Hindu Human Rights in Trinidad & Tobago: Excerpts from HAF's 2011 Report
In 2010, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who is of Indian and Hindu descent, became Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Prime Minister. She heads the People’s Partnership (PP), a five-party coalition that came to power in May 2010 after defeating Patrick Manning and the People’s National Movement (PNM). In the 2010 elections, the People’s Partnership won 29 seats and the PNM 12. During the PNM regime Trinidad and Tobago experienced high rates of crime and public corruption.
The PNM had previousloy ruled the country for five decades and drew its main base of support from citizens of African origin. Upon coming into office, the new Prime Minister declared that she would make the country a successful multicultural society. And Bissessar has endeavored to create an inclusive government with representation from all ethnic and religious groups, as her cabinet includes a number of ethnic Afro-Caribbean ministers. In contrast, the prior ruling PNM had largely marginalized Hindus and Indians from positions in the government. Moreover, Bissessar’s People’s Partnership won the elections by attracting voters from across the ethnic and racial divide.
Under previous governments, citizens of Indian and Hindu descent faced widespread discrimination, economic and political marginalization, and were disproportionately targeted for physical violence and harassment. In July 2009, opposition Member of Parliament, Tim Gopeesingh, accussed the PNM government of carrying out a policy of political discrimination, that was specifically targeting Indo-Trinidadians. Similarly, the Indo-Trinbago Equality Councl (ITEC) claimed that there was systematic discrimination against Indo-Trinidadians in the areas of nursing, state housing, military, police, public service, and elsewhere. According to Devant Maharaj of the ITEC, the only field where Indo-Trinidadians were overrepresented was in the medical profession (as doctors) because the field was based on merit and education.
A recent report further supports the contention that Indo-Trinidadians were underrepresented in most professions and government positions, despite comprising nearly 40% of the population. The report traces the unequal rates of employment opportunities and representation in various areas over several years. It refers to a study from 1970 that showed that: “[O]f the 100 employees of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, 84 were Afro-Trinidadians, 10 were Indo-Trinidadians, 3 were of Chinese descent, 2 were of Portuguese descent, and 1 was white.” This unequal employment situation was further evident in 1989, when statistics showed that of the total number of persons employed in all government organizations, 29% were Indo-Trinidadians. In the police force, Regiment of the Defense Force, Coast Guard, and Port Authority, respectively, the percentage of Indo-Trinidadians was 25%, 5%, 16%, and 6% respectively. At that time, census data indicated that Indo-Trinidadians made up 40.3% of the country's population, while Afro-Trinidadians comprised 39.6%, thereby demonstrating the wide disparities. The report further found that Indo-Trinidadians reached and surpassed the equity ratio in the areas of medicine and finance, “but that the criteria for employment and advancement in these two areas was clearly technical skill,” supporting the claims of the ITEC.
There was also pervasive racial tension between the Indian and Afro-Carribean communities. Moreover, Hindus faced restrictions on religious freedom, state preference for Christianity, and inequitable funding of religious activities in comparison to Christians. As an example of the previous government’s institutionalized preference for Christianity, former High Court judge Herbert Volney reportedly claimed that a judge “must know [his] benediction and must be known for [his] piety,” in order to ascend to the Court of Appeal. Incidentally, Judge Volney is now the Minister of Justice in the Bissessar Cabinet.
Consequently, the election of Bissessar brought optimism and hope for the ethnic Indian and Hindu communities and expectations of a new socio-cultural-political dynamic. In a symbolic and significant gesture, the new leadership gave TT $1 million for the celebration of the Hindu festival, Diwali, which costs nearly TT $15 million. On the other hand, the previous PNM government had provided only TT $10,000. As the new Attorney General Anand Ramlogan stated: “People think of Trinidad as a predominantly African country…We want to rectify this mis-perception. The majority is of Indian descent.” Previously there was “discrimination manifest in subtle ways,” he said, one of which was the allocation of state funding.
However, the new Prime Minister must also ensure that in redressing previous grievances, her government does not discriminate against non-Indians and/or non-Hindus. Thus far, it appears that Bissessar has not shown state preference for Indians and Hindus and has created an inclusive government.
