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Shah’s self-serving revisionism

By Theodore Lewis

 In his column titled “I come not to praise Karl” (Sunday Express, January 19) Raffique Shah took the opportunity of the death of Karl Hudson-Phillips to once again try to write his own place into our history. Mr Shah does have a place in our history. But he cannot tell us what that place is. History is not biography. 

Across the land, the region, and the world, the sentiment towards Karl has been that he was a patriot and legend. A scholar who had risen in the law and in politics, who having served Eric Williams and the PNM, Karl decided at a particular stage in his career that there was need to challenge Williams and his party. 

The record is that Karl along with others such as Aeneas Wills and ANR Robinson, indeed fashioned a new party, the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR) which severely eroded the base of the PNM, but won no seats in 1981. The ONR was the precursor to the NAR which won in 1986, and arguably to the People’s Partnership. 

Mr Shah wants us to know that there is a different narrative about Karl, which we can see more clearly when he injects himself into the picture. When he does this, he, not Karl becomes the hero. So he frames his version of history, and tries to re-write the eulogy to include himself. He boldly declared that in fact in 1970 he and another young army officer, Rex Lasalle, decided to do something about Williams’ state of emergency, which was to stage an army mutiny.

The facts are that in the middle of a revolution based on black identity, in which blacks in the country went back to ancestral roots, changing their names, wearing afros and dashikis, and pointing to their dispossessed standing in the society, dissidents in the army led by Mr Shah and his young colleague, came out of the barracks. Up until this attempt by army dissidents to inject themselves into the events, the leaders of the revolution were Dave Darbreau (Khafra Kambon) and Geddes Granger (Makandal Daaga). The intellectual centre of the revolution, as I recall it, was UWI, not Teteron barracks. Kambon and Daaga were university students. Lloyd Best’s Tapia newspaper, and James Millette’s Moko were the organs of the revolution. Best and Millette were faculty members at the time. I was a UWI evening student then. We were reading Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth. Mighty Duke was singing “Black Is Beautiful.” Black Power was about identity not mutiny.

Mr Shah writes that there was another sub-text to this identity-driven Black Power revolution in which he featured. He writes that,  “Karl was the 37 years-young Attorney General of the country in 1970…He was colonial to the core….In contrast, at age 24, I was representative of a generation that abhorred colonialism and revolted against the neocolonial power structure that stymied our country, young men and women who were prepared to put our lives on the line in a bid to change the status quo…We were destined to collide”. He writes further that the arrests of the Black Power leaders by the Williams regime, with Karl leading the charge, “triggered a mutiny in the army”. 

Where Mr Shah could have been more helpful would have been to tell the country, 44 years on from the events, what mandate from citizens did he and his men have to break ranks from the army and head to Port of Spain with guns, as they did. Lucky for us in 1970 and now, Mr Shah proved to be an incompetent lieutenant. The facts are that he and his dissidents quickly wilted under Coast Guard fire. They got no further than Tembladora, and with one soldier dead, and shells raining down, they headed for the Diego Martin hills. The police and loyalist soldiers, fortified by arms rushed in from Venezuela, were able to save us from bloodshed.

Mr Shah never told us what would have happened had he and Lasalle and their mutineers gotten to Port of Spain. How would their attempt to save us from colonialism have materialised in practice? Would we have gotten a new prime minister from this mutiny, and who would it have been? What would have become of Williams?

Having lost on the military side, Mr Shah tells us that he was able to defeat Karl in, of all places, the courts. He writes: “Rex Lassalle and I, directing a team of radical young lawyers from our prison cells, entered an unprecedented plea of ‘condonation’ that caught the prosecution flat-footed. When Desmond Allum and Allan Alexander dropped this legal bombshell, the court almost collapsed in confusion. When the dust settled, we won a case that appeared to be unwinnable, with even the Privy Council agreeing with our arguments.”

He ends the recounting by saying, “I  would never have trusted Karl with political power. I am convinced he would have abused it in the name of law and order, justice be damned.” So here is Mr Shah, with his colleague Rex Lasalle coming into Port of Spain on their own with army mutineers, telling us  it is Karl, not he, who is an abuser of power and privilege.

When soldiers leave their barracks on their own to march on the capital without orders from the prime minister and his government that is called a coup attempt. Karl Hudson-Phillips, however flawed he may have been, demonstrated that he was willing to funnel any instinct he had for power through constitutionally provided avenues. Had Mr Shah and the soldiers whom he led succeeded, we would have become a banana republic. The country dodged a bullet when they failed. 

Mr Shah takes no credit for a later attempted coup, in which the same kind of artful lawyering in the form of  “clemency”, first cousin of “condonation”, was applied to cause mutineers who had succeeded in over-running the Parliament, killing a parliamentarian, and shooting the Prime Minister, to go free. He had laid down the pattern in 1970 of how one could be treasonous and still boldfaced. 

• Theodore Lewis is emeritus 

professor, University of Minnesota

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