Dr Bishnu Ragoonath

Chairman of the Council for Responsible Political Behaviour Dr Bishnu Ragoonath says the behaviour of the country’s main political leaders prior to the August 10 General Election would suggest they had little or no respect for one another.

Ragoonath said when supporters of the People’s National Movement (PNM) and United National Congress (UNC) see an absence of respect from their leaders, they would replicate such attitudes and behaviours in society.

Ragoonath was speaking at a virtual national symposium on Saturday titled Understanding and Reconciling Race Relations in Trinidad and Tobago, hosted by the University of the West Indies Faculty of Law in collaboration with the Catholic Commission for Social Justice.

Discussing the role of politicians and their responsibilities, Ragoonath said it has been suggested that we don’t have a racial problem in T&T but it was rather the politicians who exasperate the tensions among the races, especially during elections.

He first drew reference to comments by former deputy chief secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly Hilton Sandy, who spoke about the “Calcutta ship” waiting to take over Tobago, during the 2013 THA election campaign. He said with the Tobago population being predominantly Afro-Trinidadian, “this was clearly a racial statement.”

He said Dr Keith Rowley spoke after Sandy but “did not condemn or comment on the statement, leaving many to ask whether he supported that position.”

Four months later, Ragoonath said UNC leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, referring to the PNM’s selection of Avinash Singh as a candidate in Chaguanas West, told her supporters, “The PNM had chosen one of your children from Felicity. He has made the wrong choice in standing as a soldier for the PNM. He chose the side of oppression and neglect. He embraced those who subjected you to the worst form of abuse and discrimination.”

These two examples, Ragoonath said illustrated “race-infused tenor”. He said since the leaders were supposedly perpetuating these perceptions “as it relates to racial discrimination, were their followers likely to parrot such attitudes and thinking?”

More critically, he wondered if “such thinking could degenerate into behaviours and practices that could ignite open racism and divisiveness in society”.

It was against this backdrop, Ragoonath said several civil society organisations drafted a political code of conduct in the hope of lifting the standard of political campaigns.

He said between 2015 to 2020, there were many concerns about racial statements made by politicians and individuals. In some instances, he said politicians and citizens criticise the council for being silent on the breaches of the code, mainly race-baiting. Apart from race-baiting, Ragoonath said there was political disrespect by political leaders against each other.

“Who could forget the Prime Minister responding to comments by the Leader of the Opposition and referred to it as jammetery, with the Leader of the Opposition referring to the Prime Minister as Oreo.”

He said we should not forget the debate on the “one per cent and how much they control in society, which is a racial issue altogether.”

Ragoonath said the fact these statements were made outside of the elections dictated that the council had no locus standi to react.

In the 2020 General Election, he said politicians were again accused of race-baiting.

Two complaints involved Persad-Bissessar’s “Blankman” statement while the other was made by a political activist who “called on African persons to jump over the fences and run into the UNC supporters’ houses and deal with them.” He said there was also a call for the UNC to discontinue their racist advertisements which painted “Afro-Trinbagonians in a different complexion all together.”

Following the vile and overt statements made after the August 10 election, Ragoonath said Persad-Bissessar, in a Facebook post, condemned all attempts to create disharmony in society while Rowley insisted the UNC had launched a race campaign, saying he and his party would take no responsibility for the state of affairs.

“Where do we go from here?” he asked, noting leaders need to follow two simple words “respect and responsibility.”

Ragoonath said all political parties need to accept responsibility for where we are and concerted efforts must be made to develop proactive strategies to treat with racial prejudices and racism.

“But such a discussion must be based on respect. Clearly, we live in a polity where that respect is absent,” he said.

Based on the spoken and body languages of political leaders of the main parties, Ragoonath said “it was not far-fetched to suggest that there was little or no respect on either side for the other.”

Bearing in mind that each of these leaders attracted over 300,000 voters, he said all eyes are continuously placed on them.

“They are leaders and role models. If their supporters are seeing the lack of respect among their leaders they would replicate such attitudes and behaviour. They must lead by example.”