October 03, 2004
By Raffique Shah
I IMAGINE our politicians will have noted the interest generated by a simple media briefing held by a committee of concerned citizens last Tuesday. The committee, which is the brainchild of Ken Gordon, has as its core group attorney Tajmool Hosein, UWI principal Bhoe Tewarie and businessman Arthur Lok Jack. It has met for more than a year, fortified its base with leaders of various religious and political persuasions, and finally produced a document titled "Principles of Fairness". That is what was presented to the media and the public last week.
There is no earth-shattering statement in the document, nor was there any controversial pronouncement from either the core group or other signatories to the document. Barring a minor clash between Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj and talk show host Ricardo Welch, it was a relatively low-keyed affair.
What surprised me were the emotions it generated among the public, and that within 24 hours of the briefing. In fact, I heard Basdeo Panday say a few nights later on a radio show that if he had said the same things he would not have generated as much public interest.
Many people thought we had launched a new political party, and most welcomed such a move. I cannot speak for the entire group, but I don't see Roman Catholic Archbishop Edward Gilbert, Anglican Bishop Calvin Bess or president of the IRO, Rev Cyril Paul, mounting any political platform.
Besides, it would be foolhardy of businessmen like Lok Jack, TTMA president Anthony Hosang, or those officials from other business groups (Jim Lee Young of the South Chamber, David Cheney of Amcham, Gregory Aboud of DOMA) to plunge into open politics. And while trade unionists see our actions in the interests of our members as being necessarily political, I don't think any of the signatories from that "estate" harbours electoral political ambitions.
If anyone is expecting this group to enter the political arena, he will be sorely disappointed. I should point out that the group is a very loose one in which, except for the principles outlined in the document, there are marked differences in political outlook.
But let me first deal with the message, not the messengers. The document is a very simple one, noting that while we are "extraordinarily fortunate" as a nation, the problem of racial discrimination does exist in both the private and public sectors. Citing the intensification of this cancerous growth (my words, not the committee's), it calls for "certain fundamental principles of fairness" to arrest this degeneration of race relations in the society.
It then outlines eight "principles of fairness", the first of which (in my mind) supersedes the others. It says: "We are committed to building Trinidad and Tobago as a united nation, with its people, though of different ethnic origins, having common hopes and aspirations". In other words, whatever our race or religious differences, we are all "Trini-to-the-bone".
That this should be underscored tells a worrisome story of how many of us see a decline in what was taken for granted for many years. Talking with journalist Errol Pilgrim (among others), he said it would take us "two generations to get there". I reminded him that two generations ago we were there, living like one big family in which differing political views or religions or races did not matter. He concurred.
Sadly, we have allowed the politicians in the main to drag us into the hellhole we are now attempting to climb out of. Not that others did not help in that road to self-destruction. But the politicians must take the brunt of the blame for this degeneration in race relations.
What is worse, and I have written and said this a thousand times before, is that the politicians who were (and continue to be) architects of division were themselves not racists. Eric Williams was no racist, but he knew well how to subtly plant the seed of fear of Indians among his supporters in order to capture the Afro vote.
That's why the PNM took on an Afro image and today it's fighting furiously to try to shed that image. Ditto for Panday. He is no racist. Having known him from his entry into the political arena, I can say that. But he, too, when he needed to secure the Indian voting base back in 1977, thought nothing of using the race weapon openly. And they are but two of many political leaders who have gained from dividing our people.
Time was when the racial divide reared its ugly head only during elections. How well I remember neighbours who would share meals, help each other take care of their children, just stop talking, almost like "braps!" Elections, man, and each took a side.
The "coldness" between the two lasted for about a week, and then harmony was restored. Once again, it was: "Morning, neighb-Ah want to leave John (or Ramdass) wid yuh for ah few hours-Ah have to go out." And "neighb" would willingly do it, because except for the partisan divide, "all ah we was one".
The difference today is there is a determination on the part of certain individuals and organisations to emphasise the divisions among our people, not the commonness we share.
Rather than work to eliminate discrimination, they seek to promote it. Yet they will tell you they are all for "national unity". What the hell is that? How can a government give out contracts, using public funds, to mainly people of one race, and expect to win the goodwill of the others? And here I cite CPEP as an example, although it's not the worst. But the PNM government is not the only culpable party in this "divide-and-rule" nonsense.
When the UNC was in power, even as its leader spouted "racial harmony" and showed off a few non-Indians in its frontline, Indians were extensively favoured when it doled out largesse. Interestingly, on both sides, it was the dispossessed who suffered while the lucky and the rich benefited.
To add to our racial woes, this fundamental violation of the principles of fairness, organisations other than political parties are sometimes worse than the politicians. Nightly, on talk shows that allow raw sewage to pollute the minds of uniformed listeners, bigots from both sides spew their venom against "dem people". You don't need to read and spell to understand the vitriol in that language. Half truths become facts, facts are turned into fiction, and superficial analyses by so-called experts add fuel to an already dangerous fire.
These are what the Gordon committee hopes to eliminate. A noble goal. But it's not one I'll count on to succeed, at least not in the immediate future.
Next week: How I bulldozed the racial barriers