Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar last night defended Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha leader Sat Maharaj for his staunch defence of East Indian traditions with respect to the ongoing debate on child marriage. Speaking at the Indian Diaspora Council closing event at Maha Sabha headquarters in St Augustine last night, Persad-Bissessar condemned the attacks on Maharaj in recent times. “His name will be recorded in the annals of the history of Trinidad and Tobago as he who never faltered in defence of his faith, his community and his country,” Persad-Bissessar said.
“We have been hearing the debate raging about marriage age as the Government seeks to change the law. The debate is still to continue before the House of Representatives in Parliament. It has been most offensive to witness the denigration of our leaders of the Hindu community and Muslim community who have been exercising their right to speak out against the change being proposed by Government,” she said.
Persad-Bissessar said today, much like 100 years ago, East Indians are still fighting for recognition and fighting against long-held perceptions about the Hindu faith and Indian people.
She said while many believed East Indians were treated well and received land and gifts from the landowners and the sugar cane plantation owners, that was not the case.
Persad-Bissessar said a simple review of British history shows East Indians were like “new slaves” to the landowners, subject to rape, persecution and unfair treatment.
“The history books have called it Indentureship, but that is just a euphemism for the brutality that characterised the Indian labour on the plantations,” she said. “The promise of a better life was a mirage that ended the moment they boarded the ships that brought them here.”
Persad-Bissessar said the Indians signed contracts in a language they did not understand, that bound them to years of work in exchange for passage back to their homeland.
Some were granted land to forego the cost of the trip back home.
“Planters had a legal commitment to pay for a return passage for the Indians at the end of their indentureship, but Indians had become a precious labour force so planters and the local administrators enticed them to stay by giving them land and money equivalent to less than the cost of repatriation,” she said.
“Every Indian who owned a piece of land paid for it—there was no gift, no generosity. The truth is the Indians were docile, industrious agrarian workers who were an asset to the colony. So instead of letting them go home, the planters kept them to continue to work in the fields under horrible conditions for starvation wages even when they were free,” she said.
Despite the rough start, Persad-Bissessar said she was grateful to the intrepid travellers who made T&T their new home.
“As we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the recruitment of indentures, let us vow to use it to remind ourselves that we must continue to fight against all forms of human exploitation, especially in work-related environments and as well against racism and discrimination,” she said.