Dr. Rampersad Parasram: Politics, Spirituality, Social Work & Cultural Activism

Dharmacharya Dr. Rampersad Parasram has an incredible history. It has been sometimes quite tumultuous, but he has always navigated it in extraordinary peace. 

Dr. Parasram’s life has been a unique mix of religious leader, medical doctor, civil servant and politician. He has approached each facet with profound dedication, and has achieved distinction in all.

An important part of his life was his role as a founder and the first Chairman of the United National Congress. Looking at the party’s beginnings through his experience gives us an important understanding of the significance and role of the UNC, not only to his life but to that of Trinidad and Tobago as a whole.

In Dr. Parasram’s words, The way I’ve seen my life is religion, medicine and social work, cultural activism … and politics. In my view, all have the same goal in mind: the eventual uplift of people.

Passion for Social Justice and Equality since Childhood

Although Dr. Parasram’s activities have been in varied fields, they have been unified by a common vision. “You would see that I would always lean on the side of any group that claims to be fighting for social justice and equality and equity and those kinds of things.”

“In my lifetime I never identified with the PNM. My father [Pundit Rampersad Maharaj] was involved in the Maha Sabha. All my experiences as a child was being part of the Maha Sabha and the sugar belt, and we were fully aware of the schools being looked at as cowsheds, and being called a recalcitrant hostile minority.”

“Equality is a very important thing and rising above what people call tribal politics. It always stirred me to feel that I need to counter that. I never felt bad about myself. I always had really good self-esteem. I know that there were people who became very angry, very annoyed and reacted, saying the other side was the enemy, the political enemy. I’d always somehow believe that one had to change the negative perception by positive action. My personal philosophy is really not reacting in a negative sort of way, but actually doing something to improve our lot in the social structure.”

“Remember we also came from a background where Hindus could not cremate our dead, our marriages were not recognised.”

“So we grew up with these stories. And let’s not deny that the PNM was not responsible for that discrimination. This was a part of our colonial history.”

Activism before politics: Diwali Nagar, National Council on Alcoholism, Psychiatry

Politics was always in the background of his life, even though he did not join any political parties until his forties. “When the PDP was formed, the People’s Democratic Party in 1953, I was 9 years old. The Maha Sabha and the PDP in central was something we could identify with. By the time I was a little older and the DLP had come into being, we were involved with them, even as youth, we were enthusiastic about it, applauding the leaders and that kind of thing.”

“There was a time when I went abroad to study in the 1960s, but when I came back it was very easy to identify with the United Labour Front (ULF).” 

“In that mix, remember Bhadase Maraj had passed away and Mr. Panday had taken the union from Mr. Rampartapsingh and he had emerged as the hero. I remember quite frankly at least a couple of my brothers — we were six brothers and two sisters — we were wholeheartedly supporting Mr. Panday [from the ULF] when he did fight Mr. Capildeo in Couva [of the DLP]. Panday was the new emerging leader of our party.” 

“You know there was that calling, that stirring, that wanting to be involved in something meaningful that would really eventuate the uplift of people and their community, so that would be the impetus.”

In the 1980s, before getting involved in politics, Dr. Parasram was a cultural and community worker, in addition to his professional activities. He explains “I had the privilege of leading the team for the flagship project, the Diwali Nagar project, the very first Diwali Nagar. That was one way of being involved in the uplift of the community. 

“There were a number of other things, you know like for example I was Vice President of the National Council on Alcoholism and one time president of the National Mental Health Association. At the time I was also a qualified psychiatrist, formally appointed as a specialist medical officer, way back long before some of you were born in 1984.

Involvement in the NAR and combatting injustice 

The coming together of the ULF, DAC, Tapia and ONR to form the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1986 finally brought Dr. Parasram formally into politics.

The NAR defeated the PNM after 30 years of continuous rule. It was a historic victory and the country was in a state of euphoria. 

“What happened is the strangest thing, this small group of us, Kelvin Ramnath (who became as you know, the first General Secretary after the party was forged) and Mr. Panday and others, we would meet occasionally at somebody’s home or in one of the offices. There was an office in south here in Couva itself, so we would meet and we would discuss issues. 

