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Bearing Our Crosses

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 07, 2006

Constitutionally, the idea of the supremacy of God, is not the supremacy of any one person's or group's God over and above another's, but the equal supremacy of all person's understanding of God.

--Justice P. Jamadar
Discrimination can be practiced, and usually is, by stealth.

--Justice J. A. Hamel Smith
Now that the Hon. Patrick Manning has named a committee to reconsider the name of our highest national award, I hope it calms the emotional excesses of persons such as Kamla Persad Bissessar, Leader of the Opposition and Mr. Sat Maharaj, Secretary General of the Maha Sabha and allow the public to hear the fears of persons such as Mr. Michael Anthony, a lonely voice in the wilderness, who warns that if we change the name of the award for the wrong reasons, even the renaming of the island cannot be far behind. Even an Express editorial proclaims "that the Trinity Cross's nomenclature and design discriminated or could be perceived to discriminate again non-Christians, given that the linking of the 'Trinity' and the "Cross' clearly suggests that the thinking behind its creation was driven by creators who had a narrow view of the kind of society that Trinidad and Tobago is." I am not sure that such retrospective reading throws much light on the problem.

I want to argue that whatever nomenclature we choose for the highest honor of our land it must be fashioned by a balanced rendering of our history rather than a narrow, uninformed reading of our past. I disagree with Justice Jamadar's selective and biased reading of the Hindu and Islamic experiences in Trinidad and Tobago and the conclusions he arrived at in the matter between the Maha Sabha, et. al. and the Attorney General. In his reading of Trinidad and Tobago's past he relies on secondary sources, quoting for the most part from the works of Brinsley Samaroo rather than going to original sources such as the works of Joseph Keenan, John Morton and others from whom Samaroo derives his information.

In his selective reading of our mutual history, Justice Jamadar depicts the Indians as victims (there is no notion of Indian resistance or their possession of any agency), solely at the mercy of forces outside their control and playing no part in their voluntary separation from the other races and religions in our society. In fact, he begins his analysis with a subtle shading of the truth. Quoting Samaroo, he argues: "To many, the East Indian was an unwelcomed intruder and 'a competitor for the crumbs which fell off the planters' table.' He was resented by the Africans, exploited by the plantation owners and neglected by the Government." While it is true that the plantation owners exploited the Indians and the Government neglected them, the same was not true for the Africans; at least, not when they arrived in this island. One year after they arrived on the island, Governor Harris was buoyant in his praises of how the Africans welcomed the Indians. He observed: "It is a pleasing trait in the character of the negroes, and worthy of notice, that notwithstanding they are aware that they cannot do so much as they like as formerly, and that the Coolies are the cause of this, yet they have almost invariably manifested a kind of conciliatory spirit towards them" (Quoted in Dennison Moore, Origins and development of Racial Ideology in Trinidad).

Justice Jamadar is also quotes Samaroo approvingly when he says that many Indians "felt a social and religious reluctance to have their children educated with those of a different faith and a different race." He is unwilling examine the implications of such a posture and what it means for the evolution of the Hindu presence in Trinidad and Tobago. To him, there is nothing inherent in Hinduism (that is, in its value, theology, culture, etc.,) that prevented the Hindus from mingling with the larger society. Indians, he suggests, stayed away from the others because the Christians and the non-Christian Africans treated them badly. Thus, we are faced with the extraordinary conclusion: "The non-Christian, East Indian immigrant labourer experienced alienation and marginalization in Trinidad, based not only on class (labourers on the plantations) but also because of culture and religion. Placed in an entirely new context, predominantly Euro-centric (which meant christo-centric) with traces of an Afro-centric nature, the indentured Indians strived to preserve and practice their religious beliefs and observances, use their home languages, dress, and food and maintain their culture and traditions."

I am not too sure how Justice Jamadar uses the term alienation, a favorite description of the East Indian condition by Basdeo Panday and other Indians, but it seems to me that it is incorrect to speak of East Indian alienation at that early moment of their. history. Justice Jamadar uses these terms to describe the East Indian condition of 1865-quickly before the intervention of John Morton-but isn't it true to say that any first-generation immigrant, precisely because they speak different languages, possess a different culture and religion would be unable to assimilate into the host society precisely because of language and cultural barriers rather than any overt act of exclusion by the home culture and other immigrants. One only has to read William Gamble's Trinidad: Historical and Descriptive (1866) to understand the linguistic cultural mélange that characterized Trinidad in 1865 and the inchoate nature of the society. He tells us of the many dialects that Africans spoke and their "aptness' at learning different languages. He says that the Indian languages are so different that "English has to become the medium of communication." Apart from the languages of the Portuguese and Chinese, Gamble notes that "Danes and Germans, Spaniards and Italians, Scot and Irish, French and English, are to be found in Trinidad, with their diversified manners, different languages, and opposing creeds." In other words, all first generation immigrants cling to their culture and religion, maintaining a kind of transnationalism that is not necessarily isomorphic with the flows of people and ideas with the territories of their governance. In this context, one may want to consult J. Lorand Matory's Black Atlantic Religion to get an understanding of how this process works.

