Sunday, November 25, 2012

Commentary: Equality also means treating everyone's religion with respect

A letter in the media last week by Deodath Ojah Maharaj, a former executive member of the People's National Movement (PNM) prompted me to wonder whether his defence of his party was based on a genuine concern for Hindus.

Maharaj's examples of the PNM's support for Hindus included declaration of Divali as national holiday, Patrick Manning's support for the Maha Sabha (1991-95), renovation of Hindu schools, paving Divali Nagar's car park and providing funds to help build the temple in the sea.

Another point was the PNM's attendance at Divali functions and the party's close association with the SWAHA Hindu group and having one of SWAHA's members as T&T's High Commissioner to India.

If that is the extent of the love affair for this community there isn't much passion. No wonder Hindus are suspicious. In fact if you look at the examples cited you would notice that there is nothing out of the ordinary. Building and renovating schools is part of the state's "contract" with denominational bodies and involves all religions.

And the courtship of the Maha Sabha was part of the divide and rule plan, which Manning explored in greater detail by embracing SWAHA in preference to the Maha Sabha. And you don't have to look hard to find examples of Manning's blatant discrimination for Hindus and Indo-Trinidadians.

However, the reason I am making these points is that Ojah Maharaj spoke about SWAHA but in the Senate on 25 February 2003 it was SWAHA that complained about the PNM not showing care and concern about Hindus.

The edited excerpt from the Hansard of that date (quoted below) is from the SWAHA's Senator Pandit Maniedeo Persad:

"As I begin, I refer to the Constitution which states:

'Whereas the People of Trinidad and Tobago—
(a) have affirmed that the Nation of Trinidad and Tobago is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God, faith in fundamental human rights and freedoms...'

I stopped and I thought. We are saying that our nation is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God. The question is asked: Whose concept of God? What I am entering here now—and it is said that two of the most controversial areas one could discuss are politics and religion and I am mixing them both here.

The Constitution is telling us that we acknowledge the supremacy of God. Whose concept of God? 

Now, as a Hindu, I am more conversant with the principles as espoused in my religious systems and, when I think of it, some see God as a supreme being, omnipresent, who is all pervading but who does not interfere in the affairs of man. Others see God as very personal, where God could assume a form. 

In Hindu theology we say, “God so loves the world He, Himself, comes in our hour of need.” In Christian theology, we hear, “God so loved the world He sent His only begotten Son”; and then we have God as a mother. The point I am making is, for example, our Muslim brothers and sisters recognize God as a being—and I am subject to correction. My understanding is that the messengers will come but there is no direct interface with God. 

So when we say our Constitution “is founded upon principles that acknowledge the supremacy of God”, is it the God of Christianity? Is it the God of Hinduism? Is it the God of Islam? What should it be?

Now, I checked on the religious demography of Trinidad and Tobago and I wish to quote from an International Religious Freedom Report of 2001, which I secured through the Internet from the US Department of State and it refers to Trinidad and Tobago and I quote: 

“There is no dominant faith among the multiethnic population, which is 40 percent African and 40 percent East Indian; the remainder are of European, Syrian, Lebanese, and Chinese descent. 
According to the latest official statistics (1990), about 29 percent of the population are practicing or nominally Roman Catholic; 24 percent are Hindu; 6 percent are Muslim; and 31 percent are Protestant (including 11 percent Anglican, 7 percent Pentecostal, 4 percent Seventh-Day Adventist, 3 percent Presbyterian/Congregational, and 3 percent Baptist). A smaller number of individuals follow traditional Caribbean religions with African roots; sometimes these are practiced together with other faiths.” 

Now, we are a multicultural society, added to that mix many religions. The thought that I am raising here is that when each of us—with our own cultural and religious traditions—look at the Constitution we may see things in different lights, based on our own backgrounds.

How does the State, as a whole, deal and treat with all the various religions in its policy and so forth? All religious traditions— and I know I am treading on sensitive grounds here and I say this with the deepest of respect—that are properly followed should be the engine of life; the central heating plant of our personality; the faith that gives joy to activity; hope to our struggles; dignity to our humility and our zest for living. 

