…and 1970 March To Caroni
By Bhoendradatt Tewarie
The following feature address was delivered at a ceremony held by the Hindu Prachaar Kendra to honour Makandal Daaga at its headquarters in Enterprise on Sunday, August 15, 2010.
We are gathered here to accomplish three things: to acknowledge the International Year of the Rapprochement of Cultures being observed by UNESCO; to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the march to Caroni which became perhaps, the most memorable gesture of rapprochement to come out of the 1970 revolt of the people; and to recognize the significant contribution of Makandal Daaga, now His Excellency, Ambassador to Caricom, to the goal of unity of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.
On February 18, 2010, Irina Bakova, the current head of UNESCO, launched the international year of the rapprochement of cultures in Paris, where UNESCO headquarters are located. She spoke then of “preserving cultural diversity and cultural identities and promoting intercultural dialogue.” The goal of the international year, she said, was “to help dissipate any confusion stemming from ignorance, prejudice and exclusion that create tension, violence and conflict”. She went on to observe that exchange and dialogue among cultures are the best tools for building peace.
This is the framework then, as well as the spirit within which we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the NJAC-led march to Caroni and the leadership role of Makandal Daaga in initiating the march to Caroni in April 1970.
That march to Caroni is worthy of commemoration for several reasons not the least of which was the sheer metaphorical power of the thought and act in the context of human and race relations in Trinidad and Tobago at the time.
It is important to recall that the ribbon development pattern of settlement in the country was aligned along two axes—-east/west and north/south. It is also important to remember that the Caroni River was indeed a symbolic as well as a real dividing line between urban and rural Trinidad; between the two major ethnic groups in our country, and, given the structure of our political party system at the time, a dividing line of ethno-political allegiance and alignment.
It is not appropriate on a day such as this, nor on an occasion such as this, to go over all the details of our national history surrounding the explosion of emotions in 1970, but a few salient facts are worthy of mention. In 1956, Dr Eric Williams was asked by the Colonial Governor to form the first ever party government in Trinidad and Tobago. The party of our first premier, the People’s National Movement (PNM), had campaigned throughout the length and breadth of the country and had spoken to the issues of anti-colonial nationalism on a national unity and nation building platform.
In 1958, a loose coalition of interests was able to win more seats than the PNM in local government elections. In 1959 a slightly more organized coalition of interests collaborating with parties in other West Indian territories, was able to win the federal election. Shortly thereafter, in a referendum in Jamaica, the citizenry voted not to be part of a federation. This brought the federation to collapse.
By 1961 the forces of opposition had consolidated under the Democratic Labour Party led by Dr Rudranath Capildeo. When election was called in that year, the entire campaign by both parties was so racially conceived and executed that it fiercely polarized the country along ethnic lines.
With the collapse of the West Indian Federation, the British government was eager to grant independence to both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.
In Trinidad and Tobago, it was an uneasy if peaceful independence road. Consultation at Queen’s Hall on the independence constitution had taken place without participation by the then opposition party and without widespread participation by the people. In the end, the 1962 independence constitution was settled in London at Marlborough house as a compromise between the premier and the leader of the opposition with the blessings of the British colonial office.
After independence, an unease was beginning to take hold of the society. Citizens began to sense that independence was bringing no fundamental economic, political or sociological change.
After the 1966 election, there was a decided restlessness in the air and growing disenchantment with the main political parties, PNM and DLP. A revulsion was emerging to ethnic politics and so, too, a debate about the meaning of independence.
In the world outside there was ferment—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and an emerging women’s movement in the US; the Vietnam war, student protests across the US and Europe, and here in the West Indies an intellectual radicalization influenced by both local concerns about the failure to deliver on the promise of independence and international currents which seemed to promise the possibility of a new world order.
In Trinidad and Tobago in 1962, a young man, in the spirit of independence, formed a group called Pegasus. It was a group which focused on ideas and discussion and was nationalist and developmental in orientation. That young man was Geddes Granger.
In 1967, Geddes Granger as a student of the University of the West Indies became President of the Student’s Guild. He radicalized the campus even as a radicalization was taking place outside in the wider society. By 1969 protests and mobilization of interest groups had become widespread in response to a national government, under conditions of independence, that was becoming more and more repressive of the people and their aspirations and more neo-colonial in their exercise of economic decision making.
For most of 1969, the country was restless and turbulent with political activism, with questions being raised over and over again about the economic structure of ownership and distribution in the society. Geddes Granger was very much a part of this fermentation and created NJAC as a force for mobilization.
Events at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in which West Indian students were at the centre prompted protests of solidarity at the St Augustine Campus. The person we are honouring was head of the Students Guild. There was restlessness outside of the university as well. Ultimately all of these protest and mobilization interventions culminated in 56 days of demonstrations from February 26 to April 21, 1970. April 21 was the date of the historic march to Caroni. A state of emergency was called following the march.
Initially it was mainly an East West corridor and urban protest demonstration. For instance San Fernando was very much part of it. But not many Indians were eager to engage those involved in something called “Black Power.” It might not be unreasonable to claim that those who were leading the protests, perhaps intoxicated by the build up of protesters day after day, were perhaps blind to the non-involvement of the mass of the Indian population in the protests.
It is against this background that the gesture to the Indian community by the leader of the black power movement must be seen——as the recognition of an act of omission; as a genuine reaching out to the other; as a quest for inclusion and a desire for unity and peaceful collaboration; as a recognition of the need to address the psychological discomfort and insecurity of the mass of Indo-Trinidadians at the height of black power.
