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Namaste, T&T

By Sheila Rampersad

Just like Harry Harna­rine and Imam Yasin Abu Bakr who emerged on the national scene, declared themselves leaders and were uncritically accepted as such, Sat Maha­raj inherited the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) from his father-in-law, declared himself leader of Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago, and has been uncritically accepted as such for 43 years.

For decades, politicians and the media made Mr Maharaj a routine go-to person for consultation and commentary on national developments.

So much so that it will come as a surprise that there are, in fact, many Hindu organisations of various sizes and persuasions in this country, reflective of a fraction of the vast diversity of world Hinduism. Swaha Inc, the Hindu Women’s Organisation (HWO), the Hindu Prachar Kendra, the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha (previously the Arya Samaj Association), the Chinmaya Mission of T&T, the Academy of Hindusim, the Shiva Dharam Sabha, the Vedic Mission, the Hindu Vision Society, the Trinidad arm of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Divine Maha Kali Shakti Temples Associations do not even complete the list of Hindu organisations to be found in T&T.

What then confers on Mr Maharaj the authority to represent all Hindus in T&T and to continuously receive large State donations on behalf of Hindus? This is a question the media must confront honestly and critically on behalf of the public it serves, especially during this current incarnation of racially-charged politics.

Hindu culture is a rich collection of hundreds of spiritual and philosophical traditions that evolved over thousands of years. It is reductive to represent Hinduism only through its orthodox elements.

More significantly in T&T’s current context, all cultures are internally plural and it is imperative now to defer to the diversity resident within Hinduism because a culture’s relationship to itself, to its constituent elements, shapes that culture’s relationship with other cultures. If Mr Maharaj is closed to Hinduism’s internal differences, he would naturally be closed to differences outside Hinduism. In this way, the Sat Maharaj persona is entirely ex­plicable.

This only begins to sketch the deep crevasse into which Mr Maharaj has been allowed to lead the diverse citizens of T&T. Large numbers of Indians in this country are either not Hindus or are not practising Hindus. I have written on other occasions about the subtle slippages between “Hindu” and “Indian” persistent in the SDMS’s and Mr Maharaj’s commentaries as the secretary-general continues to consolidate his role as representative-for-life of Indianpeople.

Less subtle but equally ignored is the Hinduisation of Indian Arrival Day celebrations. The National Council of Indian Culture hosted its 2014 celebrations at the Divali Nagar with a predominantly Hindu programme of events. The SDMS brought out pupils from its Hindu schools and members of its mandirs to process from the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation to the Parvati Girls’ Hindu College grounds. The news release announcing this said, “For the entire month celebrations have been taking place at all Hindu institutions.”

These two were the day’s main commemorative events; both were transmitted live on national TV and covered extensively by the media. No less than the head of the Govern­ment, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, attended the SDMS event, telegraphing that that was indeed Indian Arrival Day’s signal event. There, as we know by now, she endorsed Mr Maharaj and the SDMS with her presence, her words and our money.

I cannot accept that 169 years after the naked feet of Indians touched Trinidad soil, Mr Maharaj continues to be the best representative Indians can offer. A community that misses few opportunities to beat its chest about its economic, cultural, political and educational achievements ought to be ashamed not only that Mr Maharaj is its champion, but that he demands greater democracy, equity and equal representation for Indianpeople while holding the post as secretary-general of the SDMS since the death of Bhadase Sagan Maharaj in 1971.

Citizens have read the political environment well. They see danger looming for Indian/African relations as the People’s National Movement (PNM) and United National Congress ready themselves for the 2015 general election. The country knows only too well the features of that traditional political confrontation.

Citizens read the desperation betrayed by the Prime Minister’s endorsement of Mr Maharaj as it recog­nised the take-back-what-is-ours sentiment articulated by a PNM supporter on TV on the night of the St Joseph by-election.

The return to the 1960s, though, is not inevitable. Members of both camps must find their voice to say “not in my name”. Part of my contribution to that project is this declaration, that Mr Maharaj does not represent me.

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