All our traditions must be nurtured. Our diversity is not a hindrance but a thing of beauty to be nurtured and practised....

We need to ensure, as a State, that all religions are afforded the same protection. I am raising this matter because an issue arose a few days ago, which, I think, as I was preparing for this debate, sent me to the Constitution. 

This is a booklet that is being circulated to schools in the Diego Martin area, which was brought to my attention by a 7-year-old student who came to me crying. 

Do you know what is stated in here? The booklet is printed by Chick Publications of Ontario, California. The local distributor, I do not know and, certainly, with time, we could find out. 

It is called: “The Traitor”. It depicts a picture of Kali, an embodiment of divinity in Hinduism, and it states here among other things—and it is done in a comic form to reach children. 

Madam President, to my mind, what is being done is nothing short of religious terrorism and here it states: “Satan created all the gods of India. They are demons who will rob your soul and take you into hell.”

Madam President, this booklet was circulated to a 7-year-old child who, in utter confusion and fear, went to his parents, who were equally confused and they went to their pundit. Then we did some checking. 

Our blasphemy laws protect God, or the worship of God, from a Christian perspective. 

In other words, I cannot say anything negative, but others are using the lack of the protection of the law for all religions to be able to malign other religions, and this is something we need to address. 

This matter was raised before, and not for one moment am I suggesting levelling the playing field, so that we could all criticize each other. That does not make sense. What we need to do is to ensure equality of treatment. If one looks at the rights enshrined in Chapter 1, on page 16 of the Constitution it says: 

“It is hereby recognised and declared that in Trinidad and Tobago there have existed and shall continue to exist, without discrimination by reason of race, origin, colour, religion or sex, the following fundamental human rights and freedoms, namely—”

And amongst them are the freedom of conscience, religious beliefs and observance.

Now what it does? We are talking about alienation; we are talking about ensuring that every citizen of every orientation and background feel a sense of belonging in our country, and as a State we must ensure our laws, and we are in the process of seeking to ensure as we develop that our country provides that protection to all. 

We are not perfect. Many people are saying—and having been on a number of these talk shows and listening to people commenting on it—every creed and race does not have an equal place. 

That is the sort of sentiment that one is getting. How do you get an equal place? Is it by sitting and griping about it? It has to be achieved by doing what is required, and this is one area that, I think, we need to look at. There is no one view on the concept of God. 

What I am suggesting is the widest possible interpretation: all religious traditions have value in them, and we must ensure through this honourable Senate, and through our legislative system, we do not allow any religion to be denigrated...

The final issue in this regard, and again I say it with the greatest of respect— We say a prayer in Parliament, and it is a beautiful prayer but at the end we say “Amen”. We are talking about a society that is growing and evolving. 

As a Hindu, I cannot relate to it. I do not know if Brother Noble Khan could relate to it. I think, Muslims say Ameen. If I as a Hindu or another Hindu were to aspire, and at some point, be able to sit on that Chair, could I say Om Shanti? Will it have the same acceptance? 

The point I am making and the fundamental issue is that from the perspective of the State we must ensure equality of treatment across all religions. 

What I am submitting is, as we spoke about historical antecedents of all the experiences, we have forgotten in our discussions, the fact that our colonial masters were basically of Christian origin and, quite naturally, there is nothing wrong with that. It is understandable that they would have brought their own thinking and attitudes into their legislative agenda. 

We need to recognize that our society is multicultural and multi-social in many ways, and we need to take cognizance of that in this process of constitutional reform and even in the simple issues that I have expressed. 

Madam President, I am not for one moment suggesting that any religion be given preferential treatment or anything like that. What I am saying is, as far as the religious traditions go, we need to ensure that in the areas that I have mentioned— a good way to start stopping the alienation is by addressing these simple matters and dealing with them, if the will is there. 

From Hansard of Feb. 25, 2003

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Jai & Sero

Jai & Sero

Our family at home in Toronto 2008

Our family at home in Toronto 2008
Amit, Heather, Fuzz, Aj, Jiv, Shiva, Rampa, Sero, Jai