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Loss of a luminary

By Raffique Shah

I FEAR that environmentalist Wayne Kublalsingh does not have much time left in the land of the living—if he makes good on his vow to continue fasting until Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar orders halt to a segment of the San Fernando to Point Fortin highway. This country does not have a culture that accommodates fighters for causes. If the PM were in opposition, she might have joined the protest, the fast. But with the wine of power coursing through her system, Wayne could commit hara-kiri on her doorstep, she would not flinch, far less shed a tear.

Indeed, even though the PM and many in the People's Partnership colleagues lauded Kublalsingh for sensitising the population to critical environmental issues that helped topple the Patrick Manning government in May 2010, these people are today labelling him "ah PNM". The same re-branding applies to trade union leaders who were in the frontline against Manning-gone-mad (in his last term in office). Today, when they criticise the government, they feel the wrath of ministers and sycophants.

On the "highway re-routing" protest, I have written in the past that I do not know if their proposal to eliminate the Debe to Mon Desir section has merit. What strikes me as strange is that government is proceeding to build two highways, one each from Debe and La Romaine to Fyzabad, after which they merge into one that will take motorists to and from Point Fortin. Government has not explained the rationale for two highways, but clearly it will not budge. So my advice to Wayne is that he forgets the fast, eat, stay healthy and live to fight another day.

This country is not India, which, for all its weaknesses, has a culture of hunger-protests. Mahatma Gandhi used it repeatedly and effectively against the British Raj, and to demonstrate his disgust with treatment of the lower castes. Gandhi came close to death on a few occasions. Last year, Anna Hazare went on a fast-to-death in Delhi—against rampant corruption in government. Tens of thousands of Indians joined with him, forcing Parliament (all parties) to give a commitment to implement legislation to curb corruption.

I do not think Hazare or all the people of India can eliminate or even reduce corruption. It's a cultural norm in the sub-continent, as it is in most countries in the world, especially in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Of course, corruption is endemic in this country. But, can you imagine anyone here fasting over the issue in Woodford Square? The police would lock him up, charge him with obstruction, and sycophants of whatever party is in power would brand him "ah opposition stooge"!

Jean Miles was reduced to vagrancy by the PNM when that party was in power, partly because of her crusade against corruption. In this country, those who wield power crush the few good souls who dare to stand up for what is right—and there aren't many around, eh. Selflessness, integrity, courage and humaneness are qualities that do not abound here.

Which reminds me, even as the politicians turned light into darkness at this year's Diwali celebrations with their dotish race talk, one of this country's leading lights made her exit from life. Angela Cropper, a larger-than-life human being who remained life size by choice, died in a London hospital on the eve of Divali. I met and talked with Angela only on a few occasions. But one did not need to know her personally to judge her a very special person. By now, with several of my columnist colleagues having paid tribute to her, many people would be in wonderment at the manner in which she handled and overcame personal tribulations.

But that was only a small part of this wonder woman. Her intellect put her in an exclusive club, although you would hardly notice it because she did not flaunt it. She was humility personified. Her humaneness was boundless. There were times when she put men like me to shame. Let me explain: Angela and I belong to a generation that believed we could change the world, make it a better place. We were born towards the end of the Second World War.

By the time we were in our late teens and early twenties (1960s, 1970s), we stood for what we believed was right—no more wars, no more poverty, end racism—not just in the Caribbean, but across the world. We were the "peace-and-love" generation. I can't speak for Angela because I didn't know her then. But I feel certain she would have been a student activist at a time when attending university meant much more than a paper chase.

We nurtured certain values that we held sacred, one of which was the right to life, and by extension, we were against capital punishment, against the State taking life. I still hold that position. (I have come up with some alternatives that are worse than death!) But there were times when I wavered, when I easily turned my face as certain notorious murderers were hanged: Abdul Malik, Dole Chadee.

When the persons who killed Angela's husband, mother and sister were found guilty and sentenced to death, Angela publicly re-affirmed her position on capital punishment. That was a tremendous display of courage, of principle. I admired her for that and I felt ashamed of my own weaknesses.

This country was never ready for a human being like Angela holding the highest public office or any office. She had a brief stint as an independent senator, but she left to serve the international agencies. We did not deserve her. Now she is gone forever, a luminary lost in a land where mediocrity reigns.

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