Is nationhood an illusion?

By Raffique Shah
July 24, 2011

Raffique ShahAS the nation prepares for a year of activities to mark our 50th anniversary of independence from Britain in August 2012, people of my generation must be wrestling with a mixture of emotions. There is a sense of pride, of having been there when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and the red-white-and-black colours of the new state hoisted atop flagpoles across the country. One had to be there to experience the birth of a nation to understand the pride, the joy, the celebrations. We were part of history, however insignificant we may have been in the hierarchical scheme of things.

Over the next year, I intend to use at least one column a month to try to put our independence in some perspective. I do this mainly because I sense our people, more so those below age 50, have little knowledge of, or regard for, our history. I begin today by placing our independence in a global context.

Recently, as I monitored a similar transition in South Sudan, looking at people camping in the capital city for days, and erupting into celebration at the magical moment, I could not help but remember our own experience. Here was a huge country torn by decades of strife, civil war, famine, and unimaginable human suffering, now split into two unequal parts. In spite of that bloody past, the Sudanese people appeared to be very upbeat about their future. In the euphoria of independence celebrations, people may well be blinded to the uncertainties of the future, or, indeed, forgetful of the tribulations of the past.

We in Trinidad and Tobago did not have to fight for independence. We did not even have to march or protest or quarrel for it. Colonies like India, Ghana and Nigeria, to name just a few, waged long, bitter struggles before the British Government agreed to let them be. India’s best-known fighter for that country’s freedom, Mohandas Gandhi, was the quintessential apostle of peace. Others around the Mahatma were not as accommodating.

Britain spilt a lot of Indian blood before it reluctantly agreed to let go of the Crown Jewel of the Empire in 1947. And it did so having exploited the demographic divide along the country’s religious fault-lines. Thus we had the vast Hindu population in what is now India (ignoring disputed Kashmir and pockets of other ethnicities), with two huge chunks to its east and west that became Pakistan. Those divisions, not to add divisiveness, came with intractable problems. That is the main reason why, to this day, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are beset by strife that stops barely short of all-out war.

For dreaming of one great, united-but free-India, Gandhi paid the ultimate price—his life. Nathuram Godse, his assassin, a rabid Hindu nationalist, was unapologetic for his dastardly deed, and remained defiant even as he was executed for the crime.

Indpendence for any country can be a traumatic experience. After Britain reluctantly let go of India, it fought rearguard actions to contain other prized colonies like the Gold Coast, as Ghana was called, and Kenya, which was strategically located on the East Africa coast at a time when Britain’s maritime prowess was critical to its economic well-being. Ghana was coveted for its gold and cocoa (among other resources), while Kenya served as an important colonial post. Trinidadians George Padmore and CLR James played pivotal roles in guiding Ghana’s first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, as he fought for, and won, independence in 1957.

Britain did not let go of Kenya easily. Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau Mau army fought a long, bitter and bloody struggle for independence. A peace accord, and with it independence, would come as late as in 1963, one year after ours.

Some political analysts argue that Trinidad and Tobago might have valued independence more if we had had to fight for it. I do not agree with that. Kenyatta, who led a war for independence in Kenya, fell into the neo-colonial mode with consummate ease after he came to power. In fact, this man whom British forces had hunted down during Kenya’s independence struggle, became one of Britain’s stoutest allies post-independence! In our case, those among my generation—and the one ahead of us—who thought that independence signalled forging our own, unique destiny, would soon grow disappointed in what we saw as stagnation, even retrogression. Within a decade of that glorious day in 1962, large numbers of nationals, especially the young, felt deceived by their leaders. It appeared to us that we had exchanged a white “massa” for a phalanx of black “massas”.

Could it be that we expected too much, too soon, from independence? We clamoured for equal opportunities, for meritocracy, at a time when one’s complexion more than one’s qualifications determined one’s station in life. Too many bright and otherwise capable sons and daughters of our independence suffered on the sidelines even as persons of lesser ability landed plum positions.

