Party (Party for the Advancement of National Well-Being) in 1966. But it was still seen mainly as an Indian party so, before the 1973 elections, he changed its name again, to Voruitstrevende Hervormings Partij (Progressive Reformation Party), while keeping the initials VHP.

Lachmon saw his role as a political conciliator and bridge-builder, a vital one in a racially, religiously and linguistically fragmented country, populated by successive waves of immigrants from far-flung parts of the world. He described his approach as "fraternisation politics" (verbroedering), by which he meant that the country's many different ethnic groups should hold on to their culture and identity while working together to forge a new, Surinamese nationality.

This ideal has not always been achieved, but Lachmon was a figure of continuity through years of turbulence and strife, and the VHP's alliance with the mainly black Suriname National Party (NPS) brought the country a period of stability between 1958 and 1967. He opposed independence, which came in 1975, but he agreed to co-operate with those who worked to achieve it, rather than run the risk of causing communal divisions. He then took his party into a succession of coalitions and alliances, and served for long periods as Speaker of parliament, trying to hold the ring between often deeply antagonistic parties. This open-mindedness did not always go down well with members of his own community, who accused him of making too many concessions to other groups.

At the time of his death Lachmon was Speaker of parliament and his party was a member of the ruling New Front coalition, led by President Ronald Venetiaan. He died suddenly in Amsterdam, where he was leading a parliamentary delegation.

Colin Harding