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Raffique Shah


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Is nationhood an illusion?

By Raffique Shah
July 24, 2011

As the nation prepares for a year of activities to mark our 50th anniversary of independence from Britain in August 2012, people of my generation must be wrestling with a mixture of emotions. There is a sense of pride, of having been there when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and the red-white-and-black colours of the new state hoisted atop flagpoles across the country. One had to be there to experience the birth of a nation to understand the pride, the joy, the celebrations. We were part of history, however insignificant we may have been in the hierarchical scheme of things.

Over the next year, I intend to use at least one column a month to try to put our independence in some perspective. I do this mainly because I sense our people, more so those below age 50, have little knowledge of, or regard for, our history. I begin today by placing our independence in a global context.

Recently, as I monitored a similar transition in South Sudan, looking at people camping in the capital city for days, and erupting into celebration at the magical moment, I could not help but remember our own experience. Here was a huge country torn by decades of strife, civil war, famine, and unimaginable human suffering, now split into two unequal parts. In spite of that bloody past, the Sudanese people appeared to be very upbeat about their future. In the euphoria of independence celebrations, people may well be blinded to the uncertainties of the future, or, indeed, forgetful of the tribulations of the past.

We in Trinidad and Tobago did not have to fight for independence. We did not even have to march or protest or quarrel for it. Colonies like India, Ghana and Nigeria, to name just a few, waged long, bitter struggles before the British Government agreed to let them be. India's best-known fighter for that country's freedom, Mohandas Gandhi, was the quintessential apostle of peace. Others around the Mahatma were not as accommodating.

Britain spilt a lot of Indian blood before it reluctantly agreed to let go of the Crown Jewel of the Empire in 1947. And it did so having exploited the demographic divide along the country's religious fault-lines. Thus we had the vast Hindu population in what is now India (ignoring disputed Kashmir and pockets of other ethnicities), with two huge chunks to its east and west that became Pakistan. Those divisions, not to add divisiveness, came with intractable problems. That is the main reason why, to this day, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are beset by strife that stops barely short of all-out war.

For dreaming of one great, united-but free-India, Gandhi paid the ultimate price—his life. Nathuram Godse, his assassin, a rabid Hindu nationalist, was unapologetic for his dastardly deed, and remained defiant even as he was executed for the crime.

Indpendence for any country can be a traumatic experience. After Britain reluctantly let go of India, it fought rearguard actions to contain other prized colonies like the Gold Coast, as Ghana was called, and Kenya, which was strategically located on the East Africa coast at a time when Britain's maritime prowess was critical to its economic well-being. Ghana was coveted for its gold and cocoa (among other resources), while Kenya served as an important colonial post. Trinidadians George Padmore and CLR James played pivotal roles in guiding Ghana's first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, as he fought for, and won, independence in 1957.

Britain did not let go of Kenya easily. Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau Mau army fought a long, bitter and bloody struggle for independence. A peace accord, and with it independence, would come as late as in 1963, one year after ours.

Some political analysts argue that Trinidad and Tobago might have valued independence more if we had had to fight for it. I do not agree with that. Kenyatta, who led a war for independence in Kenya, fell into the neo-colonial mode with consummate ease after he came to power. In fact, this man whom British forces had hunted down during Kenya's independence struggle, became one of Britain's stoutest allies post-independence! In our case, those among my generation—and the one ahead of us—who thought that independence signalled forging our own, unique destiny, would soon grow disappointed in what we saw as stagnation, even retrogression. Within a decade of that glorious day in 1962, large numbers of nationals, especially the young, felt deceived by their leaders. It appeared to us that we had exchanged a white "massa" for a phalanx of black "massas".

Could it be that we expected too much, too soon, from independence? We clamoured for equal opportunities, for meritocracy, at a time when one's complexion more than one's qualifications determined one's station in life. Too many bright and otherwise capable sons and daughters of our independence suffered on the sidelines even as persons of lesser ability landed plum positions.

By 1970, as Earl Lovelace's main character in his excellent novel, "Is Just a Movie", says, we collectively shouted: we 'ent %&*#g taking that! So less than ten years after independence, ten per cent of the population marching in protest, another ten per cent striking, maybe 20 per cent blasted vex but remain stewing in silence—how did we reach boiling point in such a short time?

Was independence a hoax? Is nationhood still an illusion? I shall try to answer these questions as I continue the independence series.

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