By Dr. VISHNU BISRAM
Head (Secretary General) of the Trinidad and Tobago Hindu Sanathan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), Shri Satnarine Maharaj, passed away on November 16. He was undoubtedly one of the most influential people, and certainly Hindu figures, of all time in the Caribbean. The nation mourns his passing but I know with absolute certainty when it comes to a lasting influence upon Trinis, there can be few equals.
Sat’s influence extended beyond Trinidad and Tobago. Sat, as he was popularly called, had strong links with Guyana and visited several times. He would like to think of himself as the person who helped to restore democracy and end the ban on goods in Guyana during the Desmond Hoyte dictatorship.
For those who know him, Sat was undoubtedly one of the most influential people, and certainly Hindu or Indian figures, of all time. He was a supremely gifted man and one with a deep conviction whose passionate heartbeat for Hinduism is second to none. An epic era of a champion of Hindu history has come to an end. He was immersed and saturated in Hinduism. He was a simple man who had responded to the love of Bhagwan by placing his faith in Him. He did not seek everlasting life. He wanted to be with his maker and met Him on November 16.
His influence as a champion of Hindus extended around the globe in the Indo-Caribbean diaspora and his platform allowed him to meet with (Indian) leaders from Presidents to PMs to Ministers of governments when they visited Trinidad or when he visited India. He was invited several times to India where he met political leaders. No political leader in Trinidad ignored him. Diplomats in Trinidad have/had enormous respect for him. Academics sought him. Leaders from other faiths respect him and in fact prayed for his recovery when he suffered a stroke a week ago. At the heart of his struggle was his passion for his faith and Hindus and his commitment to stand up for justice. He defended same in Trinidad and around the Caribbean. He was known as Trinidad’s defender of Indians.
Three days of mourning were declared for the fallen Hindu/Indian leader, aged 88 and he was cremated on November 19. He led the SDMS since the 1970s. The SDMS is perhaps by far the largest religious organization in T&T, and it runs the most denominational schools in T&T exceeding 100 with plans to start a Hindu university as he and I had discussed some years ago. We can measure the greatness of the man’s impact with the institutions (newspaper, radio, TV, schools, etc.) that he helped to create. As Secretary General, Sat, as he was popularly known, is perhaps the most popular and most influential non-political leader in Trinidad & Tobago and of the Caribbean. He has done more for Indians and Hindus than all the Indian (and non-Indian) political leaders combined in T&T and in Guyana. He made no apologies in standing up for the rights of Hindus and Indians in Guyana and the Caribbean. He did not mince words. He spoke out against what he perceived as racism against Indians in Guyana, Trinidad, and other parts of the Caribbean – no other leader had the courage to speak forthrightly as he did. He buttressed his claims with facts. He took the T&T government to court (pertaining to racism or discrimination) a few occasions and won including against the highest national award (Trinity Cross) and radio and TV license for Hindus (and by extension Muslims). He lost his challenges at the (biased) local courts but won at the (neutral) Privy Council all legal challenges: Trinity Cross was changed to Order of TT and SDMS was awarded licenses to operate radio and TV with government was forced to fork out millions of dollars in legal costs and punitive compensation. He took the government to court again a couple months ago challenging it on sedition laws with celebrated human rights lawyer and former Attorney General Ramesh Maharaj as his counsel.
Sat critiqued the government on his Jaagriti TV station on sedition laws accusing it of being racist. Heavily armed police raided the TV station and confiscated materials. A warrant for the raid is yet to be produced and is subject of a lawsuit that may earn the station monetary damages and an apology. Ramesh threatened the government with lawsuits all the way to the Privy Council representing Sat for free. With Ramesh as his lawyer, government seems to be backing down on sedition charges against the station. Ramesh told the press in Sunday’s media he wants the matter to go all the way to the (fair) Privy Council where he is confident he would win and government will be saddled with expensive costs. Ramesh has a reputation of rarely losing a case at the Privy Council. Government recently backed down on his challenge of a planned amendment that would curtail release of information to the public.
I met Shri Sat countless times in Trinidad since 1980s; I visited the island several times a year since 1981 for academic research and visited his Bomb newspaper office and his SDMS headquarters (Lakshmi Girls college – opposite St. Augustine UWI campus) numerous times to interact with him; Bomb was amongst the most popular weekly publications during the 1980s thru 2000s and it is still published. He invited me annually to his Indian Arrival Day celebrations (May 30) which I attended many years. Sat and I also had several exchanges on his radio and TV stations and in his publications (Bomb, Punch, among others). Informally, he would refer to me as the Guyanese pollster. But on radio or TV or in the Bomb, he referred to me formally by name and praised my research work and polling activities. He was a sharp journalist asking tough pointed questions especially on political matters pertaining to Guyana. Being nice (flattery) to him did not win favors or soft questions.
Sat hosted a TV program, Mukhdar (mace carried by Lord Hanuman in the Ramayana) that has been the most popular (watched) program in all of T&T. It has been seen by Indians (Muslims, Hindus, and Christians) and non-Indians because the program champions issues that relate to Indians; government also pays heed to it.
Although he was a controversial figure, and he and political leaders (including the Prime Minister) had several run ins, he would be invited to every government sponsored event relating to Indian or Hindu festivals by PM Rowley and or the President. That does not nullify Sat to drop Mukhdar on Rowley; he also dropped Mukhdar on Kamla and Basdeo Panday, the former PMs.
Sat and I last met a week before Diwali at a book launch (biography) for his late friend Harry Charran in the posh North Valsayn area to which I was an invitee by the author, Dr. Primnath Goopta. Sat was in good spirits and humour and as usual made jokes (in presence of friends) about my community activism. He reminded me of my continuous struggle, like him, to improve peoples’ lives in Trinidad and Guyana without pecuniary rewards and without compassion (or help) from selfish (Indian) politicians.
On Guyana’s politics, he was asked why he met with Desmond Hoyte in 1986 after the massively rigged December 1985 elections. He said he approached by Guyanese religious figures if he could help to convince Hoyte to end the ban on goods that were at the core of Indian dietary and religious practices; Sat said he was very concerned that Indians and other Guyanese could not eat basic foods like “roti, channa, alou, dhal” and make offerings of “prasad” or “sirni”. This led to the Mustique gathering where Hoyte met with several Caricom leaders and an accord. Sat said he approached Hoyte in exchange for legitimacy of his regime whether he would consider end the ban on goods and restoration of democracy. There was no commitment but a promise to examine the request.
Hoyte was invited to the wedding of Sat’s daughter in St. Augustine around 1987 or ‘86. He was seen sitting down and in his hand was a plate of food with channa, roti, and other food items that were banned in Guyana. The Guardian newspaper carried the picture that was a mockery of the President enjoying foods that his countrymen were denied. Some two or three years later, Hoyte ended the ban on imported goods. People had unrestricted freedom to practice their faith. Hoyte even praised Hindus offering platitudes and describing it as the largest faith in the country. Hoyte also ended the practice of unleashing goons at political meetings of opposition parties (PCD). Sat takes credit for softening Hoyte.
The late Sat was the Indo-Caribbean (Hindu or Indian) fighter with no match. No one fought like him for the Indians. The Indo-Caribbean diaspora mourns his death, but they also rejoice at the legacy he has left behind, and they are sure he is with the lord (Shri Raam) for his dharma in service to nation. An epic era of a champion of Hindu history has come to an end. No doubt he was a titanic figure in Indian advocacy and Indian history in the Caribbean, and perhaps represents the last of a kind. Thousands attended his funeral.
Thank you Sat for all you have done for the T&T nation and for Indians in the diaspora. You will be missed by he Indian community.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.