Someday in the future, when Trinbago nationalism becomes a common experience across our multifaceted demographic, February 1970 will surely be memorialised collectively as the month that precipitated the most significant events in the history of the two-island state since Emancipation.
I am motivated to write this piece not only because of the historical importance of February to the Black Power Movement (BPM) but also because of the significance of Carnival 1970 to the public education campaign of the BPM.
In 1970, at least four bands engaged in political protests through masquerade in Port-of-Spain (Interview with Khafra Kambon). The Pinetoppers’ portrayal, “The Truth About Africa: Before, Then and Now” and a St James band playing “1001 White Devils” were outstanding examples of anti-colonial masquerade.
Unknowingly, these bands were the catalyst for the events identified by some as the February Revolution. Over the next three months, T&T effectively eclipsed Jamaica as the revolutionary capital of the Anglophone Caribbean.
Mark Fraser equates the events of February 1970 with “a revolutionary bang.” He asserts: “In three short months (February to April), the Black Power Movement swept through Trinidad and Tobago like a whirlwind, touching almost every district in the country.” [Trinidad Express, 1 September, 2012].
The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) was formed by Makandal Daaga, Khafra Kambon and Aiyegoro Ome, the leaders of a February 1969 UWI campus protest against Canadian Governor-General Roland Michener, and rapidly became “the umbrella organisation that served as the vanguard” of the Movement.
Did the BPM only superficially “touch” wide swaths of the country? Or was it a truly national phenomenon that forged deep alliances between Africans and Indians?
There is a commanding narrative of dissent among “the Indian-Trinidadian intelligentsia,” as defined by Kamal Persad, which denies authenticity to any claim of Indian-African unity in the BPM. One of the most persuasive advocates of this narrative is anthropologist Dr Kumar Mahabir.
Mahabir argues that Winston Leonard and Chan Maraj, two Indian detainees at Nelson Island, “were aliens to the Indian community.” He passionately deprecates them as “confused men without a cultural identity.” [“East Indians and the Black Power Revolution,” available at http://www.trinbagopan.com/Kumarmahabir.htm].
Although admitting that the late Dr Ken Parmasad “was involved in the movement,” Mahabir equivocated when ascribing to Parmasad the view that “although the platforms reflected what was considered by many at the time to have been the indication of a genuine desire for the equal and free expression of African and Indian cultural ways, beliefs and practices, the cultural symbols which dominated the movement were Black/African.”
In referencing Terisa Turner (a graduate student), Mahabir further argues that it was only after 7 March, 1970 “that the NJAC campaigned for the inclusion of Indians in the Movement, but the colour, tune, tone and texture of the Movement had already been set.” Mahabir did not explain the components he identified.
Mahabir showers praises on Professor John La Guerre for his book, Calcutta to Caroni (1972), in highlighting pre-Independence Indian cultural associations in Trinidad, but chastises him for acclaiming that the Black Power Revolution (BPR) had “reawakened racial and ethnic pride among Indians.” Notwithstanding this admonition, Mahabir surprisingly credits the BPR for providing “an argument and a justification for Indians to practice their Ancestral culture for [sic] a call for racial equality in all shares [sic] of the multi-ethnic society” (a Freudian slip?).
This week’s column will provide some fresh insights for evaluating Indian-African collaboration, mainly through the voices of other local Indian intellectuals who were interviewed and/or participated in a seminar on Black Power hosted by the St Augustine campus of The UWI in March 2015.
A review of Indian-African collaboration prior to 1970 provides valuable lessons. In 1903, the Water Riots culminated in the burning of the Red House. Although the vast majority of the rioters were of African descent, the Trinidad and Tobago Royal Gazette reported that Indian activists were a critical mobilisation force on the day of the fire:
“The streets of the town had been paraded during the morning [of the fire] by a number of coolies ringing bells and carrying placards with the description, ‘Come to the Red House at 12 o’clock today or you will have to pay more rent.’”
The colonial authorities clearly dreaded the subversive potential of Indian-African collective action. This fear of inter-ethnic unity for ending white domination was actually expressed by G.F. Huggins during the Waterfront Riots of 1919-1920.
According to Bridget Brereton in A History of Modern Trinidad, 1783-1962, the dockworkers’ strike soon spread island wide and included plantation-based Indian labourers in several districts as well as urban Indians and Africans.
