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Raffique Shah


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Discrimination, doc, not 'ethnic cleansing'

By Raffique Shah
July 26, 2009

On the few occasions I spoke with Dr Tim Gopeesingh, I found him to be an amiable, intelligent person. He is one of the few high-profile members of Basdeo Panday's parties who are bold enough to actually converse with me. I add this since I'm sure Panday has some unwritten clause in his party's regulations that deems interaction with this not-so-humble writer "high treason". But that's another story. Today I focus on Tim's injudicious statement about "ethnic cleansing" of Indo-Trinidadian doctors at the Port of Spain General Hospital.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines this relatively new term as "the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of an ethnic minority by a dominant majority in order to achieve ethnic homogeneity." Coined around 1992 during the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict, yet another definition runs like this: "The systematic elimination of an ethnic group or groups from a region or society, as by deportation, forced emigration, or genocide." And the US military sees it as "the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society."

Dr Gopeesingh, scholar that he is, may not have had the time to research the various definitions of the term before he spewed it out in the heat of a debate in Parliament. Parliamentarians are notorious for speaking before they think. One needs only to go back a few weeks earlier, in the Senate, when Gail Merhair pronounced that Independent senators should not "thwart" government's legislative agenda-absolute hogwash. One might even delve deeper into the archives and come up with Prime Minister Patrick Manning's infamous pronouncement that he was "the father of the nation".

Mostly, these outrageous or comical outbursts elicit laughter from the public. Hazel Manning must still squirm every time she hears someone say "breakfasses", and Adesh Nanan's "para-dig-im" remains a gem decades after the MP mispronounced the word. Some of the terms used, though, demand immediate retraction the moment the persons using them realise they can be offensive in the extreme, or downright dangerous. Dr Gopeesingh's use of "ethnic cleansing" falls in the latter category. He should have immediately withdrawn the words and apologised to the nation for introducing it in an inflammable multi-ethnic but largely bipolar society.

What the good doctor may have intended to expose was a measure of racial discrimination in the hiring and separation of professional staff not only at the Port of Spain hospital, but elsewhere in the public sector. There is ample evidence of that. Attorney Anand Ramlogan has carved a niche for himself in taking such matters all the way through the courts, and winning them.

His most recent victories finger as the culprits persons holding high office, from politicians in power to members of the Public Service Commission. The PSC's dismissal of the perception that it acted in a discriminatory manner in the Maharaj matter fell flat when Ramlogan pointed out that the victim had previously acted in the position for several years. It's either the PSC is grossly incompetent or it is guilty of racial discrimination.

Be that as it may, the fact that an Appeal Court comprising non-Indian judges ruled in favour of Indian appellants shows that racial discrimination will not be countenanced in this country, certainly not by members of the judiciary. Indeed, for all its weaknesses, especially in matters involving litigants who cannot afford expensive "seniors", our judicial system is largely untainted.

I should point out, too, that while there may be a measure of racial discrimination in the public sector, no one can deny that many Indians have risen to the highest levels in their respective departments. I can easily reel out the names of Indians who have held high office, in instances the highest offices. One can also point to rank discrimination against Afro-Trinis when it comes to employment, mostly when they come from districts like Laventille, Morvant and other, similar areas "marked for exclusion".

This must be condemned in the strongest terms, especially as so many people from these "branded" districts have proved to be as bright or as skilful as their counterparts anywhere.

But "ethnic cleansing"? Really, I want Dr Gopeesingh to read the few definitions I reproduced above and re-think what he said. Some of the "victims" he named as he stuck to his ethnic-cleansing guns have openly distanced themselves from his allegations. If he argues there is an absence of meritocracy, that's more plausible. People of all ethnicities suffer from discrimination, bypassed for promotion because they refuse to be servants to their bosses, or, in the case of women, sleep with them.

Such acts are rampant in this Lilliputian society where every tin god straddles his fiefdom like a Gulliver with feet of clay. Ethnic cleansing is what is currently taking place in Israel and Palestine, where an entire people are being systematically eliminated, driven from their land, their houses bulldozed, condemned to facing atrocities on a daily basis. That is ethnic cleansing-at the hands of a people who suffered a similar fate under the Nazis.

Doc, we have our problems in this blessed-but-cussed country. There are racists of every hue. But we remain lucky to live side by side, with little conflict among the many races. Do the decent thing: withdraw that term and apologise to the nation.

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