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‘Race our biggest issue’

Published: 
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Land of many peoples...
Basdeo Panday

Basdeo Panday 

Lawyer and constitution reform advocate 

After 33 years of independence, Panday became the first Prime Minister of Indian ancestry to lead a T&T government (from 1995 to 2001) in an island which had hitherto been politically dominated since independence by politicians of African descent. Panday co-founded the United Labour Front, with George Weekes and Raffique Shah. He also co-founded the National Alliance, and later, the National Alliance for Reconstruction. He later founded the United National Congress. 

When you have to fill in a form asking you your race, what do you put? 

Human. The reason being that although my grandparents are from India, Indian does not constitute a race. In fact, there are only four major races in the world: Afroids (or Negroids), Caucasoids, Mongoloids and Australoids—and I cannot claim to belong to any. 

How do you see your ethnic roots & heritage? Is it important to how you define yourself, or is it irrelevant, an accident of birth? 

My ethnic roots and heritage are a combination of Indian and Trinidadian. I think it is relevant since they have both influenced the way I think and act. For example, I love Indian classical music equally with some calypsos, soca and chutney. I try to study the Ramayan and the Bagavad Gita as well as the Bible and the Quran, and I have been influenced by them all. 

How long have you/your family had roots here (best estimate)? 

I was born here. My maternal grandparents came from India to Trinidad in 1917. 

Do you celebrate your ethnic heritage, ignore it as irrelevant, or have mixed feelings about it? 

I am not very religious in the fanatical sense of the word. I participate in all the festivals of my country. I love people and it is always a joy and a pleasure to be amongst them. 

Do you think race is important in T&T? Do you think different ethnicities have different values? 

I think race is the most important issue in T&T. It has been the single most deleterious factor preventing us from truly becoming a nation. It divides our most valuable resource—our human resource. Fanatical racial cleavages destroy our rational thinking. Racial cleavages in our society have resulted in the politics of a “It’s we time now” syndrome, and it is destroying the society. 

What do you like and dislike about T&T culture? 

The thing I dislike most about Trinidad culture is the infinite capacity of our people to hide their problems in fete and drink, instead of confronting them head on and trying to resolve them. I also dislike the level of hypocrisy and fear to speak out against wrong, perceived and real. The level of crime, corruption, waste and mismanagement is probably amongst the highest in the world. 

Do you know about the beliefs and lifestyles of T&T people of different ethnic heritages from your own? 

As a person who has spent most of his life in politics, I have had to deal with people of all races and ethnicities. At the personal level I find them to be most lovable and beautiful. 

Ken Jaikaransingh 

Retired book publisher 

When you have to fill in a form asking you your race, what do you put? 

In younger days, I had no problem with this question on a form. I automatically put “East Indian” in the designated area. As I grew older, read more, became more broadly educated, the answer became slightly more problematic, since the concept of “East Indian” arises only because of the problematic notion of being “West Indian”. Other complications (eg, the USA recognises “Asian” as a definition of race, I think) were bothersome. I now put “Indian”, which is really a term born of geography, ie, “from India”, rather than a definition of race. 

How do you see your ethnic roots & heritage? Is it important to how you define yourself, or is it irrelevant, an accident of birth? 

I was raised from a very early age in urban PoS. My father made a conscious decision not only to take us from rural Trinidad to PoS but also to keep us far removed from our relatives in Penal and Couva. In addition, he was Presbyterian, and we all attended Christian schools and places of worship. So there was very little sense of roots and ethnic heritage. I speak no Hindi, understand Hindu rituals only at a distance and from what I have read or had explained to me. I define myself very much as a Trinidadian above all else—I am very interested in my Indian heritage and roots, but primarily as a matter of history rather than identification. 

Do you celebrate your ethnic heritage, ignore it as irrelevant, or have mixed feelings about it? 

This leads on from the response to Question 2. I observe Divali in a notional way, by lighting some deyas, avoiding meat (if I remember). This has come about primarily by being invited to Divali celebrations via in-laws, and not through religious persuasion or ethnic identification. 

Do you think race is important in T&T? Do you think different ethnicities have different values? 

Race has become important in Trinidad, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. It has been shamelessly exploited by cynical politicians for self-serving reasons. 

To understand ourselves as Trinidadians, we must clearly know where we come from and what has historically shaped us—we must also be able to subsume this into a broader canvas that celebrates shared experiences and tolerates differences. 

I do believe that cultures impart values, and that different cultures impart different values. But culture is also a dynamic thing, changing as we evolve, and value systems can struggle to keep up with this dynamic. 

If culture is defined as a set of shared values, then T&T’s culture is still a very embryonic one, fusing elements of European, African, Indian, Mediterranean and Asiatic cultures, even as we are being bombarded via the media and advertising by other “dominant” cultures espousing consumerism, individualism and self-aggrandisement. 

How long have you/your family had roots here (best estimate)? What do you like and dislike about T&T culture? 

My grandparents were born here, as far as I am aware, so I must therefore be a third generation national.

Being asked to say what I like/dislike about T&T culture is intriguing, since there is still a raging debate about what actually constitutes our culture. Some aspects of what is generally considered “our” culture have both positive and negative dimensions. 

Finally, in speaking about culture, one is almost always forced to speak in generalities. There is no “one cap fits all” here. 

So I might say that I like the fact that we are generally tolerant, good-humoured and generous. But our tolerance leads us to put up with bad governance and poor customer service. We are good-humoured, but that good humour prevents us from reprimanding those who abuse our generosity, or leads us into savagery in some of our picong or calypsos. We are patriotic, but for some, patriotism wavers when it comes to self-interest. We are creative, but some “creative” Trinidadians can profiteer on that sense of patriotism. 

In short, our culture is a work in progress, some parts good, some parts bad. 

Do you know about the beliefs and lifestyles of T&T people of different ethnic heritages from your own? 

Growing up in Port-of-Spain exposed me to a multitude of people from different walks of life, differing ethnic backgrounds, differing lifestyles. This has continued over the years. Close friends over the years have come from Chinese, African, European, Indian and Mediterranean cultures.

Without making any serious effort to study or closely understand their beliefs and cultures, I have remained friendly with them all, respect their beliefs, understand their idiosyncracies and respect them all.

I think I have been singularly fortunate in this regard. 

• Next Wednesday: Chinese heritage 

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