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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 November, 2004, 15:47 GMT
Letter: Tea and race in the Caribbean

By Therese Mills
Editor of the daily Trinidad and Tobago newspaper Newday

The Caribbean island state of Trinidad and Tobago has been rocked in recent weeks by an undignified Parliamentary brawl.

Politicians have been hurling not only political insults at each other, but also allegations of racism, and, if newspaper articles are to be believed, crockery.

A broken teacup is at the centre of parliamentary satire at the moment in Trinidad.

Trinidad and Tobago may be better known for rum than tea - we make very good rum from cane sugar. In fact, we produce some of the finest rum in the world, and we drink a lot of it, conferring on it the status of a national brew.

But we also drink a lot of tea, a tradition we inherited from our British colonial past.

Appropriately enough, nowhere is more tea consumed in Trinidad and Tobago than in the Houses of Parliament, where our leaders follow tradition even to the point of the Speaker wearing a wig and gown - in this tropical heat.

Colonial legacy

Unlike rum, which is poured from a bottle into a glass, tea is served in a teacup. So for most of us a teacup is for drinking tea - unless of course, your name is Keith Rowley, you are a senior member of the government, are viewed as a potential leader by your party and as a formidable force by the opposition who appear determined to sneer at your name.

Dr Rowley recently found out a teacup comes in handy as an effective missile for throwing at an opponent when having an argument.

He has now also found himself in the sort of hot water that is used to make tea.

The teacup brawl, as it is now referred to, is in the news every day. Any day now, we all expect Dr Rowley to be charged by the police.

Exactly what that charge may be has not yet been determined, seeing that the teacup missed its mark, fell to the ground, and broke in two.

Dr Rowley was so incensed at the racial remarks that he responded by reaching for the nearest thing at hand - which happened to be a parliamentary teacup
Over the years the custom has been for the parliamentary debates to break for afternoon tea.

With much pomp, the Speaker leads the way from the floor of the house, followed by government and opposition members.

They gather in an adjoining tea room and engage in backslapping fellowship, forgetting - for a short while at least - all the nasty things they have just been saying about each other.

Physical confrontation

On this occasion, however, the verbal sparring in the parliamentary chamber continued in the tea room and, according to eyewitnesses, soon degenerated into physical confrontation.

The first irony of the incident is that at the time, Dr Rowley and a member of the opposition, Chandresh Sharma, weren't only having tea, but watching, on television, a cricket match that the West Indies team was surprisingly winning.

It had been a long time since the West Indies cricketers had won anything, much less a qualifier in an international tournament.

But there they were beating Bangladesh in a semi-final, and on their way to winning the International Cricket Cup trophy.

Race and racial slurs are part and parcel of the parliamentary and political landscape in Trinidad and Tobago
On its own, it was enough to raise blood pressure levels among our parliamentarians. But according to reports, Dr Rowley - who is Afro-Trinidadian - and the Indo-Trinidadian Mr Sharma got into a heated argument that had nothing to do with the so-called gentlemanly game of cricket.

In fact, it is alleged that Mr Sharma called Dr Rowley a racist. This is a term that is considered the highest insult.

Dr Rowley was so incensed at the racial remarks that he responded by reaching for the nearest thing at hand, which happened to be a parliamentary teacup.

This, it is alleged, he pelted Mr Sharma with, followed by a mobile phone and the TV remote control.

MPs present had to act as umpires and separate the two before it got nastier.

But the incident was not forgotten.


Mr Sharma, urged on by his colleagues, reported the matter to the police and even went to hospital to have his so-called injuries treated.

Both men also reported the matter to the Speaker of the House, Mr Barendra Sinanan.

He is incidentally an Indo-Trinidadian, but he is closely associated with the Afro-dominated ruling party.

His task now is to conduct an inquiry before the Parliamentary Privileges Committee.

There is no indication when the Speaker will give his ruling but the way thing are going in this place it could be months and if he finds them guilty of misbehaviour, both men face suspension from Parliament.

Race and racial slurs are part and parcel of the parliamentary and political landscape in Trinidad and Tobago.

In fact, it is safe to say that in Parliament, not a week goes by without some member accusing whichever government is in power of racial discrimination.

So the Rowley affair may be a storm in a token teacup.

Newspaper columns are full of speculation that the objective may be to stop the popular and clever Dr Rowley in his political tracks.

Against this background it might be hard to believe that in this country the races live in harmony, observing each other's cultural festivities and customs.

Political landscape

All this amazingly changes at election time.

The leaders of the two most dominant groups routinely appeal to ethnicity in order to gain power.

This is inescapable, perhaps, given the fact that about half our population of 1.3 million is descended from African slaves and the other half, more or less, from Indian indentured labourers.

Both groups were brought to these islands to labour in the cane fields, the Indians after the abolition of slavery in the mid-19th Century.

Afro-Trinis dominated the political landscape after independence from Britain in 1962.

West Indies' cricket team celebrate their win at the ICC Champions
West Indies victories are rare these days
This caused resentment on the part of the Indo-Trinis who found themselves regarded as second-class citizens.

They claim they were discriminated against and excluded from the army, police and other public services.

It may be worth mentioning some history here. After slavery the Africans abandoned the game fields for urban areas.

There they benefited from education long before the Indians, who replaced them in rural areas where access to education wasn't so easy.

This of course put the Indians at a great disadvantage. It is only in the last 30 years or so that they've entered the mainstream of public life.

The Indo-Trinis were wedded, for generations, to the agricultural sector, virtually producing Trinidad's food basket.

They worked diligently, saved their money, and educated their children, so that today, the third and fourth generations of Indo-Trinis dominate the medical, legal, and business sectors, and have become very wealthy.

National alliance

The one area they found it difficult to penetrate in the beginning was government, though they did succeed in 1995.

And their relatively new-found economic independence has given them the confidence to challenge in court any instances of racial discrimination, real or imagined.

Whether it is promotion opportunities in the public service or exclusion from any other activity, many do not hesitate today to raise constitutional issues in court, and they have received some pretty good settlements.

For the first time in 1986 the Afro-Trinis were removed from political office by a coalition of the many races who came together to form a Government of national alliance.

Sadly the experiment did not last long and fractured, not unexpectedly, along racial lines.

Since then, we have had a succession of governments made up of either predominantly Indo-Trinidadians, or mainly Afro-Trinidadians.

And whoever is in power accuses the other of racial discrimination.

It is this sort of atmosphere that led to the unseemly teacup brawl - and the making of history now as a Cabinet Minister and an MP go before a disciplinary committee, and the minister also faces a possible police charge of assault and battery.

One outcome of this entire fuss may also cause parliament to rethink the way it furnishes its tea room - we may soon see the disappearance of china cups that break and the introduction of plastic cups and there is a precedent for this.

To prevent an outbreak of unruly bottle pelting that once marred test cricket matches here only plastic cups and bottles are now allowed in the cricket stands.

Parliament may well have to follow suit and turn to plastic cups.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


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