Winford James

Dr Winford James

My fellow columnist, Prof Selwyn Cudjoe, writing in the Sunday Express of November 24, 2019, offered the view that the late Sat(narayan) Maharaj should be likened not to Mahatma Gandhi (as some commentators were suggesting), but to Martin Luther King Jr (MLK). And he cited a radio host as calling the comparison “sacrilegious”.

Because up to that point I had not held that view, I searched his column to see how he was supporting it and whether his argument would make me change my mind. But I found little that was persuasive.

Prof Cudjoe’s argument seems to be contained in the following texts:

1. “I prefer to compare him to Martin Luther King Jr whose major contribution was to make the United States a more perfect union.”

2. “It was left to Sat Maharaj and others of his persuasion to keep up the fight for minority rights even though that minority is now a majority.”

3. “Like Dr King, Sat will go down in our history as one of the major architects in helping to perfect our union and to make ours a fairer society.”

4. “Sat saw his role as continuing the fight to uplift of (sic) his people, particularly the Hindus, which he did for 50 long years.”

5. “Sat and MLK fought for the rights of ‘their’ people and, as a result, made their respective nations live up to the dreams of their nations’ founders: creating a place where every creed and race finds an equal place. This is the one thing that Sat and King have in common.”

The general message of the texts is that both Sat and MLK fought to make their respective societies (Trinidad and Tobago and United States) fairer and more equal by focusing on the rights of their minority peoples (Hindus and African-Americans). Text 1 has MLK’s major contribution as making the US “a more perfect union’’—a phrase whose meaning is unclear to me (What is a perfect union and how can it be made more perfect?) and whose vagueness cannot possibly make Cudjoe’s point.

Re text 2, assuming that minority rights are an objective basis on which to compare notable agents of change, the late ANR Robinson fought for self-government rights for Tobagonians (who are a long way from being a majority, to boot) but I don’t know that Cudjoe ever likened him to MLK.

Re text 3, the history will be written in due course, of course, but I would be surprised if Sat were not regarded as a major architect of change for a better society with lowered levels of religious and racial discrimination. But an architect like MLK?

Text 4 emphasises Cudjoe’s point that Sat fought for his people (who most probably are Indos) since Cudjoe qualifies the phrase “his people’’ by adding “particularly the Hindus’’.

And text 5 summarises it all: Sat and MLK fought for their people, and that is “the one thing they have in common.’’

But by reducing MLK’s achievements to fighting for equal civil rights for only the African-American minority, Cudjoe does MLK a serious injustice. Unlike Sat, MLK fought for other minorities as well, notably Native Americans. Indeed, in the year of his assassination (1968), he organised a march on Washington against poverty amongst all Americans, whether they were black, yellow, white, or women, attracting a multiracial coalition of impoverished Americans. Sat is not on record as having done anything remotely close.

Let me remind the professor of other major differences between the two leaders (and let me parenthesise that I cannot see it being other than reminders).

MLK is most famous for maintaining throughout his civil rights campaigns that men and women everywhere are equal members of human society regardless of colour, race, or creed. He pushed for broad-based inclusion and integration based on character rather than race or colour. By contrast, Sat is famous for advocating stridently for people of Hindu creed and for building Maha Sabha schools to foster the progress of people of Hindu creed. He made very little effort to attract or welcome other social groups into these schools.

Sat made no effort to advocate for, or promote, the economic progress of people of African descent (including Tobagonians!) in Trinidad and Tobago. By contrast, MLK became famous in his last years for his efforts to unify people of all races around issues of economic justice.

But perhaps the most important difference is that MLK, quintessentially a Baptist minister, calmly preached a utopian type of dedication to what he called ‘unarmed truth and unconditional love’ for all people. He pressed the view that these two social forces, akin to turning the other cheek, would eventually unify all people and defeat prejudice and hatred of all kinds. That was his core social value.

By sharp contrast, Sat seemed to exude a hostility and a bitterness while he preached unconditional love for the Hindu public and came over as advocating their ‘fight back’ in a type of separate but equal (or even superior) campaign. Love for African people (and most definitely Tobagonians) never seemed to figure in his agenda in any way.

I wonder if these reminders are what caused the radio host to label Cudjoe’s comparison sacrilegious?