Nonetheless, there still remains a high level of mistrust and mutual suspicion between the Indian/Hindu and Afro-Carribean communities. For example, a recent article by Professor Selwyn Cudjoe, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s well-known writers, seems to reflect the continued ambivalence, if not outright hostitility to the citizens of Indian descent in the country. In the article, entitled “Hindu ethics and morality,” Cudjoe questions Hindu morality and ethics itself and effectively instigates ethnic Africans against Indians/Hindus. He writes: “Speak to any non-Indian in Trinidad and Tobago and one is asked the same question: What dese Indians want? It may be an unfair question, a paranoid response, or just the reflection of feelings of anxiety. Yet, there lingers in the minds of many non-Indians that there can be no pleasing Indians in Trinidad and Tobago. Do they yearn for equality or do they seek dominance?”
Similarly, at the Emancipation Day dinner in 2009, acknowledging the arrival and slavery of people of African descent, Professor Cudjoe warned of “turbulent times” for people of African origin “because they are now a minority in this country… If ethnic trends in voting continue, it is likely that in the next ten years we might see that same pattern that has emerged in Guyana in which the dominant group will hold power in perpetuity.” And in 2006, he claimed, “[A]ll the turmoil that we see in our society today not only represents a relentless struggle on the part of the East Indians to dominate the society; it also suggests that the agents of their group are prepared to utilise any means—be they legal, political, academic or religious—to achieve ethnic dominance.” Professor Cudjoe’s inflammatory rhetoric continues to exacerbate tensions between Trinidad and Tobago’s two largest communities and ignores the widespread discrimination ethnic Indians and Hindus have encountered for several decades.
After the PP’s election in 2010, there have been indications that the country is still plagued by violent crime, with accusations of corruption, and the mishandling of certain top government appointments. In August 2011, Bissessar declared a state of emergency in an attempt to deal with the surge in violent gang-related activity. In the two months after the emergency was declared, more than 7,000 people were arrested, and large quantities of drugs and weapons were seized. Subsequently, in November, Bissessar alleged that the police had thwarted an assassination attempt on her and members of her cabinet by “criminal elements” in an apparent reprisal against her Government’s declaration of a state of emergency.
The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is an archipelagic state in the southern Caribbean. The country consists of two main islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and 21 smaller islands. Trinidad is the larger and more populous of the main islands; Tobago is much smaller, comprising about 6% of the total area and 4% of the population.
Originally settled by Amerindians of South American origin at least 7,000 years ago, Trinidad and Tobago was occupied by Arawakan-speaking and Cariban-speaking peoples at the time of European contact in 1498. A history of slavery and indentured labor has left the country with a population of African, Indian, European, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and mixed-race descent. All these groups have left a significant impact on the country’s national culture.
Britain consolidated its hold on both islands during the Napoleonic Wars and combined them into the colony of Trinidad and Tobago in 1899. As a result of these colonial struggles, Amerindian, Spanish, French, and English influence are all common in the country. Subsequently, African slaves and Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, and free African indentured laborers arrived to supply labor in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Emigration from Barbados and Lesser Antilles, Venezuela, Syria, and Lebanon also affected the ethnic makeup of the country. Trinidad and Tobago elected for independence in 1962. And in 1976, the country severed its links with the British monarchy and became a republic within the Commonwealth.
Trinidad and Tobago is a democratic republic. The Head of State is the President and the Head of Government is the Prime Minister. The President is elected by an electoral college consisting of the full membership of both houses of Parliament, while the Prime Minister is appointed by the President.
Political parties are generally divided along ethnic lines, with the People’s National Movement (PNM) supported primarily by Africans and the United National Congress (UNC) drawing its constituency largely from Indians. In the recent past, there have been three elections in three years contested by these two main, ethnic-based parties. However, support for political parties is not completely polarized along racial lines. In the most recent elections, for example, the PNM fielded Indian candidates for election, while the main financial benefactor of the UNC is an Afro-Trinidadian. The PNM has dominated politics in Trinidad and Tobago for much of the country’s post independence history.
