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Indian Leaders Sold Their Souls - Pt II

Indian leaders sold their souls - Pt I

By Raffique Shah
2000


Before I address the events of 1970 and the involvement of Indians in that movement, I want to linger a little longer on the politics of sugar, which was intricately linked with national politics. Sugar has, of course, long ceased to be "king", and now even sugar workers and cane farmers are expendable for power-seekers. I fast-forward to 1973/4, when my own union, the ICFTU, moved to challenge the legal clamp that Norman Girwar and TICFA had imposed on cane farmers. Panday was nowhere on the sugar scene when Winston Leonard and I threw down the gauntlet in February 1973. In fact, after Bhadase's death in 1971, a major vacuum existed in All Trinidad, since Rampartap Singh, the man left at the helm of the union, had neither charisma nor leadership qualities. So even as we focused on the cane farmers, sugar workers began approaching us to represent them. In fact, in the crop of 1973, workers at the Orange Grove factory went on strike in a bid to get rid of two managers, Tello and Hunt. The striking workers approached Leonard and myself, and we willingly went to their assistance.

It was in that setting that Williams became very worried that two militants (or "creolised" Indians, as the "dividers" described us) might soon take over the entire sugar industry. People magazine, which, in 1975, was produced and edited by Owen Baptiste, interviewed Panday. The magazine reported as follows: ""The story is that faced with the flesh and blood presence of the militant and charismatic Raffique Shah in the sugar belt, the 'old guard' (of All Trinidad) had decided to counter Shah's manoeuvrings among the union's rank and file by bringing in a personality of some standing who would be na´ve and gutless enough to serve as a sort of 'figure head' president." Later in the interview, Panday said of Rampartap: "As far as he was concerned, I would be doing exactly what he had appointed me to do-talk to the workers, keeping Shah at bay..."

In 1974, Leonard and I launched the first "no cut" campaign among cane farmers. We also occupied TICFA House, seizing the building from Girwar's management committee. Panday followed suit, and a few weeks later the sugar workers occupied All Trinidad's head office. That struggle was triggered when Rampartap had moved to expel Panday from the union, by which time he had built up tremendous support among the sugar workers. Leonard and I took the initiative to meet with Panday in a bid to join strike forces. Panday was most receptive, and soon we had established a joint committee that included prominent people from outside the sugar belt (Presbyterian minister Idris Hamid, attorney Allan Alexander, UWI lecturer George Sammy and OWTU's George Weekes). The strike continued for several weeks even as world market price for sugar climbed to unprecedented levels. The Government decided it had to break the strike.

The weakest link in the chain was Panday, who, besides mounting a "one week on, one week off" strike, was more acceptable to the Williams Government, and more likely to settle for half-a-loaf. Which was exactly what happened when he received a call from Williams' point man in the South, Errol Mahabir after he had threatened to march on Whitehall. Panday said that Mahabir indicated he wanted to meet with him, and they met at a neutral venue. "The first thing Errol told me was: 'Boy, the old man say you win. Call Caroni tomorrow and they will see you'." Panday added that during the meeting, Mahabir intimated to him that the Prime Minister (Williams) "did not mind the sugar workers having an Indian leader who would carry on as an Indian leader".

Without so much as informing the cane farmers or their leaders, not to add the joint working committee, Panday met with Caroni and settled his strike: he won recognition from Caroni. But that left the cane farmers out in the cold, which was pointed out to Panday. He was told that Williams was using the old 'divide and rule' tactic to break the unity between farmers and workers. Panday refused to reconsider his decision to order his workers back to work (we received the news on a Saturday; he sent the workers back on the Monday), even though we tried to reason with him, to point out that we had both Caroni and the PNM Government on the ropes, and we should move to deliver the knockout punch. His response was: "From now on, every tub must sit on its own bottom!" And so the strike of 1974 came to an end. How we got together again in 1975, and how the ULF came into being is another story, to be told another time.

For the moment, though, in the context of what I am writing about, I ask the "dividers": why was it so easy for successive governments, from the colonial governors to the PNM, to compromise "Indian" leaders? Why, when he had the chance to become a cornerstone of opposition to colonialism, did Rienzi accept a government job? Why was Bhadase always so accommodating to Williams? And why did Williams do everything to help Bhadase remain in power in the union, against the will of the sugar workers? Why, too, did Panday follow in Bhadase's footsteps, giving in to Williams at the expense of the cane farmers? In fact, later (in 1978) Panday went on to support Williams in Parliament to enable the PNM Government to pass into law the Crossing the Floor Bill.

This subservience on the part of the country's Indian leaders would return to help rescue Williams in 1970. It was Bhadase he turned to when he sought to keep the Black Power movement confined to the urban Africans. Bhadase failed because he never really commanded the majority support of the sugar workers, as I have pointed out. In fact, when he attempted to intimidate the factory workers at Brechin Castle to "stay away from de niggers", he was openly defied and had to flee the compound, his thugs in tow. As I shall show in the next part of this response to the "dividers", the workers not only defied Bhadase, but they acted on their own in support of Black Power. And it was they, more than NJAC and the thousands who marched on a daily basis, who forced Williams to declare the state of emergency in 1970.


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