Old men and their inflated egos

With age does not come wisdom. Nor does practice make perfect; it makes permanent. If you repeat the same actions over and over, the same cycles of thought over and over, however illogical, racist, sexist, bigoted, archaic, and damaging, they become part of you, ingrained in you. Verbal diarrhea escapes your open mouth before your brain can send a “SHUT UP!” signal or at least clamp down on your wagging tongue. Or maybe you become so absorbed in your own sordid fantasies that you become oblivious to the world evolving and changing around you. A world where your opinions should warrant some sanctioning, but if you are a man in a position of power, you get handed a microphone instead.

Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), Satnarayan Maharaj, seems to be suffering from a bad case of male-privilege, exacerbated by Hindu-patriarchy which he has become the billboard for. He uses his position in the Maha Sabha to speak on behalf of the entire organisation, which claims to speak on behalf of all Hindus. But truthfully, he has become a caricature of Hinduism and Dharmic teachings.

The SDMS has 150 registered mandirs (temples) and over 50 schools, including primary, secondary and early childhood educational centres. Satnarayan Maharaj has been described as great person, a great leader of the community, a soldier for Hindu rights and recognition, based on his work with the SDMS. “In the war of righteousness, we have won,” says the slogan on Radio and TV Jaagriti (Awakening), referring to the long legal battle the SDMS fought for a broadcast licence to operate said stations. The SDMS has championed education of the Hindu community, providing instruction in the secular syllabus as well as religious and cultural knowledge. The Maha Sabha has indeed been valuable for the development of the Hindu community.

It has also been responsible for religious revival, utilising the school and mandir systems as channels for enforcing conformity to the “Dharmic” teachings of the organisation. Schools and mandirs on the SDMS network must follow the rules set out by the organisation. They observe religious festivals on the approved days and engage in SDMS approved activities. To maintain their membership to the Pundits’ Parishad, pundits cannot openly defy the SDMS or any of its rules. Occasionally you hear the rumours along the pumpkin vines, Pundit So-and-So got kicked out or left the Maha Sabha. The SDMS is an institution, with its own bureaucracy and secrets, with the only approved outlet for information being through the local Hindu civil rights hero Sat Maharaj.

But as with every epic tale, the hero is complemented by a villain matching his own strength and power. The hero needs the villain’s tyranny in order to be able to act heroically and save the day. Donning his adult diaper and unravelling dhoti, Super-Sat saves the Hindus from the tyrannical state who wants to infringe on the rights of Hindus [read as “old Hindu men”] by suffocating Hindu culture [read as “patriarchal, sexist practices that curtail women’s autonomy and emphasise their subservience”].

In his Indian Arrival Day address, Super-Sat did not disappoint, delivering the usual bigotry and ignorance one has come to expect from the Hindu hero. He bashed everyone – the state, the Roman Catholic Church, the U.S.A. and the United Nations – for interfering in Hindu rights and worship. He was upset about calls for adjustments to the age of marriage according to the Hindu Marriage Act which currently permits males as young as 18, and females as young as 14 to contract marriage. Subsection Two of this clause requires parental consent if the “intended husband (not being a widower), is under eighteen years of age or the intended wife (not being a widow) is under sixteen years of age.” This consent must be given by the father of the under-aged party. If the father is dead, consent is given by the guardian or guardians appointed, and then if there is no such guardian, consent is given by the mother of the party so under age [THIRD!? Mother is THIRD!?], and if the mother is dead someone else is appointed. So the act essentially says that fathers and their appointed guardians have authority to marry off children, even without the consent of the children’s mothers.

There are other marriage acts in Trinidad and Tobago – Civil, Christian, Muslim and Orisha. This exemplifies one the big arguments about multicultural policies: If you are making allotments for everyone, you end up with 5 different versions of the same legislation, appeasing everyone who needs state-sanctioning for their practices (usually ones that break some other law, like sexual offences) yet then tells the state to butt-out and leave them be.

Super-Sat was adamant that the state address teen pregnancy, as teen marriage was a cultural way of dealing with teen pregnancy. In his logic, marriage facilitated sexual activity among teenagers, but sex outside of marriage is what needed to be dealt with. A flimsy piece of paper and circumambulation of a sacred fire seven times made sex allowable, and somehow made you more responsible and capable of raising a child, even while you are still categorised as a minor. You cannot drive, vote, buy cigarettes or alcohol, enter into other contracts, or rent a car, but you can get married. You also legally cannot consent to sex, but if you get married, you magically can. Ta-Da! Or at least, your consent is assumed or no longer relevant.

Super-Sat said if “a girl took a chance” [because boys do not carry the consequences of their chances on their bellies for everyone to see] and becomes pregnant, “both families” would come together to help raise the child while sending the newly-wed teenaged couple back to school. This is Super-Sat’s best case scenario. What a utopian ideal that the wonderful and understanding parents of these teenage fornicators will accept them and support them financially and otherwise.

He recognises that teenagers can barely care for themselves, far less raise a child, so how can they become husbands and wives, and made to function as a household in all the gendered division of labour crap that still exists and are both expected to fulfill? What about providing sex and sexuality education so that teenagers are better equipped when they take chances? Sex is not the only skill one needs to be married or to be a parent.

Marriage and parenthood are choices and should be made by the people who have to live with those choices; not on their behalf by parents who are still scorning “shame” and disrepute in the eyes of the crabs-in-a-barrel public. While marriage and parenthood can be fulfilling, they also severely stunt one’s opportunities and capacity to explore these opportunities, especially when young and without access to public and private support systems. Inequality is an inherent part of families and of marriages, with the young bride often being the most vulnerable and powerless, especially within extended family networks. This is old data, old assertions. Why do we still have to keep making these arguments for women’s rights to their own bodies and making their own choices?