Just as importantly, it takes the second and perhaps a third generation who have attained the rudiments of the dominant culture to assimilate better into the host society but one into which they are born and hence their own. Rather than offer tired clichés about "alienation" and 'marginalization," Justice Jamadar should have been more concerned with how the coming of the Indians to Trinidad provoked a creative interplay of racial and ethnic identities particularly in the 1860s and how the group's consciousness changed overtime. The term "ancient memory" seems so much a part of a racial memory that is not likely ever to be changed over time, something I suppose that is analogous to an unchanging Aryan consciousness.

Second, it is fallacious to talk about East Indian being placed in "predominantly Euro-centric culture with traces of an Afro-centric nature" in 1865. What could this mean? It is true that the Europeans were practicing their culture and religion as were the Africans, but so too were the Indians (see for example their practices of hosay, the ramleelas, yags, etc). As far I know, the authorities did very little to prevent the Hindus from practicing their religion or their culture which is one reason why they have retained so many elements of their language and their culture until today. The colonial authorities (Europeans) certainly called the religions practices of the Hindus "barbaric" and "heathenistic" but they said the same thing about African culture, a position that I have delineated in my book Beyond Boundaries (2003) which Justice Jamadar never found the time to cite in his 80- page judgment. He might have found it instructive.

It is Justice Jamadar's contention that the coming of John Morton and the Canadian Mission in 1864, about twenty years after the Indians arrived, complicates the matters even further. No reasonable sociologist would have expected persons of the Hindu religion, speaking a different language and possessing a different culture to be integrated into a Western, French-speaking country even in a partial manner so quickly but he says they complicated the matter. In fact, J. J. Thomas wrote The Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar in 1869 to get the ruling authorities to understand the language of the poor, particularly the Africans, at a time when the dominant language was changing from French to English. It was in recognition of the disadvantages in which Creole speakers found themselves that induced him to develop a theory and practice of Creole Grammar. They, too, were not integrated into the society even though they arrived several generations before the Indians.

Such questions do not trouble Samaroo or Jamadar. Jamadar expounds a different reading of the situation. He says: "With the introduction of the Canadian Presbyterian Mission in Trinidad, which targeted predominantly East Indian immigration population, the alienation and marginalization on the non-Christian East Indian immigrants suffered a further complication." Quoting Samaroo who is quoting Morton, Justice Jamadar notes: "Even if the East Indians were fellow Aryans, they had in the opinion of the missionaries, strayed from the path of civilization." But isn't this the point: Morton saw the Indians as Aryans who were superior intellectually to the Africans and who, therefore, deserved better treatment than the latter. In fact, the same Europeans who Justice Jamadar condemns gave away the lands occupied by the American Afro-Americans who had come to the island in 1812 to the Presbyterian Church to start a church in Iere Village on the condition that "a weekly service in English be given to the black and colored people who had been gathered in." (See Grant, My Missionary Memories). In other words, land occupied by the Africans was taken away from them to make room for the Indians. That is how Morton's religious experiment began. So that one can argue that contrary to 'marginalization' and 'alienation' the Indians were given special treatment and used as scapegoats to discriminate against Africans.

Justice Jamadar does not draw that conclusion. He argues that "this preferential/discriminatory attitude by the governing class in Trinidad [he meant the Presbyterians] based on religion, was contrary to the attitude of the founder of Christianity, Jesus, whose life was a critique of religious exclusivity and discrimination." Then he advances his coup de grace: "This preferential/discriminatory attitude is important to note because it forms part of the collective 'ancient memory' and psychological context of Hindus and Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago even today." This notion of "ancient memory' becomes the basis of Justice Jamadar's ruling that the Trinity Cross discriminates against Hindus and Muslims.