Dr. Eric Williams, the country’s first Prime Minister and a member of the PNM, referred to Indians as the “recalcitrant minority.” The racial and religious animosity between ethnic Africans (primarily Christian) and Indo-Carribeans (mostly Hindu) was exacerbated over the years and manifested particularly in the media and government. Prominent Hindu leader and Secretary General of the Hindu Maha Sabha, Satnarayan Maharaj, stated in 2006: “This year marks 50 years since Trinidad and Tobago attained the right to internal self-government (1956-2006). Out of this 50-year period an Indian-based political party held power for six years. The People’s National Movement (PNM) ruled for 30 consecutive years without appointing a single Hindu as a government minister. The cry of rural neglect, alienation, marginalization and discrimination affected the political psychology of Indians as they lost hope of ever winning a general election.”
Maharaj goes on to point out that despite the PNM being in political office since 1956, Afro-Trinidadians continued to agitate for affirmative action and preferential treatment.
Furthermore, according to the book, The Indian Struggle for Justice and Equality against Black Racism in Trinidad and Tobago (1956-1962), “The 1956 election was won by the PNM headed by Eric Williams on the institution of a resurgent Negro nationalism. Since then, Indians in Trinidad have been subjected to all sorts of humiliations, degradation and ignominy by PNM racialism.”
In the past, Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago faced a multitude of human rights issues, including physical attacks, temple desecration, economic/political discrimination, and the inequitable distribution of government funds. Although conditions are starting to improve under the Bissessar government, Hindus and ethnic Indians continue to confront a number of challenges.
Moreover, during 2011, the country continued to experience a high rate of crime. According to a UN report, Trinidad and Tobago had the second highest crime rate in the region, after Jamaica. One out of every two persons living in Trinidad and Tobago is fearful of being victimized of violent crime. There were 354 murders committed in 2011, down 27% from the 485 murders recorded the previous year. In addition, there were 3,891 burglaries and break-ins reported, for a monthly average of nearly 325 incidents. And the number of kidnappings during the year was 101.
The Constitution of Trinidad and Tobago guarantees equal protection under the law and freedom of religion for all citizens. Furthermore, religious groups possess the same rights and obligations as most legal entities, can own land, and hire employees. The Government subsidizes both public and religiously affiliated schools. It also permits religious instruction in public schools, setting aside a time each week when any religious organization with an adherent in the school can provide an instructor. Attendance at these classes is voluntary and the religious groups represented are diverse. Parents may enroll their children in private schools for religious reasons. As a result, there are thriving Hindu, Muslim, and Christian schools. The Government has also established public holidays for every religious group with a large following. In addition, the Government grants financial and technical assistance to various organizations to support religious festivals and celebrations, including Indian Arrival Day. The level of state funding for such activities, however, has been inequitable in the past and generally favored Christian groups.
Although Hindus were underrepresented in government positions in the past, under the current government, there are Ministers, Members of Parliament, and public figures representing every religious group and denomination and the broad spectrum of religious beliefs in the country. The government also supports the activities of the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), an interfaith coordinating committee for public outreach, governmental and media relations, and policy implementation. And it provides the prayer leader for several official events, such as the opening of Parliament and the annual court term.
In response to wariness over past colonial experiences, the government limits the number of foreign missionaries allowed in the country to 30 per denomination at any given time. Moreover, missionaries must meet strict entry standards and cannot remain in the country for more than three years per visit. Additionally, there were no reports of forced religious conversions in the island nation.
There are over 300 Hindu temples in Trinidad and Tobago. No incidents of vandalism and desecration of Hindu temples were recorded in 2011. The following section, therefore, provides recent examples of discrimination towards Hindu festivals, religious practices, and places of worship.
In May 2009, students of a nondenominational public school in south Trinidad participated in a voluntary Hindu prayer service. The students planted symbolic flags on the school grounds appealing for success in their examinations. The Ministry of Education ordered school authorities to remove the flags. The decision of the Ministry offended some students and teachers, who belive their individual religious rights were violated and declared that they would boycott classes and stand guard around the symbolic prayer flags. The school principal eventually removed the flags. More than half of the school’s 1,500 student body is Hindu.
