Constitutional Reform and a Plural Model of a State for a Tribally Diverse Society

“The old order changeth – yielding place to new – and God fulfills Himself in many ways . . .”
Alfred Lord Tennyson, ‘Morte d’Arthur’


Our view is that a fast-collapsing Trinidad and Tobago has a once-in-a-lifetime chance for an unjust and decadent old order to be changed into a new order based on truth, freedom and justice and, in the process, for God to fulfill Himself in this land. We recognize constitutional reform to be the basic vehicle for effecting such necessary change. The time to act is now! Let us hearken to Shakespeare’s warning: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their lives is bound in shallows and in miseries.”


The ‘old order’, that has failed so dismally, and is taking us ‘willy nilly’ to the brink of a pit of fire, is one that is nevertheless obstinately determined to impose on this multi-tribal country the permanent dictatorship of one tribe ruling over all other tribes. We must act now to prevent the establishment of that dictatorship. We need a new constitutional dispensation that would deliver us from political and economic injustice and oppression, and would more effectively preserve moral values such as human freedom, the right to privacy, and protection from a state that devotes more effort and resources on spying on its own people than on protecting them from criminals.


We have also long been politically corrupted with divisive ‘tribal’ nationalism that recognized ‘tribal’ solidarity as a morally acceptable vehicle with which one tribe could travel the road to political dominion over all other tribes. It has corrupted the country while dividing the tribes and has lead, naturally so, to tribal rivalry and to political and economic stratification based on tribal identity. Right-thinking people in this country are fed-up with that tribal rivalry that has come from ‘old politics’, and they now demand, through constitutional reform, a wise ‘new politics’ that would unite us as a family of tribes living in social, religious, political and economic harmony with each other.


For that dream to come true we must first recognize our unique tribal ‘diversity’ in these Caribbean islands to be a priceless divine gift of a Wise and Beneficent Creator. We should embrace that diversity rather than demonize it with contemptuous disdain in language such as “recalcitrant minority” and “fraternizing with the enemy”. We should preserve and beneficially exploit our diversity to our advantage in much the same way that a good gardener exploits to his advantage the multiplicity of flowers and colors in a flower-garden. And finally, in order to maintain the integrity of our philosophy of diversity, we must all work for our multi-tribal society to be stratified on the basis of what resides in the heart, and from the conduct that it produces, rather than tribal identity or on the ethically indefensible concepts of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’.


In the final phase of their rule the British colonial government cleverly responded to Trinidad and Tobago’s tribal diversity with a ‘token’ political gesture. Five tribes of the country were represented in government through five tribal Ministers, i.e., Roy Joseph (the Syrian Arab), Dr. Norman Tang (the Chinese), Ajodhasingh (the Indian), Victor Bryan (the African), and Albert Gomes (the native European). Even though the British ‘Massa’ still remained firmly in charge of the country, his clever political tokenism kept the tribes relatively at peace with each other. That was the best British effort at the political management of our wondrous diversity.


Dr. Eric Williams, the African, who was the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, perhaps never recognized the significance of the clever British token political response to Trinidad and Tobago’s tribal diversity. His political philosophy was based on Afro-West Indian tribal nationalism and did not admit of any meaningful political recognition of our tribal diversity. Both he and his brand new political party, the People’s National Movement, resorted to partisan ‘tribal’ politics from the very birth of the party in 1955. They believed that their tribe possessed a numerical ‘majority’ and was thus entitled, on the basis of that alleged majority, to rule over all other ‘minority’ tribes. The only time in almost half-a-century of arrogant tribal rule that the PNM ever grudging recognized our diversity, and reluctantly admitted a necessity of responding to it in a meaningful way, was in the recent ‘Trinity Cross’ matter. And even then it did so with fragile integrity while hiding behind a courageous legal judgment. The PNM has thus wasted a priceless asset of this country throughout that political party’s misguided existence. It seems that it could not have been otherwise since Afro-West Indian political nationalism and the political recognition of Trinidad and Tobago’s tribally diverse polity are mutually incompatible.


I believe that we can successfully pursue an effort for such constitutional reform as can offer a way out of the destructive tribal politics that has polarized and infected the tribes of this country with acrimonious and mutually destructive tribal rivalry. I know that is no easy task. But if we succeed we may still salvage some of our wondrous diversity during this sorry period of our political history in which we foolishly confront each other in mutually destructive tribal rivalry.

