Most of the Indian emigrants were considered illiterate, although many of them could read and write their own Indian language. Until about 1900, at least the Hindus did not have formally trained pundits. They did not have sufficient money to build their mandirs (places of worship) and limited copies of a few scriptures like The Tulsidas Ramayana. It is really a miracle that out of the torn ends of social institutions, we have been able to weave out a new Hindu social fabric.
At an Indian Arrival Day celebration held on the grounds of Tunapuna Hindu School on May 30, 1999, I said, “The Maha Sabha will file a Class Action Writ seeking $2 billion compensation for properties seized from Hindus between 1845-1945.”
During that period, the State refused to recognise Hindu marriages although they were performed by pundits and witnessed by entire villages.
The Government insisted that only Christian marriages or marriages performed at the Warden’s Office were legally valid. The marriage ceremony was used as a tool by the State to convert thousands of Hindus to Christianity.
For one hundred years Hindu property owners were denied the right to pass on their wealth to their children when they died. By denying state recognition of the marriage, the surviving spouse had no legal right to claim the property.
The State ‘stole’ the estate. Although no proper audit of the amount of property stolen exists, the Maha Sabha puts the figure as at least two billion dollars at present day prices. Many Hindus of this country are poor because their grandparents were robbed. A great injustice was done which is still not recognised.
There are lecturers at The University of the West Indies who are familiar with the facts but have so far not assigned students to investigate those ‘crimes against humanity’ which were committed against Hindus in Trinidad.
The only lecturer who grudgingly admitted at the time that the Maha Sabha claim had merit was Professor Selwyn Ryan, who wrote in the Sunday Express on June 27, 1999: “According to a Maha Sabha spokesman, there was a period in our history between 1845 and 1945 when marriages solemnised by Hindu priests were not recognized by the State and widows could not claim the property of their late husband; neither could their children because they were not (legally) recognised.”
Ryan went on to admit: “I am advised some (property) were in fact sold and proceeds used to build or fund the Tacarigua Orphanage.”
This was also supported by UWI history lecturer, Dr Brinsley Samaroo, who agreed that the expropriations did take place.
He said on a TTT television programme hosted by Rev Glasgow Cuffie that he had evidence and knew actual properties that were claimed by the State.
The Maha Sabha was condemned by columnists and in newspaper editorials. Even then prime minister Basdeo Panday, when asked about the statement that two billion dollars should be paid as reparations, responded thus: “It should not be expected that I must reply to every foolish statement.”
History is about facts and today the general public, as well as the future students of history must be grateful to the Maha Sabha for exposing a great injustice.
Those crimes and injustices have impacted negatively on scores of thousands of our people.
The partisan over-valuation of the pain of some peoples must not blind us to the suffering of other groups.
At a UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, from August 31 to September 7, 2001, the injustices of the Atlantic slave trade, as well as of indentureship were topics on the agenda. At one of the plenary sessions, the injustice of the 100 years of stealing Hindu property in Trinidad was discussed. Before the conference closed Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago issued this joint statement:
“The World Conference should acknowledge the untold sufferings of millions of men, women, and children as a result of slavery, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, indentureship and other forms of servitude, and calls upon states that practised, benefited or enriched themselves from these activities to express their apology explicitly to the victims of these acts and their consequences.
“These ten regional countries also demanded reparations from countries that enriched themselves from slavery, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and indentureship to provide reparations to countries and peoples affected.”
It is gratifying to note that the Government of T&T specifically recognises the inhumanity and injustices which were committed against Africans and Indians during slavery and indentureship. Our then high commissioner to Nigeria, His Excellency Mr Patrick Edwards led the T&T delegation to this historic conference in South Africa.
Next week: Part 3