By 1970, as Earl Lovelace’s main character in his excellent novel, “Is Just a Movie”, says, we collectively shouted: we ‘ent %&*#g taking that! So less than ten years after independence, ten per cent of the population marching in protest, another ten per cent striking, maybe 20 per cent blasted vex but remain stewing in silence—how did we reach boiling point in such a short time?

Was independence a hoax? Is nationhood still an illusion? I shall try to answer these questions as I continue the independence series.

6 thoughts on “Is nationhood an illusion?”

  1. That question, Is Nationhood An Illusion? is a very pertinant one, we may also ask at this point what kind of nation that we want to build (if any)? I too share the same concerns because as a soldier in the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force at the time of Independence I wore my tunic proudly, very proudly looking forward to buildinf a nation with pride and dignity. There are those who honestly tried to lift us from obscurity to freedom but there were always those whose self interest figured more prominently and worked against the building ideas. There is nothing in our social creed or agenda that lends itself towards cohesiveness as a nation. The closest that we’ve come towards oneness was when our boys triumphed in Germany. We are still dealing with ‘culture’, even though our peoples have behaved closer to acceptance of the norm, our goodly government have now deemed it as ‘multiculturism’, in essence saying to let everyone do his own thing with no bridging of the divide. We now have a Cabinet that was said to represent T&T bur it’s make-up speaks not as representative of the population but that of the leading party in the coalation. Our prisons are filled with people of one type, our sports fields are fiulled with people of one type, our proffessions like medicine and law are filled with people of one type and our media speak with the same voice to promote people of one type. So, does this make our prospect for nationhood good? I think not!

  2. Nationhood is not illusionary. However, what we perceive as nationhood might be.
    While in Somalia I saw the famous Somalian saying brought into the forefront of life. “Me and Somalia against the world, me and my clan against Somalia, me and my brother against my clan and Me against my brother.”
    This is not profound because of the war status of Somalia, I lived in Northern Somalia for over a year and never saw war, but it is very core of living organism.
    The human body is constantly in battle, fighting off germs that may be harmful and fighting to maintain those that the body needs for survival. The body teams with other bodies to also fight of those parasites that are deem harmful and saving those parasites that are deemed beneficial.
    Similarly the nation is in constant battle, both internally and externally. (I use the word battle because it is the word most commonly used.) Internally the battle is for the “forces of good against the forces of evil”, and for who decides what is “good” and what is “evil”. Externally is for the same purpose. Good and evil is very subjective. The far easterners prefer to call it ying and yang.
    The nation is constantly asserting itself. It seems we have lost direction, but I believe that we are redefining our priorities and we should accept debate for the heart and soul and not constantly be lecturing to the young people but consul them. This is the world they will inherit and while they do not yet have the experience they do need to take control. Those of us with the experience should consul. We cannot always prevent our children from falling but we can consult them when they fall so they can see another way of dealing with motion.

  3. “A nation without a memory, said George Santayana, the Spanish-American 19th-20th century essayist and philosopher, “is an invention of madmen.”

    In another place, he said, and I paraphrase, ‘a nation is a vehicle for shared narratives and common purpose and aims.’

    Trinidad has been a partial nation, in my opinion. Yes, I remember the euphoria (I didn’t in my early teens know the meaning of this word) of seeing the Union Jack fall and the Red, Black and White hoisted.

    I recall going to see a cowboy movie in a theatre (cinema as a word came later) and before the newss of the world segment came on, everyone was expected to stand as the anthem was played. Those who did not were roundly upbraided, including even in newspapers like the Guardian.

    Today, how many in T&T under the age of twenty-five know the words of the anthem which, like most anthems from former colonized countries speak, not to a struggle for independence, but gives praise or acknowledgement to God … “and may God bless our nation …”

    White countries and former colonizers, for example Britain sings, “Rule Britannia…” Americans sing about …”bombs going off in the air (and that) the flag was still there…”

    In addition, naational ssymbols saay much about a people’s “history” and self-perception, I think. Therefore, while T&T has the peaceful hummingbird, America has its eagle, Britain its lion and Russia its bear.

