Tuesday 28 February 2012

An Indian Prime Minister

Racial prejudice, institutionalised to a fine point, was directed at the free blacks and people of colour as a class during the Woodford administration 1813 - 1829. The educated, well-off slave- and property-owning free black people responded with petitions. Eventually a delegation led by the coloured doctor Jean Baptiste Philippe left for London and met with the Secretary of State to the Colonies, the Lord Bathhurst. They did not propose emancipation of the salves. Slavery was an economic necessity that they as well as the Europeans subscribed to.
The case as presented was sound in law, inasmuch as the terms of the Cedula of Population, under the Spanish government, guaranteed certain rights for free blacks. The Articles of Surrender to the British by the Spanish Government in Trinidad in 1797 maintained those rights. With the court’s decision, the free blacks as a group had won a civil rights case, more than likely the first in this hemisphere.
Out of this came a political awareness that eventually formulated itself into the reform movements of the 1850s, on through to the turn of the century to the creation of the Workingman's Association. These reformists were concerned with altering the nature of Crown Colony status so as to increase greater participation by local people in the colony's political process. This was the hot-bed, the crucible of Creole politics as expressed by people like Mzumbo Lazare, Maresse Smith, Phillip Rostant, Preudomme David, Captain Cipriani, Albert Gomes and eventually C.L.R. James, Dr. Patrick Solomon and  Dr. Eric Williams. The genesis of the "politics of race" was a natural reaction of the black intellectuals to the absurdity of colonial prejudice which, more than anything else, insulted the intelligence of thinking people.
The East Indians of Trinidad, arriving from 1845 to 1917, had an entirely different political genesis. Living on the vast cane estates after the emancipation of the slaves, they escaped the emasculation and degradation of slavery and the violence of the plantations worked by slave labour to some extent. Old roles of leadership did not apply in the indentureship system. The mere crossing of the ocean had been enough to break that spell.
Conditions on the estates were also a great leveler. Leaders emerged from different quarters as necessitated by the managers' requirements. "Surdars", drivers and foremen and shopkeepers of all and every condition and caste, assumed leadership roles in estate yard and village life.
The earliest Indian organisation in this island came into existence in 1897, to organise a campaign to protest an ordinance, No. 12 of 1897, which contained several sections which infringed on the rights of the East Indians. This was the East Indian National Organisation. This body was to out live its original purpose, however its efforts after 1898 served to increase East Indian self-awareness.
Also in 1897, a group of East Indians submitted a memorandum to the West Indian Commission in which they requested for the first time direct representation by an East Indian member in the Legislative Council. This was unsuccessful. But as Dr. Bridget Brereton observes:
"The request highlighted a growing political awareness; it indicated that Indians were beginning to consider themselves as an identifiable group with its own interests, different and separate from those of other groups and with demands to be articulated."
By and large, East Indian politics was 50 years behind the Reformist Movement of the Creoles. Leaders like Sir Henry,  Maxwell Philip Q.C., Kenneth Vincent Brown K.C., for example, were already practiced speakers on the nominated benches of the Legislative Council in the 1880s and '90s. It was out of the organisation of labour that East Indians were to assume leadership roles that were larger than the estate yard or village life. This process commenced with lowering of wages and the increase of task work.  Professor Kusha Harraksingh states:
"This was a recurring planter strategy which the nature of the task system itself conveniently accommodated."
Many factors contributed to the unionisation of sugar workers that eventually occurred in 1937, not the least of which was the end of indentureship in 1917 and the switch over to free, unindentured labour. Professor Harracksingh also notes that the "concentration of ownership of the sugar industry was in a few hands ... the growth of a peasant sector of small and middle-sized cane farms without their own processing facilities; the development of party politics ... and the identification of sugar workers with a particular ethnic and cultural group."
The East Indian National Association in Princes Town was joined by another organisation called the Indian National Congress centered in Couva. The aim of these bodies was to encourage Indians to takes an active and intelligent part in both community life and in the broader scheme of things. The Trinidad Citizens League formed be Cola Rienzi (Krishna Deonarine) was a party which mainly appealed to sugar workers. This was branded as Communists by the colonial government.
In 1942, almost a century after East Indians had settled here, the right of adult franchise was granted by the colonial authority, hard won and hard fought for by the 19th century reformists and the trade unions, produced from their ranks, in the strikes of the 1920s and 30s and in the killing fields of Apex and Fyzabad.
