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The Power of Truth

January 14, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

ON March 2, 1930, Mahatma Gandhi sent a letter to the Viceroy of India informing him why he intended to disregard the provisions of the Salt Laws. He observed that the British system was designed to crush Indian life and the salt the Indians "must use to live is so taxed as to make the burden fall heaviest on him, if only because of the heartless impartiality of its incidence".

Gandhi begged the Viceroy to consider this injustice. Otherwise, he would initiate civil disobedience. He noted: "My ambition is no less than to convert the British people through non-violence, and thus make them see the wrong they have done to India. I do not seek to harm your people. I want to serve them even as I want to serve my own."

In his disdain, the Viceroy sent Gandhi a four-line response: "His Excellency regrets to learn that you contemplate a course of action which is clearly bound to involve a violation of the law and danger to the public peace." Recognising the callousness of the ruler, Gandhi responded: "On bended knee I asked for bread and I received stone instead."

Last Wednesday, I could not help but think of this incident when I received the following communication from the Commissioner of Police: "Please be advised that I am unable to accede to your request to hold a meeting and public march on the date and time requested as I am of the view that these events may occasion a breach of the peace or Public Disorder." This reply came in response to a letter the Concerned Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago (CCofT&T) sent the Commissioner requesting permission to hold a public meeting at Woodford Square.

Although I respect the position of the Commissioner, I could not understand how the peaceful assembly of citizens, a right enshrined in our Constitution, could constitute a breach of the public peace. While the CCofT&T recognises that the Commissioner has the statutory power to refuse permission to march or to meet, he has to do so within the ambits of the law since he too, is not above the law. Drawing on Sections 109 (3) and (1) of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago we noted that the law does not give him absolute power to refuse. He can only refuse if there are reasonable grounds for apprehending that our meeting and our march would occasion a breach of the peace. Therefore, we invited the Commissioner to state "the reasonable grounds" for his belief.

In asking the Commission to share his thinking with us, we did not wish to disrespect the office of the Commissioner or the person who holds that office. At a time when the society is thinking and talking about the limits and the possibilities of the law, it was important to expand the dialogue between citizens and those who have the power to enforce the law.

Moreover, the obligation of the Commissioner to show "reasonable grounds" why a fundamental right of the Constitution should be abrogated is an important matter. Necessarily, the rights enshrined in the Constitution should be upheld most stringently when they are under the most stress. It makes no sense that we exercise the right of assembly and peacefully petition our Government when nothing is at stake. It matters that the rights of citizens are honoured when things are most agitated and citizens feel the need to make their grievances known to their rulers.

This need to allow citizens to express themselves particularly when they feel strongly about issues ought not to be taken lightly. Three days after the result of the election was announced, the Young Concerned Citizens of Trinidad and Tobago applied for permission to march to Port of Spain. Their request was rejected. A few days later, the CCofT&T, made an application to march from Tunapuna to Port of Spain. That, too, was turned down. When, therefore, our application for permission was turned down a third time, it occurred to us that we were looking at a pattern of systematic denial of our fundamental rights rather that an occasional use of discretion. Conscientious citizens could not be indifferent to this violation.

Citizens are becoming more aware of their rights and the attempt of rulers and those in authority to act in arbitrary ways. After the President's lengthy address on the origins of constitutional government, citizens are exploring the limits and its possibilities of our Constitution. On Thursday evening, there were five public discussions about our Constitution. A forum of Concerned Citizens met at City Hall, Tapia House Group met in Tunapuna, the unions had a discussion in Port of Spain and CCofT&T held open meetings at Point Fortin and Fyzabad.

Interesting enough, as I ran into the Caura hills on Friday morning, several workers were discussing the issues. They believed that William Chaitan and Winston Peters should be allowed to serve. They reasoned: "They are Trinidadians too." For them, voter padding started long before the UNC when PNM brought in "small islanders" to vote. Although these workers were cleaning the road, they gathered around a car to carry on their discussion.

Rulers cannot rule by power alone. They are our servants. Therefore, they cannot act without convincing the ruled (the source of all power) why they act how they do. There must be a rational and moral basis for what they do. Otherwise, the consent of the governed is violated and the will of the governors is imposed upon the people. There can be no substitute for the former as there is no excuse of the latter. Therefore, our obligation is to dialogue, dialogue, dialogue; organise, organise, organise.

When Rubindranath Tagore heard about the successful march against the Salt Laws, he observed: "India is now free. Those who live in England [our rulers] have now got to realise that Europe has completely lost her former moral prestige in Asia."

Rulers cannot rule without the moral consent of those whom they govern. Let us use this opportunity to carry forward the democratic process.

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