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Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago:

Reality vs. Rhetoric

Towards a Research Agenda

Kirk Meighoo
Democratic National Assembly, Trinidad and Tobago
Intellectual and Academic Advisor, UWI-CARICOM Project, Georgetown, Guyana
Contributing Editor, Integrationist Quarterly

SEPTEMBER 16TH - 18TH 2010

Department of Behavioural Sciences
Faculty of Social Sciences
The University of the West Indies
St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
West Indies

Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
Purpose of the Paper

There are many angles that one can take on Religion and Politics. Indeed, Religion and
Politics are two items never to be discussed in polite conversation because of the personal
investments, involvement, sensitivity, liability to offence, passion, and depth of feeling
involved. This is no less so with academic papers.

What one finds lacking in such discussions, however, is empirical data and objective
information. In the spiritual realm, of course, such things are secondary. But where social
science is concerned and also policy and strategy development for political, social, and
governmental organisations accurate data is extremely important.

This paper seeks to forward a research agenda for precisely these purposes in analysing
Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, we believe that understanding the
complex relationships between politics and religion is extremely important to
authentically understand the nature of political and social development in Trinidad and
Tobago, and to develop effective policies and strategies in these areas.

Demographic profile of Trinidad and Tobago

To give some background for those not familiar with the country, demographically,
Trinidad and Tobago has a population of 1.2 million, composed of persons self-described
as being of Indian descent (40%), African descent (37.5%), mixed descent (20.5%), white
(including those of British, French, Portuguese and Spanish descent) (0.6%), Chinese
(0.3%), and other or not stated (including Syrians/Lebanese) (1.1%). It is multi-religious,
comprising Catholics (26.0%), Hindus (22.5%), Muslims (5.8%), with the remaining
44.3% encompassing smaller groups of Anglicans, Presbyterians and others. The island
of Tobago (population 54,100) remains much more ethnically and religiously
homogenous than Trinidad, with 91.9% of its population being of African descent, and
only 1.1% of the island being Hindu or Muslim. Of the remaining Christian population,
only 8.6% are Roman Catholic. This is a reflection of significantly distinct colonial
histories, settlement and economic development (cf. Brereton, 1981; Meighoo, 2003,

The native population was virtually wiped out on both islands, and the ancestors of the
current population of Trinidad basically arrived in the 19
and 20
centuries, while that
of Tobago settled in the 18
century. The two separate islands were merged into one
colony in 1899, and remained together at independence in 1962.

Debunking the African-Indian rivalry hypothesis and Plural Society Model

As it stands, there exist too many unsubstantiated opinions on and too many lazy and
simplistic assertions about politics in Trinidad and Tobago, propagated over decades by
some of the most eminent staff at this University, unfortunately.
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago

First and foremost amongst this is that politics here is driven by ethnic rivalry between
Africans and Indians descendants of slaves (largely from other West Indian islands
who emigrated to Trinidad after Emancipation in 1838) and indentured labourers (who
replaced slaves after Emancipation). I have argued extensively most recently in
Commonwealth and Comparative Politics (Meighoo, 2008) that the African-Indian
rivalry hypothesis and its associated Plural Society model do not fit the historical and
sociological facts.

For instance, the dramatic reversal in the recently concluded 2010 General Elections in
Trinidad and Tobago from 26-15 for the Peoples National Movement (PNM) over the
United National Congress (UNC)/Alliance in 2007 to 29-12 for the UNC-led Peoples
Partnership over the PNM in 2010, two and a half years later cannot be explained by
ethnic changes that developed in that short period of time.

