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 – trinicenter.com

Raffique ShahIN 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.

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6 thoughts on “Black Power and Indians”

  1. Deep. A shoutout to the author! We must have been cadets attending camps at Gasparillo and Tobago. Mr.Barzey and I were members of A Company and I remember him distinctly at Gasparillo.

    It is a pity that the claimed unity which was trumpeted in the 70’s proved to be so evanescent. With all the talent which our country has been blessed, we would have been the ‘model nation’ (of which Mr.Francisco Slinger sang at the birth of the nation) leading the way in the Caribbean. It is not too late. Maybe the children of the children of the ’70’s will carry our flag. Esperemos!

  2. Are you implying that the creolization of Indians is a negative thing? Or is this process a positive development toward true T&T nationality?
    Viranji Munasingh, a professor at Cornell discusses Creolization. In her book, Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity.
    Can you discuss the process of creolization? In your book you argue that Indo-Trinidadians themselves are a product of creolization rather than inheritors of a strict ancestral culture. Can you explain this?
    Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words “criar” (to create, to imagine) and “colon” (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements, thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is significant for Indo-Trinidadians.
    Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all persons and things “Creole” signified native status in Trinidad, and by extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.
    My book examines the material and ideological mechanisms through which Indo-Trinidadians were positioned outside the creolization process and thereby the Trinidad nation. By examining Indo-Trinidadian practices and behaviors, I argue that Indo-Trinidadians too can be considered creole because they are active creators of new cultural forms indigenous to the New World rather than being mere reproducers of ancestral cultural forms.

  3. Gilkes: Thank god Raffique was a dreamer; Commissioner missed the 1970 elephant—clean
    The letter penned by the Commissioner of Police condemning the valorising of the army mutineers of 1970 brought to the surface several important issues. One such issue is the fact that, even in tiny countries like this one, it is entirely possible to live in an insulated space with little to no understanding of other people’s lived realities—often in the same community.

  4. I was disappointed when Eric chose Panday to be his Opposition Leader a role he played well for 40 years. So well that when it was time for him to shine he allow Ralph, Ramesh and Trevor to bring down his government and put him in Opposition again. I thought Shah would have been the better leader but it was not so as he melted into the wilderness.

    The 1970s up to the 80s was the “heyday” for unions and politicians. A young nation filled with oil and in economic boom. So much money that Dr Williams boasted “money is no problem”. And Kamal shouting “all ah we tief”. Such was the arrogance of the PNM. Eric was the Chief tief his daughter inheriting millions from the 10% man. The PNM never squealed on their leaders to this day. “Kamla tief” despite evidence of Rowley and his minions pocketing millions. You never hear Eric, Chambers, Manning or Rowley tief. Let’s say the mental slaves are better at messaging than anyone else! They protect the 1% who they work for so well.

    The 70s uprising saw the death of the army and the rise of the police force. The trust that Eric had in the army died. He set about strengthening the police and found in Randy Burroughs a reliable executioner who without fail took out the 21 guerrillas. I still remember the police helicopter whirling across the cane fields in La Romain looking for and tracking these criminals. The flying squad earned the most notorious reputation in TnT. Without fail in the Express newspaper there would be a picture of a heavily armed Burroughs posing over his latest victim.. with the caption “Burroughs gets his man”.

    The 60s,70s, 80s was the best of times in TnT. Hardly any cars, clean fresh air and you could lime late into the night without hearing of murders. Then things changed, boat load of islanders many illiterate and arrogant came and formed communities and soon these were criminals raising the next generation of criminals, until the second uprising in 1990. Then all hell broke loose. Since then this nation never recovered.

  5. What Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela achieved for their respective nations are admirable at best for the need to bring human rights at the global forefront. The mission was to bring fairness and equality to all.

    Two brilliant local academicians Dr. Eric Williams (Historian) and Dr. Rudranath Capildeo (Scientist) brought a stable conclusion to the negotiations for the independence for T&T at Marlborough House. At that time Erica Williams was the neighbour to Capildeo at Clapham, London and had mutual respect for one another. Love thy Neighbour was a popular TV series at that time. Why after just 8 years are the real reasons for a revolution in a neophyte T&T announcing instability to the wider world followed by a second one in 1990? What were the reason(s) for Winston Mahabir a founding member of the PNM to depart from the neophyte party at the time? Why was George Chambers given the baton as opposed to Errol Mahabir or Kamaluddin Mohammed? and O’Halloran,Solomon, Teshea etc. to do what they want at tax payers expense? Why should Willams turn back from Piarco to see Robinson waxing warm his chair at Whitehall? Today, at Piarco, photos of Eric Williams as PM of the nation with Robinson as PM and President reminds us of what?.

    History taught us that the British using the divide and rule concept was successful and when it was no longer economic to hold on to colonies, then dispose of them. How much different is that when Trump refers to us as ‘shithole countries’.

    In the 50’s I used to hear a song ‘a brown girl in the ring..’as well as “coolie, coolie come for roti half past ten”. When those lyrics sink into one’s psyche then you begin to understand why would an African woman interviewed in the 90s on Canadian television at a CNE food pavilion would say that roti came from Africa. Perception is reality.

    Sir, you did very well as a mutineer to be able to write informative articles today and not to experience racism in the army. You know once you are in the army discipline is the order – Yes Sir, Yes Sir. I do remember the helicopter circling in La Romain as well as the bond that coexisted between Burroughs and Dole Chadee. One met an expose in the NY Times and the other a hangman’s rope.

  6. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.

    Has anything changed?
    Those who live in the South will tell you that nothing has changed. Their struggles continue to find a place in the land in which they were born.

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