Indians and the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad

Indians and the Black Power Revolution in Trinidad

Photo : Ramdath Jagessar

This kind of romanticisation by Dr Claudius Fergus of UWI of a failed attempt at Afro-Indian unity through the Black Power march to Caroni is at best embarrassing and at worst disgusting. NJAC people have to stop writing this kind of rubbish.

Get blasted vex if you want, but I have to tell you straight. The Afro-Indian unity march to Caroni was a failure. It didn’t attract any significant number of Indians to join the march. Even though it passed through heavily Indian areas like San Juan, Curepe, and the Southern Main Road down to Chaguanas, Indians did not join in any large or small number along the way, and Afro-Indian unity in the march just did not happen.

If the intention of the march was to bring down the Eric Williams government by pulling in significant number of Indians along with the Africans to a triumphant march back to Port of Spain (and I hope it was!) that was a failure too.

Before and after the march, the NJAC gang made no headway in attracting Indian support enough to measure, and that applies for the years after 1970 up to this day in 2018.

I was one of the hundreds of Indian students at UWI, St Augustine, from 1967-70 when the Joint Action Committee and then the National Joint Action Committee started the Black Power run. I didn’t join up, even though Granger (he wasn’t Daaga yet!) invited me to do so. I didn’t observe any of the other Indians joining up either, or expressing sympathy with the emerging Black Power Movement. They didn’t go to the February 1969 protest against the Canadian governor general. They didn’t go to the meetings held at the Guild Hall or elsewhere on campus. That’s it for Afro-Indian unity through the Black Power Movement at UWI up to 1970 - never happened, never even came close.

And why weren’t we interested? Because that Black Power Movement had nothing for us Indians. The whole thing was couched in African garb. They wanted more power for black people. They were attacking Eric Williams and the PNM for not towing to the French creoles and white community in Trinidad and preventing black people from getting MORE employment, more opportunity, more upliftment.

Most of us Indians didn’t like Eric Williams and his PNM and would be glad to see them go. But we had no interest in seeing the Eric Williams black gang replaced by another black gang led by Granger/Daaga and company. In our opinion, the PNM had power in Trinidad, real black power, meaning control of the government, the military, the entire treasury including all of the petroleum royalties, and Williams as corporation sole controlled over 70% of the economy. And these NJAC people wanted more power than that?

Now as to the Afro-Indian unity march itself, let me touch upon a few rotten eggs mentioned in this article.

Brinsley Samaroo says that Ken Parmasad was “one of the leaders of the BPM” through his writings in OWTU’s Vanguard newspaper and in guaranteeing the security of the March to Caroni. What drivel and nonsense is this?

Leading up to 1970, Ken Parmasad was a leading light at UWI’s Society for Propagation of Indian Culture (SPIC), a very conservative group that would have nothing to do with black power. He may have been on his way to becoming the lunatic Marxist-Leninist, hence his writings in OWTU’s Vanguard newspaper. OWTU was a leftist workers union, the furthest thing from a supporter of the Black Power Movement. To make Ken Parmasad one of the leaders of the BPM through his articles in the Vanguard is total rubbish and Brinsley Samaroo should be ashamed to utter it. Besides, what could Ken Parmasad do to guarantee the security of the March to Caroni? He was a nobody in Caroni. Did he have his own soldiers to counter those of Bhadase
Maraj had the order been given to attack the march?

Claudius Fergus quotes Brinsley Samaroo going into fairy tale territory in declaring that Ken Parmasad had gone into all the villages along the route of the march “and really conscientised those people”. He says that because of Ken Parmasad’s work, old Indian women and men “were prepared to stand against Bhadase!”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this container load of bull. So, nobody Mr. Ken Parmasad had gone into all the villages and conscientised those people to support Afro-Indian unity, so that they were ready to stand against Bhadase!!!!!!! The writer believes this new superman single handedly conscientised those tens of thousands of Indian people along the route to the extent they would stand against the big boss Bhadase with all his power and his gunmen! Was this Bhadase the head of the sugar workers union, the head of the Hindu Maha Sabha, the rajah of Caroni, the millionaire heavyweight at the height of his power, who could so easily be neutralized by little campus mouse, Ken Parmasad? Who would say such stuff? Who would believe such tripe as little old Indians defying Bhadase Maraj?

