So...About That Recalcitrant and Hostile Minority...

 

So, about that recalcitrant minority...

 

Get into a conversation about race in this country, especially one that compares the policies of the PNM and the UNC (or any other Indo-led party) and the conversation will invariably go to the most memorable comment Eric Williams ever made about some members of the Indian community here when he called them the "recalcitrant and hostile minority". It is a phrase that has haunted both Williams and the PNM since its utterance in 1958, but few Trinbagonians know the context and background of the speech and its content.

 

The phrase has become a virtual get out of jail free card for members of the Indian community hellbent on an ethnocentric agenda. And it is often made out to be the first racist comment ever made by  Trinbagonian....EVER! As a result of Williams' use of the phrase national history is often re-invented with Williams described as the father of racism, the PNM is depicted as racist and oppressive, in fact, the only racist and oppressive party, and as having an oppressive "African" agenda that everyone must be afraid of. As a result of Williams' folly the party has spent almost all of its political life either avoiding discussion of the issue, or giving in to the demands of religious and cultural leaders who claim to be promoting Indian interests. In an effort to not appear racist and to underscore its all-inclusivity as a government and a party the PNM has opted to instead give in to silly demands and pander to the demands of some, rather than address Williams' statement and come to terms with its legacy.

 

By 1958 Trinidad and Tobago was well underway to negotiating for a federated government. Williams was one of the chief negotiators of the process, it was his desire to have Trinidad and Tobago be the regional seat of power. But the DLP here, a party that was a coalition of interest groups that represented Hindus, Roman Catholics, the business class and members of the white elite, had aligned itself with political parties from both Jamaica and Guyana that was opposing the move towards a federation. At a public meeting, Williams, freshly returned from the Bandung Conference in India, revealed to the crowd that during the campaign for federal elections a letter had been circulated. According to Williams the letter accused him of both "favouring his own kind in the cabinet' and practising ethnic tokenism by selecting "a few Indians merely to mislead other Indians into supporting his movement in order to have a majority." The closing paragraph of the letter stated: "If, my dear brother, you have realised these occurrences, and the shaky position in which our Indian people people are placed, woe unto our Indian nation in the next ten years."

 

Unsurprisingly, Williams saw this campaign, attributed to the DLP, as undermining his ambitions for the country. Williams lashed out at the use of the term "Indian nation" because as far as he was concerned, the Indian nation was continental India. He felt that the DLP was conveniently using the phrase as an ethnic rallying point, and that ethnic politics had no place in the West Indies, least of all Trinidad. He described the group circulating this letter as a 'recalcitrant and hostile minority masquerading as the Indian nation, and prostituting the name of India for its selfish, reactionary political ends." I quote the entire sentence because few people ever do, and in its entirety it makes a very strong statement about what Williams thought was the political agenda of the DLP then.

 

Indo-centric writers and cultural activists, more interested in promoting the warped agenda of a group than a healthy national agenda of respect and co-operation have taken advantage of the PNM's reluctance to address Williams' comments. Long before the formation of the PNM our local politics had the taint of racism attached to it. And ethno-specific voting has become a feature of our electoral system. Another feature of our politics here is giving in to the cries of oppression by groups that claim to be in the minority. Land and ethni-specific holidays for everyone! But while members of the People's Partnership keep using the ghost of Williams and Manning to provoke feelings of guilt among blacks, and to rally the clans to keep separate and vote tribe instead of issues, their ethnic-flavoured political policies that they insisted was new politics are taking the country nowhere fast.

 

Williams' statement was extremely unfortunate, because it was an angry generalisation that painted an entire group with one brush stroke. It is a statement that the current leadership of the PNM must address if they really expect to move forward and be the all embracing party that Williams claims he started. More than 50 years later Williams' statements begs certain questions about politics, race and nationalism here. Has any group here prostituted its ethnic identity to rally political support? Is ethnic identity more important than national identity to groups here? When a Prime Minister takes a trip at the tax payers' expense to search for roots does it promote national pride or ethnic identity? In 1958 Williams felt that exploiting race as the base of political power was the greatest danger facing the country, and given the current state of our politics, he was not mistaken.