June 12, 2005
By Raffique Shah
IT'S not unusual, I suppose, here in Trinidad and Tobago, for the entire population is distracted by a mini-circus-the self-incarceration of Basdeo Panday. Panday was forced to play a "bush card" in the hope that it would propel him into the limelight, which paid off when he found the PNM Government had no "trumps" in their hands. His party's (and I stress "his") sagging fortunes rose overnight as thousands flocked to meetings called by his colleagues on the outside.
It was the ultimate circus, complete with jugglers and clowns, that was bound to bring out the UNC faithful, and even the curious. Add to that discarded elements that yearn for the limelight, pot-hounds waiting for scraps from "de Bas", and the media have thus far had field days. I imagine the excitement will last for another few weeks before it peters out into the damp squid that faced the party before Bas' well-timed theatrics.
Why am I not surprised that people would deify a man who faces several charges of corruption? Likening him to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela is sacrilege. But then the masses have oftentimes been asses, not just here, but in so many other parts of the world. Ever since corruption-related charges have been preferred against a number of UNC ministers and financiers, right-thinking people have allowed the matters to take their legal course. We have no idea what evidence the State has against them, but common decency and convention dictate that we allow the courts to decide. Reminds me of the circus that was made of the arrest of Dr Vijay Naraynsingh, which, when left to the courts, saw him go free, and in quick time at that.
In Panday's several matters, if the State does not have evidence to support its charges, not only will they fail, but the police will be made to look like dunces, and the DPP and Attorney General like they were on a political witch hunt. So the prudent thing to do is to allow the law to take its course, even though the law is often described as an ass. But then, was it an ass when Naraynsingh was freed? Was the judicial system prejudiced when Dr Tim Gopeesingh was freed of similar charges? So why would Panday fare any worse under a system which, for all its faults, has served us relatively well for as long as we can remember?
I have several reservations about the efficiency of our Police Service, particularly when it comes to laying charges and gathering evidence to support those charges. I feel, too, that in so far as the courts go, those who can afford the best attorneys manage to escape true justice in many instances. For those poor wretches, many of whom are innocent of the charges they face, but who cannot afford big-name attorneys, they stew in prison and suffer in court.
So the system is not altogether perfect. Still, Panday and his colleagues can afford the best attorneys. In fact, there are many UNC attorneys who will take on Bas's cases for free. Ironically, many of those who rally around the corruption-accused Opposition Leader themselves have relatives or friends who are stewing in jail, or who have been victims of the skewed system. But does that bother them? Not when "God" chooses to sit in a cell and pull the strings of discord from inside jail.
What is laughable about this circus is that we have been through it all before, but those who know nothing of their history are making it out to be a Panday-invention. Back in 1975, when Panday, George Weekes, Joe Young, I, and scores of others were charged with staging an illegal march, we used a similar strategy to drum up support. Magistrate Nazruddin Khan sat on the matter, and predictably, at the end of the hearing, found us all guilty.
He imposed fines with jail alternatives: I got the heaviest since I had been convicted of a similar offence the year before that. The leaders of the then ULF held a brief meeting and took a conscious decision to refuse to pay the fines (which were piddling sums, really). We opted to go to jail instead, even as we had the right to appeal.
It was a Friday afternoon, as I recall it, when news broke that we were going to jail (Vernon Jamadar and others paid their fines). We were duly taken to what was then the Royal Gaol, where we spent the weekend. We gained "news capital" out of the charade (because that's what it was), and held a big meeting when we emerged from the weekend's "rest". Well, Joe and I did insist on doing "hard labour", but still, it was a breeze. For the records, that was the only time Panday spent in "real jail" before this. He was held in station-cells, but never otherwise in jail. Me? I have 27 months to my credit or debit!