Indeed, the details of Trinidad and Tobagos whole political history confound the
African-Indian rivalry hypothesis, at almost every critical turn. The 1968-72 Black
Power movement was directed against the PNM, led by young Africans asking Indians
to join them against the Afro-led government. In the 1970s and early 1980s, as Indians
grew in numbers and social and economic power, the Indian-based parties fared worse
than in the 1960s (by 1980, the United Labour Front (ULF) won only 9 of the 113 County
Council seats in Trinidad, with the PNM winning 100). In 1986, Afro-based and Indo-
based groups merged to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) alliance
against the Afro-Creole PNM. In 1990, the Afro-Muslim Abu Bakr overthrew Afro-
Tobagonian ANR Robinson as Prime Minister and requested that Winston Dookeran (a
Hindu) replace him, while calling for the inclusion of Basdeo Panday (another Hindu)
and his dissident CLUB 88 group in Bakrs proposed Government of National Unity. In
1995, the Afro-Tobagonian NAR gave a majority to the Hindu-dominated UNC to form
the government. These critical events are not characterised by racial antagonism, but the

Other Models: Crowley and Best

In sum, a more complex model is needed to better understand the historical development
of Trinidad and Tobagos politics and society. Fortunately, there are existing models that
provide a solid foundation upon which we can build. The first is that of anthropologist
Daniel Crowley (1957) in his Plural and Differential Acculturation in Trinidad and
Tobago. He quite insightfully identified 13 endogamous racial and national groups in
Trinidad alone. These were (in order of social dominance as perceived by the Negro,
Black, or Creole group):

1. Foreign whites
2. Local whites
3. Coloureds, of French origin and Roman Catholic religion
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
4. Coloureds of English origin and Anglican, Presbyterian, or other non-evangelical
Protestant religion
5. Coloured from other West Indian islands
6. Chinese and Chinese-Creoles
7. Portuguese
8. Negroes, Black, or Creoles
9. Spanish-speaking Venezuelans and Spanishy local-born people
10. Syrians and Lebanese
11. East Indians who have been converted to Christianity
12. Muslims
13. Hindus.

Twenty-five years after Crowley, the Tapia House Movement began a process of
rediscovery of the same insight, in its effort to build a coalition of parties opposed to the
PNM. In 1982, Best (1991: 5860) argued:

We had no distinct idea as to how race and class and religion combined to defeat the
political initiatives taken with a view to the re-constitution of the political life of the
parties . . . At the base of all this were nine ethnic groups, all doing their own thing . . . At
the back of all this were two big voting constituencies [Afro-Saxons and Hindus] which
whatever else happened, always remained at the centre that politics of coalition which
alone could work under prevailing circumstances of maddening fragmentation.

Let us identify the nine ethnic formations which are at play in our politics:

1. The Afro-Saxon Community of the EastWest Corridor, brought up on College
Exhibition education and Christian churching . . .

2. The Garveyite Black Power Community, occupying the fringes of Afro-Saxon society
in Port of Spain, drawn to Low Church-cum-Shango religion, largely excluded by
economic circumstances from the College Exhibition education, and conscious of a
distinct class difference between itself and the Afro-Saxon mainstream . . .

3. The Grenadian working class in the oilfields . . . A classic European Marxist
proletariat, they had nothing to sell but their labour to the multinational corporations such
as Shell, Texaco and BP . . . they were not all Grenadian, but their dominant ethnic spirit
was the militancy of the Grenadian immigrant.

4. The Tobagonians whose leader in the 1950s had been APT James and who had always
been conscious of a different set of habits and perspectives . . . The Tobagonian was as
militant as the Grenadian, but he enjoyed the African metaphysic of the Garveyite and he
was a distinctly rural person brought up, much like the Hindu in Caroni, on the discipline
and the vicissitudes of agriculture.

5. The Hindu in Caroni was concentrated in the rural areas but not like the Tobagonian in
small-scale agriculture. Like the Grenadian in the oilfields he too was proletarian on the
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
sugar plantation but while he sold his labour he also had a certain relation to land and to
some of the disciplines of small-scale agriculture. Above all, unlike the Muslim and the
Presbyterian, he retained an Oriental religion falling outside of the Middle Eastern
Judaic-Christian framework and was therefore less inclined than were the Muslims and
the Presbyterians, to become involved in the urban world of San Fernando and the East
West Corridor.

6. The Muslim, though Indian by race and Oriental by origin, moved comparatively
easily into the urban heartlands occupied by the Afro-Saxon. . . .

