By Raffique Shah
March 28, 2001 - The Independent
OF the ten-to-fifteen young men who had been summoned to appear before the Defence Force Commissions Board at Camp Ogden that day in 1963, there was one Indo-Trinidadian other than me.
I was hardly aware of the racial composition of those selected to undergo a series of tests before the Board decided who would be given opportunities to become officer cadets, and hopefully after training abroad, commissioned officers. At the time, as far as I was concerned, we were all just young men who were lured by love for the military, by the sense of adventure beckoning us. We who, having been successful at the Cambridge School Certificate or the Advanced Level examination, opting for the austere life of the military barracks rather than the beaten path of the "professions", which, in those days, meant medicine or law or accounting.
At the time, the Board comprised the Defence Force Commander, Lt Col Pearce-Gould, Coast Guard Commanding Officer Peyton-Jones (I don't recall his rank), Hugh Harris, Permanent Secretary at the then Ministry of Home Affairs, and a few others whose names I do not now recall. We had responded to advertisements in the newspapers inviting applications from young men who were interested in becoming officers in the "Regiment" (official title: the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment) and the Coast Guard. I have no idea how many applicants there were and the basis on which the Board short-listed us.
But now that the "race bogey' has raised its head in the form of an allegation by MP Ken Valley that Prime Minister Basdeo Panday tampered with the list of recruits selected for training, I scratched my head and thought long and hard about his charge. Valley swears he's telling the truth and, when I spoke with him, said he was daring the PM to refute his allegation. He suggested that the "tampered list" had to do with recruitment in the Coast Guard, not the Regiment. I haven't seen any document to support his allegation, but I would be surprised, not to add dismayed, if the PM, or anyone acting on his behalf, interfered with the list, replacing Africans with Indians.
The CDS, Brigadier John Sandy, was quoted as saying that he knew nothing about political interference in the recruitment process. TTDF spokesman, Major Kennedy Swarathsingh, who issued the official media release, outlined the procedures for selecting recruits. And nowhere in that, except by way of information, does any politician come into the process. In fact, the PM is involved only in the appointment of the CDS, and, I believe, a few other very senior positions. He also can choose the officer who is attached to him as his aide (an irregular appointment, I need add) from those sent by the CDS.
But Valley's allegations triggered a full debate on Indians (or lack thereof) in the Defence Force. Much of what has been said by those who are trapped ethnic straightjackets is misleading. Those who are anti-UNC suggested that "Indians are not physically fit enough to endure the rigourous training that recruits must undergo". And Indian racists are convinced that there was always an in-built system to keep Indians out of the military, hence the paucity of Indians in uniforms. The latter refer to the Indian Army, which has a long and distinguished tradition of producing good fighting men (and women, I should add). Ravi Ji even referred to the famous Gurkha Regiment to support his argument that Indians are not the pacifists they are made out to be.
Both sides are wrong. In order to put the issue in perspective, I shall use my own experiences, albeit limited (in terms of time spent in active service), to illustrate how and why the Defence Force has more Afro-Trinidadian and Tobagonian soldiers and sailors than Indo-Trinidadians. As I mentioned in my opening paragraph, I was one of two Indians in that "batch" of officer-hopefuls. If there was anything that stood out during that particular recruitment exercise, it was the one applicant who was in Regiment uniform (he may have been a lance corporal). Having come through the ranks of the Cadet Force, as many of us had, I was most impressed with the neatness of this soldier, his bearing, his conduct. And I thought then he must be among the few the Board would select to attend Sandhurst. That soldier was Carl Alfonso. And no, he was not selected. Alfonso would later become the youngest sergeant in the Regiment and he was eventually sent for officer training in Canada in 1970.
I was successful that first time, but when I was "called up" to prepare for departure to England, it was discovered that I was not yet 18 years old. So I had to wait for another year (I eventually entered Sandhurst in September 1964) before I realised my dream. The other Indian applicant referred to above, I met him some years later. He explained to me that he, too, had been selected, but he had chosen to pursue a degree in engineering instead, and ended up working with an oil company.
My enlistment here was not without its hiccups, and if I did encounter any hint of discrimination, it came from the man who succeeded Pearce-Gould in 1964, Col Joffre Serrette. I met him for the first time on the eve of my departure to England. He was curt (as any CO would be with an officer-cadet), but something he said remains etched in my memory. "Are you not interested in going into the Coast Guard?" he asked me. "No, Sir!" I replied. "I want to be in the army." "You are a Muslim? You know pork is served in the army?" he persisted. "I don't eat pork, Sir. But I can find something else to eat."
Serrette, in 1964, like his racial-stereotyping counterparts of today, probably believed that non-Africans belonged to the Coast Guard, not the Regiment. The CG was staffed by officers, some of whom were foreign-born Whites; then there were local Whites, acting Whites, Blacks-who-believed-they-were-Whites, and a handful of Afro-Trinis and Tobagonians. It was therefore logical that this lone Indian who was trying to break into the commissioned ranks of the army should be dissuaded. But Serrette failed, I stuck to my guns, and together with Mike Bazie, left these shores for two years of rigourous training at what I still consider to be the finest military academy in the world, Sandhurst.
By the time I took up duties here as a platoon commander, in January 1967 (I was not yet 21), I was still the only Indian officer in the Army. There was Joe Mader, but he was a "true true Trini", meaning mixed. In the Coast Guard, there were Lt Ramdhanie and Lt Leopold Rufino; the latter looked to me like a fair-skinned Indian, but he bore an Italian name, and who was I to question his race? Among the "other ranks" (from privates to warrant officers), about five per cent were Indians. But somehow, and I have maintained this ever since that time, these were among the "baddest" Indians in the whole country!