For the East Indians, it created a great political impasse. The ordinance demanded that the voter could cast a vote only if he was qualified in the English language. The majority of the East Indians were illiterate and very few of them had a command of English. As V.M. Vidyarthi wrote in his article "Indian to Trinidadian":
"The language test therefore would have almost exclusively and adversely affected the Indian Community in the exercise of its votes, should it be allowed to function."
It was perceived as the most notorious element in the political setup and called for a united force to fight it. It tended to unite the East Indians, and their organisations finally succeeded in removing the test. Thus, equal opportunity for all races to participate fully in the political process was achieved, albeit within the structure of colonial Trinidad. The small steps taken by the Indian community in contributing to the creation of the nations political life was to be conveniently forgotten.
The first election with universal adult suffrage was held in 1946. A large number of independents and various political groupings contested the election. Men of Indian descent obtained four out of the nine elected seats. At this point, East Indians formed 35% of the islands population. It is thus very significant that they actually captured 44% of the elected seats.
In 1950, the second election was held under a new constitution. The entire colony was divided into 18 constituencies with an almost equal population. Fifty-one candidates were put up by five different political groups, and ninety independents contested. Five independents and 13 party candidates were elected. Among these seven were East Indians - four Hindus and three Christians. This represented 39% of the total elected seats. In his article Vidyarthi writes:
"A constitutional Reform Committee under the chairmanship of Ashford S. Sinanan, a member of the Legislative Council, was appointed in 1955. This committee recommended the creation of a British type of cabinet government under an elected Chief Minister. After minor modifications, the recommendations were implemented and the introduction of these reforms were hailed as a significant political advance. It gave rise to Party Politics."
In 1956, the elections were held under the new constitution, in which 8 parties put up 89 candidates to contest 24 seats. Among these, the Trinidad Labour Party and Uriah Butler's Party were the oldest. The Trinidad Labour Party was founded by Captain A.A. Cipriani and advocated self government.
The East Indian leadership at this point was divided into two groups. Leaders like Sarran Teelucksingh, Timothy Roodal and Adrian Kola Rienzi formed an association with Cipriani and the T.L.P. and had the support of East Indian organisations. The other party in the race was the People's Democratic Party, formed by Bhadase Sagan Maraj. For many years he reigned supreme as one of the top East Indian leaders in Trinidad.
Bhadase was a man of wide influence and dynamic personality, who advanced the status of the entire East Indian community. First elected as an independent to the Legislative Council in 1950, in '53 he founded the Peoples Democratic Party and in the same year became the leader of the Sugar Worker's and Cane Farmer's Union.
The year 1956 saw the formation of the People's National Movement under the leadership of Dr. Eric Williams. The P.N.M. entered the election campaign with a clear-cut program. It declared that the people of Trinidad had 6 years of corruption, mismanagement and party acrobatics in public affairs. It presented a multiracial slate of candidates and based its appeal on West Indian nationalism. It commanded black professional,  black labour and black urban support. It also commenced an educational program at Woodford Square in an atmosphere that may only be described as messianic.
Under pressure from the P.N.M., the leadership of the P.D.P. tried to modify its purely East Indian character and promoted multi-racialism and secularism from its platforms. It lent its support to the Party of Political Progress Groups, headed by Albert Gomes, the most significant person in the political scene after Captain A.A. Cipriani. The P.D.P. also supported the Butler Party and the Trinidad Labour Party as well as several independents.
From the results of the 1956 election, in which the P.N.M. secured the majority of seats and formed the government, it was clear that the time of the independents was over. The P.N.M. victory was the result of better organisation and leadership. It was also the result of the assertion of Negro self respect and self confidence, all supported by a strong black middle class, with its roots firmly placed in the 19th century colonial reform movements buttressed by West Indian immigration that had struggled against colonial dominance for close to 150 years.
On July 18th, 1957, at a special meeting of the representatives of the P.D.P., the F.L.P. and the P.O.P.P.G., a decision was taken to dissolve their parties and form the Democratic Labour Party. On January 8th, 1958, Badhase Sagan Maraj, the former head of the P.D.P. and the president general of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the largest Hindu religious body in Trinidad, was elected Leader of the parliamentary wing of the D.L.P., which by this time was recognised as the official opposition party in the Legislative Council.
