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Trinidad & Tobago: Kublalsingh's Hunger Strike Continues; So Does the Debate

UPDATE: Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh ended his hunger strike 21 says after it began, explaining in a press release that the Highway Re-Route Movement agreed that the proposal from civil society groups to the government contained “the particulars they had requested, including the undertaking of a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed Debe to Mon Desir section of the highway, a social impact assessment and a hydrological, terrestrial and marine ecological report of the affected area.”

On Tuesday, November 27th, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine held a gathering in support of literature professor Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, who has been on a hunger strike for the past two weeks to protest the proposed route of a highway in south-western Trinidad.

The organizers of the “Campus Community Gathering in Recognition of Dr. Kublalsingh” released a statement explaining their show of solidarity:

The first is because of our respect for Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh, not because we all agree with him, but because he is one of ours – as colleague and as citizen – and because he has made a rare stand, at this own risk, for something he believes to be right. This is not just any issue, it involves questions of transparent planning, accountable spending, increased national debt and responsible decision-making, as well as concerns regarding land, ecosystems, families, agriculture and more.

Another factor was the desire to inject some civility into the debate over the highway project and the hunger strike:

The second reason is because our work as a campus community is about cultivating ideas and debate that don’t descend into hate or polarising division. Our work is to give space for new generations to find a new way to work out our differences, whether of race, party, geography or vision for the future, without the violence that characterises party platforms and media airwaves.

The statement concluded by calling upon all the parties involved to resolve the issues in an amicable matter:

We want an end to Wayne’s hunger strike just as we want governmental decisions based on the best available, most transparent information, just as we want transportation options that make all people’s lives easier, safer and happier, just as we want to conserve our environment for those who will come in seven generations, just as we all want to speak to and be heard by each other in ways that do not leave us wounded.

Muhammed Muwakil, poet and lead singer of the band Freetown attended the gathering and tried to place the entire protest movement in the broader context he felt was being missed:

THIS IS NOT ABOUT A HIGHWAY!!! it is about a classist government that does not understand the needs of the people of this country. Most of you all have no idea what artists go through in this place, I am offended because only people who don't understand what struggle is would ridicule it.

 

Muhammed Muwakil addresses the gathering

Musician and actor Wendell Manwarren also participated

At The Eternal Pantomime, Rhoda Bharath, who is one of Kublalsingh's colleagues as well as a former student, wondered why the university community took so long to respond to the situation and whether it is sending mixed messages:

Last week when news of the Hunger Strike hit the campus you could hear pins drop in the department that Kublalsingh works. People were only whispering on corridors. Sending an e-mail around to see who wanted to go visit the camp and show solidarity was frowned upon. Indeed, the only action UWI was definite about was that Kublalsingh’s classes had to be looked after.

As per a proper position on the issue…mehh! Not even the Guild President…and he was being prompted by peers to issue a statement…but his political affiliation is widely known and probably played a role in his prolonged silence.

She wondered whether the university's response has been tempered by a lack of willingness to antagonize the governement:

Then over the weekend came the announcement of this show of solidarity. And I had to wonder what led to the show of conscience today.

It’s no secret that this institution suffers from incredible amounts of government interference. It’s in bed with the government…and scarily so.

So much so that writing against the government in newspapers columns like I do gets you the attention of management in less than positive ways.

Activist Ishmael Samad appeals to Kublalsingh to give up the hunger strike

Jax Yorke-Westcott believes that the Kublalsingh hunger strike has revealed the true character of Trinidad & Tobago's politicians:

One thing is clear about the Kublalsingh issue. It has illuminated the true characters of politicians on every side of the political divide. Members of the Government are either publicly abusive or woefully silent as their colleagues heap insults on Dr Kublalsingh and his supporters. The Leader of the COP, Prakash Ramadhar, issued a statement distancing the COP from the statements made by cabinet colleagues at the UNC public meeting in Debe. Frankly Mr Ramadhar, this was not enough. Meanwhile members of the Opposition PNM rub their hands in glee as the People’s Partnership digs an increasingly big hole to fall in.

While she feels it would set a bad precedent for the Prime Minister to meet with Kublalsingh, she believes that the Government should engage with civil society to try to resolve the matter:

In the interest of transparency and good governance, the Government should consider meeting with civil society groups to hear their suggestions for ending this unfortunate impasse. At the very least this would help the government to recover some modicum of dignity after engaging in a very public and vitriolic dogfight. For a government which swept into power on a tide of goodwill the People’s Partnership has done an extremely efficient job of turning public opinion against them.

Lord Strange of T&T wonders why government ministers have accused Kublalsingh of being “political”, as if that were a bad thing:

Without venturing into whether Dr. Kublalsingh is right or wrong in his position regarding the issue of the Point Fortin highway a particular position of the Government has intrigued me. Dr. Rambachan along with Jack Warner and others have accused Dr. Kublalsingh's actions as being ‘political'. My question to the members of the People's Partnership Government is ‘so what?’ What is wrong with Dr. Kublalsingh being political? Does this government not understand that for it to even grace the halls of power it required citizens of this country to be political and engage in a political process of electing them?

Image of the Ishmael Samad letter courtesy Sampson Nanton. The thumbnail image used in this post, “Hunger Strike”, is by Ivan Rumata, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Creative Commons license. Visit Ivan Rumata's flickr photostream.

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