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Raffique Shah


Indian leaders sold their souls

....they were always several steps behind the Indian masses

By Raffique Shah

I have listened to, and read, with more patience than Job's (not Morgan), the distortions peddled by a number of self-proclaimed Indian academics and extremists over the involvement, or absence thereof (their view), of Indians in the Black Power movement of 1970. Thirty years after one of the biggest social movements of the 20th century rocked the then seemingly stable ship of the PNM Government, it is downright dishonest of people who weren't there, and who know little or nothing about the events of 1970, to attempt to re-write history in the most distorted form in a bid to exclude an entire ethnic group from gaining the credit it earned during that turbulent period.

If I am to sum up briefly their arguments, they insist that the Black Power movement was "an African thing", and that the few Indians who were involved were "creolised" Indians, whatever that means. They further postulate that NJAC's march to Caroni under the banner "Africans and Indians, Unite", was hollow, in that the leadership was never really interested in Indians, or if they were, it was purely for opportunistic reasons. According to them, Indians in Central Trinidad did not respond to NJAC's 30-mile march except by extending common courtesies to the "visitors" ("intruders" might have better suited their motives).

And lastly, regarding the notion that while 1970 kindled the spirit of Africa among Afro-Trinidadians and Tobagonians, Indians had long retained the spirit of India, hence they had no need to use 1970 as a benchmark for any religious or cultural resurgence.

I think that before delving into 1970, I need to lay an historical framework within which the question of Indian-African relations, especially as they impinge on politics, must be addressed. As far back as in 1919, the Trinidad Workingmen's Association, which was formed in 1898, saw the rekindling of unrest among workers. There were strikes that started on the docks in Port of Spain and soon spread to several sugar estates. The first two martyrs of that struggle for human dignity in a colonial setting were, interestingly, an Indian and an African (Beharrysingh at Woodford Lodge and Nathaniel Williams in Tobago (Kambon, For Peace Bread and Justice).

The TWA, later led by Captain Cipriani, attracted a number of Indian workers, so much so that two ethnic-based organizations, the East Indian National Association and the East Indian National Congress, stirred fears among Indians about African domination, since much of the industrial unrest was centred at the docks where African workers were in the vast majority.

In 1937, when Tubal Uriah Butler triggered the birth of the trade union movement with a strike in the oil industry, many Indians were at the forefront of that struggle. I shall not mention the number of older Indians who would come up to me during Labour Day celebrations at Fyzabad and proudly recall their involvement with the "Chief Servant". Those who know their history will be aware that following the struggle of 1937, Butler was jailed by the colonial authorities, and he would later spend the duration of World War II in detention, coming out in time for the first general election in which there was universal adult franchise in 1946.

In what was later described as a quixotic move, Butler gave up his safe haven in St Patrick (there were nine constituencies contested) to his friend and patron, Timothy Roodal, and bravado oozing from his rhetoric, he journeyed into Port of Spain to take on the giant Albert Gomes. Roodal won the seat with a stunning 13,619 votes, the highest for any candidate. Indian "starboy" Ranjit Kumar, who contested in Victoria (he ran as an independent), polled 13,328. Butler himself lost to Gomes, beaten by 5,212 to 1,984 votes.

Later, in the 1950 election, Butler's victorious candidates included Mitra Sinanan (Caroni South) and Chanka Maharaj (St Joseph). It will be recalled, too, that it was Butler who introduced Krishna Deonarine (Adrian Cola Rienzi) to the trade union movement, although it was Rienzi, not Butler, who registered the OWTU and ATSGWTU, both of which he straddled as president. Rienzi would later "cross the floor", becoming one of the colonial Governor's "boys", hence his demise as an icon of the labour movement in the ensuing years.

The point that needs to be underscored here is that Basdeo Panday did not invent "racial unity", nor was he the first political leader to embrace people of another race within his ranks. What Butler did in 1946-give up his stomping ground in St Patrick to his friend Roodal, and choosing instead to do battle against the powerful Gomes in Port of Spain-spoke volumes about the Chief Servant's view of the "race" question. A corollary question could well be: would Panday give Couva North to Wade Mark or Morgan Job or Carlos John, and journey to POS South or even the marginal Barataria/San Juan to do battle? That we shall never see!

For Butler, race did not exist in his mind, as he later went on to help build the careers of the Sinanan brothers (Mitra and Ashford) and several other Indian politicians, who, when the race bell rang in 1956, deserted the Chief for the very race-oriented PDP.

I need add that by 1956, Butler found himself deserted by many of his Indian cohorts; but among those who stood by his side as he faced the onslaught of the PNM and the newly formed PDP were Indar Persad (Caroni North), Ranjit Kumar (Caroni Central), Stephen Maharaj (who won in Ortoire/Moruga), Saran Sampath (St Patrick East) and Babooram Nathai. But if Indian politicians who rode Butler's back to popularity were "neemakharams", the Chief fared worse with the PNM and Dr Eric Williams.

The PNM won 13 of 24 seats. But because we were not yet an independent nation and the Governor had the right to nominate seven members of the legislature-five ordinary members as well as the Colonial Secretary and the Attorney General-Williams still had not won the election. He could have chosen to woo Butler, who had won two seats, and Lionel Seukeran, who had won as an independent. These three would have given him a slim majority in the 31-member chamber. Instead, he chose to bargain with the Governor and was rewarded with two nominated members, which enabled him to become Premier. The rest, of course, is history.

The Indian racists who want to perpetuate divisions between the two major ethnic groups in this country either do not know, or they choose to ignore the fact that in the sugar belt (which in the old days was synonymous with Indians), as early as in 1965, the workers waged a bitter battle against their trade union leader, Bhadase Maharaj. There were strikes and protests, ironically not against the sugar company, but against Bhadase. And the man they wanted to represent them was one George Weekes. Why did the mainly Indian workers turn to and African leader? Interestingly, Bhadase's main supporters in the industry as well as many of his hired thugs were Africans who worked in the factories. They were also among the first to break strikes called by the workers, and they opposed moves to bring Weekes into sugar because they were diehard PNMites, and for the PNM, Weekes was an enemy. And even more interesting was that in order to protect Bhadase's "turf", Williams, who was always close to Bhadase (until the latter became expendable after 1970), passed the infamous Industrial Stabilisation Act to prevent Weekes from becoming leader of the sugar workers. The Indian "dividers" should try to explain that political puzzle!

Oh! I almost forgot an earlier strike in the sugar belt when W.W. Sutton and his Amalgamated Workers Union battled with Bhadase for supremacy in sugar. My father was a sugar worker, and although the events are hazy in my memory, I know that Sutton mustered sufficient support to gain some kind of recognition. So at one time there were two trade unions representing sugar workers, one led by and African, the other by an Indian. It did not last long, though, since Bhadase was a wily, not to add burly, man. Sugar workers who had supported Sutton were most distressed when he appeared to have sold them out, and Bhadase and All Trinidad once more reigned supreme in the sugar belt.

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