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Raffique Shah


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Bend your back, someone rides you

October 17, 2004
By Raffique Shah

HOW well I remember the day on which I was interviewed by the then Lt Colonel Joffre Serrette shortly before I left Trinidad to take up a cadetship at Sandhurst. I had been successful when I appeared before the Commissions Board in 1963, but the authorities later discovered I was too young to enter the premier military academy. So my turn came in September, 1964, when I had crossed the age of 18. I had specifically chosen to enlist in the Regiment, not the Coast Guard, because from my background as a member of the Cadet Force.

"You sure you don't want to join the Coast Guard, young man?" Serrette barked at me. "No, I don't, Sir," I responded. "I want to join the army." "Do you eat pork-you know we serve pork in here," he added, as if to further discourage me. "I don't eat pork, Sir. But I am sure there will be other meats that I can eat." Serrette soon realised that this was one young Indian he was not about to deter, nor walk over: I stood for what I wanted, what I had earned, and was not about to back off, however junior I was, and whatever his reputation as "The Devil" might have been. So off I went to Sandhurst, much to his dismay, and to my delight. When, later, the going got tough at the academy, I would sometimes wonder if I made the right choice.

Why was Serrette trying to steer me towards Stauble's Bay, not Teteron Barracks? Race! I was about to become the first Indo-Trinidadian officer in the Regiment. Before that, the few Indians who enlisted, either as recruits or officer cadets, invariably chose the Coast Guard. And even among them, except for Lt Ramdhanie, others had changed their names so they were not identifiable as Indians. I don't think Serrette was being racist: it just seemed strange to him that an Indian would want to join a regiment in which, but for one White, one half-Chinese and another Trini-blend (Lt Joe Mader), all the other officers and 95 per cent of the "other ranks" were Afro-Trinis.

At Sandhurst, I was the only Indian among what would eventually be nine officer cadets who were trained there between 1964-66. I need add that at no time was I uncomfortable among my colleagues. If anything, we worked together like brothers, spent much of our free time together, and bonded in such a way that I had no apprehensions about returning home to serve. And when I did, although I am sure there would have been a few officers and other ranks who viewed this Indian "cokey-eye", I never encountered a single incident that reeked of racism. Later, and many people conveniently forget this, when I led the mutiny in 1970, 95 per cent of the men who followed me (and Rex Lassalle) in rebelling against the high command were Afro-Trinis, some of them from up the islands.

I recall that period, 40 years ago, because I think it's very relevant to any discussion today on racial discrimination and on the "Principles of Fairness" outlined in the Ken Gordon document. You see, besides my upbringing in the Freeport/St Mary's districts that were mixed, and where, while there will have been occasional "nigger" and "coolie" slurs traded, we lived in harmony, in that Afro-dominated army I earned respect from my subordinates as well as my superiors. There was not a single incident in which I felt I was discriminated against because of race. And I earned it because I stood like a man, never bent my back to allow anyone to ride me. More than that, I did not discriminate against my men on the basis of race or colour of skin or texture of hair. To this day, those who served with or under me would attest to that.

Now, let me shift some. There was this uncle of mine, Ishmael Alibaksh, who taught at a Roman Catholic school. He moved up the ranks and soon qualified to be a "headmaster". But because the Church was averse to having a non-Catholic as headmaster, efforts were made to have Uncle Alibaksh change his religion and, presumably, his name. He refused to compromise, and eventually the Board backed down and he was given his just dues. I can't say the same for many other Indians, both Hindus and Muslims, who willingly changed their names and religions in order to "progress" in the country. From among my fellow students in primary and secondary schools (I attended Presbyterian, Muslim and Anglican primary schools, then an RC college), to others far and wide, many bent their backs-and were ridden.

These are the same people who, today, cry loudest about race and racism. I heard one uninformed radio host say Samson Phillips, who, with Lance Selman, was among the few police officers who received specialised training abroad, was forced to change his name in order to get into the Force. I knew Phillips when he taught at Presentation, and later as a Warrant Officer in the Cadet Force-and he was always Samson Phillips! Phillips moved up to become an Assistant Commissioner before he resigned and migrated. So he, like so many before him, will have had his name given him by his Indian parents. It was not by force that thousands of Indians abandoned their names and religions, but by choice. Why is the Presbyterian Church an almost exclusive Indian fraternity? Or who is to blame for the tens of thousands of one-time Hindus and Muslims who adopted Christianity as their faith of choice? The colonial "massa" or the African "massa"?

In my 58 years on this here earth I have seen too many Indians willingly compromise their identities, their faiths, only because they were too weak to stand up for their rights. I never did, nor for that matter my late father, who was known to "put a good cussin' on de White man" that earned him many a suspension from his lowly job as a sugar worker. He would later stand up to the "bad" Bhadase Maharaj, sending him and his gunmen fleeing from the BC factory during the Black Power revolution. And Haniff was no "badjohn". He simply believed in what he did, stayed strong, and died a proud Muslim, albeit a poor one.

For so many Indians to come today and cry "discrimination" is to admit their weaknesses of character, the ease with which they would stoop ostensibly to conquer, but in fact end up being conquered. They have no one to blame but themselves. I rest my case on how fairness can be achieved in this multi-ethnic society.

Part I