Missing out on national unity

By Raffique Shah
March 10, 2020

Raffique ShahLast week, as I noted the absence of Indo-Trinidadians from the Black Power Revolution of 1970, I made a grave error for which I apologise to readers and to persons who may have been aggrieved by it.. I don’t know how I forgot that Winston Leonard, an Indian, was prominent in National Joint Action Committee almost from its inception—and he was not window dressing. He was vice-chairman of the organisation, a frontline speaker on its platforms, and he remained a member long after the dust from the upheavals of 1970 had settled.

Leonard did not bring with him any Indian supporters, which might explain why I forgot his involvement. I was making the point that from a national perspective, Indians were conspicuously absent from the mass upheavals that almost brought down the Government of Dr Eric Williams. Not that the NJAC had any such obligation: from the start, it promoted Black Power, and it harnessed the potent wave of Afro-consciousness that had spilled out of the United States of America and awakened millions of descendants of the slave trade in the Americas and the Caribbean.

But even as it attracted the biggest crowds ever seen in local political history, NJAC’s leadership will have realised that for the organisation to transform its scope from ethnic to national, it needed to mobilise Indo-Trinis, who comprised 40 percent of the population. It was in that context that the long march to Caroni was conceptualised, the banner “Indians and Africans Unite” extending a hand in friendship, and, on April 6, NJAC ventured into uncharted territory.

Before the march turned south of the Caroni river, it passed in front of the twin-bungalows in Champ Fleurs owned by Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, who saw himself as the overlord of the Indians. He and his thugs stood at a safe distance from the march and made feeble attempts to intimidate the marchers by waving what appeared to be guns. The marchers responded with a few signature shouts of “Power!” as they punched their clenched fists in the air.

South of the Caroni, the residents did not roll out the red carpet or rush to join the march. But the people were hospitable, offered the participants water and refreshments, and some gave the “Power” salute. Late that evening, when the march reached its destination, Couva, there was a fairly large group of sugar workers awaiting them. There were speeches and expressions of solidarity. The mostly-Indian workers interacted with “the brothers”, but their main focus was OWTU leader George Weekes, a man for whom they had great respect, and whom they had tried to woo as far back as in 1965, when, amidst widespread industrial unrest, the Williams Government had hastily enacted and proclaimed the controversial Industrial Stabilisation Act.

The sugar workers’ quest was a bread-and-butter issue: they wanted badly to rid themselves of Bhadase as their union leader because they knew he was not pursuing their best interests. In fact, they insisted that he was being bribed by Tate & Lyle, British owners of Caroni Ltd, to accept petty increases in wages and salaries while Weekes was winning big for the workers in the petroleum industry. The sugar workers offered to stage a reciprocal march to Port of Spain. The date they proposed was April 21. There was no coincidence that it was also the date on which the Government declared a state of emergency and moved to crush the revolution.

The prospect of Indian-African unity at the grassroots level was grim for any government in T&T, and for all conventional political parties. Shortly after he was briefed on the sugar workers’ response to Black Power, Williams spoke with Bhadase, his not-so-secret ally in the Indian commuity, asking him to ensure that the workers did not carry out a reciprocal march. Bhadase assured him that would not happen. He gathered his thugs and proceeded to the Brechin Castle factory near Couva where he kicked around the first worker he made contact with.

He then had management summon all workers to the factory yard where, in his croaking voice, he warned them, “You will not march with the niggers!” By then, however, his body was ravaged by addiction to a derivative of morphine (Pethidine). The workers shocked him by advancing on his “posse” of thugs in a threatening manner. His choices were to open fire on them or run for his life. He chose the latter. He later telephoned Dr Williams and said, “I can no longer control the sugar workers.”

That was when Williams decided he had to use drastic measures against the Black Power movement and prevent the mainly-Indian sugar workers from joining the revolution. The workers took strike action from April 19th, shutting down the BC factory, and a day later Ste Madeleine. In the wee hours of April 21st, with the Emergency in effect, police swooped down on NJAC’s leaders, among them Khafra Kambon, Clive Nunez, Weekes and Leonard. Daaga was in South Trinidad where he had planned to lead the sugar workers’ march. The police would not capture him for two days, The workers defied the police and persisted with a march on April 21st, but they were eventuallybeaten into submission.

