By Raffique Shah
August 29, 2022
It’s not so much that we have little or nothing to celebrate on the 60th anniversary of our Independence from Britain, as so many who swear they are patriots, but whose patriotism swings with the pendulum of their political party’s fortunes, which almost always are linked to their personal fortunes.
It’s more that our democracy has been carved up into near-equal but uneven parts in such manner, to misquote Irish poet William Yeats in his near-prophetic masterpiece, “The Second Coming”, “…Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction/While the worst/Are full of passionate intensity…”
While Yeats’ lyrics focused on the biblical “second coming of Christ”, it is uncanny how exactly 100 years after he wrote of things falling apart, of fragmentation across the world, his evaluation of society in active decay is enjoying a second run that may yet be more successful than the first. Then, in 1919, the first “war to end all wars” had come to an end, leaving in its toxic wake crushed empires (the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires), crumbling empires (The British empire), and a peace treaty (Versailles) that failed even before the ink was dry.
Critical to future global politics was the advent of communism, with Vladimir Lenin leading Russia and later several other European states to form the Soviet Union. In the Far East the most populous country in the world, China, was on the brink of taking that same path led by Mao Tse Tung. In fact, the spectre of communism had attracted leaders across the world, from colonies seeking freedom, to political parties that had a strong presence elsewhere in the world.
Very relevant to today’s post-pandemic world, there was a pandemic in 1918-1919, the Spanish flu, that took over 30 million lives which when compared with Covid numbers and today’s world population are similar.
Old conflicts between countries as diverse as Russia and Ukraine, China and Taiwan and others straddling most of the modern world rear their heads in nasty little wars in which the masses of people suffer most of all. Where the blood-letting is not visibly shocking the senses of people, the dividing lines have been drawn sometimes in blood, but mostly in cartography.
How do these global conflicts I have highlighted relate to what is happening in Trinidad and Tobago in our 60th year of Independence? To put it crudely, measuring our successes or failures during our period of Independence relies largely on the ethnicity of the people making those assessments.
Captain Arthur Cipriani, Tubal Uriah Butler and other leaders within the Caribbean had fought in that World War. They and others such as Krishna Deonarine (Adrian Cola Rienzi) had also returned to the country from studies mostly in England where they had been influenced by Marxist views. These men, and others like them, plunged into politics, their primary goal at that point, seeking universal adult franchise (one person-one vote).
The ethnic lines had been drawn with the advent of Indian indentured labour that started in 1845 and ended in 1916. The two largest ethnicities, Indians and descendants of African slaves, found themselves repressed by whites who wielded power. They therefore had a common enemy.
But that British super-structure was schooled in the politics of divide and rule. They kept the Indians on the sugar plantations and the Africans in mostly menial jobs across the country. In spite of these barriers, Butler and Rienzi had forged a united front by 1937.
When full franchise came in the 1940s, Indians and Africans voted, mostly for candidates fielded by leaders such as Butler and Rienzi. At that point, T&T was still a crown colony, meaning the elected members of parliament had electoral seats, but no power. Dr Eric Williams returned to Trinidad and “lay-down his bucket” by forming the PNM in 1955 and challenging the governor and the British government to give the country full independence. That would come in 1962, by which time the Indians and some French Creoles had forged an alliance in the DLP.
From then to now, 60 years after the country gained Independence, these two parties or their successors in the case of the DLP would do little to alter ethnic-based politics. It is why they will never agree on issues as fundamental as whether the country has done well or badly in 60 years as a sovereign nation. Any honest patriot will agree that the country has made significant positive strides. But we must jointly share responsibility for our failures—corruption, rampant crime, poor work ethic, etc.
I challenge the PNM to elect as its leader a non-African—maybe a Chinese, Indian, Caucasian—of impeccable integrity. A true patriot. The UNC should consider doing likewise with a non-Indian.
Maybe then we will see less divisiveness and more genuine unity among the races.