Panday, a leader who cared

Basdeo Panday - File photo
Basdeo Panday - File photo


The loss of a beloved one poses unique challenges but the passing of the honourable Basdeo Panday makes coming to terms with his loss uniquely difficult. The first week of January 2024 has witnessed a tremendous outpouring of grief and love for Mr Panday – the young and old, the rich and poor, people of different races, ethnicities, religions and socio-economic backgrounds came from near and far to pay their respects as he first lay in state at the Rotunda of the Red House, and then at the Southern Academy for Performing Arts (SAPA). It was a moment in history as people of all walks of life lined the streets in grateful reverence to the founding father of the United National Congress (UNC) and the nation’s fifth prime minister, who served from 1995 to 2001: his body was draped with the national colours and escorted by the military parade to SAPA for an official state funeral on January 9.

What is the greatness of this political icon that has inspired such an overwhelming reaction?

Mr Panday was revered by many as an outstanding labour leader, politician and statesman par excellence. But above all, I think the true essence of Mr Panday’s enduring bond with the people of TT is that his vision and actions were empowered by one simple but profound attribute – he cared. Mr Panday once said to me, "Before someone becomes a leader, success is about gaining adequate knowledge and experience. But when you become that leader, success is all about caring for others." An empathetic leader, indeed he was, and tireless advocate for improving the life circumstances of working-class people which in turn, influenced his commitment to addressing systemic issues affecting the wider population. He was compassionate towards those who had suffered oppression and injustice due to limited schooling and poor education. Raised in humble circumstances and surrounded by poverty, Mr Panday was strong in his resolve that without education there is no future.

Mr Panday shared with me one of his very early life changing experience which demonstrated the life changing power of education in the fight against poverty. As an 11-year-old boy in fifth standard at the St Julien Canadian Mission School, he drove a mule cart transporting cane in his home village of St Julien in Princes Town. Each day he went to the pen with water and grass for the mule. Speaking on this serious subject but with his usual colourful humour, Mr Panday emphatically stated, “One day, I decided that a good education was the only path for me out of that mule pen.” From that day onwards the young Mr Panday aspired for academic excellence and attained his secondary education at Presentation College in San Fernando.

Mr Panday’s journey to remarkable success in leadership at the national level was paved with professional achievements, diverse work experiences and growth in education that are too many to mention. Mr Panday's sister, Cynthia Panday-Boodram said initially he wanted to become a teacher. Mr Panday worked as a primary school teacher at Seereeram Memorial Vedic School in Chaguanas, and at St Clement Vedic School in Ste Madeleine. He was also a civil servant at the San Fernando magistrates court after which he obtained a degree in law from the Inns of Court School of Law in 1962 and a bachelor of science in economics from the University of London in 1965. Mr Panday first entered the Parliament of TT as an Opposition senator for the Democratic Labour Party in 1972. On September 15 that year, he proclaimed to the Senate, “Ours is too small a country to try to discriminate against each other. We are too dependent on one another and once you discriminate against one another you damage the entire country.” What resonated in the heart of this true teacher? Mr Panday’s appointment as leader of the Opposition five times from 1976 to 2010 intensified his pursuit for transformative change in education to repair past injustices and enhance our capacity to unite together. TT was in need of an education system designed to infuse economic equality, social justice and race, ethnic and class unity.

Mr Panday founded the UNC in 1988, a party which he led with distinction to become the first prime minister of Indian descent from 1995-2001. He knew that it was not enough for anti-colonial fighters to win independence and assume power, but more than that a prime minister cannot fail in education for nation building. He recognised that the highest performing education systems are those that combine quantitative expansion with quality education. Hence, in his role as prime minister, Mr Panday was astute in applying a framework of transformation as it relates to quality in a seamless education system and the right to higher education. In 2000, universal access to secondary school education was provided with the intent to equip all students for higher education. In 2001, the Dollar-for-Dollar programme was introduced for the democratisation of higher education with the State covering 50 per cent of students’ tuition costs. Under the Mr Panday administration, transformative change in education was seen as important for social justice because it has the power to provide equal opportunities for all. Of major significance, the Equal Opportunities Commission was created by the Equal Opportunity Act of 2000; this act was passed with the blessings and faith of former prime minister Mr Panday that TT should be transformed into a more equal, just and unified society.

History judges national leaders by their legacies. From my perspective, Mr Panday’s legacy for future generations to emulate is:

A people with equality of opportunity

A people educated

A people united

A nation resilient and strong

I had my last conversation with Mr Panday before he left for medical treatment abroad in December 2023. We talked about the role of education for the second quarter of the 21st century. His was an unquenchable and unconquerable spirit of political will for transformative change in education from which other countries in the Caribbean region and beyond can benefit. In this regard, a fitting tribute to his legacy is to rename the Piarco International Airport, the Basdeo Panday International Airport.

We can never thank Mr Panday enough for all that he has done for us and the land of Trinidad and Tobago which we all call home. I conclude with a few words from Mr Panday (November 3, 2007), “I remember my struggle to unite this country…I have no regrets. As I come to the end of a very long journey I ask you to send me off in a blaze of glory…Stand tall! …Bow to no one!’’

Basdeo Panday jee kee aatma ko moksh milay

(May Sri Basdeo Panday’s soul attain liberation)

Dr Vashti Singh is a senior lecturer and head of the Department of Research and Graduate Studies, Faculty of Education and Humanities at the University of Guyana.


"Panday, a leader who cared"

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