I cry for the Fyzabad I knew

By Raffique Shah
June 21, 2018

Raffique ShahIt was on this historic day 45 years ago that I started a new chapter in my life-my involvement in the trade union fraternity, and more specifically, being part of the thousands who made the annual pilgrimage to Fyzabad to pay tribute to pioneers of the labour movement, more specifically Tubal Uriah Butler. From June 19, 1973 until I called halt to marching with my comrades in 2009, I never missed a Labour Day celebration in Fyzabad.

For the uninformed—and when I write historical articles I realise how deficient this country is in its own history—in the aftermath of the events of 1970, Dr Eric Williams decided to declare June 19th a public holiday from 1972. That was embraced by trade unionists and nationalists as one of the small victories they had won from their bitter struggles they had waged, and in some cases even jailed for.

If my memory serves me right, George Weekes, Winston Leonard, Clive Nunez and a few others were released from political detention, their second such incarceration since 1970, on the eve of that first Labour Day in 1972. So there will have been little time to muster a grand celebration in Fyzabad.

In any event, I was still in prison 26 months after being arrested, interestingly, on May 1st, 1970, the international workers’ day and a public holiday that was removed from 1972. Some soldiers had actually begun serving their sentences while Rex Lassalle and I awaited a decision by the Privy Council on the State’s appeal against the local Court of Appeal’s unanimous ruling in our favour, quashing the conviction and sentences of the Court Martial.

That decision would come, again in our favour, on July 26th, 1972, and all the incarcerated soldiers freed on the two ensuing days. With my career as a professional army officer over at age 26, by early 1973 I accepted an invitation to lead an obscure, almost still-born union of sugar cane farmers (not workers). Within months, Winston Leonard and I had infused life into that union (ICFTU), and we proudly took our place arm-in-arm with giants like Weekes, Nunez, Joe Young and others in Fyzabad.

In case you are wondering, Basdeo Panday had not yet arrived: later in 1973, he would be invited by Rampartapsingh and other relics of the then deceased Bhadase Maharaj’s sugar workers’ union (ATSE&FWTU) to become its president-general.

But that’s another intriguing story for another time.

By Labour Day 1974, which was a huge affair—it followed strikes by cane farmers (a first in local history), sugar workers and some oil workers—thousands of participants occupied more than a mile of marching space, militant, exuberant, wallowing in a demonstration of labour-power such as had not been seen since 1937.

The timing, too, could not have been better: the oil boom brought unexpected bounty to the national coffers, as did an even more surprising spike in sugar prices. Panday asked for a 100 percent increase in sugar workers’ dog wages: he got it. The cane farmers’ cry was “one cent per pound” for canes–$22.40 per long ton, up from a paltry $14. Williams gave us $24!! And oil workers would get a hefty increase by 1975.

Labour was booming, solidarity extended across demographic boundaries…those were heady days.

I should explain that pro-Government unions—SWWTU, NUGFWU, CWU, PSA and a few others—stayed far from Fyzabad. Rather, their leaders did, since significant rank and file members marched with us. Panday marched according to his mood: Fyzabad one year, Couva another, even Arima…

I remained faithful to Fyzabad because of its historical significance: it was at Bhola’s yard, near Charlie King Junction, that the police tried to arrest Butler as he addressed striking oil workers—a fatal mistake that backfired badly. The people protected Butler, savaged Corporal Charlie King to death, and put the police in full flight.

The strikes would, within days, spread nationwide, from the wharves to the sugar plantations, cocoa estates to government employees. It crossed the race-divide and sharpened the class struggle. As the authorities hunted for Butler, he was hidden and protected by ordinary people of different races until he decided to surrender and face the consequences.

I knew little about those major events in our history until I ventured into Fyzabad in 1973, and frequently thereafter, certainly every Labour Day. I was lucky to meet several witnesses to the events of 1937 who were alive, kicking, even marching. They adopted me as a son, as a soldier of the never-ending struggle for rights of the oppressed.

For me, Fyzabad is the spiritual headquarters of labour, a workers’ shrine if there is such. It is why I could never agree with unionists who march elsewhere on Labour Day. May Day is still international workers’ day which can be celebrated anywhere.

