By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 10, 2010
The victory of the People’s Partnership (PP) with the assistance of African people, has changed the face of Trinidad and Tobago’s politics. In spite of its rhetoric, 2010 may prove to be a pivotal year in the relationship between Africans and East Indians. In years to come it may be seen as the year in which Indian ascendancy consolidated itself and the decline of Africans commenced. One only has to look at Sat Maharaj’s new prominence to understand where much of PP’s power lies and why his function, in many ways, may be analogous to that of the Priestess in the last administration.
It is wise, therefore, to keep our ears attuned to the testimony of the major players of the PP to get a sense of how Indians see themselves in this new dispensation. Winston Dookeran, the leader of COP and a generally mild-mannered man, is a case in point. Earlier this year he visited India as a part of a tour that was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. In an interview with India Empire (May 2010) the editor asked him why Indian identity in the West Indies remained subverted (or was it subservient) to African identity “even though East Indian majority was established through indentureship in many of the countries,” to which Dookeran replied: “There are two reasons. The power structure in the country did not facilitate the plurality of the political voices…. The structure of the society was such that is why identity became a big issue. The Indians saw themselves as victims, not shapers of the society, and the Africans captured political power. They felt they had the power of the state. What is required now for the Indian community is to be the legitimate shaper of the New Society. When we talk about Indian identity, we need to talk in terms of Caribbean identity. The time has come when the Indian community must now shape the society for all so that they can offer that leadership.”
There are many problems with this statement all of which cannot be dealt with in this article. Apart from its many factual inaccuracies, it is an unhistorical view about the development of politics in our country. In the first place colonial societies such as Trinidad and Tobago did not facilitate the plurality of any voices until 1925. In 1831, the first legislature, the Council of Government, was established and the island remained a crown colony government up until 1925 when the first Trinbagonians were elected to the Legislative Council. The electorate comprised of 5.9 per cent of the total population of which 14.8 per cent voted.
The 1925 legislature established a balance between the official and unofficial members. In addition to the governor there were twelve official members and thirteen unofficial members. Although Indians were against the elected system-they feared it would not work in their favor–their fears turned out to be ill-founded. At the first election in 1925 one Indian member, Sarran Teelucksingh was selected. In 1928, Teelucksingh was joined by two other Indian members, F. E. M. Hosein (St. George) and T. Roodal (St. Patrick). Roodal, a leading member of Cipiani’s Workingmen’s Association, brought a substantial section of the Indian working class into the labour movement.
A. C. Reinzi, a fourth Indian member, was elected to the Legislative Council in 1938. Five of the seven members elected to the Council in 1938 were representatives of labour: Cipriani, Roodal, Rienzi, Teelucksigh, and Milliard. One was white (Cipriani); one was black (Milliard) and three others were Indians. In 1946, the first year of universal adult franchise, four of the nine victorious members were Indians. Although Indians consisted of 35 per cent of the population, they represented about 44 per cent of the elected members. Two of the four of elected members were placed in the Executive Council.
In 1950 there were eighteen elected seats in the Legislature. Indians won seven of those seats. That is to say, although Indians consisted of only 35 per cent of the population (Africans were 46.8 per cent of the population according to the 1946 figures) 38.9 per cent of the elective membership of the Council were Indians. Although there may not have been a plurality of political voices the Indians were well represented during this early period which leads one to ask: where or what is the discrimination to which Mr. Dookeran alludes?
After such a spectacular indictment, Mr. Dookeran makes a great leap forward. He says: “The Indians saw themselves as victims, not shapers of society, and the Africans captured political power. They felt they had the power of the state.” Just like that. If my analysis is correct up until 1950, Indians possessed more political power (certainly if one measures their representation in the Legislative Council) than Africans. More importantly, within that period Africans took the lead in wresting power from the British authorities who was controlled the state. While the Indians were worthy allies the Africans were in the vanguard of the struggle for self rule.
Although the Indians may have seen themselves as victims (and I am not too sure who made them feel that way) it is untrue to say they were not the shapers of their destinies or the society. In fact, social theorists have argued that while the Indians kept their culture and traditions during indentureship, African culture and traditions were attenuated during the slave and colonial period.
When Dookeran says that the “Indians community must now shape the society for all” it sends a threatening message to all. It leads one to believe that in spite of the talk of inter-racial unity Indian (read Hindu) hegemonic intent still lingers in their psyche.
In 1869, J.J. Thomas, the son of an enslaved African, expressed the wisdom of our forebears when he admonished: “If the frog tells you the crocodile has sore eyes, believe him” which means that in judging another person give great weight to what he says about himself. As the old people say, don’t take a candle to look for something that you can see in broad daylight.
Ethnic chauvinism is an inescapable consequence of the PP victory. Let us be on guard against its crudest manifestations.