One thing led to another and I do believe if my recollection is correct we had a meeting at a mutual friend’s home and Mr. Panday said to me, ‘Rampa (that’s what a lot of my friends called me) why don’t you chair the meeting?’ And I said I’d happily do it. 

It was not a large group, but I would happily do it but except that I would keep notes and have a follow-up plan and set tasks for people to undertake. I think all the people there quite happily agreed to that arrangement, so that’s how we started to meet in a semi-formal kind of sense.:

Formation Of CLUB 88: Challenges

However, very early into the new Government, there were continuing problems of injustice and inequality, this time within the NAR party.

Dr. Parasram remembers the break-up of the NAR vividly.

“I think we soon discovered, in Mr. Panday’s words, that we voted for change but what we got instead was exchange; that the NAR at the time did not provide the kind of social justice and equality, and so on, that we felt would be ours.”

“Very early in the game it was felt that people who came from a United Labor Front background would somehow be alienated and feel left out.

“The dream of unity, of ‘One Love’ got shattered in 1987. I became part of a small little group that started to think about the way forward. Mr. Panday was the leader of the group, let’s make no bones about that. All the others respected him as leader of the group and the bases rallied around him. We had that and then we had to set about creating this new vehicle which I initially proposed as the CLUB 88 – Caucus for Love, Unity and Brotherhood. 

“I was really clear in my mind where we needed to go. When the NAR experiment started to fail and seriously fail — and that’s the whole story I can tell because I was part of the hearing about the goings on of the party every day, not from Mr. Robinson perspective but more from Mr. Ramnath’s perspective, Mr. Sudama, and Mr. Humphrey perspective. I was also, for the record, part of the Nanga Committee at one time.”

“When Mr. Panday said at the 35th anniversary celebrations of the Sugar Industrial Labourers Welfare Committee of which I was Chairman — this was a Sevilla House — when he said that there would be a realignment of political forces in Trinidad and Tobago: those for change on the one side, and those for exchange at the other side, I think the lines were drawn clearly drawn at that time.

“Shortly after that, Mr. Humphrey would be removed from the Cabinet. This was 1987, but I was very clear in my head that if the experiment of the NAR had failed, that the people would eventually need a new vehicle to take forward their dreams. 

“Now remember, I was like the technician really. It was Mr. Panday that had rallied that base. Mr. Panday had led that base. He was the leader of the ULF and the people around me were all sitting politicians of some stature and standing.

“My job with the group of politicians — eventually would be six of them who went with us — was really to set a path based on what I was hearing from them and listening to their own vision and their own ideas.”

“I was very sure that we needed to create a new vehicle to capture the the aspirations of the people, the dreams of the people and take it forward right. So the Caucus Of Love, Unity And Brotherhood, CLUB 88 which we launched the 16th of March 1988, started off as a caucus within the NAR. We, of course, were very clear that we may eventually have to form a political party.”

“It was very obvious that the struggle for which Mr. Panday, in particular, and some others, like Mr. Humphrey, Mr. Sudama and Mr. Ramnath and others, have been struggling for social justice and equality, and have been generally opposed to the People’s National Movement.”

Old School Mobilisation

“We then went on a campaign. We did not have today’s technology. It was platforms. One used the tray of a truck, we put tables and chairs on it and put up mikes. And we would go speak to the population all over the country. We were doing public meetings. We were really rallying the country around the idea that we have to first of all fight for our rights for be in the NAR, and if we were denied that, we would go ahead and form our own vehicle, a new vehicle. That, of course, would be the UNC.

Dr. Parasram remembers the tremendous growth: “There was a meeting in December 1987 at the Rienzi complex. We had a total of 106 people present. We converted that 106 people into 23,000 people [by 16 October 1988].”

“That was an indicator of the growth of this thing in a short period of time. I think I was confident in the abilities of the people at the top, their commitment, their willingness to put in the hard work. There were groups of activists that we had at various places in Trinidad, and in Tobago too eventually, who were willing to give their everything. They had the resource, the passion and I trusted my own management skills, quite frankly. Not from a position of arrogance at all. 