And in this context, I mean "baddest" in the Trini usage of the word. Those who served many years ago will hardly forget men like Abass Ali (Signals) who used to go AWOL with impunity, Ramlal (the only private to have gone AWOL, captured and returned to be disciplined, but instead got sick leave!), Maharaj, Ramiah, Seejattan, Anthony "Buck" Kalloo, the Singh brothers, Boyin Ramnarine, David Manmohan, George Pran. There were 20 or so more (in an army of around 400 men) whose names I do not now recall. Why do I say they were the "baddest"? Because while there were a few who found it difficult to cope with the rigors of training and exercises (and those weren't confined to Indians), most were not only proficient soldiers, but they had learned all the tricks of the military and knew how to beat the system.
I should add here that while I was the only commissioned officer who was Indian, Ramnarine, who, like the Singhs, had joined the West India Regiment (a unit of the Federation that crashed in 1961) and returned to serve in Trinidad, was outstanding. He was a "colour-sergeant" when I returned home to command #6 platoon (my platoon sergeant was Wendell "Rock" Salandy). Before the events of 1970, he had been promoted to CSM, and he later retired as the highest ranking non-commissioned officer up until that time. Ramnarine also played rugby and was fit as the proverbial fiddle.
The paucity of Indians in the Regiment did not deter the few of us who were members, nor did we feel discriminated against. As an officer, I did not have to eat pork; and private soldiers could also order their special meals, even those who abstained from meat. And while there must have been some racists on board, I cannot point a finger at any one, not even Serrette. You see, in the military there is a bond among serving officers and men that transcends race. In the event of war, one's life is in the hands of his brother soldier. So if you can trust a man with you life, race simply does not count.
It is also true that many Indians did not apply to join the military, or, for that matter, the Coast Guard. And there were (and still are) good reasons why they didn't. My father, for example, if he'd had his choice, would have pointed me in the direction of one of the traditional professions. Unfortunately for him, I determined my own destiny from age 17. Most Indians do not see the army as holding any future for them or their offspring, hence the tendency to get into anything other than the military. Too, because of their religions, they tend to shun institutions where there is no "halal" meat or, in the case of Hindus, where meats form part of the daily diet. And yes, as far as I know, there is no time-off granted to Muslims for Friday's "Juma" prayers or for Hindu holy days (other than Eid and Divali).
If members of the military are largely Christian and Africans, blame our colonial history, not the recruiting officers or even the politicians. There was a joke about the time Colonel Pearce-Gould decided it was time to let the army reflect, as far as was possible, the racial composition of the country. He'd already had some Indians, a tonne of Africans and a few Syrians or "high-coloured" soldiers (Abraham Mahmood, of pure Syrian stock, was a private soldier). So he asked the recruiting officer to ensure that some Chinese were in the next "batch" of recruits. The officer dutifully selected Chinese names from applicants who had passed the tests and called them up for training.
But when the new recruits formed up, the CO did not see any Chinese. "I thought I asked you to ensure there were Chinese in this batch?" he reprimanded the officer. The latter, who swore he had complied with the CO's request, asked the sergeant to call out the Chinese names. "Tanwing!" shouted the sergeant. A dark African put up his hand! "Fough!" he shouted again. Another African, this one a Renegades player from Belmont. "Ming!" he belted out in frustration, and up shot the hand of a "Dougla" with five per cent Chinese! Up until I was at Teteron, Carl Lai Leung and John Aching were the closest we came to Chinese, and they were about 30 per cent Oriental!
Which, really, shows how efforts to broaden the racial composition of the Regiment or the Coast Guard could end up being comical in the "callaloo" society like hours. The names you hear do not necessarily match the races or faces of the individuals. And, as I pointed out before, cultural and religious considerations keep many non-Africans away from the military. Some may argue that the Regiment should tailor its meals to meet the multi-religious nature of the society. That is almost an impossibility, especially when there is training in the field. And an army, as it's commonly held, marches on its stomach-meaning the soldiers must eat well.
All of what I have written thus far must not be remotely taken to mean that Indians are not suitable candidates for the Regiment or the Coast Guard. Andy Dalip, for example, was a young private soldier when the 1970 mutiny erupted. A small built man, he maintained his fitness throughout his career that took him to the rank of Colonel, at which point he retired. And I can vouch for the physical fitness of many Indian and Pakistani officers, since I had the honour of training with them. The Gurkhas, who come from Nepal, the only Hindu country in the world (India is a secular state), stand out there with the Royal Marines and the Green Jackets and the Red Berets. An elite fighting unit, that lot.
But any attempt to "Indianise" the Regiment or Coast Guard in this country is doomed to failure. Worse, if Indian racists want the Army to tailor its cultural and religious practices to suit them, then heaven help us all. Because an army is an army is an army anywhere in the world. I am sure that soldiers in Muslim countries do not pray five times a day, just as I am certain that in the Indian Army, "ration" will not always meet the religious requirements of the saintly Gurus. It's a different life, one that those who have never been through recruit training, one who has never worn a uniform or lived in barracks (not cane-field barracks!) will not understand.
Which is why the politicians should leave the military to do its job. Their intervention will serve only to further demoralise a unit that has been under stress for decades (barracks in a state, food of the worst quality, and pay-scales still lagging behind their counterparts in the police). I really hope that Ken Valley was way off mark when he made the allegation against PM Panday. Because if there is an iota of truth in his charges of political interference in the recruitment process, then, as Trinis would say, "we reach". Or worse, we shall destroy one of the few institutions in the country in which the brotherhood of man transcends the narrow considerations of race, religion and other divisive elements.