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Raffique Shah


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Accounting for imbalances

By Raffique Shah
April 03, 2011

"PA, ah joining the Regiment," I announced, rather casually. "Whaaaaat?" my father Haniff screamed, Anil-like. "The Regiment? You mad! What you joinin' as?" he probed. He had known something about rank because I had been a member of the Cadet Force when I attended college.

"A private, Pa!" I replied, mischief written large on my face. "Boy, don't play the ass! I send you to college...make you joinin' de army as a private?" He beckoned my mother to come listen to the nonsense their eldest son was talking. She joined in, despondent even before discussion continued.

Haniff was right, of course. My humble parents had strived to educate their five children. My sisters and brothers still attended primary school. I had had a pretty successful run at college, graduating in December 1962 with the Cambridge School Certificate, Grade I. I did not pursue Sixth Form studies because I wanted to help my father. I held a teaching job even as I sought scholarships on offer since I could not afford to pay for tertiary education.

The opportunity to enlist in the Regiment as an officer cadet came as heaven-sent. I told my parents nothing when I was invited to appear before the Commissions Board at Camp Ogden in 1963. I was the youngest hopeful, but I was also strong, confident and physically fit. The Board looked formidable. Besides written academic tests, we aspirants delivered five-minute addresses on selected topics and underwent challenges in the use of initiative.

I was somewhat surprised when I received a letter confirming that I had been selected for training at Sandhurst. I thought the other boys, besides being more mature than me, were very impressive. Because I was under 18, I would wait for more than a year before I was summoned to Teteron and told I should prepare to leave for England where I would undergo a two-year course. Upon graduation, I would hold the rank of second lieutenant.

It was only then that I informed my parents. I eventually explained to them the nature of the cadetship: I was enlisting as an officer-in-training, not as a private soldier. My father would later learn from "ah White man" at the sugar factory that Sandhurst was considered one of the finest military academies in the world. "Your son going off to Sandhurst?" the boss had asked the labourer, almost incredulously.

Afterwards, my father's stance towards my joining the army changed. He had envisaged his son moving into one of the more "acceptable" professionsómaybe law, accounting or economics (I could not pursue medicine or engineering since I did not study the sciences). Still, my parents were apprehensive.

At the time, few Indians saw the Police Force or the Regiment as an option. Even boys who had failed to graduate from secondary schools repeated exams ad infinitum rather than join any of the services.

I hark back to that immediate post-independence period in the wake of the controversy that erupted when Nizam Mohammed made his injudicious statement about racial imbalances in the Police Service. What he said was factual. But it was not the whole truth. And that is what triggered the avalanche of condemnation that followed, especially when he added that he would seek to "redress these imbalances".

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were very few Indians in the Regimentómaybe five per cent of all ranks. I was the first and only Indian officer. In the Coast Guard, there were more, maybe 15 per cent. And in the Police Force there was a similar ratio. I should note that among the few police cadets who were sent abroad to be trained as officers, one was Indian. His name was Samson Phillips. I know he was Indian (or mostly Indian) because he was a teacher at the college I attended and a warrant officer in the school's cadet unit.

This imbalance in the police and the armed forces was not accidental. It was cultural. Most Indian parents, especially those who were devout Hindus or Muslims, saw their boys, should they choose to join these services, engaging in practices that violated their religious beliefs. For Muslims, the prospect that their sons would be exposed to pork (even if they did not eat it) was...well, haram. Hindus knew that beef was almost a staple in the services. That was unacceptable to their religious beliefs.

There was also the question of physical strength and fitness. Fewer Indian boys (than Africans) pursued these with passion.

I recall one Indian from San Juan (a Surajdeen, whose cousins in my village were my good friends), a muscular young man, who joined the West India Regiment in 1959 or thereabouts. Later, when I returned to the Regiment as a lieutenant, I met fitness freaks like Sergeant Boyin Ramnarine, and strongmen like Privates Isaac Ramlal and George Pran.

But we were more the exception than the rule. Generally, young Indian boys who were bright opted to pursue academic careers or join the civil or teaching service. Some went straight into their parents' businesses, which they would help build and eventually inherit. Those who failed to get past primary education, opted to become mechanics, work in the sugar or oil industries, or engage in farming or vending.

Given these ingrained imbalances, how Nizam expects to reverse them defies logic. If the race-profile of the Defence Force or the Police Service is skewed not through discrimination, but by people's choices, how do you redress that other than by naked racism?

Part II

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