Also, calls for change in this legislation are not targeting individual teenagers who want to get married, but are seeking to rectify systems of oppression in this country, where young girls are vulnerable to various kinds of abuse, and where marriage has been used as a tool to control and subjugate women. Not every case of under-aged marriage is one of abuse, but many are, and a system that allows this practice to persist effectively silences the girls and women who are forced to stay in such relationships due to lack of means to leave.

The thing is though, Super-Sat doesn’t even realise why he’s coming under fire for his remarks. He is so convinced of his position, he uses “culture” and “religion” to justify collective and individual male power and infringement on women’s social, sexual and financial autonomy. Other Hindu organisations disagree with him, such as the Hindu Women’s Organisation and SWAHA, but like a true misogynist, Super-Sat continues to speak over their voices, mansplaining his way into irrelevance.

Finding Indo-Caribbean identities

On April 29 to May 1, 2016 (Grenada’s Indian Arrival Day), the first ever International Conference on the Indian Diaspora in Grenada and the Wider Caribbean was held at the St. George’s University Campus, True Blue, Grenada. The first of its kind in Grenada, from the opening ceremony to the closing remarks, the conference highlighted the past and current complicated social, cultural and political-economic relationships existing between India and the population of Indian descendants living in the Caribbean and other places where Indian indentured labour was utilised.

Spearheaded by Dr Kumar Mahabir, the conference was organised by the Indo-Caribbean Cultural Centre, the Indian Cultural Organisation (Grenada) Inc, and the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, with support from the Belmont Estate Group of Companies, and the High Commission of India to Trinidad and Tobago (also servicing Grenada, Montserrat and Dominica). In addition to the Indo-Grenadian community, presenters came from Trinidad and Tobago, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, New York, and Guadeloupe. References were made to these and other places with the Indian Diaspora, including Suriname, Martinique, Mauritius and Fiji, true to its claim as being an “international” conference.

Mansraj Ramphal and Dr Kumar Mahabir both presented archival data on the specific ships that brought indentured Indian labour to the Caribbean colonies, particularly to Grenada. They listed the births and deaths occurring on ships and on plantations in the colonies. What I most appreciated in the organisation of the conference was the trajectory of the discussions, from this historical review of how the Indians came to be in the Caribbean to addressing questions of cultural survivals and contemporary Indo-Caribbean identities.

Mr Jean Sahai described the struggle of Indians in the French Antilles for gaining citizenship (in 1923 in Guadeloupe, and later extended to other French regions), up until which point, they had been considered stateless. Even within other Caribbean territories, discourses of the post-colonial Creole nation have erased the “Indian”. A few presentations jostled with these questions of ethnic and national identity, for instance, showing its historic relevance for Indian indentured labourers in Grenada where planters, set in the mentality under which chattel slavery flourished, renamed the Indian workers with their own names, such as Thomas or Adams. This was the beginning of the assimilation of indentured labourers into the post-slavery colonial society. Speakers from the Indo-Grenadian Heritage Foundation, such as Wilbur Jawahir Adams, reflected on their sense of loss at not carrying the names of their ancestors who had left India with “Hindustani” names, but left the world bearing the names of white estate owners. They would have stood out with their “different” or different-sounding name, but naming and misnaming as a project of colonialism sought to make them invisible and better integrate them into an invisible position of subjugation.

The conference was a path of discovery and reconciliation, whereby people of Indian descent could find themselves, their histories, their families, their legacies and the legends within their lineages. It was a way of recognising the contribution of people of East Indian descent to the development of social, political, academic and cultural fields, as well as to the flora and fauna. Both Jalaludin Khan as well as the keynote speaker Dr Beverley Steele discussed plants and animals of Indian origin that can be found in Grenada. Khan traced some of this presence back to global trade routes preceding Indentureship and the (forced and voluntary) migration of Indians to the region.

A number of presentations sought to find the cultural survivals and retentions in the region, connecting these to a sense of identity as “Indo-Caribbean”. Ms Mohammed and Mr Jai Sears both explored the Indian cultural presence in Grenada.  In her presentation, Shalima Mohammed noted that Indo-Grenadian migrants to Trinidad first saw certain symbols of Indian culture, like the dhoti and tassa drums, and Hindu religious practice, like flags (jhandi), when they arrived in Trinidad. Dr Visham Bhimull from the Hindi Nidhi Foundation of Trinidad and Tobago investigated the linguistic connections of “plantation Hindi” or what he calls “Caribbean Hindustani,” the Hindi dialects spoken in Trinidad, Suriname and Guyana, to regional dialects in north India form where labourers had been recruited/taken. Bhimull’s paper was based on secondary data collected in the 1970s, as living populations speaking these languages are now greatly diminished.

Understanding “Indian” and “Indo-Caribbean” identities in this way also provoked questions about race relations in Grenada and the wider Caribbean: how have Indo-Grenadians been integrated into the larger society? What sort of interactions have they had with other groups in the country, particularly with the formerly enslaved, with whom they most closely experienced subjugation within colonial societies? How do transplanted communities retain cultural practices, while adapting to new socio-political environments, especially as minorities?

The event could have had a greater impact, but was unfortunately not well-attended, being distanced from the community through its being situated on the University campus. Yet for the Indo-Grenadian peoples in attendance who were grappling with alienation or feeling distanced from their histories, the conference represented a symbolic link to community and legacy. It was a forum for gaining visibility as an Indian diasporic population and as Caribbean people.

In the vein of continuities, we must think about the future of events like these. How can we continue these conversations? In what ways can this be most useful to Caribbean peoples of Indian descent? What conversations are needed for the future of Indian descendents in Caribbean and other contexts?