    Apart from the symbols, since Canada, a “europeanized” country has a beaver, an humble, plain-faced, bark-eating rodent, so dumb it sometimes aallows the tree it is barking to fall down on its head.

    Back to Santayana.

    I agree with him about a nation being a compilation of shared narratives; and is so even more than a geographical location in space. O course, over time, geography as Mao stated, trumps everything else, including politics.

    In T&T, these narratives are in reality shareed cultures and cultural experiences. Shared in this context means respected, acknowledged, and commemorated.

    Indians in T&T have a ccoherent, or one relatively coherent to that of Black Trinis. Indians have some sense of the geographical location and even villages andd ships from where they came and on which their forebears travelled.

    Their narrative includes, not only the sorrows of indentureship, but excludes the benefits derived from the militancy of former enslaved Africans; a militancy that was met by the British in many ways.

    Among these was the Order after 1838 throughout all British territories that Crown Land, which had previously been ceded out to white plantation owners for thirty years before trhey bought ot, would now cost one pound sterling per acre.

    This was to prevent “indolence … and labour for wages …”

    The same Colonial Office that would provide tghe same land to Indians who remained after indentiture was ended.

    In short, if there is any point of departure narrative which still separates AfroTrinis from IndoTrinis it is on one hand the denial of land after enslavement and the provision of land after indentitureship.

    These narratives have only this as a point of confluence: that both peoples are in T&T today, but while one was brought against their will, the other generally came voluntarily.

    Without Emancipation, there would be no Indian Arrival as we now know it.

    And the future, if the present is both prologue and epilogue? Three narratives of marginalization: genocide, deportations(removing the ‘small islanders’ en maasse or incrementally), or out-populating by breeding and immigration.

    There are other possibilities. One of these is according to Santayana, having shared aims. Shared national aims. Recently, Dr. Cudjoe publicly requested of the Minister of Education, a review of the SEA exam results.

    The Minister’s response of dismissal, and of ‘move on’ as the PM usually concludes debate and action on things negative is a pattern of casuaal display of ubiquitous power.

    At the heart of attitudes of contempt and dismissal is not criminality, but vulnerability. Those without power have no narrative deserving of being shared, ans surely little claim on national aims.

    A sure way to see where the current administration is headed is to see who, by ethnicity and race have been placed in the change-making ministries: Foreign Affairs, Education, Technology, Finance, etc., and who in charge of the clean-up ministries, eg., Sports, Culture, etc.

    In short, any enterprise: economic, politic, national or else that does not have, nor does not know of, and learn from its institutional memories is doomed to fail.

  4. Remember, too, that most of the Indian leadership as the country headed into Independence opposed it.

    They opposed it for the same reason why eminent Indian leaders like Cheddie Jagan of Guyana opposed the Federation because it would have ‘limited the development of Indian culture, and political future.’

    While Dr. Eric Williams had a multi-ethnic team including Africans, Indians, Syrians, Whites and others, the Indian leadership was trying in London to stop it.

    In fact, the only mono-ethnic political parties T&T has ever seen were Indian political parties. Had they had their way, T&T today would be an Overseas Dependency or Protectorate as Bermuda is to Britain and Martinique is to France.

    Many, including the PM even today cannot accept Dr. Williams for who he is, the Father of our nation. As a scholar, born of poor means, but able to win an Island Scholarship to places like Oxford. This opportunity he opened later as leader in T&T by opening all the schools of higher learning to all the children of the country, regardless of race, class or favoured tradition.

  5. The only way the nation can grow fully is if all cultures are allowed to flourish fully. Everyone should embrace their culture fully. Assimilation would come naturally. Assimilation should not be forced down peoples throats. Africans, Indians, Chinese, Syrians, should embrace their culture fully. The problem lies when one group thinks that their culture is superior. In some Trini ‘cultures’ songs are written to demean other cultures – a recipe for endless discord.

    In N.America, there is no demands for immigrants to assimilate – only a drive to learn English. Unlike Trinis, Americans are proud to say they are or combo of Irish, Scottish, Greek, German, Polish, Italian, French,Jamaican, Trini etc.

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