The Responsibility of Intellectuals
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
October 16, 2014
Last Saturday I attended the launch of Sat Maharaj: Hindu Civil Rights Leader of Trinidad and Tobago, a biography written by Kumar Mahabir. Although I did not read the book (it was not available at the time) I could see the enthusiasm and joy that emanated from an audience that had come to embrace Sat as their personal hero. I attended the function to congratulate Sat for having placed, via Mahabir, a partial account of his life.
Over the years Sat and I have become friends. I have grown to admire what Sat stands for and his advocacy for his group. Although Sat has been identified much too narrowly with his group, the Hindus, there ought to be more just appreciation of Sat, as a Trinidadian, who has worked arduously to have Indo-Trinidadians included in the social and national space.
I appreciate his religious concerns and convictions in more ways than one. I also admire his ability to speak out forcible about the things in which he believes and a desire to make the society more welcoming to all. It may be an unconscious desire but it certainly exists within the same person: perhaps, two virtues occupying the same space.
To argue for Sat's unique contribution to our society is not necessarily to accept everything Sat says or to condone the outrageous statements he has made (and continues to make) on national matters. There will be ample time to speak about our disagreements but Saturday was Sat's day and it is sufficient to congratulate him on the production of what promises to be the first installment of a longer discussion of his life.
As much as I enjoyed the occasion, I was disturbed by aspects of Ramesh Deosaran and Fizal Ali, Provost of UTT, contributions. It goes without saying that Desoaran and Ali, as members (and sometimes intellectual leaders) of the society, ought to be careful about what they say and should refrain from indulging in a kind of triumphalism that tends to increases ethnic separation rather than to promote ethnic cohesion.
Both speakers, in complimenting the achievements of Indo-Trinidadian students and the Maha Sabha quoted from a report by Patrick Joseph Keenan, the chief inspector of Schools of Ireland, who Governor Sir Arthur Gordon appointed in 1869 "to make a diligent and full enquiry into the state of public education... in the island." As was to be expected, the Keenan Report contained all the racial biases Europeans of that time possessed.
Keenan said negative things about Indo-Trinidadians. He also said negative things about Afro-Trinidadians as well. He noted, that for Afro-Trinidadians, "society was only a chaos. In it they could recognize neither design, nor purpose, nor symmetry." But to hear Dr. Deosaran and Ali tell it, Keenan was only picking on the Indians. After over one hundred and fifty years, Indo-Trinidadians can now celebrate their triumphs more-or-less at the expense of those African students who, God Forbid, are incapable of learning.
As racist as Keenan was, Indo-Trinidadians possessed their own biases too. He noted Indo-Trinidadians "deliberately and persistently kept their children away from the Ward Schools." He also noted that Indo-Trinidadian "is proud of his ancient lineage, is influenced by the prejudice of his caste, and declines to associate with intimately with, or to bring up his children in the same school, with Creoles of the African race." This, too, is a part of the story.
Keenan also felt that Africans were guilty of an enormous sin against civilization, not only because they were born in Africa and possessed black skins, but because blackness itself was encoded as a fact of inferiority and backwardness. In depicting Africans as "degenerate" and barbaric Keenan was picking up on similar statements that were made by L. A. A. de Verteuil, William Gamble and Edward Bean Underhill.
It took the work of J. J. Thomas, Theory and Practice of Creole Grammar, published the same year as Keenan's work, to counter Keenan's discourse. Thomas was the son of a freed slave. In the face of attempts to anglicize the society, Thomas wrote to preserve the linguistic integrity of Creole, an African-based-language that was meant to maintain the integrity of a newly-freed population and to express their emerging national identity.
In his address to his audience Sat reminded us that to educate a people is to free a people. However, to provide partial information is another way to alienate a group from the other members of society and to perpetuate a sense of victimhood. It is a way of preserving an "us" against "them" mentality and that is not good for our society.
The task of the intellectual is always to tell all part of the story and to present give us a balanced view of the society, particularly as it emerged from slavery and indentureship.
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