Food Production Minister Devant Maharaj said yesterday that he also decided not to attend the opening ceremony of Divali Nagar in Chaguanas on Sunday because of the presence of Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley.
National Security Minister Jack Warner wrote last Saturday to Surujdeo Mangaroo, public relations officer of the National Council of Indian Culture (NCIC), to explain his absence from the opening ceremony.
"When I was informed of Dr Keith Rowley's presence, at a time when the national community is so politically charged, the only logical process that followed suggested that such action would only serve to reduce this holy festival to political jostling, which, given the respect and love I have for the Hindu community, I chose not to be a part of, now or ever," stated Warner in his letter.
Speaking to the Express by phone, Maharaj said he fully supports Warner.
"I support Mr Warner; I also stayed away because I knew he (Rowley) was invited to be there...for years, he refused to attend while the PNM (People's National Movement) was in Government," said Maharaj.
"I know first hand how the PNM discriminated against the Hindu community; as a member of the Maha Sabha, we had to take them to court for the radio licence matter and the Trinity Cross matter, and many others...and they are using Divali for cheap political mileage and to re-image Rowley and the PNM. I object to the PNM using and exploiting Divali as part of their marketing strategy for Dr Rowley."
But while Maharaj was in full support of Warner, his other Government colleagues distanced themselves from the controversy.
Said Housing Minister Dr Roodal Moonilal: "I don't get involved in MPs' personal matters; a decision to attend or not to attend is left to the judgment of an MP or minister."
Local Government Minister Suruj Rambachan, who attended the opening ceremony, said: "I think Mr Warner's move was a personal decision; that's his right to make a personal decision."
Rambachan said he enjoyed the opening ceremony and commended the Sandra Sookdeo dance group on their performance.
In response, Rowley questioned how an invitation from the NCIC was fuelling such malice.
"I was there on Sunday night with my wife and some of my colleagues; we had a lovely evening. I had dinner with the NCIC executive and Government members, and not one of these persons treated me out of the ordinary...the only person that seems to have an issue is Jack Warner," said Rowley.
He added that he and his wife walked around the Nagar site and admired the booths with Indian clothing and art, and even accepted requests from people and children to have pictures taken with them.
Rowley asked if a group of Tobagonians were to march over an issue whether any government minister can say to ignore them because they are Tobagonians.
Warner, he said, has embarrassed this country.
"When you have a minister of Government saying he refuses to go to a religious function because the Opposition leader is there, it portrayed to the entire world that there is racial divisions in the country; this is a man who was acting as Prime Minister, taking issue with a religious organisation's invitation to me. He has embarrassed this country, and I'm sure he has embarrassed the NCIC," said Rowley.