I need add that I felt increasingly estranged from my comrades when they chose to invite politicians whose only creed is opportunism to pollute the platform at Fyzabad. Worse, they used labour’s pulpit to endorse political parties that see the working classes only as election-fodder.

They seem not to have learnt lessons when they were abandoned after the politicians tasted power, when greed replaced need, when dignity was sacrificed on the altar personal aggrandisement.

I cry for the Fyzabad I knew many moons ago.

8 thoughts on “I cry for the Fyzabad I knew”

  1. I remember the 1974 March when the police attacked and tear gassed those protesting. It was a telling moment in the Labour movement when grown men could be heard weeping over the radio station as Williams ordered the assault.

    For those in the sugar industry, life would never be the same. I remember because it was a discussion in our class. Our teacher asked the question. If you were the police what would you do? Foolish me I suggested to tear gassed the protestors. When it happened my teacher gave me a look I’d never forget.

    News went around the next day that Shah was the hero of the day, when the police tear gassed he grabbed Panday hand and pulled him over a wall to protect him from the police. Everyone knew that Shah was a trained Sand Hurst soldier and he was the baddest of the bad. He was our hero for that weeek!

  2. Raffique Shah has been the object of much criticism and disagreement by many of us over the years, but no one can deny that his contributions to the nation as a soldier, activist and journalist have been outstanding.
    He is truly a national hero.

  3. I am very much aware of the historical relevance of the labour day celebrations at Fyzabad, however it is always refreshing to revisit the events particlarly when it is so chronicled. I have always enjoyed reading the perspective advanced by this writer on many issues over the years and this one is no different. His reference to politicians ascending the labour platform as a vehicle of convenience is both relevant and unfortunate. And to add insult to injury, it would continue. I also take the opportunity to make the point that at a time when we had the most corrupt Government, there was a Minister of Labour that came from the bowels of the Trade Union movement who said absolutely nothing against it. Thank you Mr. Shah

  4. Shah do you have a full history of those years you talk about in this message to us. In 1970, I was 20 years old barely interested in what took place. I know my grans and great grans will want to know as as far as I am concerned these events of those years changed life in Trinidad and Tobago immensely. I once knew Mike who never liked to go back there. Do you have a book of it, even if it is your version? If not it is time that you tell us your story. We need to understand particularly because the PNM and their associates do not want us to know the truth. The little I know tells me there were deep lies told to us.

  5. Can I use this…
    I want to teach my grans
    Black Power and Indians
    Indian Officer Leads
    African Soldiers in Black Power Revolt
    “Creolised” Indians Sowed Seeds for Birth of ULF

    By Raffique Shah
    June 09, 2000

    IN 1970, I was the only Indian officer in the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment. I was also the youngest officer, having graduated from Sandhurst in July 1966, some four months after I had turned 20. When I returned from England in January 1967 to take up duties as a platoon commander, it was the first time I got to know the Regiment (as it was, and still is, commonly referred to), since I was sent to Sandhurst in 1964 without any prior training locally. At the time, fewer than five per cent of soldiers were Indians, a ratio that may still exist, although I suspect the numbers will have moved up slightly.

    There was nothing sinister about the racial composition of the Regiment, although it is true to say that the sons of PNM party card holders will have been given preferential treatment, and since the PNM’s support base was mainly African, most of the recruits were African. It was a fact of life, too, that most Indian parents did not want their sons to join the Regiment. In my own case, for example, having graduated from Presentation College, Chaguanas, with a Cambridge School Certificate (Grade I), and not wanting to be a burden on my struggling sugar-worker-father, I opted to work rather than pursue “A” Levels. I also scouted around for some kind of scholarship in order to further my education. These were very few at the time, and competition for them was keen.