The main forces behind the disturbances were radical African leaders from several Caribbean territories, mainly Guyana and Barbados; the infiltration of Garveyism from the USA as well as a similar African race-conscious, British-based civil rights group, the Society of Peoples of African Descent; returning dissident veterans of World War 1; and the general depressed state of the economy (Brereton, History).
The subtext of Mahabir’s writings on the BPM suggests that the Indian-Trinidadian intelligentsia is most concerned about 1970 because it came too close to achieving broad-based Indian-African unity, which many dreaded could unleash doomsday threats to Hindu conservatism. This fear was most graphically expressed by Bhadase Sagan Maraj, as he planned a war against the April 1970 March to Caroni.
Unlike Mahabir, Professor Brinsley Samaroo relishes this moment of inter-ethnic nationalism, which he often combines with the workers’ uprisings in 1937. To him, “The high point in the history of Trinidad and Tobago was when Africans and Indians came together (…) and Butler and Rienzi [Krishna Deonarine] came together; similarly, with 1970.” This alliance of oil and sugar workers was rooted in the 1919-1920 riots.
Merely one month after his appointment as lecturer at The UWI, Samaroo was “press-ganged” into Black Power activism by Daaga, Kambon and Ome. Nevertheless, he assumed the role of “conscientising” the masses with great enthusiasm. Two other lecturers, Bill Riviere and Patrick Emmanuel, were similarly press-ganged as missionaries of revolutionary conscientisation.
Samaroo’s task was to educate the masses on Indian and Indian diaspora history across the country. These included communities in mainly African-dominated areas, such as Belmont, a place he had never visited before. Among his mentees were Beverley Jones and Guy Harewood, both of whom were killed by police in the Northern Range.
Samaroo was well prepared for this mission. As a teenager in 1956, he had helped to organise his hometown, Rio Claro, for a meeting of the PNM. From Dr Eric Williams, he had learned an indelible lesson: the imperative of “the decolonisation of the mind.”
Samaroo was one of the few Caribbean experts in Indian history, having graduated from Delhi University with a Master’s Degree in History. As a Ph.D candidate at London’s School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), he came under the influence of Black Power icon Walter Rodney who taught him the rudiments of historical research and the issues of colonisation in the Caribbean.
Samaroo admits that, except for Ken Parmasad and a minute number of other Indian students, Indians on the St Augustine campus were generally apathetic toward Black Power. To Samaroo, however, 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.
Samaroo recounts, “Bhadase had ordered the fellows in the village that you cannot allow this march to take place; that they would rape your daughters.” Not relying on fear-mongering alone, “he put them with guns on both sides of the road, and told them ‘once the niggers start to react, you all will know what to do.’” Bhadase was no stranger to violence, and—if Samaroo’s account is accurate—it would be foolhardy to wager that he did not mean to carry out his threat.
Samaroo testifies that he asked Bhadase’s “soldiers” in Bejucal, his mother’s village, “So, you will shoot me, too?”
One soldier responded sombrely, “Yes, cuz, if we have to.”
Fortunately, according to Samaroo, Parmasad had gone into all the villages along the route of the march “and really conscientised those people, so you would be surprised the amount of old Indian women and men coming out with water, giving us sweetdrink [soda], because it was a very hot day, and giving us support continuously. So, in that way, they were prepared to stand against Bhadase, because they understood, and it was being said all the time, on the big banner in front of us: INDIANS AND AFRICANS UNITE NOW. And the reception was very good.”
Elsewhere, Dr Mahabir has argued that the generosity of the Indians had nothing to do with their allegiance to the BPM; rather, it was “characteristic Indian hospitality.”
The truth probably lies somewhere between these two narratives. Indeed, it takes a tremendous investment of faith to believe that Ken Parmasad, a young radical immersed only in campus politics, had accumulated so much charisma as to neutralise the socio-religious influence of Bhadase at the height of his power.
Bhadase had earned his spurs as “Baba” to the greater Hindu population: at the time of the BPM, he was the founder of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, the architect of a national Hindu primary school system, the political leader who had defeated the PNM in the Federal Elections of 1958 and the incumbent MP for Chaguanas.
To better evaluate the motives of Indian villagers in the Campus to Caroni march, one must look at events in the months leading up to February 1970. As local white land owners continued to sell out to English conglomerate, Tate and Lyle, the mainly Indian farmers in the Montserrat area engaged in public protests to save their lands from the clutches of Tate and Lyle. According to Khafra Kambon, NJAC—working mainly through Joe Young and Clive Nunez as intermediaries—joined forces with the farmers and successfully got the government to intervene against the English conglomerate.
