The Indian Other Tobago Xenophobia Against Indians and Whites

The Indian Other Tobago Xenophobia Against Indians and Whites

Photo : Prakash Ramadhar

During the 2018 Budget Debate in the House of Rep on 15th Oct, 2017, the St Augustine Member of Parliament, Praksah Ramdhar, related two incidents he experienced in Tobago while he was there to attend the People’s Partnership Cabinet meeting. The People’s Partnership was in government between 2010 and 2015.

The first was when a waitress in the hotel he was staying scolded him over a cup of coffee.  (Prakash: “Waitress Scolded Me Over Coffee.” Newsday 16 October, 2017 p.11): “That morning I remember coming down to the restaurant. I didn’t wish to have breakfast but I said I’d like to have coffee to go. The waitress told me I cannot, ‘You have to sit down.’ ‘I said, ‘I don’t have the time. I’ll be late for another meeting. She said, ‘You have to sit down.” Being a minister doesn’t matter,  but it was an affront to me as a person to ask for a coffee to go and to be told in the restaurant in the hotel we were staying in that I had to sit down for a coffee.”

The second “upsetting incident was going to a popular franchise fast-food outlet in Tobago.” “Having lined up for about 20 minutes to get to the cashier, to order a small meal, I was buffed. That’s all you ‘re ordering?!”

Mr Ramadhar put these two experiences of interacting with two black female Tobagonians as an “issue of customer service.” “Notwithstanding all these things I still love Tobago dearly and want to see its success.” The reality is that the experience of Mr Ramdhar must be placed in the context of Tobago, of the anti-Indian and anti-PP Government prevailing in Tobago in a very heightened form at that time. One must posit that the experiences of Mr Ramadhar is more that “poor customer service”-that the behaviour of treating the Minister of Legal Affairs stems from a psychology of hatred whipped up in Tobago at that time. And to explain this treatment of discourtesy as though he is nobody by a waitress and cashier as “poor customer service” is a shallow explanation on his part.

Mr Ramddhar did not give the exact date of his upsetting experiences, except to say that he was in Tobago to attend a Cabinet meeting. On January 21, 2013 the Tobago House of Assembly election was he in which the PNM won all twelve electoral districts and the PP affiliate, The Tobago Organization of the People (TOP) lost badly. The Campaign brought the issue of race and Indian to a head for the first time in the history of Tobago.

On Friday January, 2013 Mr Hilton Sandy, candidate for Roxborough/ Delaford said on a PNM platform that “They are waiting to get the results of this election, if you bring the wrong results Calcutta ship is coming down for you. You must stop that ship to sail.” The campaign theme of the PNM for the elections was “Stand in Defence of Tobago.” Faced with an avalanche of condemnation Hilton Sandy apologised for his statement and viewed it as “political picong.” However, this may be being politically wise.

Sampson Nanton, reporter of the Trinidad Guardian based in Tobago for the THA elections reported that Dr. Rowley, then Opposition Leader, supported Sandy’s statement. Nanton wrote: PNM Political Leader Dr. Keith Rowley closely endorsed THA Deputy Political Leader Hilton Sandy, as he spoke at the same Friday meeting in which Sandy made what has been deemed racist remarks.” Nanton continued: Guardian Media Limited has acquired an audio recording of Rowley’s, moment after Sany made his “Calcutta” comments at the political meeting in Lambeau. Dr Rowley could be heard saying: “And of course the tireless Hilton Sandy, he knows what it is to serve. He represented the PNM for decades. He has done a fantastic job in improving the community of Roxborough/Delaford, and he still has the energy and drive and I ask you to support Hilton Sandy and send him back to the THA. Let him bring his experience to guide the youngsters who would put him there.” (Guardian, January, 2013, p. 5“Rowley endorsed Sandy.”) It was only after widespread condemnation that the PNM leadership dissociated itself with Sandy’s “Calcutta Ship” statement.

The then Prime Minister Kamla Persad – Bissessar had to spend a lot of time allaying fears of Tobagonians over the “Calcutta Ship” statement. She had personally led the THA campaign and was the visible representation of the PP and government. Chief Secretary of the THA, Orville London position in the campaign was that Tobago PNM “is trying to protect Tobago from a political culture alien to Tobagonians…They are taking a culture from the UNC and the PP and bringing it here,” One may pose the question about the PNM culture. How is it “alien” to Tobago? In fact, Winston “Gypsy” Peters, on a TOP meeting said that the “Calcutta Ship” statement “meant Indians from Trinidad.” (Guardian, January 15, 2013 p. 9, “PM always Concern Over Calcutta Statement.”)