    When I read an advertisement in the newspapers inviting college graduates to apply for commissions (officer rank) in the army, I saw not merely an avenue to achieve some of the goals I had set myself, but an opportunity to engage in the kind of adventurous life I had already learned to love. I should mention that while I was at Pres, I had joined the Cadet Force-again, one of the few Indians to so do. I quietly pursued the opportunity to attend Sandhurst (I knew only that it was a renowned military academy), and my parents were blissfully unaware of what I was doing. Having sat and passed the examination set by the Commissions Board, I was pleased as punch when I received a reply asking me to report to Teteron Barracks sometime in August 1964. There, I was told that I had been selected to go to Sandhurst (along with Mike Bazie), and was ordered to get all my documents ready for an early September departure.

    I had to break the news to my parents when I returned home. Both of them were distressed, but my father was especially disappointed. I imagine like most parents, and especially as a barely-literate Indian sugar worker who had seen his first son shine in college, he expected me to follow tradition and pursue one of established professions-law, medicine or some other form of tertiary education. But the army? What the hell wrong with this boy, he must have asked himself. And, yes, tears came to his eyes when he realised that I was determined to “join up”. In fact, I had already signed the documents that made me government property!

    I use the response of my parents to show how most Indian parents will have reacted to the thought of their sons joining the Regiment. It was partly a cultural thing (there was no halaal food there, and of course pork was served as a regular fare; the cooks, however, always catered for individuals’ religious preferences), and partly the feeling that even if one’s son did not pass his exams at secondary school, he did not deserve a “low” job like that of a soldier or a policeman. That thinking partly explained the paucity of Indians (indeed, of non-Africans) in the army. I need add that most non-Africans who were inclined to sign up for the Defence Force chose the Coast Guard over the Regiment.

    I also need to point out that the handful of Indians who became soldiers were, in the main, good at their jobs. In fact, when I recall some of them-Ramlal, Seejattan, Ali, Maharaj, Ramnarine, Kalloo, Manmohan-I think that the army deliberately set out to choose the “baddest” Indians it could lay its hands on! Interestingly, though, race was never a problem for the few Indians in the army. I did not experience any form of discrimination from my brother officers or from the men I commanded. And that was not because Indians in the army were “creolised” (most retained their strong religious beliefs and stuck to their cultural practices). It was, I believe, because military life fosters among soldiers a bond that transcends race, religion, colour and class. A soldier learns early in training that ever so often the lives of his colleagues, in instances his entire platoon or company, depend on his proficiency as a soldier, on his alertness when, say, he is the sentry as his colleagues sleep.

    When the events of 1970 unfolded, details of which I have already described in my recent series, this lone Indian officer emerged as one of the two leaders of the mutiny. Those who read the series will have noted that for the first half-hour or so of the revolt, both Rex Lassalle and I were imprisoned in cells in the Guard Room. All the other officers who were based at Teteron, and who, besides being African, were senior to us, had the opportunity to stem the revolt, which had not reached crisis proportions until after we were imprisoned. They chose instead to abdicate their responsibilities, and some of them even fled the camp. But more telling was the soldiers themselves could have aborted the mutiny. They could have complied with the orders given by Major Henry Christopher (the most senior officer in camp), which, if they had done, Rex and I would have been history of another kind. I mean, why follow one crazy Indian officer and revolt, risking your life, you career in the army?

    The fact that upon seizure of the ammunition bunker, the rebel soldiers chose to free Rex and myself as their first act, partly answers the question. They had made up their minds that the army was in a mess (which it was), that they weren’t going to be used as pawns by the Eric Williams government against the Black Power movement, and as such they were prepared to risk their everything. That should answer Theodore Lewis’ puerile suggestion that Rex and I were two greenhorns who had no support and had no commitment to country, only to ourselves. Lewis, I guess, much like his Indian-racist counterparts and those of similar ilk who run their mouths (or computers) on people who have had the guts to stand up for their beliefs, is probably the kind of mouse who will never stand up for anything , far less risk his life for something he believes in. But if holding a group of some 300 rebel soldiers together in a revolt and under hostile fire was testimony of our leadership, keeping morale high among the 80-odd soldiers who were jailed for up to 27 months was an even greater test of our leadership skills that we passed with flying colours.