Some comments from Brinsley Samaroo about the mythical Afro-Indian unity of 1970 and his role in preparing the community for the march have caught my attention.

Samaroo had said he was “press-ganged” into Black Power activism by Daaga, Kambon and Ome, and he assumed the role of “conscientising” the masses, presumably Indian masses. His task was to educate the masses on Indian and Indian diaspora history across the country. Here we go again with another superman, junior tutor Brinsley Samaroo educating the masses to prepare them for the coming of … Afro-Indian unity!

Are we to believe that Samaroo’s lectures on Indian and Indian diaspora history did the job of preparing the masses for the unity to come? How many hundreds of lectures would that have taken? Why would Indians in country villages want unity with Africans whom they saw as their enemies? This was the era of intense competition between the mostly Afro PNM and the mostly Indo DLP, remember, an era of barely disguised racial hostility. The enthusiastic junior tutor Brinsley Samaroo seems to think he dispatched all that with a few brilliant lectures, and the writer of this article agrees. I don’t know which of the two is more deluded.

Brinsley Samaroo is quoted as relishing this moment of inter-ethnic nationalism, “The high point in the history of Trinidad and Tobago was when Africans and Indians came together.” And when was this? He says 1970! Didn’t I just say there was no significant racial unity, no moment of inter-ethnic nationalism in 1970 and specifically none in the Afro-Indian unity march? Samaroo’s myth [not history] making and self-serving recollections have no limit.

Perhaps Samaroo and the writer were talking about the reception of the Afro marchers by the Indians of Caroni and seeing this as some kind of racial unity and inter-ethnic nationalism, but I have to apply the bucket of ice water here.

Bhadase had instructed the people of Caroni to welcome the marchers but not to join them, and that is what Indian people did. He had also instructed his gunmen to open fire on the march if the Afro marchers misbehaved, and I believe had asked them to fire if it looked as if Indians were defying his orders and joining the march. Since neither of those things happened, the gunmen stood back and allowed the march to continue. That is all there was to it.

If you want to interpret Indian people offering cool drinks to the Afro marchers or a meal and a place to sleep overnight as Afro-Indian racial unity and inter-ethnic nationalism, then I have some good swamp land for you to buy in Florida.

Now as to the much fantasized return march from Caroni to Port of Spain, Claudius FAKEus says, “In the euphoria of the successful march to Caroni, the BPM sought more direct confrontation with the social and political elites by planning a march to Port-of-Spain. This planned march triggered the State of Emergency on 21 April.” I have to take issue with this.

He says the BPM planned the march to Port-of-Spain, not the Indians of Caroni. Are we to assume that numbers of Indians would be joining this march in defiance of Bhadase and his gunmen waiting in the bushes? Not a chance. Some country Indians might be ignorant but they were not stupid, and they knew Bhadase was not a joking man about such things. There was never going to be any large amount of Indians on that return march, and that was the whole point of such a march. NJAC had bungled the whole thing and lost their chance to return to Port of Spain with a mass of Indians and Africans the previous day.

They didn’t have to actually reach Port of Spain. Once Eric Williams got the news that a genuine Afro-Indian unity march was coming he would have hopped on the waiting plane at Piarco and the government would have fallen. Williams didn’t go, and once he was assured by Bhadase that a mass of Indians were not coming with the Afros to Port of Spain, he decided he might as well call the state of emergency and choke down the Black Power Movement. Which he did.

