Around November 5th the erection of jhandis with black flags at several key government buildings caused a stir and was reported by local news media. One day after the story broke a pundit affiliated with the Maha Sabha, Lutchmidath Persad-Maharaj, claimed responsibility for the mounting of the flags. News reports at the time claimed that the flags were part of a Kali puja ritual and immediate links were made to obeah, black magic and death. But why would a pundit related to the Maha Sabha be involved in Kali puja?
Between 1845 and 1917, Trinidad received roughly 143,939 indentured labourers. Of that group, 88% were Hindu. While many may think all Hindus are the same, that is the furthest thing from the truth. There are many Hindu sects here from that period in our history: Sanatan Dharma, Vedic, Arya Samaj, Shakti, Kabir Panth, and SWAHA are some of main ones. The Hindu religious landscape is dominated by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, certainly in the media. As a religious organization with clout and sway it has also become a powerful political entity because it controls votes. The Maha Sabha refers to the version of Hindusim it practices as orthodox. It avoids blood sacrifice, which it deems as barbaric and backward. Blood sacrifice however is a feature of Shakti Hinduism. It is in Shakti Hinduism that the goddess Kali is worshipped as the Divine Mother. So how exactly did a Maha Sabha pundit get embroiled in alleged Kali rituals, when Kali worship and blood sacrifice are not central to his world view? And why is the Maha Sabha involved in what is ostensibly a matter of illegal quarrying and corrupt practices at the state company EMBD?
As a state enterprise, problems with the EMBD started from inception in November 2003. The Red Sand pits at the centre of the Maha Sabha-led flag rituals were once under the control of Caroni (1975) Ltd and with the closure of the company, oversight of the sand pits were placed under EMBD. A May 2011 Joint Select Committee meeting highlighted the lack of documentation surrounding lucrative contractive contracts awarded to contractors to mine the sand pits. At that JSC the Public Accounts and Enterprises Committee was told that there were no checks and balances at the sandpits. No way of knowing how much material was mined from the pits.
It is important to note how exactly these sand pits ought to operate. The mines are on state lands. Contractors are supposed to have a land lease as well as a license to mine and extract material from the land. Currently, contractors get fixed-term contracts and pay a flat fee of $100,000.00 to the state and are allowed to mine/extract as much red sand as they can. A five-year contract earns the state half a million dollars. Pundit Lutchmidath Persad-Maharaj, as operator of the Ramnarine Charles Quarries Ltd extracts approximately $25m dollars’ worth of red sand annually and has done so for 8 consecutive years without having a lease or license to mine. In short, over that 8-year period, Ramnarine Charles Quarries Ltd extracted $200m worth of red sand without a land lease or mining license while having to only pay the state $4m.
Aside from the math being astounding, the operations are illegal. Ramnarine Charles Quarries Ltd was awarded the contract to mine in 2008 by then EMBD Chairman under the PNM, Utharo Rao – it was initially a one-year contract, given without tender that lasted until early 2017. In June 2015 the EMBD, under UNC Chairman Henckle Lall and line Minister Roodal Moonilal, wrote to Ramnarine Charles Quarry Ltd advising they address the breaches. The company took out an injunction against the EMBD that spanned June 2015 to March 2017. They continued mining red sand during the period of the injunction.
When the injunction expired Ramnarine Charles Quarries’ ability to continue mining also ended. Jhandis began being erected around June 2017. Red flags were first erected at the Ministry of Agriculture’s offices in St Clair, at MP Maxie Cuffie’s La Horquetta/Talparo constituency office and at Balisier House in New Town. Minister Cuffie suffered a massive stroke in early September and is currently undergoing treatment in the US.
The state, in an attempt to begin the clean-up of the EMBD stables, is now insisting on new parameters that include land leases, licenses to mine, and a removal of the flat quarrying fee. Minister Rambharat is proposing that quarries now pay a fee on the quantity of material extracted. The more they extract, the more monies will be paid to the state coffers.
Enter the Maha Sabha
On November 7 th, Maha Sabha Secretary General Sat Maraj on his programme on Jaagriti TV threatened to “come at” government ministers with the full might of the entire Hindu community and Maha Sabha. Maraj claims that pundit Persad-Maharaj is a “small man” being squeezed out by the government.
But Maraj’s comments are contradictory and dishonest. He is attempting to paint this issue as a PNM government oppressing a Hindu cleric and avoiding questions about illegal quarrying operations. When the story is traced back to June 9th 2015, it is a UNC-appointed EMBD board that questioned Pundit Persad-Maharaj’s right to quarry at Cocoa Road illegally and revoked his contract. It is UNC MP Roodal Moonilal in his capacity as EMBD line minister in 2015 who then sough to give contracts to Motilal Ramhit, Kallco and Namalco to mine the red sand quarries. These contractors were recently named in a civil suit on behalf of EMBD by the state.
If Pundit Persad-Maharaj is operating without a land lease or a quarry license, his operation is essentially illegal. Is the Maha Sabha supporting illegal quarrying and extraction of state resources? Is the Maha Sabha saying its membership is also in support of illegal quarrying and mining? Is Maraj also indicating that members of the Maha Sabha community are in support of religious rituals being used to threaten and terrorise government bodies and ministers who are not in support of corrupt behavior and illegal quarrying?
Why is the Secretary General of the Maha Sabha attempting to use religion as a tool to defend corruption and attack the state? Is it that the Maha Sabha has benefitted from illegal quarrying at the Cocoa Road Red Sand Quarry? This is the first time in the country’s political history a religious organization is publicly supporting corrupt and illegal practices and threatening the government as part of its support.