East Indians and the Black Power


Mr Khafra Kambon, and about a dozen of his followers, stormed out of a Holy Thursday conferance on the Black Power Revolution after Dr Kumar Mahabir presented his paper.
Mahabir said that Kambon pointed his finger at his (Mahabir's) face at the head table, and threatened that he would never sit with him in any forum again. Kambon, he said shouted that Mahabir was 'a danger to society'. The Conferance was organised by the Department of Behavioral Sciences UWI, St Augustine.
Here is his presentation.

By Dr Kumar Mahabir

I wish to contest the claim held by some academics and spokesmen that many Indians took part in the 1970 Black Power Revolution. The truth is that only a handful of Indians took an active part.

I write with the knowledge that there is an attempt by NJAC, and a few Indian militants, to sanitize what, according to historian Kelvin Singh (1970) was really a bid by Afro-Trinidadians to dominate the multi-ethnic society in a totalitarian way.

Interviews conducted by sociologist Mahin Gosine with Indians indicate that Black Power didn't mean much to Indians. Indian responses are recorded verbatim in his book East Indians and Black Power in the Caribbean (1986). One Indian informant states:

"Black Power didn't mean anything to me because I am not Black. When they say 'Black Power" here, they only mean "Negro Power" ...Granger told the Indian people that Black Power was for them too. I didn't think that the Indians believed he really meant it and that is why they stayed away. Maybe if Granger had said something like 'Black and Indian Power' Indians would have joined them, but Granger only kept on talking about Black Power and we Indians know that Williams and the PNM didn't like Indians and if he really wanted to help the Indians he should have, as I have said, said something like 'Black and Indian Power' I am sure if Granger had done this the Indians would have joined in" (Pp. 178-79).

In his book, Gosine found that the participation level of Indians was very low. This is largely because Black Power, as developed by NJAC in Trinidad, was part of a worldwide struggle for African People. Black Power meant a call to African people to return to their cultural roots, to reject White domination, and to seize political power through revolutionary struggle. The ideology, at its core, preach a return to the African traditional past.

Many Indians did not actively participate in the Black Power Movement because of the violence that was involved.

Violence exploded on a large scale on the night of March 5, 1970. Each night the number of targets hit by Molotov cocktails increased (Turner 1972: 189). Indians feared that the violence would be turned against them, their families, their homes and their small business establishments. An Indian-owned factory was burnt in San Juan and four children died in the fire. Although NJAC led a procession of 20,000 demonstrators to San Juan, and later to Caroni as an apology, and to signal Afro-Indian unity, the damage was already done to the psyche of the Indian.

Foreign-based researcher David Nicholls (1971: 455) agrees that the "majority of Indians looked with a certain degree of detachment and with some suspicion upon what was going on. They saw it as a confrontation between black demonstrators, black policemen, and a black Government.

Indians were generally apprehensive, and they feared a "black backlash" after the smoke had cleared against whites and their establishments.

At the forefront of the movement were a few Indians.

These were men like Winston Leonard who could not have claimed for himself to be either a spokesman or a leader of the Indian community. There was also Chan Maraj of the unknown Arouca-based National Freedom Association, whose fame to claim was that he was related to veteran politician Stephen Maharaj. These men were aliens to the Indian community. Indeed the Indian community saw them as confused men without a cultural identity. They were token Indian symbols used by advocates of the Black Power Movement for strategic, symbolic and political reasons. Like Raja Ramlogan, these Indian men did not talk about India, Indian history, and Indian heritage with the same passion as their African counterparts talked about their ancestral past.

Indeed, while Black Power leaders Geddes Granger, Dave Darbeau and Khafra Kambon were sporting dashiki with pride, Ramlogan was sporting dashiki too, instead of the socially-acceptable Indian kurta shirt. Ironically, the ideologues of the Movement were challenging Trinidadians to rethink their positions on a number of issues, and they advised them that they should stick to their respective cultures.

A few Indian University students were involved. They went beforehand along the Caroni route explaining the purpose of the proposed march. But they were not taken seriously by villagers since they were considered young University students who just had "more book sense that common sense." On March 12, 1970 Indian children came out on the streets to see the march out of the curiosity of a passing procession complete with colour, chants and music.

Indian adults on the Caroni route came out not so much in support of the Movement but more out of the characteristic Indian hospitality to give food and water to any passing stranger in need. There was also the strong feeling of fear - "give these black terrorists what they want and let them go quickly." And if Indians did give a hand of support to the protesters, it was really in support against the Eric Williams and the PNM (People's National Movement) who were considered to be the enemies of Indians.

In her 1972 MA thesis on the Black Power Rebellion, Terisa Turner (1972: 190) argues that up to March 7, 1970, the Black Power Movement was "an African experience;" it affected the Indian community to a "lesser degree" than the rest of the community. It was only later that NJAC campaigned for the inclusion of Indians in the Movement, but the colour, tune, tone and texture of the Movement had already been set. Ken Parmasad (1995: 311) who was involved in the Movement states: Although the demonstrations marched under the banner of 'Indians and Africans Unite,' and although the platforms reflected what was considered by many at the time to have been the indication of a genuine desire for the equal and free expression of African and Indian cultural ways, beliefs and practices, the cultural symbols which dominated the movement were Black/African.

The leaders of the Movement failed to cite injustices suffered by Hindus and Indians in the multi-ethnic Trinidad society. Indeed, it should have been Indians more than Africans who should have complained about inequalities and injustices. Discrimination against the Hindu community in the failure to appoint a Hindu as a Cabinet Minister under the PNM Government since 1956 would have been a good case to make on a public platform to attract Indians to the Movement.