The Indians of the Caroni plains were cautiously receptive in 1970, receiving the largely Afro-Trinidadian protesters in peace and with warmth. They recognized and appreciated the symbolic nature of the gesture and accepted the spirit of good intentions—-peace, harmony, respect, unity, love.
The people had reached out to one another as the leaders of the conventional political parties became more and more alienated from them.
The story is, of course, more complicated than I have given here on this occasion when of necessity I must be at once brief and selective. And beyond mere complications there are complexities which warrant close examination.
But the march to Caroni led by Makandal Daaga in April 1970 to embrace the Indian community, to assuage their insecurity, pay them respect and include them to create a wider national movement must be acknowledged as a significant act of rapprochement worthy of commemoration 40 years later.
There may have been other motives—political strategy for instance— often motives, intentions, interventions and objectives involve complex dynamics—but that does not change the historical, sociological, cultural and political significance of the gesture and event.
Forty years later, Makandal Daaga is a leader of the People’s Partnership Government, Trinidad and Tobago’s Ambassador to Caricom having emerged from the 1970 protests and revolt as Makandal Daaga, Chief Servant. A careful look will reveal that in addition to other strands, the threads of connection with 1937 and with 1970 are woven into the wider tapestry of the People’s Partnership of 2010.
It is important to acknowledge that Makandal Daaga has been put in jail for his beliefs and his convictions and for organising protests against the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1970. It is important to note that Daaga has been systematically ostracised by the power structure of T&T. Beyond 1970 the people of T&T never supported him politically in an electoral sense, but he, the Chief Servant never abandoned his cause nor has he ever turned his back on his people.
His statement at the historic People’s Partnership meeting at Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad still rings in my ear: “The people are the government” he screamed, to remind us all that there is a purpose to politics, representation and governance.
I want to say something about the context in which Daaga acted in 1970. It would not have been easy for a young man to challenge a man of the stature of Eric Williams who would have represented to his loyal following in T&T not just leadership but deity.
It would not have been easy for a young black man to say that the so-called black nationalist movement was in fact fraudulent and had lost its way and had become an instrument of neo-colonialism and economic imperialism and a divisive force in a multi-ethnic society. This would have been seen by those who wielded power and carried in them an ethnic vision not as an attempt to liberate the race but rather to undermine race leadership. Look how hard it was for some of you in the Panday era! The reaching out to Caroni would have been viewed, too, as an act of sabotage against race-based political strategies of alignment and this, from the point of view of the beneficiaries of race politics in the country, would have been a starkly subversive act.
It is amazing and certainly a tribute to astute leadership that Makandal Daaga and NJAC have survived and made themselves sustainable to the point where, though winning no seats, the Chief Servant and his band of brothers and sisters can play at this time a constructive role in good governance and can continue to play a purposeful role as they have for decades in calypso and culture and educational work.
We salute Chief Servant Makandal Daaga today for strength of character, moral courage, vision, the capacity to sacrifice and his commitment to T&T and to the unity of our people. And for his larger vision for humanity, social justice and fairplay in the world. The spirit of his life has been one of rapprochement of cultures, of peoples and individuals.
Today’s event organised by the Hindu Prachaar Kendra is yet another welcome act of rapprochement and conciliation. For the Kendra to recognise His Excellency Makandal Daaga in this way and to commemorate Makandal Daaga in this way and to commemorate the march to Caroni 40 years later is also a symbolic act.
Raviji in particular has seized many initiatives to demonstrate that pursuing a Hindu agenda or dharmic trajectory can and must transcend parochialism and racial self-absorption. The Kendra has tried over time to make space and build bridges. They have for a long time reached out to the Orisha faith and Raviji is on to a new project which is bringing traditional religions together — Amerindian, Orisha, Hindu.
Raviji was also involved, I know, in the Rawle Gibbons’ play March To Caroni.
This particular event today has brought together the National Council of Indian Culture (NCIC), the Chinmaya Mission, the Amarjyoth Mandir, the Association of Traditional Religions, Citizens for Social Justice and UNESCO. I understand that this celebration was scheduled for the first Sunday in May but for various reasons had to be postponed.
Communities have not consciously embraced other communities in T&T except in a superficial way. The novelist Earl Lovelace has written about the veil that each community wears which is only occasionally removed for engagement on common ground. VS Naipaul has written of the masks that we wear to present ourselves and the secret mythological worlds that we create to construct an identity that can give us comfort and which may even be disconnected from the reality we live from day to day.
Perhaps the Hindu community is only now beginning to achieve a level of security where they can be comfortable enough to embrace other communities in a conscious and not necessarily self-conscious way. This is ironic because the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism are deeply rooted in the concept of diversity — both in the sense of facilitating and fostering diversity and embracing diversity.
Let me close by saying that we have to earn the right to be embraced as well as the right to embrace. These are not entitlements, they have to be earned — a climate of reception, receptivity and national acceptance has to be created. This is relatively easy at an individual level- and we can see this in the way that we have learnt and grown to live with each other in this country at an individual level- at a community level it is much harder. It is something that one has to constantly work at. Mutual respect and mutual acceptance of the other are key. This is what no lesser person than Adam Smith called ‘moral sympathy’, the ability to walk in the shoes of the other and to understand his/her thinking and feeling.
So we celebrate today because Makandal Daaga has earned our embrace. We celebrate, first, the International Year of Rapprochement of Cultures; second, the 40th anniversary of the march to Caroni — April 1970, and third, the contribution of Makandal Daaga to the rapprochement of our diverse peoples and the courage it took to stand up for something he believed in 40 years ago.
And finally let us also celebrate this glorious reaching out of the Hindu Prachaar Kendra now under the leadership of Geeta Vaahini and all the associated groups that came together to strengthen unity, harmony and purposeful engagement.