Panday, martyr for Tobago Baptists, friendly ‘foe’ of the THA

Chief Justice Ivor Archie signs the condolence book for former prime minister Basdeo Panday at the Assembly Legislature Building Scarborough, Tobago on January 4 - Photo courtesy THA
Chief Justice Ivor Archie signs the condolence book for former prime minister Basdeo Panday at the Assembly Legislature Building Scarborough, Tobago on January 4 - Photo courtesy THA

EVER since his government declared March 30 a public holiday for the country’s Shouter/Spiritual Baptists in 1996, Basdeo Panday has been regarded as a martyr among many within the Tobago Baptist community.

And even though he passed away on January 1 at the age of 90, they say his contribution to the development of the faith will never be forgotten.

“We are so sorry that he has left us but we will continue to share our love for him with his daughter, Mickela,” an emotional Rev Mary James-Phillips told Newsday.

A leader of the National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith International Centre (NESBF), Tobago Circuit, headquartered in Mt St George, James-Phillip said Baptists on the island have only fond memories of Panday, who served as TT’s prime minister from 1995-2001.

In fact, members of the community paid glowing tribute to the late prime minister during a function in his honour at Rovanel’s Resort on September 28, 2019.

“We had invited him to Tobago and we awarded him. We had made a nice trophy for him and we had a day of fun because we brought him in from Trinidad the day before and we accommodated him at Coco Reef hotel, him and Mickela and the following day we had this nice presentation,” James-Phillips said.

“The love he has shown for us in Tobago over the years, we could not just forget him. We had to do something to honour him, to show him that we really appreciated what he has done for us.”

The holiday observes the repeal on March 30, 1951 of the 1917 Shouter Prohibition Ordinance which prohibited the activities of the Shouter/Spiritual Baptist faith.

James-Phillips said before Liberation Day was declared a public holiday, Baptists never got the recognition they deserved.

“So for us, Mr Panday was an angel in disguise in the life in the archdiocese both in Tobago and under the leadership of our archbishop Glenroy Jack.

“I must say that if it wasn’t for Mr Panday to put Baptists on the map by giving us that day I don’t know where we would have been. So we will always be grateful to him because he is a blessed soul.”

James-Phillips, who is also PRO of the NESBF Tobago Circuit, recalled Panday did not just acknowledge the faith but showed them love and appreciation.

Describing him as passionate and charismatic, she claimed Panday often spoke about the need to reform the constitution to allow for greater equality for Baptists.

“He made us feel that we were wanted and we are so grateful for that. Words could never explain the joy in our hearts that Mr Panday has created.”

Other Tobago stakeholders, meanwhile, have expressed differing views about Panday’s contribution to the development of the island, particularly in tourism, its lifeblood.

While he was regarded as being extremely supportive of the sector during his tenure as prime minister, it was also felt that his government’s initiatives were not always in sync with the then Hochoy Charles-led THA’s plans to develop the island along a particular path.

Charles, who died on December 31, 2023, after a lengthy illness, served as THA chief secretary from December 1996-January 31, 2001.

Former assemblyman George Stanley Baird, who at one point served as secretary of tourism, information and the environment in the Charles administration, felt Panday generally had good intentions for Tobago.

But he recalled the then THA occasionally locked horns with the United National Congress (UNC) founder.

“We had some falling out. But we had a cordial relationship punctuated by frequent dialogue and discussional sessions,” Baird said.

“Panday had some visions for Tobago but the immediacy of some of his visions were not au courant with some of our visions.”

On assuming office in 1996, Baird said, the THA was keen on building Tobago’s economy in several areas, including food security and establishing a viable tourism product, not simply by increasing the island’s room stock.

He told Newsday, “Central government was saying at the time that the focus should have been on rooms but we were saying, “Let us go with a product rather than hotel rooms because there was a golf course that was not being utilised to the maximum. So we needed to develop tourism products that would have attracted people.”

Baird said this thrust led to the introduction of the Tobago Blue Food Festival in October among other tourism initiatives, to attract international visitors, especially at the onset of the winter season.

But he claimed the Panday administration, at that time, seemed more pre-occupied with promoting the Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort (formerly the Hilton) in Lowlands as the preferred hotel destination.

Baird said the THA was very concerned that the UNC seemed to be pushing what appeared to be a piecemeal approach to tourism as opposed to developing the sector holistically and supporting the assembly’s plans to build a sustainable economy.

He added the assembly also focused heavily on education and medical tourism.