The facts as I have presented them here—I have documentation to support them, including declassified US State Department and British Foreign Office communications—show how far governments will go to prevent the two major ethnic groups from joining forces. The Black Power Revolution came closest to uniting them in struggle, but time was against them. A similar unity was forged in 1937 when Uriah Butler had led what started as a strike in the oilfields, but soon spread to the sugar plantations, the port and other workplaces across the country That, too, was crushed by the intervention of British troops on board two British battleships, the Exeter and the Ajax. T&T was then a British colony.

I submit that the failure of the mass movement to capitalise on the opportunity to unite Indians, Africans, and nationals of other races who were ready for unity rendered the revolution incomplete.

5 thoughts on “Missing out on national unity”

  1. They parang the wrong house. If we encapsulated the deficiencies of the Black Power revolution of 1970, it can be summed up in that sentence – They parang the wrong house. The Black Power revolutionaries saw Dr. Williams as the bête noir of the movement. Dr. Williams who had pioneered the struggle against the world wide white supremacist system that had enslaved and oppressed black people everywhere. That was the man the Black Power movement in Trinidad targeted. They targeted the wrong man; they were blind and couldn’t see who the real enemy was. They were duped as many black people in Trinidad continue to be duped by the very ones who are oppressing them. Dr. Williams was one of the Caribbean great intellectuals who outlined the philosophical struggle against white supremacy. His Capitalism and Slavery even today is one of the great iconic books that destroyed the rationalizations for slavery and provided the much of the ideology for black pride, black resurgence and black renaissance.
    So let’s look at the history of those who waved the flag of black power against the PNM government of Dr. Eric Williams. And while I respect Shah for what seems to be a genuine desire for unity, what about some of the others? What did they do for black people? Makandal Daaga, leader of NJAC, he ended up with the tribal party of the UNC. While he was there, he said that the UNC was the most corrupt government ever, but he still stayed with them. He stayed with them while thousands of black people were rounded up under the Kamla Persad-Bissesar regime and put into what can only be called concentration camps. What did Daaga do? Nothing. What about George Weeks, what was his history after the “revolution” of 1970? He joined up with the NAR the political party that threw out the Keynesian, Williams mixed economy as responsible for creating demand through work programs, which introduced instead the neoliberal vision of the state. Markets mean everything, the Washington Consensus ruled. The result – as everywhere where neoliberalism was introduced, inequality burgeoned. The first thing the NAR did was to double-cross the unions. What did George Weeks do? Nothing.

    I can go on looking at the history of those who jumped on the bandwagon of the “revolution” and what you can see clearly is that they did nothing for black people except criticize bitterly and resentfully the one political party that represented black people and who black people saw as representing them. They parang the wrong house, and they are so blinded by hatred of the PNM that they can’t even see they paranging the wrong house. They have been useful idiots of those who have oppressed black people. South Africa didn’t start winning the war against apartheid until the people started dealing with those who were selling them out.

    1. You said: “The Black Power revolutionaries saw Dr. Williams as the bête noir of the movement. Dr. Williams who had pioneered the struggle against the world wide white supremacist system that had enslaved and oppressed black people everywhere.”

      This entire statement is so untrue that it and what follows drift into the abyss of nonsense.

      1. Dr. Williams has/had to take ownership of the culture he introduced to the population at his University of Woodford Square in March 1961 “Massa Day Done”, the war with Imperialism. His love-hate relationship with the US, his famous equation one from ten leave nothing with the proposed collapse of the Federation identifies unity is and will always be far fetched in the Caribbean. Guyana is a current example.

        Therefore, we will continue to dream of being developed when failure is registered against unity amongst academicians and coalescing of Union leaders in administering meaningful governance to a diverse nation.

  2. The article by Mr.Shah presented eye-opening information, especially for people who were not physically in T&T at the time of the unfolding of these events. The first comment was especially thoughtful and the writer is to be commended. That having been said, it is time to ‘love one another’. The country is too small for internecine antagonism. Our ‘unity’ must last beyond the Carnival season. The lyrics of the Sparrow’s ‘Save the World’ are poignant, should be learned by old and young, inwardly digested and should serve as the rallying cry for our nation. We are all that we have.

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