But how can this be so? Jesus Christ is the founder of Christianity. His entire message is one of exclusivity: Believe in me or you shall perish. Thou shall have no other gods but me. Such beliefs are certainly discriminatory. But so are the beliefs of the Hindus and the Muslims which Justice Jamadar takes particular pains to explain when the respondents dared to suggest that the Hindu concept of "Trimurti," representing the triad of Brahma, had anything to do with the Christian notion of the Trinity. He finds such a concept "quite disrespectful" to Hindus. And he is correct. However, using this line of argument, it stands to reason that Hinduism and Islam, in the promulgation of their truths are as discriminatory as Christianity. In fact, each religion has to be discriminatory to preserve its essence and thereby to survive. So that when Justice Jamadar argues that "this preferential/discriminatory attitude [of the Christians against the Hindus and Muslims] forms part of the collective 'ancient memory' and psychological context of Hindus and Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago even today" it is also true to state that the promulgation of their faith and their discrimination against other faiths also circumscribed their condition of being in Trinidad and Tobago. Hindu exclusivity, too, contributes to their psychological conditioning in their new land. Non-assimilation, in this case, was certainly not a one-way street.

Justice Jamadar uses this entirely false (or certainly biased) claim ("the preferential/discriminatory attitude of Christians") to ground his argument about the differential treatment of Hindus and then goes on to argue that with the changing demographics after Independence where the Indians were 37, 40, and 40.3 of the population in 1960, 1970 and 2002 respectively to demonstrate that "at the very least the Trinity Cross is or can rationally and reasonably be perceived by Hindus and Muslims living in Trinidad and Tobago as an exclusively Christian symbol; and therefore, that the choice by the State to use it as the symbol of its highest National Award is preferential to Christian beliefs and observances and thus discriminatory, in the multi-religious and multi-cultural context of Trinidad and Tobago, given its above stated history, culture, sociology and demography." Of course, the corollary of this argument is that if the Trinity Cross was established and awarded in 1871 when the Indians were 25 per cent of the population it would not have been discriminatory given the history, demographics and culture of the society as it were then. Accordingly, if the demographics of the island changes in the next twenty years or so to a point where the East Indian population reaches about 60 per cent of the population then even the name of the island, Trinidad and Tobago, can be presumed to be discriminatory since if might very well be claimed that the name itself discriminates against the largest majority of its citizens which is precisely the point that Michael Anthony tries to make.

In his ruling, Justice Jamadar acknowledges that originally, the name, "Trinity Cross," was chosen because it was based on "the Trinity Hills…for distinguished and outstanding service…to nationals in the public and private sector, and the non-citizens who have rendered outstanding and distinguished services to the country." There is nothing here about religion. Although Justice Jamadar goes on to argue that "the motifs in Trinity Cross mirror to a certain extent the basic arrangement of the motifs in the Coat of Arms" which inculcates certain Christian motifs, it still remains true that the award itself was named after the Trinity Hills. On June 1, 2006, in a letter to the editor of Newsday, Wilhelmina McDonald Benjamin, who was instrumental in designing the cross, offers her explanation for the design of the Cross: "Christianity or religion never entered my mind. If it did I would never have made a cross like that. Therefore discrimination was in no way a consideration. I thought anyone would feel proud to wear a medal like that….When it came to the cross…'I checked the definition and discovered there were very many meanings. One meaning stood out, that of 'an ornament in some form of a cross worn for as a distinction by knights of various orders and by persons honored for exceptional merit or bravery.' This was the definition in my mind when I did the design." So that in the original intent-and this notion of intent will become important in his ruling--in the naming of the award had absolutely nothing to do with religion. It had to do with Trinity Hills.

However, to arrive at the contention that the Trinity Hills possesses a Christian motif, Justice Jamadar makes an interesting leap which he presumes to be logical and self-evident. He notes:
Thus, one can conclude that from a religious perspective, the motifs of the cross pattee [in the Coat of Arms] and of the Three Peaks used in the Trinity Cross have both longstanding general and specific Christian associations and usage-the cross patte being one of the original forms of cross used as the central symbol of Christianity and the Three peaks being one of the local symbols used in the context of Trinidad's unique history to designate the Blessed Trinity (God) in Christianity. Significantly, the arrangement and positioning of these two central motifs (literally and symbolically) are such that their Christian associations pragmatically impart interpretation and meaning to the intention to base the Trinity Cross on the Trinity Hills. That is, in Trinidad and Tobago the Trinity Hills are understood and interpreted in the context of Columbus' signification of them." (p. 25)
This is an important leap. The authors of the original document (original intent) say that the award is based on the Trinity Hills as did the person who designed it. Justice Jamadar concludes that the Trinity Hills "are understood" to mean a religious symbol. That surely is his re-interpretation of the meaning of the name. I do not accept such reasoning. I am prepared to accept the original meaning for what it is: an ornament in some form of a cross worn as a distinction by knights of various orders and by persons honoured for exceptional bravery. It can also be taken as a symbol of our inaguratory moment of coming into being; a symbolic willingness to link the past with the present to offer the sense of continuity; an attempt to capture the past Trinidad and speak to the present moment.