“We were going that way because we had discussions with Miami-based health providers towards getting our new hospital in Scarborough. We were also looking towards getting medical tourism as part of the Tobago offering and we had enlisted some local individuals to develop some convalescent facilities with that intention.”

Baird said several foreign universities also sent students to Tobago at the old hospital at Fort King George to pursue work on tropical medicine.

But former Tobago Hotel and Tourism Association president Rene Seepersadsingh had a different take on Panday’s relationship with stakeholders in the sector.

In fact, he said, Panday was very supportive of Tobago’s efforts to develop tourism.

Seepersadsingh said Panday was instrumental in resolving the airlift crisis, which Tobago was experiencing at the time and ensured the government work closely with the THA to do so.

“It was during his time he supported the concept of forming the airlift committee for Tobago, which was, in fact, a significant achievement and also the standing committee on tourism.”

The standing committee on tourism began under the previous Patrick Manning PNM administration.

He regarded the airlift crisis as one of the lowest points in the island’s history.

“That was when airlines had pulled out from the destination for a variety of reasons, mostly economic and Mr Panday gave his full support to the sector.”

Seepersadsingh recalled Panday had directed a member of his cabinet Jearlean John to provide “immediate support” by liaising with those in the accommodation sector. At one time, John also travelled to the UK to speak to airline representatives.

“That was one of the things I always respected Mr Panday for at the time. He always said what Tobago wants Tobago will get, once he has the resources. He was very supportive of Tobago. Any initiative we had, he said bring the plans forward and he will support.”

He said Panday had a special love for Tobago, which he often spoke about.

“He wanted Tobago to succeed so that Tobagonians could benefit from it.”

Seepersadsingh claimed Panday was also the only sitting prime minister to attend the prestigious World Travel Market as well as other tourism-related functions in the UK.

In other areas, Baird claimed the Panday government did not find favour with a 15-year development plan that was conceptualised around 1998, two years into the Charles administration. Noted economist Dr Vanus James had led a committee to execute the plan.

“The committee had carried out a needs assessment and made proposals for initiatives the THA intended to pursue, such as education, health tourism and enhancing productivity. But it really didn’t mesh with Panday’s plans and that was frowned upon by him and his administration.”

Similar to what currently obtains, Baird said, central government funding was a perennial challenge for Tobago under the Panday regime.

“We lacked funding. We did not have a predictable share of the national purse and this I why the Dispute Resolution Commission was triggered by Hochoy Charles, indicating that they had problems with financing.

“The outcome of that was that Tobago should receive, at the very least, a minimum of 4.03 per cent and at the highest, 6.9 per cent (of the national budget), to be able to have some semblance of planning.”

He recalled during those years, Tobago received a mere $325 million budget allocations, 60 per cent of which went to recurrent expenditure and the remaining 40 per cent for its development programme.

“That was pure stagnation.”

As a result, Baird complained, “We had to get everything from Trinidad.”

On the other hand, he said, the THA applauded the Panday government’s universal secondary education initiative.

Acknowledging that many in the population did not support the decision to “build secondary schools for everyone,” Baird said, “That is what john public would have talked about, Panday’s ‘chicken licken’ schools. But the teaching service in Tobago made those ‘chicken licken’ schools work.”

Baird said after he left politics and entered the teaching profession, he worked at the Mason Hall Secondary School for some 12 years.

“I taught geography and social studies and we made sure those children performed. Nothing was wrong with their brain.”

Baird said Panday, whom he described as charismatic, must also be commended for upgrading educational facilities across the country during his tenure.

Former government minister Pamela Nicholson served with Panday in the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government, which defeated the PNM 33-3 in the 1986 general election. Panday and his party, the United Labour Front, split from the NAR coalition government of ANR Robinson, the country’s first Tobagonian prime minister, and went on in subsequent years to create the UNC. In 1995, Panday and Robinson put aside their differences in yet another coalition, this time with the two NAR Tobago seats which help the UNC into power with Panday becoming the first prime minister of Indian descent.

Nicholson said she and Panday maintained cordial relations over the years and praised him for his role in facilitating the process that led to the establishment of the Dispute Resolution Commission which, in 2000, recommended Tobago receive a minimum of the national budget of between 4.03 and 6.9 per cent.

“Panday was not troublesome,” she said. Nicholson lamented though that Tobago still has not been allocated 6.9 per cent of the budget.


"Panday, martyr for Tobago Baptists, friendly ‘foe’ of the THA"

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