On August 8, 2008, a prominent Hindu temple in Cunupia, a town in central Trinidad, was vandalized and images of sacred Hindu deities were desecrated. There was also a similar incident in 2007 at a different Hindu temple in central Trinidad.
Although there are several Hindu temples in Trinidad, Hindu temples were non-existent on the small island of Tobago. Until recently, the Tobago House of Assembly refused to allow the Hindu community to construct a mandir (temple) on land purchased on the island. The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) had sought to build a temple in the Carnbee area, where they owned lands, but the Assembly declared that temple construction is prohibited in residential areas. SDMS, however, noted that there was a Christian Church approximately 150 feet away from the land it wanted to build on. They also pointed out that in other residential areas, such as Bethany and Four Roads Bon Accord, churches had been recently built.
In addition, while refusing to fund a kirtan (Hindu religious concert) on the island, churches on Tobago were funded and the Assembly promoted a Christian gospel concert. Complaints from the Hindu community regarding the overt religious prejudice by the Assembly members had little immediate impact on the Tobago House of Assembly’s discriminatory policies. After a five-year struggle, the first Hindu mandir in Tobago finally began construction in the summer of 2007, with a $250,000 grant from the National Commission for Self Help Limited (NCSH)
Hindus have also faced challenges with religious festivals, including yearly Diwali celebrations and the annual Ramleela (religious performance in honor of revered Lord Rama). The largest Diwali celebrations are held each year at the Diwali Nagar, Chaguanas, in Trinidad. This event has grown from a modest affair to an international fixture in the Hindu calendar, attracting Hindus from around the world. Each night, over a 14-day period, thousands of Hindus and non-Hindus congregate at this famous location to enjoy and participate in pujas (sacred rituals), concerts, art, craft and social activities. In 2006 and 2007, however, the police refused to provide additional security unless they were paid. During the first few nights when the police stayed away, several vehicles were stolen and vandalized. It was only after protests by Hindus that security was increased.
Furthermore, in the past, Ramleela festivities were targets of violence. For example, in 2005, vandals desecrated religious items and destroyed tents, props, and fences used in Ramleela celebrations, as well as the sacred jhandi (flag to mark the completion of puja or worship ceremony) at McBean Village, Couva. Consequently, many Hindus were fearful of attending the celebrations at McBean.
In several other parts of country, Hindus have even been prevented from holding Diwali and Ramleela celebrations. Recently, the head of the Sugarcane Feeds Centre refused permission for workers to hold their annual Diwali celebrations. And in another instance, Hindu police officers were prohibited from celebrating Diwali at their workplaces in South Trinidad.
Religious discrimination against Hindus has also been an issue in the educational system. Although Hinduism is the second largest religion in Trinidad and Tobago, there were no sixth-form Hindu secondary schools to prepare students for university, while there were eighteen Christian and two Muslim sixth-form facilities. Moreover, an Indian community leader recently alleged, “Certain denominational schools are forcing all students to study the religion of the school, without introducing the appropriate religious instruction for students of other religions…The Ministry of Education needs to correct these discriminatory practices, especially in the denominational school.”
Furthermore, in many primary and secondary schools and colleges, the religious rights of Hindu students were violated by preventing them from wearing Hindu clothing, rakshas (protective amulet), and other symbols. For instance, in March 2008, Hindu high school students were prohibited from wearing the raksha, “a Hindu religious symbol consisting of a colored string worn on the wrist during the performance of sacred rituals and removed within seven days after the prayers,” and were forced to remove them by school security guards. The Ministry of Education later apologized to the students.
And in October 2006, an Anglican School in Fyzabad, South Trinidad withdrew permission previously granted to students for celebrating Diwali, despite it being a national holiday. Students were also banned from wearing rakshas.
Violence directed against Indians and Hindus in Trinidad and Tobago is not uncommon. Indians and Hindus have been subjected to verbal and physical assaults by mobs of non-Indians from neighboring villages and from the northern urban areas of Trinidad where the population is predominantly African. For example, the Hindus of Felicity were recently attacked by Afro-Trinidadians from the adjacent village of Boot Hill. The Hindu residents of Felicity were unable to commute to work and schools after Afro-Trinidadians from Boot Hill blocked the main road with piles of burning debris and broken bottles.
