I seek to offer some reflections on the influences of Sat Maharaj. I am drawing on education because it is the discipline that has conditioned much of my professional life and my travels, which include two trips to India, both enabled by my colleague, Prof Rohit Dhankar of Azim Premjie university in Bangalore.
These conferences (2014, 2016), had to do with philosophy of education, involving a searching among Indian intellectuals for ways to convince Indian leaders education had to become a more highly valued good, and a key to addressing the uncomfortable question of exclusion of the schedule classes.
As fate would have it, Sat Maharaj died as the CAPE scholarship results were being published. Make no mistake, Sat’s Hindu schools are really not schools of Hindi. These are not the equivalent of madrasas. They are academic enclaves. They follow the SEA, CSEC and CAPE syllabi.
The wrinkle here is that Sat had a chip on his shoulder about his schools. Much like the legend of Charles Atlas, the skinny youth in whose face sand was once kicked, Sat brooded over Eric Williams’ supposed reference to his schools as cow sheds. That slight, he said, was the motivator for his drive to improve Hindu schools.
This really is not an acceptable pretext upon which to found schools. But in any case, in my view there was a gaping flaw in that folksy cow-shed story, to be seen in the fact of Naparima Girls’, and in St Augustine Girls’ High School, these two top schools having 90.6 per cent and 71.3 per cent, respectively, of their 2019 intake being Indian girls. Or, in Iere High School in Siparia, which produced in Kamla Persad-Bissessar the first woman prime minister of this country. Or Holy Faith Convent in Couva, for which 54.2 per cent of pupils taken in this year after SEA were Indian girls. Or Holy Faith Convent, Penal, which had an intake of Indian girls this year of 59.6 per cent. Or Bishop Anstey, Port of Spain, which produced Dana Seetahal.
Not to mention that Indian children abound in Government schools. More to the point, the Indian girls who attend the convents or the Presbyterian schools are largely Hindu. Less than ten per cent of Indians are Presbyterians. I attended Harmony Hall Presbyterian School, and we sang Hindi songs there.
Sat’s disposition was that Hindu schools had to be ethnic enclaves and hence exclusionary. And the SDMS did not conform to Ministry of Education dictates. When I chaired the Cabinet committee on the elementary curriculum, the Education Ministry called a meeting of representatives of all the denominations to be given an update. The SDMS did not send a representative. Other denominations, including SWAHA, did.
It cannot be said, by anybody, that Eric Williams suppressed the education of Indian girls and boys. I think members of the two races were equal sufferers. The winners always were the one-percenters. I was in Seventh Standard, in the year when it seemed that the College Exhibition floodgates had opened, maybe 1959, and all places in the denominational schools became non-paying. I did not benefit from this, being just slightly over 12.
I instead went to Southern Polytechnic, a private secondary school. These private schools—Ideal, Progressive, Osmond, St Johns, St Thomas Aquinas, Kenley’s, Renown—had more children than the established schools. Many were run by Indian principals/owners. There was no racial bias at entry. Your parents paid your school fees. They were money-making places that turned no one away.
I sat in classes with Indian children throughout my secondary school life. It was the same when I attended John Donaldson and Mausica Teachers College. Naparima Teachers Training College was all Indian.
In an Express column of Sunday, September 9, titled “Two Trinidad and Tobagos”, my colleague Prof Selwyn Cudjoe expressed “hurt” at the fact that the Government seemed at ease with the spectre of Franklin Khan’s energy interns, five of 29 of them being Africans. He wrote: “As a leader who is committed to the elimination of covert discrimination, it would be nice to hear Kamla’s response, in concrete terms, to this nagging problem that is endemic to our society.”
I think the facts on the ground in this country go against Sat’s core pretext, which is that of the downtrodden Indian. Look at the scholarship results this year and black children are nowhere to be found. With PNM the Government.
I knew the society when Indians lived in carat houses. Meanwhile, blacks were living in shacks and barrack rooms in Port of Spain, and indeed, next to the labasse in shanty town. I was born in Laventille, where houses were all shacks. Indians today live in places like Palmiste, Valsayn and Lange Park, and no one there knows what a carat house is.
Sat was very much a politician, as Raffique Shah has long pointed out. He is an agent provocateur, crying wolf all the time. On Patrick Manning’s death, he deemed the former prime minister to have been a racist. He was acutely aware of the politics of the country, and cautioned Kamla that he controlled the “Hindu vote”. She, in turn, in life and death, paid him homage. As prime minister, she did him the favour of designating Lakshmi Girls’ to be one of two Samsung Smart schools, allowing it (along with her alma mater, Iere High School) to be wired as model technology-equipped schools.
His obstinacy turned on the fact that his people had his back. Near the end, he kept spoiling for a fight. Pleading with Gary Griffith to have the cops arrest him for sedition.
He did not obey anybody, and certainly not State authority. I thought he did not handle the “Massive” controversy well.
As to the scholarships this year, Sat’s pride and joy Lakshmi Girls’ got 40, but Tobago across all schools got a total of two. Sat would have an explanation for that. More to the point, many of his followers in the society would see nothing in this. Just another occasion for the racial triumphalism as modelled by Sat across his life. Their side is the winner, consistent with the separatist logic underpinning Sat’s legacy.
—Theodore Lewis is Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota. He chaired the Cabinet Committee on the school curriculum.