7. The [mainly Indian] Presbyterians, even more than the Muslims, have functioned as a
part of the Afro-Saxon community because they had made a deliberate decision to join
the mainstream of College Exhibition education and Christian churching in order to enjoy
the fruits of what, under colonial condition, was regarded as the most valid and legitimate
segment of the society . . .

8. The last of the ethnic groups is composed of the small white and off-white minorities,
operating on the fringe of British Administration, enjoying influence on the grounds of
their high colour and their prestigious origin, outside of the subservient slave and
indenture areas of Africa and India. This group has taken its title from its dominant
ingredient, the French Creoles, even though it is extremely mixed and was driven
together more by mainstream perceptions than by its admittedly very real convergence of
largely economic interests . . .

9. Finally, in Trinidad and Tobago, there is the group which does not easily fit into any of
the ethnic or tribal interests. It is a group of (post-war) nationalist or (pre-war)
internationalist intellectuals. The only popular base for this group lies among those
displaced individuals whose mixed cultural exposure abroad, mixed race, mixed ethnic
origin, or mixed marriages, place awkward hurdles in the way of any easy association
with ethnic politics.

The Place of Religion in Trinidad and Tobago Politics

In the context of this conference, it is noteworthy that religion has been identified as one
of the key aspects of Trinidad and Tobagos political sociology, although not in a
unidimensional way. That is, religion is not the only marker of political affiliation. It
features in combination with other factors race, class, geography, family context in a
complex way.

Indeed, here we must make careful note of the precise ways in which religion and
political affiliation interact.

Firstly, religion has never been the cause of political violence in Trinidad and Tobago.

Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
Political organisation has never been explicitly based on religion (e.g. Christian, Muslim,
or Hindu parties), except for perhaps the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which existed
from 1953 to 1958 and was led by Bhadase Sagan Maraj, the leader of the Sanatan
Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS). The PDP was able to secure a base of five seats in Central
Trinidad in 1956, but two years later merged with other parties to form the multi-ethnic
Democratic Labour Party (DLP), which beat the PNM in the West Indian Federal
Elections of 1958 and the County Council elections of 1959.

Because of Trinidad and Tobagos demography and geography, a party based on a single
religious denomination cannot win a majority by itself. All parties looking to win
parliamentary majorities, therefore, have had to win support from more than one religious
group. That said, Christians, generically, make up a majority of the country, and it is
theoretically possible for them to form a religiously exclusive political party which may
appeal to a majority of voters. The PNM may, in fact, have some such an appeal, but it is
not an explicit aspect of party mobilisation, as its official founding creed advocated Afro-
Asian solidarity and the Spirit of Bandung.

Significantly, no political parties have been formed to specially advocate the concerns of
specific religious groups, majority or minority such as Muslims, Hindus, or
Pentecostals, for instance. There have been no chauvinist demands, as in Fiji, for
example. The few religious demands in politics have been for equality of treatment
allowing the hijab to be worn in schools, changing the name of the countrys highest
award from the Trinity Cross to the Order of Trinidad and Tobago, or granting a
national holiday for the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists (a syncretic Afro-Christian religion).

Indeed, the nature of the Trinidad political space, in particular, is fundamentally creole,
or syncretic. The permitted worship in the Siparia Roman Catholic Church of the Black
Madonna every Holy Thursday and Good Friday as Sipari Mai (an incarnation of the
black goddess, Kali) by Hindus is emblematic of such mixing. Indeed, both Crowley and
Best identify the productive interaction of the various social and religious groups as
central to understanding the historical dynamics of Trinidad and Tobago. This is the
opposite of the Plural Society model.

For instance, Crowley (1957: 819) argues that these vertical groups, for all their
distinctness, are not functionally exclusive or watertight but . . . all the members of any
group know something of the other groups, and many members are as proficient in the
cultural activities of other groups as of their own. It is a matter of course that
Trinidadians acculturate themselves to many different groups. This he called plural
acculturation. And the various depths of integration which may occur by individuals of
these groups he called differential acculturation. In addition to many examples of mixed
social, religious, and sexual interactions in community life, Crowley (1957: 821)
additionally observes that many people have several sets of first names and surnames by
which they are known in different settings. For instance, a Muslim East Indian with a
Venezuelan Carib grandmother is known as Alvarado Josette at work, as Eddie
Mohammed at home, and as Nugget or Nuggs among his age peers. He also relates the
story that One Hindu became a Presbyterian to enter a mission normal school, changed
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
to Catholic to qualify as a teacher in a Catholic school, and then embraced Islam to
become the head teacher of a Muslim school. These successive conversions elicited
admiration as being expedient and wise (Crowley, 1957: 822).

