By Raymond Ramcharitar
July 4, 2012 – guardian.co.tt
I could be mistaken, but it seems that the Highway Re-Route Movement activists are using their protests as a medium to deploy a Hindu-centric protest language to address the national community, and (presumably) the Government. Since, looking at the visual statements, a new vernacular is making its debut in the national conversation/cussout, it might be important to point out that we’re not really sure what they’re saying.
From the “sit-down” protest at the Divali Nagar site, which featured chanting dulahins accosting the Prime Minister a few weeks ago, to the jacking-up of Jack Warner with shouts of “Ravan” at the Debe highway site, to the “Occupy Sidewalk” at the PM’s office, to images of Hindu gods at the camp, it seems obvious that the vernacular incorporates the visual rhetoric and lexis of Hinduism, and is using the photo ops to announce itself. (A photo of a Muslim woman in costume appeared in last Friday’s papers, but Hindu symbolism dominates.)
This strangeness of this element of the protests might not be immediately evident since the average (low-visual-literacy) viewer will see just a few familiar signifiers of Indo-Trinidad, if with an unfamiliar emotional urgency. But the visual consistency and fluency of the TV images, fused to a political event, signal that this is more than that.
The problem is (to repeat) that many people (like me) don’t understand the language, and I’m wondering what its wielders intend for onlookers to understand. The visual language of public protest we’re familiar with includes the rhetorical and visual tropes of urban/Afro-Trinidad, because they’ve pervaded the “national” media for decades. We know how to interpret the language because it’s been appropriated from US transnational media, movies and pop culture.
So we know what the Beetham-ites are “saying” when they block the highway, and when Nelson Street disadvantaged youth bawl how the “resources moving to central” hence their setting fire and blocking roads and so on. And we also understand the ethnic logic and the political implications—so we know/hope they’ll respond to Shaquille O’Neal.
But there’s no such interpretive fluency in decoding costumed, lotus-posed men and women, at one moment prostrating themselves in prayer while the bulldozers demolish their camp, and at the other moment, cussing and screaming that the PM say she is a mother, but she is really a “mudder,” and the Honourable Minister of Works is a “Ravan.”
But a few things can be inferred. The conventional and emotional logic(s) which generate these protest performances are to be found in Hindu practices, festivals, and public ceremonies (weddings, sat sanghs and festival observances, like Kartic or Divali) which see many people gathered in one place for the purpose.
Naturally, the people at the events would be aware of their worldview’s low value in the national political economy, and have strong feelings about it. When they meet and mingle, their ideas coalesce, and develop a group idiolect, an argot, and eventually a shared political position. (Something similar happened in calypso tents and talk radio from 1996-2001.)
Without understanding the visual and verbal rhetoric of those primary Hindu events, their stories and modes of interpretation, we derive a very limited understanding of the protests. It would be easy to assign a localised tribal interpretation to this, but that doesn’t help much.
One obvious thing is that the tactics and visual grammar deployed here resemble Hindutva—Indian-Hindu nationalism—activism, embodied in Indian organisations like the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) political party, which are associated with right-wing Indian politics. (A report in the NY Times on Nov 29, 2008, by Somini Sengupta, described the BJP as containing “radical” elements, which might have been implicated in the Mumbai bombings of that year.)
What seems also clear is that Hindu-Trini culture “south of the Caroni” is something a little more elaborate and forceful than a “marginal culture,” as PNM hacks posing as academics have proposed. It’s more of a pari passu culture, which was developing rapidly from the 1950s, alongside “Creole” culture, as a result of “south of the Caroni’s” isolation from the national discourse.
The isolated culture has now evolved and acquired enough confidence to make itself aggressively public. And thanks to UWI’s, and the national media’s lack of, uhm, consciousness, there’s no public knowledge of it. That said, whether this is an irruption from a unified movement or an anomalous tessera of the “south of the Caroni” mosaic remains to be seen. We can only say with certainty that it derives much of its visual vocabulary from transnational Indian exports—pop-culture, technology, commerce and religious, political, or quasi-religious proselytising figures who visit Trinidad from time to time.
As to what the protesters are saying, it might be that the UNC elements of the PP are savvy to what’s going on. The rest of us, however, don’t, which is worrying. Even less comforting is that there should be some contact points, or areas of commonality, between this culture and the rest of Trinidad culture, but I can’t see any.
This all says that the reroute movement’s motives, methods, and its apparent distance from the understanding of “north of the Caroni” culture reveal yet another fault line in an already too-fractured society. The level of division and fractiousness do not make one hopeful that the thing Trinidad needs the most will emerge from all this “activism”: a shared set of values and a common language.
The blame for this must go the usual suspects: the UWI, whose cultural studies and social-sciences departments have produced nothing to help anyone understand anything said above; and the managers of state cultural policy, who, as I’ve noted many times before, have handed the authority over “national” culture and the resources of the State to a set of frighteningly unqualified people for their own purposes. And so it goes.