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Forgiving trespasses

By Terry Joseph
October 02, 2004

Discovering some hothead tried to torch your home just for something you said must be extremely traumatic but Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha general secretary, Satnarayan Maharaj, should be able to forgive even such indictable trespasses, given his personal experience with violent response to other people's opinions.

Far be it from me to defend arson or condone hate crimes under any disguise but if indeed the attack on Mr Maharaj's house was retaliation against his stance on dreadlocks, a Rastafarian trademark, he should understand how easy it must be for zealots to put passion before reason upon hearing even hinted pejoratives about sensitive issues like religion or tribal traits.

You see, I remember the very Mr Maharaj resorting to spontaneous violence against someone who merely expressed a contentious view. Interestingly, the target of his aggression forgave him on the spot, exemplifying both the precarious nature of tolerance and its intrinsic remedial value.

It was back in 1987 at Port of Spain's City Hall, during an educational series mounted by current University of the West Indies principal, Dr Bhoe Tewarie, a symposium specifically designed to induce or enhance forbearance between tribes comprising the roots of our society. Representatives of ethnic groups were each afforded the full evening of seven successive Mondays to outline their history and contribution to the national mosaic.

In the final episode, a young man of African descent was detailing his sorry plight as tenant of an Indian landlady in Maraval. Admittedly, he was allowed to be less than subtle in proffering opinion about the fundamental reason for her cruelty and, taking further advantage of that lapse in chairmanship, leapt to an astonishing generalisation about East Indians, publicly denigrating the race of which Mr Maharaj is a demonstrably proudmember.

The burly Mr Maharaj, who was sitting at the rear of the auditorium, first shouted objection to the inference then, presumably perceiving further provocation, left his chair and trundled up the centre-aisle and with arms flailing, waded into the man at the microphone. Officials close to the conflict separated them and Dr Tewarie swiftly wrapped up the session.

Now, Mr Maharaj did not attempt to torch the man's home and imperil his family but we must avoid dwelling exclusively on degree when assessing violent acts, for exemplars have a much larger onus in this regard. A prominent person slapping someone in public or minor squabbles in Parliament's tearoom wobble social equilibrium to much the same degree as bloody street-level bar room brawls.

Interpreting his silence at the time of Mr Maharaj's City Hall indiscretion, Opposition Leader Basdeo Panday (then a Government Member) must have forgiven his brother's trespass. Last weekend, however, in forcefully condemning the recent firebomb attack, he mostly held the current administration culpable, significantly louder on lawlessness now, saying long ago only ordinary people (presumably like the man at the mike) were victims of such attacks.

Mark you, the outspoken Mr Maharaj has, over the years, garnered a sizeable constituency of persons who wish him unpleasant things. During this past month alone, apart from the dreadlocks issue, he accused public servants of ulterior motives in delaying Indian musical instruments from being introduced to the school system, got into a scrap with talk show host The Gladiator and took a singularly hard line against the possibility of Grenadians migrating here after devastation of that island by Hurricane Ivan.

His posture in the Grenadian situation harbours potential for an even longer hate-list, when one considers the number of calypsonians of such heritage, a group including incisive lyricists like the Mighty Sparrow, Bomber and Brother Valentino; whose responses may trigger more focused reactions from their countrymen. In the same swipe, Mr Maharaj's statement also dismisses the contribution of people like cultural entrepreneur William Munroe, who created the International Soca Monarch competition, staged Calypso King of he World contests and built the (now defunct) Kingdom of the Wizards and The Mecca as outlets for arts widely seen as predominantly Afro-Trinidadian.

Mr Maharaj has made clear his position on steelband music too, in the most dramatic utterance reportedly vowing to disinherit any relative who developsintimacy with a pannist, even as he stoutly defended the Hindu custom of consensual weddings of 14 year-old girls, pledging to fight any attempt to alter that provision in the Marriage Act. He has lambasted Prime Ministers and Presidents at will.

For all that and more, I am willing to forgive Mr Maharaj, for I am given to tolerance and freedom of-expression with equal dedication and on the spiritual plane, having come to believe vengeance is exclusively the domain of The Lord, will never condone acts of violence as a mechanism for reconciling differences of opinion.

But it is not an all-encompassing absolution. Mr Maharaj's most recent hypothesis, that smoke from burning special incense at Hindu prayer rituals "has a vulcanising effect" on the hole in the ozone layer, remains unforgivable. While not a physical assault, such a statement constitutes a deeply divisive trespass, thumbing its nose at not just Rastafari but all other religions whose gods hitherto had a role in controlling global warming.

If that is not reason for fresh conflict, nothing else qualifies.

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