Sunday 11th June, 2006

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How national dirty secrets get out

When, from the top ranks to the lowest, turmoil reigns inside the T&T Police Service, the still bigger story is that the country takes it all in stride.

Constables are bringing class-action lawsuits against a new promotion system. Serious unanswered questions, meanwhile, becloud officers acting as commissioner and deputy commissioner.

A punch-drunk public shrugs it all off. When last did a chamber of commerce, or the once-activist chamber of chambers, thunder for an inquiry into the police?

Certainly, some faith has been lost in the self-correcting capacity of the operating systems in this country’s public affairs. Fearing the answer, nobody will venture to assess how much.

Meanwhile, prayerful hope is invested in every least exercise in democratic self-government, such as in the Trinity Cross committee set up to advise the Prime Minister on short deadline.

Its members earnestly show up for the photo opportunity of receiving their “instruments,” and they voice optimism that some work may even get done by the end of June.

Fixing the national awards merits attentions of a committee comprising academics of professor rank; the head of a business chamber; the head of the Public Service; and the bespoke creator of heraldic designs.

Their work, to which no million-dollar price tag is attached, occupies the centre stage of public attention.

Now, is the “Trinity Cross Review Committee” expected to produce work, or just to choreograph a prime ministerial gesture of response to a misguided public controversy?

Hardly anyone in this controversy calls attention to the fact that the “national awards” are really the prime minister’s awards.

The national dirty secret is that discontent over the Trinity and other awards simmered to boiling point over how prime ministers have used the awards as handouts from their goodies bag of patronage.

The six years of Indian prime ministership did not redress much. Research by Anand Ramlogan in 2004 showed that since 1969, Indo-Trinidadians had received 12 per cent of the Trinity Crosses; 6.5 per cent of the Public Service Medal of Merit Gold; 18 per cent of the Humming Bird Gold and 17 per cent of the Chaconia Gold.

“How is this possible,” he asked, “in a society where Indo-Trinidadians comprise half the population?”

In a column last week, George John, acclaimed dean of T&T journalists, dismissed such questioning as the ravings of “grumblers.”

In a speech two years before, Ken Gordon, acclaimed dean of T&T publishers, founder of the Principles of Fairness movement, answered the Ramlogan question.

He said their low share of national awards was attributable to the fact that for long, Indo-Trinidadians hadn’t taken much part in the activities for which achievement was recognised.

In the minds of those typical, pre-modern Town-Trinis, then, the fault lay not in the system of the awards, and who was effectively making them, but in the Indians’ failure to get noticed and, presumably, a prior failure to assert themselves.

Well, all that has noticeably changed.

Now, the name “Trinity,” one curiously favoured by badjohn types in Hollywood and in Jamaica, draws fire. The Maha Sabha and its Muslim ally took the Trinity to court, and won.

But their doing so didn’t change something essential about T&T: that, when no ill will is assumed, no offence given or taken, people regularly look beyond names to embrace the essence of things.

This is a country in which Hindu boys take pride in their selection to attend Holy Cross College or Trinity College.

A Muslim girl fought for the right to wear her hijab in a convent dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus.

The Jinnah Memorial Mosque is commonly called the St Joseph Mosque. Nobody finds it odd to refer to the “St Helena Mandir.”

Catholic parents pray for their boys to win places in a college literally named after a daughter of the Prophet Muhammad—Fatima.

Some devout people still instruct that their remains be churched in a Christian service, before performance of Hindu arti and cremation on the Shore of Peace.

“For double efficacy,” as VS Naipaul explained it in an early novel.

If Trini linguistic laissez-faire is being now subjected to such humourless questioning, as went on Justice Jamadar's court, something else is to blame.

That something is what has been done in the name of the Trinity Cross, and the Order of the Trinity, with such adverse impact on groups or classes of citizens.

And it’s a matter of constitutional fact that the differential impact on Indo-Trinidadian citizens can be attributed to the direct agency of all the prime ministers since 1969.

Yes, that is patently the case: just read the “Letter Patent” back of the T&T republican constitution.

Now, readers who thought this was going to be about the police, have been subjected to an extended body beat, appropriate for this football season.

But what had got me started was an observation in a Newsday editorial last week.

“It seems the Port-of-Spain Division of the Police Service is suffering a serious manpower shortage,” said the editorial, which was an eyebrow-raising story of a car theft.

The stolen car, with original licence plates, had been sighted four times in a week around north Trinidad. Each time, the police were called; never were they able to “apprehend the crooks.”

Newsday had blurted out another dirty secret to which hardly anyone pays attention. It’s that for two or three years, the Police Service has passed out no recruits, while regularly releasing officers who reach retirement age.

At a time of highest crime, the police are shortest-staffed. This fact of today life had been confirmed to me, with a heavy sigh, last year, by a high police executive officer.

I had put to him my observation that the Traffic Branch works regular civil service hours, with no policing of the roads after 5 pm.

“We have some manpower challenges,” he said. Well, at least some editorialists know what questions to ask in any enquiry into the Police Service.

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