“I am a psychiatrist. I had experience managing things in past.I had studied, I was a specialist medical officer at the time, I had had the experience of doing Diwali Nagar very successfully, so in a sense I knew the community, knew the people and I thought that if we presented them with a credible path forward, they would come to us.”

“I was confident in my own ability, the ability of the people around me, and the passion and the good will of tens of thousands of people everywhere who were rallied around us.”

Mother’s Death While Organising Aranguez Mandate

Dr. Parasram faced a harsh challenge during the period where he was leading CLUB88’s organisation for the Aranguez Mandate. He informs us, “My mother died on the 4th of July in 1988. I could not have turned my back on my family and I was very hurt with the passing of my mother. But still the night of my mother’s wake I was sitting with Mr. Ramnath and one of the others, outlining the tasks that we had in front of us, and getting people to do certain things, so that when I had discharged my family responsibilities and my responsibility as a son, we could  pick up the pieces and move forward.” 

At times, one has to set aside certain things, and there’s a personal price sometimes that one has to pay, in order to get things done.

“Of course, it could be very demanding. You do a day’s work, you come in the evening, and all you have time for is to shower, and a change of clothing, you jump into a vehicle and you’re heading down to some remote part of the country, you do meetings, and then after meetings, you know there is culture where you meet with the activists who organise, and it goes on into the night. It does take a bit of a toll.” 

“There is another thing: When you are doing things people will criticise you. But you just have to follow your own conviction, the things you believe in, follow your dreams, your convictions, and you do what you have to do. It does take a physical toll. Sometimes it is very difficult when people are unfair, and you just have to do what you have to do.”

The Values Of Service Which Kept Him Going

Facing challenges like these often cause people to give up. But Dr. Parasram did not. He kept going even despite tremendous challenges, setbacks and even tragedies. What is it that kept him going? 

He recalls, “Remember I was in India in the 1960s, there was still the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, and of other freedom fighters. There wwas still the organizational ability of Jawaharlal Nehru and others. So that perhaps that reinforced the values that people should fight for things they believe in, to go out there and reach out to people, to live not only selfishly for yourself. 

“And of course I belong to a religious tradition. Reading from my holy books, the Ramayan and others, about service, and charity and altrusim, and doing things for others. So that if we see that there is something wrong and we do nothing about it, it continues to spread. So there is that too. 

“But it’s an inner stirring, based on the values we start learning from our parents and teachers early. I think in my case it got reinforced when I was in India initially, of course I went to the UK and I was in certain situations in postgraduate study where we could debate freely, discuss ideas, discuss a whole lot of things relevant to the human condition. So when you really look at it, it all adds up.”

“I am eternally grateful to my mother and father for bringing me up in a home where we believed in God, believed in a power that was greater than each of us and as a young man I myself was involved in religion and by the time I got involved in the Divali Nagar, I think my faith had reached a point where regardless, I knew that I could draw on a power that was greater than I and I still believe that maybe it was my destiny to become a Dharmacharya.”

“At times when I have to fall back on my own faith, on my own belief and it gave me sustenance all the time. My God and I have a bond. Even now, he is my constant companion.”

“You know what gave me strength in my worst moments, my most challenging time? God. Faith in a higher power.”

UNC: Defying The Odds And Beating The NAR

When the United National Congress was formed in 1989, many people dismissed the party as having no chance of surviving. Politics was seen as an NAR-PNM contest only.

Dr. Parasram recalls, “Now when we started the move towards that, there were lots of voices of people, some with vested interests and some who were armchair theorists, who really called us all kinds of names: racists, or people who were evil, wanted to create mischief, who wanted to divide the country.

“So there were tons and tons of things told against myself Mr. Ramnath, Mr. Sudama, and of course there was Mr Govinda Roopnarine, John Humphrey, Raymond Pallackdharrysingh, they were also in the group. And there were people who tried to label us as a regional party, as an Indian party, as an ethnic party and so on.”

The challenges were many. Dr. Parsaram tells us, “There were people who said that we didn’t stand a chance, and they kept sitting on the fence, or being hostile to us, even people who had at one time come out of the ULF who were hostile. Until that fateful day on 16th of October, the Aranguez Rally. 