    If we look back at the events of 1970 as comprising of two main components-the protest marches and the mutiny at Teteron-then it is easy to conclude that one was led by an Indian. As for the charges that I was a “creolised” Indian, let me tell the likes of Kamal Persad and Kumar Mahabir that I grew up in the Boccarro/Freeport/Chaguanas districts, where Indians were in the majority. I was among the few Muslim youths (yes, I was a Muslim until I discovered that my imam was fraud) who attended from “kathas” and “rotes” to one of the first nine-night “Yagnas” held in Freeport. I ate “mahanbhog”, sang “bhajans”, and was even the prime mover behind the “Boccarro Bhuya Saaj” (I played the harmonica and sang). Persad, who moved into my hometown after it was re-named “Beaucarro” (to give it a French tint, I suppose), can check my bona fides with Seechan Dookie or any of the older Ramlogans in the district. I also knew much about Islam as well (I laugh when I look at some jokers who parade as Muslims, but know little or nothing about the religion except wearing a “taj” and shouting “Allikum”, which, incidentally, means nothing in Arabic!).

    Mahabir, Persad and those who argue that Indians were not part of the 1970 revolution either do not know, or they deliberately ignore, the role of the sugar workers. NJAC’s long march to Caroni drew positive “vibes” from the Indian sugar workers, who were still under the yoke of Bhadase, and who wanted to get rid of “Baba”. They responded positively to NJAC’s call to march to Port of Spain on April 21, the day on which Williams declared the State of Emergency. That was no coincidence. It was always Williams’ will to keep Indians and Africans divided, not because he was racist, but because it served his political ambition well. And he found common cause with leaders like Bhadase, and later Panday. In 1970, though, he (Williams) saw that formula about to implode: if the sugar workers were allowed to march and link up with the urban Africans, the PNM (and the DLP!) was dead!

    Why did Williams choose April 21 to impose a State of Emergency on the country? There was no coup planned for that date, nor did NJAC have anything special on the “protest calendar”-except, of course, the sugar workers’ march to the city. He could have chosen the day after Basil Davis’ massive funeral or any morning after a few buildings had been torched. Or he could have used the arson at the Texas building, in which three (I believe) Indian children died, and which I later learned was ordered by Bhadase to foment racial strife. But he didn’t. He chose April 21. In the absence of evidence to suggest otherwise, it was clear that Indian-African unity, which was being forged from the bottom up, not imposed from a leadership that was looking for tokenism, had to be stopped at all costs. And if it took a State of Emergency, so what?

    I now turn to the impact the events of 1970 had on the entire society. It is true, as Mahabir pointed out, that there were Indian associations, some of which produced periodicals, from as early as the first quarter of the 20th Century. But whatever happened to them? Why did the newspapers and magazines disappear? And besides the Maha Sabha, the Arya Samaaj and the Divine Life Society, how many of those Hindu groups that are popular today pre-date 1970? Ravi Ji’s Hindu Prachar, Hans Hanoomansingh’s NCIC and Harripersad Harrikissoon’s Hindu Seva Sangh either came after ’70, or saw their revival after the Black Power revolution. If, too, one examines the large number of Hindus (and Muslims) who had eschewed their religions before ’70, who were proud to embrace Christianity and Western values, only to return to their roots after ’70, one gets the picture I am trying to paint. I shall not go into name-calling, but if those who want to pronounce on this aspect of 1970 do their homework, they will come up with some startling public figures who went the Hindu-Christian-Hindu route.

    I move forward. Upon emerging from prison, I was approached by a group of cane farmers to lead a new organization they had formed to fight against Norman Girwar and TICFA, the ICFTU. After careful consideration, I agreed, and joined Winston Leonard, James Millette and others in that venture. Leonard and I emerged as the two principal figures in the union. Within months of launching our initiative in February 1973, we had worked up a storm in areas like Barrackpore, Penal, Penal Rock Road, Debe, Mohess Road, San Francique, Bonne Aventure, Williamsville and so on. All these areas, especially those in rural South, were almost exclusively Indian districts. I should add that our entry into sugar came before Basdeo Panday was selected by Rampartapsingh and the PNM Government to head the sugar workers union.

