Today we welcome a guest post from Alexander Rocklin, author of The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad, just published this month by UNC Press.
How can religious freedom be granted to people who do not have a religion? While Indian indentured workers in colonial Trinidad practiced cherished rituals, “Hinduism” was not a widespread category in India at the time. On this Caribbean island, people of South Asian descent and African descent came together—under the watchful eyes of the British rulers—to walk on hot coals for fierce goddesses, summon spirits of the dead, or honor Muslim martyrs, practices that challenged colonial norms for religion and race. Drawing deeply on colonial archives, Alexander Rocklin examines the role of the category of religion in the regulation of the lives of Indian laborers struggling for autonomy.
The Regulation of Religion and the Making of Hinduism in Colonial Trinidad is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Draupadi through the Fire
In August 2018, at a People’s National Movement (or PNM) Sports and Family Day gathering in Tabaquite, a majority Indian Trinidadian area in central Trinidad, PNM members put on a skit portraying a dancer in a yellow sari being disrobed by two men in red gorilla costumes (fully revealing a red PNM shirt underneath the sari). In Trinidad and Tobago national politics, red is the color of the PNM (the party in power in 2018). The PNM is popularly identified as looking after the interests of Afro-Trinbagonian. The color yellow is the color of the United National Congress (the UNC), a party most often identified with Indo-Trinbagonians. (Although it should be noted that both parties have leadership and membership from various ethnoracial groups on the islands). Tabaquite PNM constituency Chairman Curtis Shade explained later that the skit was not meant to be insulting, racist, or to depict violence. It was meant to portray Tabaquite’s movement “away from the yellow of the UNC to the joyful red of the PNM;” that is, it showed Tabaquite’s Indo-Trinidadians’s new support for the PNM. This, however, was not how it was interpreted by some. Critics of the skit focused on its portrayal of violence against women and the reification of ethnoracial tensions in the twin-island nation,  and many UNC-allied critics focused specifically on religious insult to Indo-Trinbagonians. These critics followed a variety of avenues to mount a convincing case that the PNM insulted Indian religion in order to elicit an apology, ultimately tying the events of the skit to the epic protagonist Draupadi. Examining the changing fortunes of Draupadi in colonial Trinidad will allow us to flesh out a longer history of the politics of Hinduism and the category religion informing this incident. It was through a textually oriented ideal of religion, and not an insult to Draupadi herself, I will argue, that was the basis for offense in this case.
By convincingly tying the skit’s insult to a “sacred text,” critics were ultimately able to elicit an apology from Prime Minster Dr. Keith Rowley and the PNM. Specifically, they compared the skit to the scene of the disrobing of Draupadi from the Indian epic the Mahabharata. A letter to the editor of the Trinidad Express from the pundit Satyanand Maharaj, published the day after the skit’s performance read: “At the PNM national event the Hindu population was horrified as a scene from the Mahabharata was played out with negative religious and racial overtones. As a practising Hindu pundit I stood aghast, frozen in one spot as a group describing themselves as PNM Gorillas disrobed what appeared as a defenceless woman in a yellow sari. This scene is identical to [that] of the disrobing of Drupadi in the Mahabharata.” 
At a PNM political meeting held at the Malabar Community Centre, almost a week after the skit, Rowley finally issued an apology, recognizing the religious hurt to the Indo-Trinbagonian Hindu community. “Tonight, on behalf of the People’s National Movement and all concerned, I unreservedly apologise to the Hindu community.” Rowley said he had not heard the story of the Mahabharata before, but now knew that the skit had mirrored the disrobing scene. Rowley said that he had learned that the Mahabharata was “a serious, spiritual, religious expression, of something that is extremely significant to the Hindu population” and that the skit was a “serious insult to their religious mythology” and he now understood “how deeply hurt and offended they were.” The successful transfiguration of the skit into a reference to a rarefied “sacred text” or “mythology,” understood to be the very basis for religious beliefs and practices, is what made the claim to hurt convincingly “religious” in nature in this context (an argument among elites on the national stage).Continue Reading Alexander Rocklin: Draupadi through the Fire