As for Best, he notes that politics have been determined by coalitions and
countercoalitions of the various groups, occurring in surprising, even unpredictable,
combination. For instance, the Afro-Saxon dominated PNM was for many years able to
retain the crucial support of the Presbyterians and the Muslims (crucial for San Fernando
West and San Juan/Barataria, for example), even after many of the other Afro-groups
abandoned the party. The DLP was never able to consolidate that Indo-support.

By 1991, after the expulsion of Basdeo Panday from the NAR, the UNC party which he
formed eventually became the first pan-Indian party (Hindu, Muslim, Presbyterian, in
addition to others who felt marginalised by the Afro-Saxons and High Church group).
The UNC won Government with the help of the (Protestant) Tobagonians in 1995, but
the Southern Presbyterians broke away and brought down the UNC in 2001 over
corruption issues. (For more examples and details, see Meighoo, 2008.)

Towards a Research Agenda

So, groups identified by their religious affiliation have been crucial to the unfolding
political and social dynamics of Trinidad and Tobago. What is proposed here is a
research agenda to deepen and sharpen our understanding.

The research questions which are proposed are along these lines:

1. Can relationships between religious and political affiliations be empirically

While Best and Crowley identify particular groups, empirical research must establish
whether or in what time periods these groups have been politically salient. The task
always remains to interpret the kaleidoscopic political sociology of contemporary
Trinidad and Tobago. For instance, do Evangelical Christians form a distinct political
group in Trinidad and Tobago today? Are there political differences between Catholics
and Anglicans any more? Can Muslim groups be identified by political affinities?

Here we need to be sensitive to subtle intra-denominational and other religious
differences, or else our research will be of little use. One needs to be well-informed of
political history to ask the right questions.

For instance, most of the society is perhaps unaware of the deep political schisms within
the Hindu group, for example. Basdeo Pandays Hindu-dominated (but secular and
socialist) ULF fought strongly against the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha-aligned DLP in
1976 for instance. Indeed, in 1981, the SDMS supported the PNM, mounting the platform
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
in six constituencies against the ULF. However, the bulk of the Hindu vote went to
Panday (Meighoo, 2003: 103).

The difference in political outlook between the official Hindu leadership and their
followers surfaced again in 2006, when the leadership of 40 Hindu religious
organisations claiming to represent 99 percent of the Hindus in Trinidad, convened to tell
Basdeo Panday that they supported Winston Dookeran as leader of the United National
Congress. Quite interestingly, Mr. Panday indicated that he was not a religious leader, but
a political one, who could not take the views of one group alone (see Mohammed, 2006).
Dookerans breakaway political party (Congress of the People (COP)) was eventually
shut out of the 2007 elections completely by Pandays UNC in the Hindu-dominated
constituencies, despite the virtual unanimous support of the Hindu leadership for Mr.
Dookeran and the SDMSs extensive involvement (see Meighoo, 2008).

In addition, different Hindu groups have had opposing public positions on political
issues. For example, a minority of Hindu groups have supported the Afro-dominated
PNM over the years, include leading families of the Arya Samaj (e.g. the Saiths, the
Seereerams), and from SWAHA (e.g. Christine Sahadeo, Pt. Manideo Persad). In the
1980s, during the national debates on National Service proposed by the then NAR
administration, the SDMS strongly opposed National Service, while the Hindu Prachar
Kendra, the Hindu Seva Sangh, the Hindu Academy, Siewnarine Dharam Sabha, and
others supported it (Siewah, 1994: 272).