Justice Jamadar preferred to read the matter quite differently. He is particularly perturbed when the respondents attempted to link the Christian concepts of "trinity" and "cross" with that of the Hindus concept of "Trimurti." Here, he really lost his cool. He deigns it "disrespectful" and 'inaccurate." He argues: "To suggest that the Holy Trinity in mainstream Christianity represents the triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, or that Columbus have been open to that association in 1492, when he named Trinidad (and the Trinity Hills after the Holy Trinity in Christianity, demonstrates without more [sic] why the converse is equally absurd. No Hindu in Trinidad and Tobago, hearing the word 'Trinity' in association with 'Cross,' as in Trinity Cross,' would naturally or spontaneously associate its usage with the Hindu concept and understanding of 'Trimuti.' Indeed, no Hindu scholar would likely do the same." The significant point here is the vigor with which Justice Jamadar defends the "exclusivity" of Hinduism while he is willing to argue that it was Christian exclusivity that alienated and marginalized Hindus in Trinidad. Might it not be that given this fierce defense of their religion, as displayed by Justice Jamadar, that Hindus preferred to disassociate themselves from Christians and Orisas, particularly if they were black, in the same way that the white Christians preferred to disassociate themselves from Hindus and Africans. But I am sure that Justice Jamadar does not see the contradiction in his position, prepared as he is to place on the doorsteps of the Christian and African all that was wrong with Indians in Trinidad. It is almost as if there was no Indian agency in the making of the Indian diaspora.

Given this line of reasoning, Justice Jamadar is prepared to argue that it is both "reasonable and rational for Muslims not to want to associate with the Trinity Cross. He cites the very passionate and persuasive arguments of Dr. Wahid Ali as formulated in his book, Building Bridges, to speak of the resentment that Islamic adherent feel for the Trinity Cross. In this context, he is prepared to accept the arguments of both the Maha Sabha and the IRCL, formed only in 2002 particularly to make this case against the Trinity Cross. He is convinced that what is at stake "is not only the selection for the honor, but also the entitlement to participate in the process, which includes nominating citizens (natural and 'corporate' persons) and being nominated. Drawing on case law from India and Netherlands, he argues that 'although there was no intention to discriminate, the effect of the impugned legislation was to create a discrimination based [in this case] on gender."

Against this background, Justice Jamadar argues that the effect rather than the original intent of the name chosen is the more important consideration in the matter. He also offers a definition of discrimination which he says may "described as a distinction, whether intentional or not, but based on grounds relating to personal characteristics, which has the effect of unfairly imposing burdens, obligations, or disadvantages not imposed on others in a comparable position, or which unfairly withholds or limits access to opportunities, benefits or advantages available to others in a comparable position in the society." In terms of discrimination based on personal characteristics, he goes even further. He says: "In my opinion, one must not look only at the challenged law and the alleged effect, but very importantly also at the larger historical, cultural, sociological, political and legal context. An examination of this larger context assists a court in determining whether differential treatments results in inequality, discrimination or unfairness. Indeed, a finding of discrimination will be unlikely unless there is also significant and unjustifiable disadvantage and unfairness." But what happens if Justice Jamadar's reading of the varied contexts that he examines (with the exception of law) is both biased and/or unnecessarily selective?