Institutional discrimination against Hindus and Indians in Trinidad and Tobago was rampant until recently and included economic/political discrimination, inequitable distribution of government funds, and prejudice in the education system.
According to one observer, the “Indo-Trinidadian community is witnessing a ‘shock and awe’ programme with this state-sanctioned policy that directs significant state resources to one ethnic group at the exclusion of other groups. The lowering of qualifications for state employment, house padding, the establishment of the University of Trinidad and Tobago, the elevation of criminal elements to community leaders…are all examples of the programme conceived to push the Indian out of the space that is shared in Trinidad and Tobago.”
Despite comprising approximately 40% of the population, inhabitants of Indian descent were severely underrepresented in government sectors jobs, including the Protective Services, the Civil Service, State Companies, Statutory Boards and Commission, the High Commissions and Diplomatic Missions, the Central Bank and Board, and executive membership at decision-making levels of the State. This began to slowly change after 2002.
One report found that Indians were “heavily under-represented, except in areas where merit and technical criteria must prevail, as in the judicial and professional sectors, where Indians were more than adequately represented.” For instance, prior data from the Service Commissions Department indicated that there are only 18 Indians serving as department heads in the nation, compared to 87 non-Indians, and there are no Indians on the executive of the police service or army.
Additionally, in the Promotional and Advisory Board of the Police, the five members of the promotion board are all of African descent, which in turn affects the promotional prospects of Indians. Moreover, none of the ten Assistant Commissioners of Police or three Deputy Commissioners are of Indian origin. When Nizam Mohammed, a Muslim of Indian descent and chairman of the Police Commission, pointed out these inequities, he was effectively forced out of his position by the People’s Partnership government for fear of losing the support of the Afro-Trinidadian community.
Similarly, Police Captain Gary Griffith, commenting on the imbalance in the police and security forces stated, “The Police Service should reflect the ethnic composition of the society that they are assigned to protect and serve. There have also been numerous reports of East Indians being rejected by our Defence Force and then reapplying to other foreign armed forces and excelling by leaps and bounds, which means a loss of talent to our nation because of poor selection processes.” As a result of his critical comments, Griffith was compelled to leave his position, just as Nizam Mohammed was. Discrimination against Indians in the police and security services of the country has persisted, despite the election of the Bissessar government.
In addition to prejudice in the police and security forces, Hindus and Indians have confronted bias in employment opportunities. For instance, High Court judge Maureen Rajnauth Lee recently found that the Education Ministry had discriminated against two Hindu-Indian teachers, Vijesh Mahadeo and Vashti Maharaj, in wrongfully denying them teaching positions. The Education Ministry did not even come to court to challenge the case against them.
Hindus have also encountered challenges in obtaininig business licenses. For example, a the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha of Trinidad and Tobago (SDMS) was forced to fight a seven year long legal battle to finally acquire a broadcast license for a Hindu radio station, Radio Jaagriti, on 102.7FM. SDMS originally initiated their application in 1999, but the government consistently refused to award the organization a radio license for seven years, while granting another group a radio frequency for its station. On July 4, 2006, SDMS was victorious in its appeal to the Privy Council. In a landmark 19-page judgment, Lord Justice Mance said, that “in light of the exceptional circumstances” of the case, the Privy Council would order Trinidad and Tobago Attorney General John Jeremie to do all that is necessary to ensure that a license is issued forthwith to the Hindu organization. The State was also ordered to pay SDMS's legal costs for all court proceedings. In September 2009, the decade old discrimination case ended with an award to the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha of almost $3 million. The compensation was ordered in a September 22 order by Justice Ronnie Boodoosingh, who said, “What this case showed was discrimination, plain and simple.”
Citizens of Hindu and Indian origin were further discriminated against by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the distribution of service awards. Moreover, the highest award for public service, formerly known as the “Trinity Cross,” was “perceived as a manifestation or symptom of what was, in substance if not form, a Christian state that tolerated non-Christians. It was a powerful psychological reminder of the fact that [Hindus] were merely ‘tolerated.’”