For a first time in a Tobago election the issue of Tobago identity became a central issue and this in the context of the “Calcutta Ship” statement. Selwyn Ryan quoted Orville London: “How do we define a Tobagonian? What do we do to ensure that these definitions one maintained and the core values are not lost…” He then posed the question: “Was London being xenophobia or a patriot pursuit of legacy? (Selwyn Ryan from “Calcutta to Whim” -Sunday Express 13th January, 2013 p. 13) Where does that the Indian fit into London, Sandy et al definition of Tobagonian?

Jack Warner, then National Security Minister, claimed that “the PNM was on a home-to-home campaign preaching racial politics in Tobago hoping that this would give the party the edge in the THA election scheduled for January 21. Warner said he has statements from individuals who had been approached with “racial talks” from the PNM agent.” He accused Rowley as going to Tobago and “practices what has become the norm for him as the biggest Indian hater.” (Warner: PNM ON House –to-House Race, Campaign in Tobago-Guardian 13/01/2013 p. 5).

Warner’s statement was supported but Ashworth Jack leader of TOP. He accused the “PNM of fuelling racial division in the election campaign.” He added that “we have been told in the last couple of months that a political organization has been going round and saying to the people that if you vote for the TOP the Indians will come and take over Tobago.”  (Express 12th January, 2013 p.3 “Party Leader Issues of Race Card Corruption.”

Dr Clifford Ramcharan, in response to Hilton Sandy’s “Calcutta Ship” statement wrote that “the PNM is advising the people of Tobago not to vote for the TOP since they will Indo-Trinidadians to come and dominate the people of Tobago, that is, to exclude people of Indian origin from Tobago. Or are they going to erect gas ovens and gas in all as Hitler did to the Jews.” (Tobago Race Talk-01/01/2013 p 25.)  And Steve Smith in response to Ryan’s column wrote that “Dr Ryan has ironically pointed  to existing xenophobic inclinations among Tobagonians by portraying them as wishing to maintain the “purity of the Tobago village identity, by his inference that the intrusion of an alien culture would somehow diminish its pristine nature.” (A Case of Enriching Tobago’s Culture-Express, January, 2013 p.15.)  Charles Figaro wrote that “Rowley has been playing the race card from the word “go”…. This tradition that has been blatantly practised by the PNM, despite change in leadership cannot be erased easily. History cannot be erased easily. History cannot be easily forgotten when we have seen and suffered it…” (Sunday Express, January, 2013 p. 13,“Rowley Repeating PNM Racist Past.”)

This is the first election in Tobago (THA and General Elections) where the issue of race, that is, anti-Indian paranoia, was the dominant theme. The THA 2013 election took on element s of the elections in Trinidad of 1956, 1958, 1961 and 1966. The PNM versus the TOP, a partner in the PP coalition, saw a repeat PNM strategy of the PNM in those listed elections. It is a Black/Indian competition for control of the THA, T being viewed as the vehicle of Indians. The Indians were in control of the State in Trinidad. The aim is to prevent an Indian takeover of the government of Tobago. The presence of the PNM Ministers in Tobago leading the campaign is poor election strategy, backfired. Tobago Xenophobia directed against the Indians was fully expressed. TOP was wiped off from Tobago’s politics because of its association with the “Indian” government of Trinidad.

In recent years there have been several attacks of white tourists in Tobago. An English couple was viciously attacked in their home, where they were chopped and left for dead. This was followed by the murder of a German couple. A retired British High Commission termed those attacks of whites in Tobago as “hate crimes,” that is, crime diverted because of the race and ethnicity of the victims. No one has been brought to justice for these crimes. This is clear evidence of anti-white feelings in Tobago because they were buying up lands and building homes in Tobago.

In the budget debate in Parliament on 9th October, 2017 MP for Tabaquite Constituency Dr. Suruj Rambachan referred to the “Calcutta Ship” statement of January 2013, and the state of toruisn and hotel occupancy in Tobago. He said: “Who turn around the Calcutta ship and said they did not want the Calcutta ship there (In Tobago) and now your hotels are empty.” Dr Rambachan had called on the government “to encourage and support programmes in tourism as part of the diversification thrust.” (Express 10/11/17 p.4 –Calcutta Ship turns around: Hotel Empty) . Indians are now choosing to go elsewhere to Margarita, Barbados, etc., instead of vacationing in Tobago. The hotel industry is in a slump. Tobagonians need to take the example of Barbados in their treatment of visitors whether from within the country or of while tourists. And Mr Ramadhar has to examine deeper the behaviour of the waitress and cashier since it goes beyond “poor customer service” but one of xenophobia against the “Calcutta Ship.”