With this development, the two-party system came into being. Between the P.N.M., with its "African" support and the D.L.P. with its "Indian" base. The D.L.P. was successful in the Federal Elections. However times were changing as Vidyarthi notes:
"But despite Bhadase's popularity and his influence on the East Indian masses, the younger generation of educated and enlightened groups found him to be an embarrassing leader. He was uneducated and no match for Dr. Eric Williams."
They thought his manners crude and his methods suspicious. To match the intellectual glamour of Dr. Williams, a section of the D.L.P. looked for leadership elsewhere, as the old "chief" had become less effective and increasingly unwell. The D.L.P. was divided upon itself during this period and A.P.T. James of Tobago took the helm.
He too was no match either for the brilliance or eloquence of Dr. Eric Williams. During this period, there were many defections to the P.N.M., as both Christian and Muslim intellectuals crossed over to the winning side. The D.L.P. leadership passed to Rudarnath Capildeo, a "staunch Sanatanist Hindu." Dr. Capildeo, like Dr. Williams, was an island scholarship winner. He had earned his Ph.D. from London University. He was now an acknowledged mathematician and physicist. It was felt that if Dr. Capildeo headed the D.L.P., he would be able together East Indian intellectuals and professionals and at the same time exert enough influence on the rural masses. He would also provide non-Indians alienated from the P.N.M. with the intellectual capacity they wanted.
Despite fierce factional fighting between the Bhadase supporters and the young intellectuals, concern of another P.N.M. victory eventually forced the closing of the ranks behind the new leader. But Dr. Capildeo was no politician. Unlike Dr. Williams, he had not created a political party of his own, but was rather placed at the head of a party by a group of shrewd and experienced politicians who wanted to use him and his academic achievements for getting votes. Dr. Kenneth Lalla comments on the 1961 elections and quotes Dr. Selwyn Ryan:
"As a forerunner to the 1961 general elections, the P.N.M. government announced its intention not only to re-draw the electoral boundaries but also to compile a new voters' registration and to introduce voting machines.
The Indians' reaction to those proposals was that they pointed out that these new voting arrangements were calculated to curtail the voting strength of the Indians, which had been demonstrated against the P.N.M. in the 1958 Federal elections. They further argued that the replacement of the ballot box by voting machines was also designed to frustrate illiterate Indians. Did the P.N.M. manipulate the distribution of the voting population on a racial basis so as to give more seats to the P.N.M.? On this issue Dr. Selwyn Ryan commented:
“The P.N.M. took no chances even in Port of Spain, where the boundaries were redrafted, to make sure that all potential D.L.P. areas, i.e. the upper class and upper middle-class residential areas, were attached to working class areas where the P.N.M. had been consistently strong. The D.L.P. was not given an outside chance to gain a seat in the capital city as they had done in the 1958 and 1959 municipal elections . In the countryside there was strong evidence to substantiate the D.L.P. claim that the P.N.M. had herded as many Indian voters as was possible into constituencies which they could not possibly win, and had extracted from such areas large blocks of Negro voters who were then recombined into the other constituencies.” (from “Race and Nationalism” 1961 pp. 144-45)"
Dr. Capildeo as Prime Minister! This was the dream of many and perhaps it was his dream as well, an Indian Prime Minister, just imagine!
Under his leadership the D.L.P. captured ten out of thirty seats. The highest voter turnout was in St. Augustine, where he was the candidate. The D.L.P. candidates were returned from the rural areas, mainly the sugar belt. Out of the ten seats gained, eight were East Indians and two were Negroes.
The eight East Indians consisted of three Hindu, one Muslim and  four Christians. Among these Ashford Sinanan, Simboonath Capildeo, Lionel  Frank Seukeran and Stephen Maharaj were elected to the Legislative Council. The other six members, new to the political arena, were Dr. Capildeo, political leader, Tajmool Hosein, Vernon Jamada, Balgobin Ramdeen, M. Forrester and Peter Farauhar.
In 1962, Trinidad and Tobago achieved full independence. Many of the opposition's demands were rejected. Dr. Capildeo had failed at the Marlborough House talks in London, and in many quarters it was felt that their cause had been betrayed. This led to an all around dissension among party members and resulted in the expulsion of many. Dr. Capildeo himself grew weary and was disgusted with politics. He eventually relinquished leadership of the D.L.P. and returned to London where he died in 1970.

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