The Muslims appear to be split almost evenly among the three major political groupings
in Trinidad the PNM, UNC, and COP. I have found it quite interesting to observe the
over-representation of Muslims among political organisers and activists during elections,
for example. This appears to reflect the organisational strength of Muslim communities,
whose networks have been used for political mobilisation during election campaigns. In
addition, the increasing numbers of Muslims of African descent in Trinidad and Tobago
allows for mobilisation among both Indians and Africans.

Among Christians, there are significant divisions as well. Lloyd Best has noted the
antagonism among Afro-Christians between those of the high churches (Catholicism,
Anglicanism) and the low churches (Pentecostals, Evangelicals). This forms part of a
class difference, as well, with denominational affiliation marking social status.

Within the Catholic Church, in particular, the French Creoles form a religious, social, and
economic elite. Located in the north-western peninsula, their support has fluctuated
between the PNM and the COP/ONR. The Catholics in the rest of the country form a
very mixed group: Africans, Spanish, mixed, Indian, multi-racial families, which are
spread across income and status groups.

The special case of the Presbyterians is also significant. Due to the missionary activity of
the 19
and 20
centuries, Presbyterians are all of Indian descent in Trinidad. Globally,
Trinidad is unusual for having such a high proportion of its Indian population
Christianised. This did not occur in Fiji, Mauritius, Suriname, or Guyana, for example.
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
The extent of Christianisation can be seen in names: a Christian first name and Hindu or
Muslim surname is typical perhaps unique to Trinidad, for example: Kirk Meighoo or
Hanson Hosein. (This is unlike the Catholicised Goans of India, for example, who also
quite uniquely have Indian first names and Portuguese surnames, like Dinesh DSouza.)
Presbyterians in the city of San Fernando in particular have generally supported the
PNM, while they sometimes have wavered to support the UNC, but more strongly for the
COP and its earlier incarnations.

The Afro-Christian Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, interestingly, have split into two factions,
one of whose leadership has been affiliated with the Hindu-dominated UNC. Indeed, it
was the UNC that established the national holiday for the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists in
1996. However, the majority of Spiritual/Shouter Baptists have been open supporters and
activists for the PNM, despite the PNMs refusal to grant the Baptists a national holiday.

Some Pentecostals, as well, have supported the UNC, due to the UNCs policy of
allowing religious bodies to establish and run secondary schools (which the PNM halted
in 1960) when the UNC led the Government in 1995-2001.

Of note, too, is the antagonism between Afro-Tobagonians and Afro-Trinidadians.
Interestingly, Tobago is a Protestant island, while Trinidads Christians are dominated by
Roman Catholicism. This religious difference may fuel part of the sharp difference of
consciousness between the two islands.

Because of these subtleties and details, surveys should be treated with caution, as they
may miss important social features. Close observational studies should also be taken to
identify relationships between religious and political affiliation.

2. By what means are religious and political affiliation correlated?

It is suggested that researchers explore the ways in which religious and political
affiliation are correlated. For instance, does religion determine political choice? Under
what circumstances? By what means? Is the relation a matter of ideology and values? (for
example, positions on common law relationships and single parenthood, praying in
public, abortion, religious fundamentalism vs. religious openness) Is it a matter of
networking? (i.e. following the affiliation of ones co-religionists or of ones religious
leaders) Is it a matter of family tradition? (how parents and family members vote, or are
personally involved in politics?) Is gender significant? (Is religious affiliation and
political affiliation more strongly correlated for women than for men?)

3. Does education in other denominational schools affect ones political affiliation?

I think this might apply particularly to Presbyterian secondary schools Naparima Boys
College and Girls High School, St. Augustine Girls High School, and Hillview College
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
and other prestige schools St. Marys College, Presentation College, and so forth
where persons of other faiths attend.

For instance, do Hindus educated in Presbyterian prestige schools have different political
affiliations than Hindus who attend Hindu schools or Government schools? Are Muslims
as affected by secondary schooling in other denominational schools as other groups?

4. Do peoples religious and political affiliations change together over time?

For example, does one usually change political affiliations when one changes religious
affiliation? How long does the process take?
Do some religious groups change political parties more regularly than others?

