Friday 23 December 2011

Bhadase Sagan Maraj

The buffalo emerged from a lake of mud. Huge, it seemed that a part of the earth itself had become detached. It rose majestically against the dark gray sky with a white egret perched precariously upon its hind quarter facing in the direction from which it had come. The boy sitting under the oldest mango tree on the estate, hugged his knees and stared past the beast to the line of blue gray mountains to the North. They had recently shot his father as he lay, reading from the Bhagavad Gita in his hammock under his house in Central Caroni. Matthew Sagan Maraj, his father, had been a big, very strong, powerful man, he dominated the neighbouring villages and was known to invade them. Mitto Sampson said “He made laws and no man in Caroni broke them...” He was feared. “Expert stickmen crumbled under his ferocious blows.”
Michael Anthony wrote of his son, “Bhadase Sagan Maraj was born into an environment full of drama and bravado, lived in the self-same style of life, while contribution enormously to this country’s good.”
The hitmen promised to return for him. The boy had to flee. In the distance, the smoke, a harsher hew than the thunderous sky, rose from his father’s funeral pyre. The boy stepped from the cane piece just in time to stop the bus. He was 13; it was 1932. The bus was bound for Tunapuna, where a close relative would look after the boy. His earliest education had been gleaned from the Canadian Mission to the Indians in his home county of Caroni. Later, he had traveled to Port of Spain to Pamphylian High School. Now, however, with his beloved father dead, it seemed that his childhood had come to a close, as he was faced with the responsibility of looking after at least the material needs of his brothers and sisters.
The tall, gangly youth turned his hand to whatever came to it. Bottle collecting, running errands, he loaded cane trucks at the nearby estate, put on some size, he bought and sold scrap iron, he acquired a boat and took sand from the Caroni river so as to sell it in the building boom that came with the war days. He had inherited his father’s handsome features, size and manly manner. He was a man of his times, knowing that the future could be of his own making. He was good at business and knew how to make a profit. He was young, and felt compelled to return to his village, wanting to confront the reality that had forced him away. But the tensions were gone, and he moved on with his life. He became a wrestler, challenging all comers - it brought in a little extra money. He remembered one in particular; his name was Gotch. A natural leader of men, the American employers at the Naval Base at Chaguaramas were glad to see him. He went into trucking.
Made aware of the various shortages brought on by the war, like nails for example, Bhadase bought up as much old boards as possible, took the nails out, hammered them straight and sold them, making a profit. He worked hard and honestly for the Americans. This paid off handsomely. As the bases closed, he was allowed to purchase surplus goods at prices that allowed him to turn a remarkable profit. The foundation for his first fortune was laid.
In 1948, three years after the war, India was granted independence. This coincided with his own. He was wealthy now and could afford to finance a lavish celebration to mark India’s Republic Day.
In the context of the Indian community, he was regarded as a man of stature, a man to respect. His generosity to all was a hallmark of his life. He entered politics, and in the general election of 1950 “won handsomely” and became the member for Tunapuna in the island’s Legislative Council.
The boy who, tortured by his father’s death, had gazed helplessly into a bleak future, was now very popular, very powerful, and very wealthy. As a Hindu, his religion meant a lot to him. In 1952, he formed the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a religious organization which had as its goal the preservation and dissemination of the Hindu philosophy, and which possessed a political wing, the People’s Democratic Party. A great wellspring of support rose about him. He was, however, not without detractors, who accused him of using his “Indianness” for political ends. It touched him, and he declared that he was a Hindu and could do nothing else but.
As a man of little education and knowing how little there was available, he rallied the Hindu community to organize a school building program. Forty schools were built between 1952 and 1960. In the real politic, the changes taking place in the overall society were to set the tone for the next four decades. The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha acted as a catalyst in bringing the Hindu community together. Bhadase became a leader of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) in 1953 and prepared to fight the general elections due in 1955. For various reasons, these elections were postponed to the following year. Disappointed and furious, he resigned his seat in the Legislative Council, only to reconsider fighting the by-election and regain his seat. The DLP contested 14 seats in 1956 and won 6. The People’s National Movement (PNM) under the brilliant Dr. Eric William's won 13 seats.
In the federal elections of 1958, Bhadase’s success was outstanding, leading the DLP of the West Indies, winning 6 of the 10 Trinidad seats for the Federal parliament. Politically, he moved from strength to strength. In 1959, he was able to win control of 5 out of 11 county councils in the municipal and county council elections of that year. He refused to be taken in by those who accused him of being a racist, insisting that he was a Trinidadian, a Hindu and a citizen of the world. People said his popularity was based on the schools he had built in cowsheds. His response was that it was better to be educated in a cowshed than not to be educated at all.
To the tens of thousands who passed through Bhadase’s cowsheds, there was no doubt in their minds. In a sense, he outgrew the DLP he had created, left the party and in the words of historian Michael Anthony, who wrote a short biography of Bhadase, he “fought on, like a lone gladiator”. He carried his battle to both the PNM and to the DLP. In parliament, he was a fierce critic and a true independent.
In 1960, the reins of leadership of the DLP passed to Dr. Rudranath Capildeo, a remarkable man possessed of genius. As age and illness crept upon Bhadase, he started to diversify his considerable interest. A substantial landowner, he sold to Canning & Co. as well as to the government some 310 acres of Streatham Lodge. The Maha Sabha benefited from his generosity with the site of a new headquarters at St. Augustine. In 1966, he lost at the polls to Dr. John Bharath of the DLP, and in 1968 he was on the huskings again, winning the Chaguanas seat in a by-election.
In 1969, he led a break-away faction of four members of the DLP. In 1971, he suffered a total defeat at the polls, and died at the early age of 52 on Thursday, 21st October of that same year.

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