By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 09, 2020
“To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history.”
On Friday, May 23, 1958, Lionel Seukeran, MP for Naparima (DLP) and grandfather of Faris Al-Rawi, AG, offered the following motion to the Legislative Council: “Whereas the Chief Minister [Eric Williams] is reported to have made an unwarranted and derogatory attack on the Indian community at a public meeting at Woodford Square, following the Federal elections, whereas his utterances on that occasion have aroused the indignation and caused grave concern among all sections of law-abiding people, and have contributed greatly to the embarrassment of people of East Indian descent…
Be it resolved that this Council express its complete confidence in that section of Her Majesty’s subjects of East Indian descent and in their ability to continue to work for the social, economic and political advancement of Trinidad and Tobago.”
The scene around the Council that morning was electric: “The Chamber was packed to capacity long before the scheduled 10 a.m. starting time. Outside on Knox Street and in the University [of Woodford Square] itself large groups of people for whom there was no room gathered to discuss the situation” (PNM Weekly, June 2, 1958).
Deep earnestness was engraved upon Williams’s stern countenance as he responded to the “alleged reports of statements” he was “supposed to have made.” He denied he made “an unwarranted and derogatory attack on the Indian community.” He continued:
“My whole philosophy is based on racial integration, racial harmony and on the policy that where there is division on political issues, that division must be totally divorced from all consideration of race….I personally, Sir, am quite accustomed to the distortion of what we [his party] say. We cannot accept any responsibility for this distortion, but I would like to say on my behalf that it would be a matter of great regret—considerable regret—if anything I said is to be distorted by the enemies of this Government. I have always upheld and defended the rights of the Indian community.”
Williams drew his political inspiration from the struggles of the black and brown peoples of the colonial world. He was influenced particularly by Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of India’s independence.
Williams admired Tagore’s deep appreciation of literature and the arts “as sources for the understanding and appraisal of historical development.” He subscribed to Tagore’s conviction: “In a literary work the author’s purest being reveals itself unconsciously. This is why I go to poetry and drama for evidence” (Of Myself).
Tagore must have inspired the title of Williams’s autobiography Inward Hunger, which Williams took from three lines of Dante’s Inferno where Ulysses says: “[I] could conquer the inward hunger that I had/ To master earth’s experience, and to attain/ Knowledge of man’s mind, both good and bad.”
In October 1959 Williams reminded a Queen’s Hall audience that Gandhi was “one of the most gifted human beings who ever lived” and suggested that “Gandhi’s relations with the Indians and the Africans in South Africa should form a chapter of his history which should not only be of interest but of profit to all of us at this particular time.” Gandhi’s description of South African blacks as “savages” and “uncivilised” may have taken the gloss off Williams’s injunction.
Williams felt closer to Nehru politically than he did to Gandhi who played down the importance of academic learning and attempted to spiritualise poverty. Nehru was determined to reduce poverty through scientific methods. Daurius Figueira notes that Williams insisted that “his worldview, his policies, his actions were in keeping with those of Pundit Nehru.”
No Indian leader in T&T has spoken as generously and as persuasively of the influence of Indian leaders on his work as a scholar and political leader as Williams has.
This is why Williams was aghast when Seukeran moved to censure him in the Legislative Council. Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler, MP, saw the ruse and asked that the motion be “honorably withdrawn… because of the very bold and courageous statement by the Chief Minister in the name of national unity and continued co-operation among the races as represented in the Council, and because he wanted them to desist from starting what was bound to be a solid foundation for distrust and even heat between the two major racial units in the country.”
Butler was not a sophist. He understood that the distortion of Williams’s statement about “a hostile and recalcitrant minority” could lay (and has laid) the foundation for great distrust between the races from 1958. It has been reinforced at important moments in our history. Both Basdeo Panday and Kamla Persad-Bissessar have used the phrase to describe their group during their ascendance to the national leadership of the country.
While Patrick Manning was prime minister, he set up a “Race Committee” that allowed people/antagonists of different races and religions to discuss their differences in a controlled setting. Persad-Bissessar got rid of the committee and Keith Rowley never re-instated it. Such a committee should be re-established and expanded to allow citizens to talk about their differences. Dialogue and discourse are essential in a plural society especially after George Floyd’s murder.
Proverbs 15 says: “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger./ The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.”
Indians, Africans and other groups have to live in this country. It would be foolish if we knowingly allowed lies, of the most heinous type, to divide us.