The Maha Saba, a Hindu organization, along with a Muslim group, instituted legal action against the State regarding the use of the title “Trinity Cross.” In reference to the case, Justice Peter Jamadar stated: “This general prohibition against non-discrimination thus prohibits laws that differentiate between people on the basis of their inherent personal characteristics and attributes. Such discrimination undermines the dignity of persons, severely fractures peace and erodes freedom. Courts will not readily allow laws to stand, which have the effect of discriminating on the basis of the stated personal characteristics.” In response to the Court’s decision, the “Trinity Cross” was officially changed to the “Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago” in August 2008.
Inequitable Distribution of Government Funds
The previous PNM government often provided preferential treatment to particular ethnic and religious groups in the distribution of public funds. For example, a Joint Select Committee of Parliament meeting, chaired by Independent Senator Parvatee Anmolsingh-Mahabir, found that the National Social Development Programme (NSDP), a State agency, was responsible for explicit discrimination against Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, and Anglicans, while favoring predominantly Afro-Trinidadian Christian denominations. The Indo-Trinbago Equality Council (ITEC) also alleged inequitable treatment in the distribution of land to Hindu religious groups. According to the Indo-Trinbago Equality Council (ITEC), the Tobago House of Assembly allocated land to the Baptist Church in order to build a place of worship and gave $9 million to fund the Gospel Fest, while the Hindu community in Tobago continued to be marginalized.
In addition, millions of taxpayers’ dollars were spent on St Peter’s Baptist Church, the Jesus Elam Ministries, Febeau Open Bible, Revival Time Assembly, Gospelfest, and other small politically affiliated churches, while Hindu celebrations, such as Ramleela, were denied adequate funding.
Similarly, the US State Department’s 2009 report on international religious freedom indicated that: “A Hindu group that organizes the celebration of Phagwa (also known as Holi), a joyous celebration that marks the start of the Hindu New Year, complained about the level of government funding it received. The organization objected to the reduction of state funding from approximately $12,500 (TT$75,000) in 2007, to $10,000 (TT$60,000) in 2008, and finally to $800 (TT$5,000) in 2009. The group returned the 2009 grant in protest.”
Indo-Trinidadians also believed that the allocation of public housing by the National Housing Authority (Home Development Corporation) and the disbursement of compensation following natural disasters, disproportionately benefitted Afro-Trinidadians under the PNM government. For example, $36 million was provided in immediate assistance to flood victims from Port City and Toco, in comparison to south and central farmers (nearly all Hindus), who did not receive any government aid and lost millions in flood damage.
Constitution of Trinidad & Tobago
Trinidad is a democratic state that “acknowledge[s] the supremacy of God [and] faith in fundamental human rights and freedoms.” Chapter 1 of the Constitution recognizes an individual’s right to “equality before the law” and freedom of religion, thought, and expression. It also guarantees the “freedom of the press,” although it does not expand upon what this freedom entails. Furthermore, the Constitution states that Parliament may not “deprive a person of the right to a fair hearing,” nor deprive a person of the right “to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” Despite these protections, Hindus have experienced attacks on their places of worship, government sanctioned discrimination, and societal abuse until the formation of the new government in 2010 headed by Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
International Human Rights Law
Trinidad and Tobago signed the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination on June 7, 1967 and ratified it on October 4, 1973. Its accession to the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights took place on December 21, 1978. The Trinidadian government has repeatedly violated these UN Covenants, however, by failing to protect its Hindu and Indian citizens and discriminating against them on ethnic and religious grounds.
Despite constitutional protections ensuring “equality before the law” and freedom of religion, Indians and Hindus have faced systematic discrimination and harassment/abuse. With the change in government in 2010 and an Indian/Hindu heading the new government, the conditions of the Indian/Hindu population is improving. However, it is also incumbent upon the government to guarantee fundamental rights and freedoms for all citizens and enforce civil and criminal laws in a uniform manner. Furthermore, Trinidadian leaders should discourage racial and religious stereotypes and hate speech; recognize Hindus and Indians as equal partners in the rule and governance of the nation; and distance themselves from Christian fundamentalist organizations promoting Christianization of the government and hatred against Hindus and Hinduism.