A nasty race row between the Indo leader of Trinidad’s main opposition party and a cabinet minister over Blacks and slavery has led to widespread condemnation and political unease in the twin island republic with Tobago that is already plagued by serious racial distrust between the two main racial groups.
The latest row has its genesis in remarks made by former prime minister and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar at the weekend when she attacked Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis, telling her that she is proud of her own Hindu ancestral name compared to the minister who has long lost her African roots and heritage because of slavery.
Persad-Bissessar had accused the minister of repeatedly and unnecessarily calling her name at public campaign forums but more importantly, some political activists and members of her own United National Congress (UNC) are openly accusing her of race-baiting as preparations for the 2025 general elections slowly crank up.
Like in neighboring Guyana and Suriname with large Asian Indian populations, lingering and sometimes bitter tensions between the two race groups date back decades to the immediate post slavery-emancipation period when the British brought Indian indentured servants from the continent, treated them better than freed slaves, and did all in their power to stir animosity between them.
Persad-Bissessar’s party is also fighting to take political control of Trinidad in much the same way fraternal parties have done in Guyana and Suriname where they have dislodged Afro governing parties in recent years. These three countries are by far the most resource rich in the 15-nation Caribbean Community (Caricom).
Many who listened to the former PM’s remarks seem to think that she deliberately made the point to both strengthen her position in the party and to rally her base ahead of internal party elections in the coming weeks. Some influential Indians have even started an online petition to have her removed as the UNC leader, aware of the damage that she could have done to race relations and the party’s chances in the next election. They also think these remarks will come back to haunt her going forward.
“What problem you have with my name? What’s wrong with my name? Camille, at least I have the name of my ancestors. Where you got yours from? Your name is that of a slave-master,” she said to dropped jaws.
The African Emancipation Committee says it is at a loss to make the link between simple political attacks on the campaign trail and an open reference to race at the most basal level.
“In an environment of racial division and sensitivities forged in the cauldron of colonial divide-and-rule, it is advisable that highly sensitive cultural issues not be reduced to political jabs by persons who are seen as leaders, and more so when they are seen as leaders of ethnic groups,” Guardian Media quoted the body as saying. “In fact, the minority whites who colonized and exploited us both saw advantage in using cultural differences to maintain their control. The after-effects of the process that forced us to abandon our names, languages, spiritual beliefs and even our positive emotional connection to the African continent are still with us.”
As the campaign heats up, the governing Afro-dominated People’s National Movement (PNM) which has a three-seat majority in the 41-member parliament is expected to use Kamla’s outburst to good effect, but whether this will increase political and racial tensions is left to be seen.
The Express newspaper, for example, quoted former UNC minister Devant Maharaj as questioning Kamla’s judgment in a number of areas over the years, contending that her latest outburst makes her unfit to lead in a multiracial society.
“This is the same Kamla that spoke about a ‘Blackman’ not ‘blankman’ in the 2020 elections and aired a number of racist advertisements that depict Afro-Trinidadians in a derogatory manner. How can Kamla’s UNC hope to attract any substantial potential voter when there is this continuous racial undertone on the platform of the UNC?”
Locals are adding to the online petition with each passing hour even as the party prepares for internal elections in a matter of days.