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Rum-shop talk not acceptable

By Dana Seetahal

THERE are many views on the recent action taken by Dr Wayne Kublalsingh and the Highway Re-Route Movement, in bringing their case to the public, as to why the portion of the proposed highway to Point Fortin, from Debe to Mon Desir, should be re-routed. Dr Kublalsingh has embarked on a hunger strike, and some of his followers have joined him in fasting. Whether we consider the actions to be foolish or an emphatic display of persons having the courage of their convictions, there is in civilised society the need to respect not only different points of view—but also the individuals who hold them.

Interestingly, the UNC's (United National Congress) Youth Arm chairman himself made this point in a media release in which he chastised Dr Kublalsingh for allegedly using obscene language last week to the Minister of Health when the latter sought to intervene in his hunger strike. The chairman talked about the need to communicate one's views in a "respectful" way. Yet when he was asked about the comments made by Government ministers at a UNC forum in Debe last Monday, he is reported to have said, "Statements made on the political platform does (sic) not violate a law".

First of all, that statement is rubbish in terms of whether a political speech can be the subject of a criminal charge. It is only in relation to the law of defamation that political speeches enjoy some privilege—and then, it is only qualified privilege. There is no such protection in the law of sedition, or incitement or even breaches of the peace. Hopefully, this budding politician will familiarise himself with these matters before he himself jumps on a political platform.

Secondly, the question of whether statements attributed to Messrs Warner and Moonilal at the Debe meeting violated the law does not arise. The issue was raised about the need to communicate respectfully, and this is what drives the criticisms by various persons of the statements of the two ministers.

What are those impugned statements? Mr Warner is reported to have said, in relation to Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike, that he was killing himself and he should do so "quickly". That statement is itself callous as many persons have repeatedly stated.

Dr Moonilal's attack was more direct but equally reprehensible. He described the family as a "cult" and stated that he hoped he was pronouncing the word properly. This statement is suggestive of a recognisable obscene word and as such is particularly distasteful, offensive and totally disrespectful of Dr Kublalsingh's family who have been, in my view, a model of support and loyalty to their relative.

He reportedly described the hunger striker as a "fraudster" and a "trickster". He also apparently predicted violence from the controversy surrounding the Re-Route Movement's actions. The former statements are not only defamatory but also scandalous—unless Dr Moonilal has some kind of evidence that Dr Kublalsingh is somehow faking his hunger strike. Speaking for myself, the obvious fragility of the hunger striker seems to be a clear contradiction of this assertion. As to the suggestion of violence, what could be more calculated to put violence in the minds of persons who have conflicting views?

Government ministers are and ought to be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens. We have through our parliamentary system of government placed them where they are. They are meant to be not only working towards a better quality of life for us all but should be leading examples. The behaviour of Ministers Warner and Moonilal this past week has not been in keeping with our requirements of those who hold such portfolios but more in line with rum-shop talk. They can be justified by no right-thinking person in this society and, despite Dr Moonilal's talk of numbers of calls, e-mails and texts commending him for his statements, they can appeal to no one except sycophants and bacchanalists. These ministers are bringing the Government into contempt whether they realise it or not.

It was therefore refreshing to read the responses of Ministers Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan, Prakash Ramadhar and Winston Dookeran. Ramadhar described the language used by his Cabinet colleagues as "unbecoming and inappropriate". He recognised that as leaders, members of Government ought to "set the right example". Dookeran appreciated the "deep conviction" of the hunger striker for which he is prepared to die and called on the Government to engage in compassion and compromise. He warned that otherwise, T&T might be seen as an "uncaring" society in the eyes of the world.

While this Government has not specifically adopted the mantra of being a "caring" Government, its Prime Minister has on many occasions talked of her Government being caring (the Children's Life Fund) and one that was concerned about the needy, the children and the unfortunate. Are the words and actions of her Ministers Warner and Moonilal consistent with this position? It was reported that at the last Cabinet meeting ministers, including Minister Warner, said a prayer for Dr Kublalsingh's health. In the face of statements by Warner and Moonilal, was this not somewhat hypocritical?

This Government has to be careful that its reaction in the wake of Dr Kublalsingh's hunger strike is not the straw that will break its back. The fact is that for over two weeks, this has seized the public's imagination and has further polarised those elements of society that were already separate in their political allegiances.

What should be more disturbing to the Government however is that the roughly 35 per cent of the population that is not permanently aligned to any side is gradually shifting away from the Government. Last week's statements by the UNC ministers seem to be cementing that trend.

• Dana S Seetahal is a former

independent senator

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