ON MAY 30, 1990, the 145th anniversary of Indian arrival in Trinidad, I gave the feature address at a memorial service for my late friend, I.J Bahadur Singh, a man from Tunapuna who became an Ambassador of India under Nehru. 1990 was a difficult year for us. We now instinctively associate it with the attempted coup, but there was more.
One of the ills afflicting us then was – surprise, surprise – racial tension: persons of Indian origin were loudly and bitterly complaining about what they called their “alienation” from the mainstream of society. The NAR coalition members had taken triumphant office in late 1986, promising to obliterate every trace of the divisiveness allegedly fostered by their predecessor PNM – One Love, they termed their approach. Now, ironically, their government had become the target of a frightening hatred.
After consultation, I took the opportunity of the memorial service to say a few words about the race situation in the country, especially the relationship between people of African and of Indian origin; the Bahadur Singh I had known would have approved. Among other things, I said this.
“A dichotomy, a contradiction, has developed in the relations between the two races. On the one hand, and I am of course speaking broadly, people of African origin feel that Indian-origin people are too clannish, too restricted to their own circles and mores, not sufficiently Trinidadian or Tobagonian or West Indian – they are not fully part of society, which apparently means society as defined by the African-origin group and some others.
On the other hand, Indian-origin people increasingly say that they do wish to be an integral part of society but that obstacles lie in their way, and that integration does not mean, to use a popular terminology, a purée but rather a tossed salad, not the melting-pot concept of the United States but rather the mosaic concept of Canada.
“On the one hand, people of non-Indian origin say often that all that Indian-origin people have to do is join them as West Indians. On the other hand, they continue to call such people ‘East Indians’ and largely to ignore their cultures and achievements … Should one adopt Samuel Selvon’s definition, that there may be an unusual creature about – an East Indian Trinidadian West Indian?
“How many people of non-Indian origin are there in this society, I wonder, who know the difference between the name Singh or Maharaj and the name Khan or Mohammed? Or between a mandir and a masjid? Or who do not turn off the radio or find another station when Indian music comes on?
Or who do not have a friend of Indian origin, as distinct from a colleague at the workplace, but who, this lack of familiarity notwithstanding, know that East Indians, so-called, are devious and untrustworthy because that is the nature of the race? Or who resent what they see as the growing influence of Indian-origin people and the increasingly frequent assertion of their wish for equality and respect, and say that ‘Indians’ have too much already and now want to take over everything? Is it possible that all this could engender in the mind of the Indian-origin person a conviction, or even a perception, of alienation?
“But as in so many aspects of life … there is another side. If India has ancient civilisations and cultures, so too does Africa. If people of Indian origin are not generally lacking in honesty and principle, neither are African-origin people generally shiftless and fête-obsessed. If Indians and people of Indian origin have received pressures, so too have Africans and people of African origin, and for a very long period the pressures were more severe.
If Indians were exploited, so too were Africans. The tendentious perceptions that one group has of the other must therefore be closely examined, especially because if they are matched by equal tendentiousness on the part of the other group, there is no conceivable way in which our country will make the progress it can and should.”
I also said this: “I am a citizen who, in asking that we confront certain issues, does so out of a wish, stumbling though it may be, to give something back to this country; who is of the opinion that we’re far from being in crisis but that if so many citizens, particularly those of what the late Sir Hugh Wooding used to call ‘the two major minorities’ … complain of alienation and marginalisation and being second-class, we have a problem, and that we must face that problem squarely and deal with it.” I then made certain suggestions, which I shall come to in my next article on Monday. Nearly 30 years have passed, a generation. Where are we today?