5. How does living in particular geographical locations affect political preferences?

For example, the periurban areas of San Juan, Cunupia, and San Fernando have
particularly strong Muslim presences; the Diego Martin Constituencies are strongholds of
the French Creoles; South Trinidad is dominated by Presbyterianism and Hinduism;
Central Trinidad is the heartland of Hindu Trinidad; and Tobago has no significant Hindu
or Muslim presence, developing its own dominant culture of Afro-Protestantism. In what
ways, if any, do these environments affect political affiliations, both among dominant and
minority communities?

Finally, given the Trinidad and Tobago context, we strongly suggest that when analysing
the data gathered from individual respondents, in particular, one should not only note
ones (current) religious affiliation. One must take into account the religion of the
persons parents and siblings, the religion the person was born into, the religion of the
persons spouse, the denomination (if any) of the secondary school the person attended,
current and recent occupations (to understand other social contexts), income bracket, the
geographical area the person grew up in, the geographical community in which the
person currently lives. A Hindu that lives in Diego Martin, went to St. Marys Secondary
School, and is married to a recently converted Evangelical Christian of Muslim ancestry
may well have different political affinities than a born Hindu who lives in Caroni, went to
Hindu school, is married to a born Hindu, and is self-employed. The permutations in
Trinidad, in particular, can be quite maze-like. Diligent scholars will be able to make
sense of it, however.

In sum, a list of data to be collected may look something like this:

1. Race
2. Religion
3. Whether the respondent was born into the religion
4. Gender
5. Income bracket
Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago
6. Jobs held in past ten years (public sector, private sector, and self-employment /
managerial, high-skilled, low-skilled)
7. secondary schooling (denominational/prestige school, Government school, etc.)
8. tertiary education (yes or no, in Trinidad or abroad)
9. Voting patterns over the last few elections
10. Any party affiliations
11. Marital status (married, common law relationship, divorced, separated)
12. If married, was this done religiously?
13. Race of spouse
14. Religion of spouse
15. Occupation of spouse
16. Voting patterns of spouse
17. Party affiliations of spouse
18. Parents race, religion, income, main occupations, education (secondary
schooling, tertiary education), any party affiliations
19. Religious affiliation of siblings
20. Geographical locations (in past ten years)
21. Birthplace

These are suggestions for a research agenda, which comes after much field analysis and
first-hand involvement in politics. Scholars need to more deeply examine the foregoing
questions and insights empirically, through surveys, case studies, and in-depth interviews,
for example, in order to advance our knowledge of the religious and political landscape
of Trinidad and Tobago. Such a research agenda can provide a basis for broad
programme of graduate work at St. Augustine, for example. Theoretical work can then
proceed from this base.

It is the hope of this paper that such research will help shift the academic debate on
politics away from the unproductive and sterile battles between the standardised
paradigms of race, class, and (more recently) gender, towards closer and more detailed
observation of lived experience which forms testable academic models that either fit the
facts or do not. This will not only help intellectual life; it will help political life as well.

Kirk Meighoo: Religion and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago

Best, L. (1991) Alliance for reconstruction: the case. Address to the Alliance Inaugural
Convention, Chaguaramas Convention Centre, 14 November 1982, in: Lloyd Best
& Allan Harris (Eds) A Party Politics for Trinidad and Tobago: Flowering of an
Idea, pp. 5162 (Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago: Tapia House Publications).

Brereton, Bridget (1981) A History of Modern Trinidad, 17831962 (Kingston, Jamaica:

Crowley, Daniel J. (1957) Plural and differential acculturation in Trinidad, American
Anthropologist, 59(5), pp. 817824.

Meighoo, Kirk (2008) 'Ethnic Mobilisation vs. Ethnic Politics: Understanding Ethnicity
in Trinidad and Tobago Politics', Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 46:1,
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Meighoo, Kirk (2003) Politics in a Half-Made Society: Trinidad and Tobago 1925
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Mohammed, Sasha (2006) Hindu heads back Dookeran Trinidad Express, 18 August.

Siewah, Samaroo (ed.) (1994) Lotus and the dagger: the Capildeo speeches (1957-1994)
(Trinidad and Tobago: Chakra Publishing House (Caribbean)).