We must first reject a political system that allows one tribe to rule over all other tribes on the basis of ‘winner takes all’ electoral politics. By the same token we must also reject that system of proportional representation in which a big tribe can make a deal or deals with a smaller tribe or tribes and, in the process, achieve the required majority with which to impose its political rule over rival tribes. What we need is a plural model of a state that would recognize the plurality of the polity and would respond to that plurality in a manner that is fair, just and equitable. Such a model of a state would thus deliver both the political stability of a multi-tribal polity and the harmonious coexistence of all the tribes. Countries such as Singapore, Nigeria and Malaysia which suffer from intense tribal rivalry can benefit from such a model of a state.


Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) created a plural model of a state while successfully responding to precisely the same tribal challenge that characterized the polity in the city- state of Madina in Arabia. The wise and courageous Hindu leader, Mahatma Gandhi, adopted the same response for accommodating India’s Hindu-Muslim plurality in a proposed plural model of a state which would have replaced British colonial rule over India. At the heart of Gandhi’s political strategy for achieving that plural model of a state was a Hindu-Muslim alliance into which he wisely and courageously entered in the early twenties.


In a homogeneous polity all members of the polity share the same supreme loyalty and hence it is possible for the individual to be recognized as the unit of the state. A plural polity on the other hand is characterized by a multiplicity of differing supreme loyalties amongst the members of the polity. As a consequence, there is no escape from the political recognition and accommodation, in some form or other, of the tribe as a unit of the state. While there are those in Trinidad and Tobago who pledge their supreme loyalty to their native land, the state and the constitution, there are others, for example, who consider such to be blasphemous and who instead submit to the supreme authority of Allah Most High.


A model of a plural state is one which first extends political recognition to the tribal diversity of a polity, and then responds to that diversity by attempting to politically embrace all the tribes within the state in a manner that is just, fair and equitable. In order to do so it has to begin by constitutionally establishing the political equality of all the tribes. The political system in such a state thus precludes the possibility of any one tribe establishing its rule or dominion over all other tribes, or even of a coalition of ruling tribes imposing its collective rule over the rest of the tribes on the basis of an electoral majority.

Secondly, the model of a plural state respects the multiplicity of supreme loyalties of tribes within the state and searches for an agreement that would allow those differing supreme loyalties to coexist harmoniously.

Such a political system thus witnesses a just and equitable power-sharing that delivers political stability and tribal harmony.

A ‘power-sharing’ agreement is, first of all, one which is designed to protect the basic rights and interests of all the constituent units of the state while imposing reciprocal duties and obligations.

Our own formula for power-sharing needs to be discussed, negotiated and agreed upon, and for this purpose I suggest that a series of consultative meetings on constitution reform be organized with different tribal groups or communities within our country.


But we seek something more than the proper political management of our diversity that would establish and preserve justice and tribal harmony in our polity. We also seek to establish the constitutional basis for all our tribes to have the opportunity to grow and develop in accordance with their own tribal values and genius without, of course, infringing upon the rights of others. No single tribe, or alliance of tribes, should have the right to obstruct the growth and development of any tribe in accordance with its distinctive identity, belief-system, value-system and tribal genius.


The model of a plural state is one in which all tribes would have an independent voice in parliament and would thus be free to articulate their special viewpoint on national affairs in addition to representing their own tribal interests. This country is very fortunate to have three world religions in our midst, and yet those world religions appear never to have had, in our entire political history, an independent voice in parliament. The model of a plural state would rectify that unforgivable omission and give a voice in parliament to those who are now without a voice.


This country can no longer turn a blind eye to the political implications of its wondrous diversity. Nor should we tolerate any more the fudging of the challenge of that diversity with a tribal politics that deceptively poaches on other tribes in order for one tribe to present a false and deceptive multi-tribal appearance. But for a brief moment in its history, the bitter reality is that this country has always been subjected to such corrupt tribal rule. The time for change has come. We must now summon the courage and wisdom to forge a new constitutional dispensation in a model of a plural state that would politically unite all our tribes in a manner that is just, fair and equitable. That is the only political framework that can deliver tribal harmony to Trinidad and Tobago. Our present political system has failed to deliver tribal harmony. Indeed the political and economic oppression that has resulted from the unjust rule of one tribe over all other tribes cannot but eventually result in rebellion against oppression.