“Those meetings eventuated the Aranguez mandate, where as you know 23,000 of us mandated to form the political party. That took us from 16th of October [1988] to the 30th of April 1989 to do all the ground work, to present ourselves as a viable party capable of winning an election.”

“I think when people saw the impact we were making, and the kinds of crowds that started to follow us and when analysts [like Selwyn Ryan started to take us seriously], the country recognized that we would become the alternate. And history of course would show that they were correct. So while people were very dismissive of us early, and a lot of people were very very harsh in their criticism, the fact is that they eventually came to the realisation that this was a force to be reckoned with. And the rest is history.”

UNC’s First Victory And Onward To Government

After launching the UNC on 30 April 1989, the party achieved an immediate success.

“We had the formal launch and then our victory on the 1st of May 1989 when John Agitation, Mr Ramdeen Ramjattan, at the time was elected as our first winning candidate in the local government by-election. We actually camped down there. We were on the ground with our troops. It was it was a very pleasurable journey, in spite of all the challenges. When you’re doing something you like to do, you also enjoy it, in spite of the many challenges and so on.”

The NAR had become annihilated. It really speaks to the amount of work of the excellent teams we had.”

“I am very proud of the people that I worked with, by and large. From the political leader all the way down to the men on the ground, You know, the fellow who would be putting up the  tents, cleaning the chairs, making sure all the physical infrastructure was in place, everybody. Of course, I think you need all your people on board and you need various teams working at different levels, but sharing a common vision that we’re doing this for something good down the road.”

After UNC: Dharmacharya

While serving on the National Executive of the UNC, Dr. Parasram was unanimously voted as the Dharmacharya of the Maha Sabha on 1 May 2019. He follows in the footsteps of his Guru, Pt. Jankie Persad Sharma, who was the first Dharmacharya in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr. Parasram reflects on the transition from one role to another:

“People might say what is the interface between religion and politics? All the things I just talked about is what we also talk about in religion. When we talk about values, whether you are Hindu, Christian or Muslim, Orisha, or Baptist, whatever you are, these are the values we learn in school, churches, temples,  mosques or mandirs that eventually could, given the opportunity, that could translate into the political arena.”

“I also believe that eventually we reach a point that the same morality that has driven men and women across the globe to greatness was the same values that play out in the political arena. Maybe that is what Gandhiji had in mind when he spoke about religion and politics. He said one without the other is really sterile.”

“If I’m fighting for social justice it is because of something I learned in my childhood views of my religious beliefs.”

For the Dharmacharya, it is all one struggle. Founding and forming UNC was an integral part of his journey to uplift this country in every sphere, materially, spiritually, psychologically, intellectually, socially.

Advice to young people

The Dharmacharya offered this advice to young people, “You just do what you have to do today. Of course you will have your dreams and aspirations. You’ve got to work to them and you’re going to put in the hard work. You’ve got to have your dreams, but you must put in the hard work.

“You’ve got to be patient to let things happen in the fullness of time. Some people are too eager to get things done. I tell stories that if you plant a mango seed in the ground, you cannot get mango fruits right away. You have to be patient, the seed has to germinate, then the plant becomes a tree.”

“Life is also like that. It’s like a woman gets pregnant, she wants to have the nine months over. Be patient. You cannot be too eager to force things to happen, because I think if we stayed the journey and do all the right things that we’re supposed to do, and we are patient enough to know that all things happen in the fullness of time, we’ll be in a better place. 

“The other thing is a little setback here, don’t pay too much attention, because all these things are really lessons in life. What’s done is done. You learn the lessons from what happened yesterday and live in today, and you build for the future.” 

“I once said to a high school graduate class: be a good human being, and then you’ll be a good anything. Be a good lawyer, good doctor, good politician, a good accountant, a good father, good wife, husband, and I think you should be the best you can be. But be a good human being first. Because given any role after that in the society, you should be able to do it well.”

“I have been around and I saw the transition from one leader to another. I also believe that the past must give way to the future. I firmly believe that.” 

“I would say to people going forward from here to people: teach your children, teach the young activists of the party, be open and honest with them teach them history, instill in them a sense of values, fairness, justice, fair play of service, altruism I think that would go a long way to lifting the community.”