PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago, July 14, (CMC) – Prime Minister, Dr. Keith Rowley, today, criticised remarks made by a Hindu leader, who described former Prime Minister, Patrick Manning, as a “racist’ saying that the statements were “close to sedition” and intended to create discord in Trinidad and Tobago.
Rowley, speaking to reporters at the end of the weekly Cabinet meeting here, said that the statements made by the General Secretary of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), Sat Maharaj, and published on the front page of the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, yesterday, were confirmation “that there is free speech in this country.
“I do not regard myself as defender of Patrick Manning, but as defender of the public record, I think I am duty-bound to respond to that banner headline in the Guardian that Patrick Manning, a long-standing prime minister and Member of Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago was, in fact, a racist”.
Rowley said that he also wanted to correct the statements, because many young people as well as older persons in society, would have come away with a different view of the former prime minister, who died earlier this month of acute myeloid leukaemia, a rare, aggressive cancer of the blood.
He said the statements could also influence them as to how they regard the present day society.
“I reject Mr. Maharaj’s attempt to defend what he thinks he is defending, but I will defend this country’s record, especially when I was a part of that record,” Rowley told reporters.
Maharaj told the newspaper that he felt “hurt” that many of Manning’s actions were “racist”, unfair and biased against a number of Indians in the country.
“I only spoke about the facts. What I spoke about was his performance as prime minister. I started off by discussing the many discriminatory things he did. As prime minister he acted in a discriminatory manner,” Maharaj said.
He made reference to the closure of sugar company, Caroni 1975 Ltd, where the majority of the employees were Trinidadians of Indian descent, saying it was intended to cripple the lives of thousands of struggling Indians.
“We are now importing sugar, while Barbados and Guyana have sugar industries,” he said.
But Rowley reminded reporters that he was agriculture minister at the time the decision was taken to close down the financially troubled company, in light of the loss of preferential treatment on the European market.
“That meant, even with the support of the Treasury of Trinidad and Tobago, with the loss of the markets the sugar industry in Trinidad and Tobago had come to a point of no return.
“It is against that background that, in 2002, a decision was taken to close the sugar industry in Trinidad and Tobago. It didn’t only happen in Trinidad and Tobago. St. Kitts had a sugar industry, they had to shut it down. Barbados shut down most of theirs and a portion of it, it was always private sector…and (for) many seasons there were difficulties in funding their industry….”
“So for somebody to get up today and say that the closing of Caroni 1975 Limited was a racial act against Indian people is close to sedition; meant to create racial discord and to disturb the peaceful fabric of Trinidad and Tobago and, as the minister involved….working with Mr. Patrick Manning, that allegation cannot be supported by the facts of the day,” Rowley said.
Rowley said that if Manning was indeed a racist, it is common knowledge that the closure of the sugar company resulted in the employees receiving very “generous” voluntary separation packages and cost the tax payers more than two billion TT dollars (One TT dollar =US$0.16 cents).
“And even today, as I speak to you now…the European Union money that was meant to come into the treasury to replace the treasury money that was used to bring about the closure and the soft landing, that money is being made to the sugar industry and to the same communities.
“So it is quite wrong and misleading for anyone to try to rewrite our country’s history, and to use that development, as I described which was purely in response to external changes and market negatives and saw a humane government and a humane country responding to a challenge like that, and to bring that up today, and portray that as something which was somebody’s racist actions, is short of terms I would not like to use,” he said.
Maharaj had also accused Manning of attempting to remove the then Chief Justice, Sat Sharma, and the House Speaker, Occah Seapaul, from office, describing the events as unforgettable instances.
In 2007, Sharma found himself in trouble when he was accused by then Director of Public Prosecutions, Geoffrey Henderson, of attempting to persuade him to drop a murder charge against vascular surgeon, Dr Vijay Naraynsingh, in 2004.
“He is the first prime minister in the Commonwealth to try to arrest a chief justice. He is also the first PM to call a state of emergency so that Seepaul could not preside as a presiding officer and have a cast in vote. He is the only man in the Commonwealth who appointed his wife as a minister in the Cabinet,” Maharaj said.
But Rowley told reporters that the facts surrounding the situation were well known and, in the case of Seepaul, she had attempted to overthrow the Manning government by seeking to suspend government legislators while moving to allow an opposition motion to dissolve the Parliament.
He reiterated that the statements by Maharaj were confirmation that free speech existed here, noting that the statements were also an attempt to “re-write our history and writing it in a way to paint us as a people who have done less than we could have to maintain peace, stability and brotherly love in Trinidad and Tobago…”.