In his summary or synthesis of his judgment, Justice Jamadar states his conclusions: "Ostensibly the justification for the name and design of the Trinity Cross as such is that it is: 'Based on the Trinity Hills.' This is the only official explanation given for the choices of design, motifs and words used in the award. As we have seen the 'Trinity Hills' have a special signification and symbolism in the history of Trinidad and Tobago. The 'Trinity Hills' do not simply describe a geological formation, but predominantly identify and are associated with Columbus's first sighting of Trinidad in 1498; when upon seeing 'a range of three mountains…recited the Salve Regina and gave thanks to the Lord' and remembering his vow to name the first land he saw after the 'Blessed Trinity' of the Roman Catholic faith cried out 'La Trinidad.'" It is Justice Jamadar's contention that this rendering has retain the same significance for all of Trinidad and Tobago's citizens throughout their five hundred year existence regardless of when they came into island, whether they were Anglicans of Catholics; Shouter Baptists or Orisas. It matters not that the circumstances of Columbus' coming to the new World was derived in quite another context-at a time when the Papal Donation of 1492 divided the world into two: one half for the Portuguese and the other half for the Spaniards; at a time the majority of the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago were not even of this land. Indeed, it is a curious case of freezing a meaning for all times and all places to suit any circumstances one so desire it must serve. Like Alice in Wonderland, Justice Jamadar simply commands that words sever whatever purpose he wants them to serve.

Nonetheless, Justice Jamadar's ruling is profound and binding on any decision that any committee makes particularly if the nomenclature of any of the awards includes the words "La Trinidad," the "Blessed Trinity" or "Trinidad and Tobago" in any subsequent name of any award since he decreed that the Blessed Trinity is analogous to La Trinidad that inculcates sentiments that are contained in the name Trinidad and Tobago. Therefore, if we now name our highest award, "The Order of Trinidad and Tobago" we will be forced into the same discriminatory trap that Justice Jamadar devoted 80 pages to discard. It would also defy the laws of Trinidad and Tobago.

As for me, I accept the original intend of the naming of the awards and recognized that meanings are not necessarily meant too be frozen for all time. As Lenin noted, I accept that contradictions are an inherent part of life. It is all too possible that Trinity Hills can be suffused with religious (Christian) connotation without necessarily being discriminatory, in effect, to another group. Moreover, I am inclined to accept Ms. Benjamin's explanation of what she tried to do and therefore can see the name "Trinity Hills" as being symbolic of an important milestone in our history which need not be religious and/or discriminatory. I accept the fact that the name of the award may be offensive to sentiments of our multi-cultural and multi-religious society and for that reason alone needs to be changed. However, it ought to be changed for the correct reasons not by creating a dubious history and false arguments and then collapsing one's argument into that false crucible.

I am sure that sensible persons would want to give consideration to changing the name of the award which is exactly what Mr. Manning has asked his committee to do. But his committee must refrain from insulting the intelligence of the community. For if, as Kamla, the National Awards Committee of 1997, and others have so gallantly suggested that the name of the award be changed to the "Order of Trinidad and Tobago" then one is faced with same objections that Justice Jamadar and the Applicants made in their case against the Trinity Cross. If Kamla, the Maha Sabha, the Islamic Relief Center and others are consistent they must oppose any name that includes the name Trinidad in it. At any rate, in light of Justice Jamadar's ruling any award that is named after the Blessed Trinity is discriminatory and now violates the "equality clause" in Trinidad and Tobago's constitution.

In his address to the Legislative Council, Mr. Manning acknowledge Samuel Huntington's position that "that a clash of civilization is at the heart of the new wave of international [tensions]." Although he did not mention it it stands to reason that he recognizes Professor Amartya Sen's counter argument that he enunciates in Identity and Violence (2006) where he offered an entirely different version of things. Against that background he has asked the committee he appointed "to review all aspects of the nation's highest award and also examine such other national symbols and observances which may be considered discretionary" and make recommendations to report its findings on the Trinity Cross by the middle of July this year; and on the larger issue by the end of September. That is hardly enough time to undertake such an important undertaking. Moreover, one should not leave such a decision to six persons no matter how smart they are. Given the importance of this issue to our national unity and to prevent us from being placed in a similar situation, I wish to make the following recommendations: a) suspend all national awards (or at least the granting of the highest award for the year 2006; b) give the present committee more time to come up with its findings and allow more time for public input; c) allow all recommendations to be open to pubic scrutiny and debate before it is submitted for legislative action; and d) demand that any recommendation reflect a confluence of our varied and various readings of our mutual histories. This is one matter in which no one can speak for or on behalf of another group especially where their vital national, ethnic and/or religious interests are involved.

Much work lies ahead. It presumes knowledge of our evolution of our society and a shared reading of same. In the words of the Prime Minister, such an undertaking if it is done properly and deliberately can "lead us to a better understanding of life and improve our capacity to benefit from the dynamic diversity of Trinidad and Tobago."

And yes, May God Bless Our Nation.

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