    The responses we received were overwhelming. In a matter of months, we had most of the cane farmers on our side. By 1974, when we won for them an increase from $11 a ton (I believe) to $22 a ton, they were grateful to the point where several “Yagnas” and other prayers of thanks were given to God. And Leonard and I were the honoured guests, complete with “malas”. If, as Persad, Mahabir and others argue, we were “creolised” Indians, how come we were embraced by Indians, especially rural Hindus? Persad may recall (hopefully, his memory is not selective) that Mukhdar, an Indian newsletter put out by Ramdath Jagassar and himself, had, in one its issues, sung loud praises to Panday, Leonard and myself for the leadership we provided to the mainly Indian sugar workers and cane farmers. Could it be that we weren’t “creolised” then, but afterwards? If that’s their logic, then we must have been “true true” Indians in 1970!

    Suffice it to say that the cane farmers reacted to us the way they did because of our involvement in the 1970 revolution. I was also one of the three most influential leaders of the ULF when it was formed in 1975/76, the others being Panday and George Weekes (Nizam Mohammed and Kelvin Ramnath were mere “recruits” then!). And I happened to be the one who straddled the race-corridor, in the sense that I was accepted by both Indians from the heartland and by Africans from the East-West corridor. Indeed, in the early part of the 1976 election campaign, I took on the responsibility of mobilising the North, and had the distinction of being the first Indian politician to go into the heart of John John and not meet with a violent response by diehard PNMites. While the ULF failed to win seats in the North, it did make significant inroads there, and the foundation was laid for a party of true national unity. Panday killed that in 1978 when he decided that what he wanted to be was the “Indian Chief”, not a national leader. Which is why I laugh when, today, he shouts “national unity” from the rooftops.

    To summarize, the sharp turn that Indian politics took after 1970 (the demise of the DLP) was a direct result of the events of 1970 and the personalities, both Indian and African, who emerged from that revolution. Many Africans in the North will tell you that if Makandal Daaga and NJAC, as well as Ray Robinson and his DAC, had joined with the ULF in 1976 (approaches were made to both parties), the PNM’s life-span in government might have been much shorter. That process of healing the racial rifts that were artificially implanted into the society from the early 1960s was derailed by Panday, and, to a lesser extent, probably unwittingly, by Daaga and Robinson. Today, it is left to the likes of Sat Maharaj, Persad and Mahabir on the one hand, and Lewis, Cudjoe and Cro Cro on the other, to ensure that all the people of this rainbow society do not come together.

    They will fail, of course. And by the time the population will have awakened to their myopic mischief, much damage will have been done. It will be left to another generation to cement Trinidad and Tobago, to take it beyond the boundaries of tokenism as practiced by our politicians, to salvage the society from the kind of balkanization that has become commonplace in so many countries. I hope to be around to see this new dawn, to witness the consummation of a dream that began with the TWA at the turn of the last century (even before indentureship had ended) and reached a high point in 1970.

  6. I enjoyed reading the articles and replies. Raffique was in the same class at Presentation. We actually sat next to each other.

    during the oil years men drove through fyzabad and deposited some semen in the many loose women residing there who were willingly impregnated so they could get a few dollars month end when the man get pay
    many kids born out of wedlock so poverty and crime
    the indians were mesmerized by the presbyterian church who rescued them from their miserable existence and the church promised to take them out of their ghetto existence-It did help them with education and jobs with the govt and presbyterian chools,but they forgot their true roots and chased behind a scottish religion that had no meaning for them-The business men in fyzabad were all cheapskates who never grew their businesses but preferred to remain in their shacks and enrich themselves -so fyzabad looks today like it looked 70 years ago-What is fyzabad famous for>they killed a policeman and hid butler-big deal-


    I believe that Fyzabad was largely settled by people from the former Northwest Territories in Northern India. Many of these people left India at the port of Calcutta [Kolkotta]. Interestingly, many of these “Indentured Servants” originated from the city of Fyzabad, in what later became the United Provinces, i.e., Uttar Pradesh.
    Are any of the folks able or willing to throw some more light on this, or point the Fyabad youth and students in the correct direction?

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