I was pleased to boast to my Guyanese colleagues that in T&T we celebrate each other's religious festivals and have a general idea what they are all about. This came about when, although there was a public holiday for Eid-ul-Adha in that country, many persons could not even differentiate it from Divali. I was feeling pleased with myself and T&T thinking how far we had progressed along the lines of tolerance, respect and diversity.
So it was a real shocker when the first newspaper that I picked up on my return spoke to Minister Warner's assertion that the march last Friday was devoid of "East Indians" and somehow this reflected that only opponents of the Government had supported it. It is one thing to assert that the march was peopled by Opposition supporters (and why not?) but it is quite another to suggest either that all East Indians support the People's Partnership or that no East Indians support the Opposition. It was particularly ironic and disturbing coming from a man who is both the chairman of the UNC, a traditionally East Indian-based party.
The words of Minister Warner were these: "Where was the diversity? Where were the East Indians, the mixed faces, the Chinese, the whites ...?'' Some might say that the Minister was not only referring to East Indians and that is true but since they make up 40 per cent of the population the reference is significant. In any event the Minister was clearly suggesting that the march was made up only of Afro-Trinis. What could be more blatant than that?
Many persons have commented on this as effectively stirring up racial sentiments. Former PM Panday described Warner's statement as "extremely sad and unfortunate'' and is quoted as saying, "No one should stir up racial sentiments for political gain. That is dangerous. We can do without the racial feelings,'' he said. This is somewhat amusing coming from a man who is reported to have said of then PM Robinson, when Club 88 (the ULF faction) severed from the NAR, "He is a chief without Indians".
While this may have been witty it was premised on the fact that Mr Panday's supporters were East Indian. That however was over 20 years ago and given that since then we have had switches in Government one would have hoped that we were well on our way to overcoming the racial bogey as obviously we have significant "independent" voters who were not blindly following that bogey.
Jack Warner himself more than most people should appreciate this. Instead of looking at the components of the Government that he is part of which includes the NJAC and TOP he reverts to a racial smear just to counteract any political points that the Opposition may claim from last Friday's march. We are not bothered, he is saying. It is only Afro-Trinis who marched against us — the rest of T&T, comprising chiefly of East Indians are with us.
That kind of attitude is symptomatic of the complacency that politicians in the past exhibited in depending as a given on electoral support on the basis of race. And here I was thinking that we had passed that stage. I cannot for the life of me understand why any right thinking person would want to revert to that state. I would have thought that the People's Partnership whose leader frequently boasts of diversity not merely in her dress but in the components of her Partnership would not relish the thought that her supporters are determined by their race.
The PM has to be careful of the message that Jack Warner has sent. According to Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, "What Mr Warner and the Government are saying is this: 'We are an Indo-dominated party, our support base is Indo-Trinidadians...they support us and they didn't come out'.'' While I do not necessarily agree that the Government is saying this, it is evident that Minister Warner is. Despite what Sat Maharaj has said about not shooting the messenger the point is — by his own primacy in the Partnership, Minister Warner is proving the implications of his message to be incorrect. If he is not then he leaves himself open to being designated an "honorary Indian" by those who will accept the race card that he had dealt.
There are many persons with whom I associate and whom I know to whom race is irrelevant except for descriptive purposes and we delight in living in T&T, kuchoor or not, where we interact socially and in the workplace with persons of varied backgrounds and ethnicity. Ill-spoken words by one politician or another will hardly impact on that. There are other persons, however, who have been teetering on coming to that acceptance who may fall back into their enclaves when faced with such pronouncements by a senior member of the current Government. The Partnership owes it to the country to not just distance itself from the words and message of the minister but to clarify what its position is on diversity. It is particularly poignant that an administration which has (for the first time) established a Ministry of National Diversity should be seen to be promoting the opposite.
Another aspect of this was a publicised decision by Minister Warner that he did not attend the opening of the Divali Nagar in Chaguanas on Sunday night because Opposition leader Dr Keith Rowley was invited. It is the most ludicrous excuse I have ever heard and, contrary to its expressed intent, brings politics in the centre of the religious festival. In contrast who remembers Sat Maharaj's Pooja 2002 celebrations when following a controversy about the celebration then prime minister Manning attended, uninvited, and set the tone of the event. That was a reflection of the appreciation of diversity in putting aside political acrimony in respect for a religious event. I took my hat off to him.
• Dana S Seetahal is a former