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Raffique Shah


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Bas booted sugar workers, favoured political eunuchs

April 09, 2006
By Raffique Shah

FIRSTLY, I need to apologise to a mass of people for claiming last week that the ULF was formed in 1975 by George Weekes, Basdeo Panday and me. The labour alliance that would evolve into a political party one year later was really given life by 25,000-odd people - cane farmers, sugar, oil, electricity and sundry other workers - who had gathered at Skinner Park in San Fernando on February 18, 1975. The four principal leaders (Joe Young was the other) were floored, quite literally, when we saw the phenomenal response to our call to all workers to "down tools" and attend this workers' rally. Never in our wildest dreams did we expect such a massive crowd, one of the largest ever in the history of this country's politics.

From that day on, if there were any doubts that this alliance had the potential to become a strong, multi-ethnic political force, they dissipated. But with general elections due in 1976, many will be surprised to learn that the ULF was almost stillborn. And that came about because Panday showed that he must have his way or he would take his marbles and go home. I drafted a policy and programme for a "workers' party", which was amended and ratified by the founding congress of the party, and would later guide whatever we did as a party. Besides the many radical economic and social policies outlined in the document, it also provided for "collective leadership", which Panday at first appeared to agree with, but later threw aside.

We idealists thought the day of one-man-rule was over, that there ought to be consultation among the top ranks if urgent matters were to be addressed, and that the wider general council would be the body to ratify any such decisions. But Panday tolerated that concept only for as long as it suited his real purpose, which, unknown to us, was not to introduce a new political culture, but to simply replace the DLP as the party that controlled the "Indian constituency". A reincarnation of the DLP or an imitation of the PNM was the last thing we had in mind. Not Bas. Because of the sacrifices made by these workers and farmers, the central committee insisted that when it came to the selection of candidates for the 1976 general elections, we needed to have representatives from among them.

At the central committee level, instead of bringing a few of his top union officers, he brought Lloyd Doolan, a nice person, but he was not a sugar worker. Interestingly, even as the ULF was in its embryonic stages, Panday was busy purging officers in his union, now that he was the undisputed boss. People look only at his political "victims". But they don't know about the many in the union and who were booted out for standing up to him. Early casualties were vice-president Sonnylal Sookhoo, secretary Frank Seepersad, Nazir Allarakoo, and many more, the last being Sam Maharaj. In fact, as late as when he became Prime Minister in 1995 he axed representatives from the sugar workers' and cane farmers' unions from the board of Caroni, representation that had begun in the mid-1970s by the PNM Government.

At the screening exercise, these were the persons Panday presented: Nizam Mohammed, Kelvin Ramnath, Winston Nanan and Hafeeza Khan-none of whom was a sugar worker! For my part, I presented Boodram Jattan, the first cane farmer to sit in the House. From the OWTU came Errol McLeod and several others who lost their seats, and from ACAWU came Ramesh Lutchmedial and Paul Harrison. Young's TIWU also fielded candidates like Joe George and Albert Aberdeen. In fact, after the elections, having won 10 seats, we were allowed six senators. The records will show that at our victory rally at Saith Park we had named only five senators. Reason? Panday had failed to bring forth a sugar worker, and it was only on our insistence that he must so do that Dora Bridgemohansingh made history.

During the screening exercise, Hafeeza changed her mind three times, and the committee felt that was unacceptable since we were about to do battle against the mighty PNM. Panday said if she was not on board, then "de party mash up". I was the last committee member to cave in on that, an act I feel ashamed of to this day. Young dissented to the end. Although we presented a united front, and a very powerful one at that, during the campaign, the cracks were already there. Signs that Panday wanted to be dictatorial were visible. But also present were men with "cojones", men who would stand up for what we believed was principled and right.

That would lead to the upheaval in the ULF, the split and its eventual demise. Thereafter, Panday ensured that only eunuchs and brown-tongues would be allowed in his party.

Pt I | Pt II | Pt III