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Religious and cultural discrimination
When Dr Eric Williams, first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described all Hindu schools as “cowsheds,” his supporters at Woodford Square enjoyed the sarcasm and disdain from the man whom some would like to describe “the father of the nation.”
Rather than help the Hindu community transform these “cowshed” schools, he and his political party, the People’s National Movement (PNM), continued the religious, cultural and even racial discrimination against the indian community and more especially the Hindus of Trinidad and Tobago. South of the Caroni River was regarded by the PNM government who ruled Trinidad and Tobago for 30 consecutive years (1956-1986), as foreign territory.
The roads were left unpaved and impassable, water to the households was at a premium and other services that were available to citizens elsewhere were denied the people south of the river. Even secondary schools for our children did not come to County Caroni and elsewhere in the countryside until a change of government in 1986.
Children from Felicity were sent to secondary schools as far as South East Port-of-Spain. Parents had to deliberately withdraw their children from these secondary schools because they full well understood the intent and purpose of the placement of the secondary school children.
But then Dr Eric Williams and the PNM were continuing the colonial policy of conversion and mixing of the races. Morton Klass in his book East Indians in Trinidad, focused on this problem in the following words: “As an indentured labourer on a sugar plantation of either Trinidad or British Guiana, the East Indian immigrant was required to assume a position within the plantation social system. The position in which he found himself was one only recently vacated by a freed slave.”
Klass continued, “The plantation system had developed during slavery and it did not substantially change during the period of indentured labour. No provision was made for behaviour patterns appropriate to the immigrants’ society of origin, and by the very nature of the system there was minimal opportunity for the exercising of such patterns.”
Dr Cuthbert Joseph, Minister of Education and Culture in the PNM government, delivered a speech at the JFK lecture theatre UWI, St Augustine on August 12, 1981 in which, for the first time a PNM politician of his stature recognised the difficulties that Indians of Hindu and Islamic origin faced since their arrival on May 30, 1845 aboard the SS Fatal Razack. Dr Joseph said: A few facts will provide the evidence of cultural discrimination against Indians during the colonial period:
a. The recognition of imams as marriage officers for Muslims was conceded only in 1936 with the passing of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Ordinance.
b. The recognition of pundits as marriage officers for Hindus was legalised only in 1946 with the enactment of the Hindu Marriage Ordinance;
c. Legal provision was made for the cremation of the dead in accordance with Hindu rites only in 1953 through the passing of the Cremation Ordinance.
d. State assistance, offered since 1870 to Christian denominations, for the operation of denominational primary schools was extended to Muslims only in 1948 and to the Hindu community only in 1951;
e. Proposals for the introduction of universal adult suffrage in 1946 attempted to exclude sections of the Indian community through the application of a literacy test;
f. Up to the 1940s because of the high level of illiteracy then existing among rural Indians, a relatively small number of them were to be found in the Government Services and in the professions.
Writing about the cultural discrimination suffered by Indians in colonial Trinidad, CR Ottley had this to say: “It is of interest to observe that it was the wearing of the trousers, jacket and tie which first allowed him (the Indian) to make a breach in the high wall of social ostracism.
The Indian recognised that he could only enter into those sections of the social mosaic considered respectable, if he garbed himself in the common wear…Although his traditional wear was very much more in keeping with the climatic and economic conditions in which he had his being, to be accepted by members of the larger society he had to dress ‘properly”.
“Above all, and this placed him (the Indian) squarely outside the pale, he did not worship the one and only God existing at that time in Trinidad—the God Almighty of the Christians…To all and sundry he was a heathen, a fourth-class citizen living in a world of his own…This disdain and misinterpretation of the way of life of the Indian left him living in a sort of imperium in imperio in relation to the larger society.”
• Satnarayan Maharaj Secretary General Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha