Good evening, As-Salaam-Alaikum, Sita Ram.
It is my great pleasure to greet you all this evening as we celebrate 170 years of the East Indian presence in our country.
I do so with deep pride, because we are celebrating that moment of arrival, and decades of contributions and progress, as patriotic citizens of a land to which we have pledged our love and lives – Trinidad & Tobago.
And it is this characteristic that I believe has helped us to cast tremendous influence on the world stage – we have become one of the most diverse nations, and united people in the world.
With such recognition, it is important for us to not only understand the nature of the esteem we have earned, but also to understand the history of sacrifices and values that formed us into the people we are today.
THE HISTORY OF STRUGGLE
One hundred and seventy years ago, thousands of people took the decision to leave their home land, to journey for weeks across dark and rough seas to a new place where they would earn money, and improve their lot in life.
It was a perilous journey, fraught with sadness, fear and nervous hope that the life that lay in front of them would be better than the lives they left.
These thousands of East Indian men, women and children set foot on a new land where the climate, the vegetation, the language…everything was new and different.
All they had to rely on were the families who made the voyage with them, and the religious and cultural teachings and traditions which they held to firmly.
Some of the historians among us will also know that as they walked off the ships, Clerks of the Colonial Office sat with huge ledgers recording each person.
In this process, many of those who came lost their birth names, being unable to spell or even pronounce their names sufficiently clear to English speaking persons.
From that moment on, they worked hard, they worked diligently, they struggled and they saved the pennies from their labour.
We recall at that time, there was tremendous labour instability, with the men, women and children who became free between 1834 and 1838 demanding their right to decent pay for their work.
The East Indians who came found themselves tumbling into the midst of this instability.
To the British Colonial Office, the East Indians came with a mission to labour in the fields and keep the plantations operating.
To the former African slaves, the East Indians came as ‘strike-breakers’, to fill the demand for labourers.
But to the East Indians, they came in search of a new life, in search of freedom and dreams of better days and wealth.
They were homesick for the land that, to them was still mother India, and it was the traditions they brought that comforted them.
Their religions, their songs, their cultural expressions, these were the things that helped them to transition from the life they had before, to the life they were building in front of them.
BIRTH OF DIVERSE T&T
These are the moments in our history that represent the birth, the foundation of the diversity we enjoy today.
This evening’s celebration is testimony to the fact that we all stand shoulder to shoulder, equal in the eyes of the law, and alike in our humanity.
But we must never forget that the harmony and peace we enjoy today, first started forming on the basis of harsh disagreements and misunderstandings.
From that moment in 1845 when the first East Indians came, the future of Trinidad & Tobago lay in a new direction.
The former African slaves were determined to ensure that their children would never have to experience the horror they and their ancestors endured.
For the East Indians, they were determined to make the long journey across the dark seas worth it, and by the sheer force of will, dug their heels in and adopted this land as their home.
In the years that passed, they left the plantations and became landowners and farmers on their own.
Some of them became shopkeepers.
Others followed their deep desire to fulfill the dreams of their parents through education.
And decade after decade, each successive generation held and passed on the promise, that life would only become better.
As I speak to you this evening I am reminded of a verse from a local composition in which tribute is paid to those who came, but in particular one special verse of that song that says:
“We the young ones of today, our duty awaits us; Now is no time for weakness, now is the time for action,
Let us love and serve one another; Let us strive to build our future,
Let us join hands and voices across this land; continuing the work our fathers began,
Fearless with courage and determination; Building a new home in this land.”
This song paid tribute to the path taken by East Indian labourers and the work they did, and sacrifices they made.
OUR NATIONAL DUTY
But this song also reminds us of a very important duty we have as citizens of Trinidad & Tobago – to protect and strengthen the unity we inherited.
Indian Arrival Day is when we reflect on our ancestral experiences.
We recall the way they taught us about survival and entrepreneurship.
We find solace in the depth of their strength when they never lost hope, and never gave up on their dreams of a new and better life.
After 170 years, Trinidad & Tobago belongs as much to descendants of East Indians as to the descendants of Amerindians, Africans, Chinese, Syrians, Lebanese and Europeans.
The duty we have today is to protect the unity we created; one shared by all of these communities that now live together as one people.
This duty calls for selflessness and commitment, for love for country and nation, for citizenship.
This duty also calls for us to always remain focused on the fact that while we celebrate our heritage, we do not sacrifice our citizenship.
Celebrating the past means that we will never forget where we came from, and focusing on the future means that we dedicate ourselves to the path on which we must move forward.
As we move forward, as one people, and acknowledge the things that have kept us united, we must also be wary of the things that still exist, that stand to separate us.
Education is one of the cornerstones upon which the unity of our people and nation is built.
It is a passport to the better life that many dream of, and is the most dependable path for anyone who wishes to do better and be better.
Of even greater purpose, however, is to understand the things that cause our unity to falter, or divisions to emerge.
Of all the growing pains we have experienced in building a modern Trinidad & Tobago together, one in particular has endured.
And that is of advancing our political system to one where parties, representatives and Governments can be formed purely on the principle of one nation, one people.
As Prime Minister, I have considered it an honour and privilege to have the influence over our political system, strongly guided by that very principle.
For years, I have fought at the forefront against all forms of discrimination.
I have always tried to ensure that at every step of the way we are increasingly defined by the things that unite us.
And it remains my mission to continue my work to deliver a political system where merit and ideas are the only driving forces of our politics.
There is no space left for division.
If we are to truly achieve, it requires us to stand together, work together, excel together and celebrate together.
Throughout history, we have proudly stood as one people in religious and cultural celebrations, in sports, in education and in our communities.
We must therefore set ourselves the target of completing this unity foundation, by letting go of the politics that divide us, and embracing the politics of harmony.
Let us not say ‘one day we will get there…’
Let us say instead ‘we will make the change now’.
This evening therefore, if there is only one message I must leave you with, it is the responsibility we all have:
- To protect the customs and the traditions that defined our progress, and
- To the things that will form the future of Trinidad & Tobago.
We have faced many challenges together, and we will no doubt face many more.
But we must never allow ourselves to forget that when the worst challenges came, we triumphed not by focusing on the things that made us different, but by standing together as one people, and one nation.
We are all familiar with the profound words of Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
This means we must take charge of the future we want, not by assigning hope to coming generations, but by taking up the task of ensuring that positive change is our legacy.
As a nation, I am convinced that the best is still ahead of us.
We have shared our experiences in the course of history and today we share the conviction to do our best in the present.
The future we want therefore can only be achieved by ensuring that we put an end to the things that divide us, and embrace the things that unites us.
On Indian Arrival Day 2015, this is my wish for Trinidad & Tobago, that we build a legacy of harmony, peace and progress.
May God Bless us all.
I thank you.