A word about Bhadase here, which many have not considered. Why did he tell his gunmen to attack the Caroni march, and why did he tell the Caroni Indians not to join the march? Because he had nothing to gain from the march. If the march picked up a mass of Indians, his Caroni Indians, and the Eric Williams government fell, NJAC would become the government and he Bhadase would get nothing. NJAC had promised him nothing as far as I know. I don’t know if NJAC even had a meeting with Bhadase or sent emissaries to confer with him, and that may have been Daaga’s biggest blunder of 1970. Why didn’t he offer Bhadase a senate seat or an ambassadorial post or even a lot of money if the PNM government fell and NJAC took over?
You see, Bhadase in 1970 was a politician down on his luck. He had been thrown out of the DLP he had founded, his people had been defeated in the 1966 election, and this former MP and Opposition Leader had nothing and no hopes of getting anything. His old enemy Eric Williams had no respect for him. Nobody had any respect for Bhadase politically. But as sugar union leader he had the allegiance of many sugar workers, as Maha Sabha leader he had the allegiance of tens of thousands of Hindus, as the man who built dozens of Hindu schools and gave education to the Hindus, Bhadase was a man to reckon with in many areas except politics.

 Bhadase had something NJAC wanted badly, and this was the ability to get a bunch of Caroni Indians to join a march that could bring down the PNM government. So why didn’t NJAC send somebody to ask Bhadase to allow the Caroni Indians to join the march and ask him outright what was his price? Bhadase was a veteran politician and a very smart man on the ground and he would have seen immediately how he could benefit from a big I.O.U. signed by Makandal Daago. It would cost him nothing to tell the Caroni Indians unofficially to go ahead and join the march, baba says it’s OK. Bhadase would have nothing to lose if the march failed and Caroni Indians did not join up in numbers.

I stand to be corrected if this is wrong, but I haven’t heard anywhere that NJAC did the diplomatic encounter with Bhadase. Daaga was a poor strategist and an even poorer organizer. I know. I attended that major NJAC strategy meeting in TIWU offices in early 1970 and saw for myself what a bungler he was, and how he was frustrating the UMROBI delegates from the south and many others. The damn fool attempted to give his “My people” public speech to the delegates from all over the country at the strategy meeting!

Instead of talking to the Caroni bossman, NJAC attempted to get their Caroni Indians into the march in defiance of baba, and relying on featherweights like Ken Parmasad and Brinsley Samaroo.

Why then did Bhadase come to some understanding with Eric Williams? I’ve been told that Bhadase told Williams, “Come by my house, Bill. Nobody will touch you here.” It’s simple. Williams was a veteran politician and he could offer Bhadase something that he wanted. NJAC was offering nothing at all, and something beats nothing any day of the week.

Brinsley Samaroo says in this article that Bhadase feared the cultural-racial implications of permanency in the unity between Indians and Africans. I say, what unity? NJAC never got any unity between Indians and Africans and certainly got nothing of consequence in the Afro-Unity march. How could Bhadase fear permanence of a unity that never happened? Really, this man Brinsley Samaroo is too much!

The writer takes a lag at Kumar Mahabir’s writings on the BPM, which he believes suggests that the Indian-Trinidadian intelligentsia was most concerned about 1970 because it came too close to achieving broad-based Indian-African unity. Again this nonsense about broad-based Indian African unity in 1970!

Let me say it again. There was no significant Indian-African unity through the Black Power Movement in 1970. There was no significant Indian-African unity in the Caroni march. There was no broad based or narrow based Indian-African unity in 1970. I don’t call Rajah Ramlogan and Josanne Leonard Indian-African unity.

There wasn’t even African unity through NJAC in 1970, or any time since then. Most of the Africans stayed with the PNM and have stayed there. NJAC contested several elections in majority African constituencies and got convincing blows every time.

Who then had got African-Indian unity in Trinidad in recent times? Eric Williams and the PNM is the answer. In 1956, the PNM picked up most of the Muslim community, most of the Presbyterians and some assorted other Indians, amounting to well over 10% of the Indian community. And they have kept those Indians and Kamal gained others, reaching as much as 15% of the Indian community in my view. I don’t like the PNM, as you may have guessed, but facts are facts.

I think it’s time to put an end to this little sampat of this foolish and self-delusional article. It’s too easy. There’s a whole bag of other errors, misconceptions, plain old doggy doo doo in this article, but I fear I may tire the reader. Those who disagree with my response are invited to list them out point by point and make your case against each point. One-sentence responses calling me deluded, racist, stirring up trouble, old fool and other endearments just will not cut it.

THE WRITER is a Trinidad-born retired Indian activist and journalist living in Canada.