In the immediate aftermath of their victory, those same farmers became a critical support group for striking bus workers, providing meals for them in their protest camps in Port-of-Spain.
NJAC had sown immense goodwill among the Indian working-class months before, a fact that Mahabir overlooks. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the massive support of the march was a genuine expression of gratitude and camaraderie, not just a cultural obligation.
Against this historic roadmap, Samaroo’s account of the Caroni March has much credence. Indeed, according to Samaroo, as darkness overtook the marchers in the Couva-Felicity area, “and when people didn’t have a place to sleep, the Indian people were going to African brothers and saying, ‘Come by me. If you could be in a movement so, then all ah we is one.’” Samaroo also credits Parmasad for pre-arranging with certain families to accommodate marchers should the need arise.
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.
Both Riviere and Emmanuel were detained at Nelson Island. The story of Samaroo’s continued freedom is interesting. Months after the State of Emergency, Bhadase explained to him that it was he who had instructed Eric Williams not to touch Samaroo because he wanted him to manage a newspaper to promote Indian affairs.
The close alliance between Bhadase and Williams in 1970 speaks to the political pragmatism of both men. Both were anxious to pre-empt the march to Port-of-Spain for different reasons. According to Samaroo, Bhadase feared the cultural-racial implications of permanency in the unity between Indians and Africans; Williams feared for the survival of his regime.
Professor Kelvin Singh was a graduate student at The UWI in St Augustine in 1970. He did not get directly involved in BP activism but admits, “I think the Black Power Movement had a great impact on all of us, whether we were part of it or not.” [Interview, March 2015).
Because of the influence of Black Power, Singh developed a radical writing style, which he channelled into Moko, the organ of the James Millette-led United National Independence Party (UNIP) of which Singh was Education Officer. The Black Power dream of racial unity resonated in Singh’s “main political task” to erode “biracial” politics in the country.
Dr Kusha Haraksingh was also a graduate student at The UWI’s Mona, Jamaica campus, where Black Power was a “deeply felt movement among students.” [Interview, March 2015]. Like Samaroo, Haraksingh admired Walter Rodney as an exceptional scholar. As a Block leader in Chancellor Hall, Haraksingh was among the students who marched in full academic regalia to downtown Kingstown to protest the government’s ban on Rodney.
Mahabir alleges that Leonard, Chan Maraj and Raja Ramlogan “did not talk about India, Indian history and Indian heritage with the same passion as their African counterparts talked about their ancestral past.” Interestingly, Mahabir omits Samaroo from his equation.
That is not to say, however, that Mahabir does not raise pertinent epistemological and pedagogical issues. Among them is the suggestion that the term “Black Power” (like many other radical concepts) was too raw an importation from the US to gain cultural traction within the Indian community. He surmises a more positive reception had the movement been re-invented to reflect the unique Caribbean experience. Samaroo, for example, persists in describing the revolution as the “February Revolution.”
(Editor’s Note: The NJAC never referred to the 1970 uprising as “Black Power” and often suggested that the term, coined in the media, was an attempt by the PNM government to marginalise the movement).
Both Samaroo and Kambon have intoned independently, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Many others who participated in the March to Caroni have echoed similar sentiments. Although Indians were not as preponderant as Africans in the March to Caroni, some certainly played crucial roles in keeping alive the hope of true nationalism.
In the first post-Revolution convention of the PNM in November 1970, Williams acknowledged the positive impact of the BPM on government’s policies: “The word ‘revolution’ has always held terrors for the privileged groups in the Caribbean.” Boldly embracing the spirit of the BPM, he stated, the “PNM must continue to be revolutionary.” [Fraser, quoted above]. Such a position could not be declared prior to the BPM.
Members of the “Indian-Trinidadian intelligentsia” should continue their critical appraisal of the BPM but they should also offer more authentic analysis of the totality of the Indian contribution to the movement.
To fail to do so is to fail the generation that shook colonialism at its fundamentals, even if they did not completely root it out.
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read a rebuttal by Ramdath Jagessar, which contradicts the claim of Afro-Indian unity within the 1970 Black Power Movement and suggests the most significant flaw in NJAC’s strategy.