Basdeo Panday: Meteor in T&T’s Galaxy

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By Prior Beharry

BASDEO PANDAY was a meteor blazing through the galaxy of Trinidad and Tobago.

This was how President Christine Kangaloo paid tribute to Panday who was her political opponent during her life in politics before ascending to the highest office in the land.

Panday Funeral
MIckela Panday, second right, holds the coffin of her father as her mother Oma supports her

Panday died on the first day of this year in a Florida hospital. He was the fifth prime minister of T&T and his funeral was held at the Southern Academy for the Performing Arts (SAPA) in San Fernando on Tuesday.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Subha Panday consoles his brother’s widow at the cremation site

President Kangaloo said, “Basdeo Panday certainly had enough people who were critical of him during his lifetime. He had his fair share of detractors. That is hardly surprising. 

“As a meteor blazes its trail across the sky, it burns everything that is in its path, because that is the nature of a meteor’s existence. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
During the funeral on stage at SAPA

“And, since Basdeo Panday was one the brightest meteors in the country’s galaxy, it would not be surprising if, in his wake, he burnt bridges at times. 

“But Basdeo Panday also had at his side, his friends with whom he built indestructible bridges and long and lasting relationships; and his family, whom he loved more than life itself. Doubtless, it was they who gave him strength when the days grew dark, as sometimes they did, even in his colourfully brilliant life.”

The family of the late Panday was on stage with his coffin. His wife, Oma whose daughter Mickela said was “grieving immensely” made her first public appearance on Tuesday in the official activities that surrounded the first State funeral under Hindu rites in T&T. The funeral and later cremation followed public viewing at the Red House in Port of Spain and SAPA in SAn Fernando on Friday and Monday respectively.

Basdeo Panday funeral
President Christine Kangaloo during her tribute to Basdeo Panday

SAPA’s main auditorium was packed to capacity with people without invitations asked to sit in a tent outside with a big screen. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
Paying homage to Basdeo Panday at the ASJA College grounds

Inside were the Who’s Who of T&T.

In her eulogy, Panday’s second daughter Mickela said her father was fearless but humble.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Former ministers under Basdeo Panday – Sadiq Baksh, left, and Nizam Baksh

She said, “Our father was fearless, honest, strong willed, disciplined, polite, humble, kind, selfless, and hardworking like no one I’ve ever know or will ever know.”

Mickela said one month ago when the family travelled abroad with her father for medical treatment “never in a million years” that they thought he wasn’t coming back.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Roman Catholic Archbishop Jason Gordon and Minister of Local Government Faris Al-Rawi at SAPA

She said, “It wasn’t even a thought in our minds because of his sheer will, determination and fighting spirit with which he lived his life.

Basdeo Panday funeral
President Christine Kangaloo comforts the family of Basdeo Panday

“Anyone who knows him will know that our father was never someone to complain about anything because he never wanted anyone to worry about him. He was always cheerful, witty, charming and charismatic, so you would never know he was not feeling one hundred percent.”

Basdeo Panday funeral
Minister of Works and Transport Rohan Sinanan and his wife Pamela enter SAPA

Mickela said he remained himself up to his last moments, saying when the doctor asked him how he was feeling, he replied, “Doc, if I was feeling well, I wouldn’t be here.”

She said the shock of his death was numbing.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley

Mickela added, “But when you grew up as my sisters and I have, a sense of duty immediately kicks in. Yes, he’s our dad but he did not belong to us alone. 

“He loved people and people loved him. And so, we knew instinctively that although this was one of the most difficult things we were ever going to face in our lives, we had to balance our own grief, looking after our mother and putting country before self, as our father would do.

Basdeo Panday funeral
The family on stage during the ceremony at SAPA

“The arc of his life from rural poverty to political dominance is unrivaled. And he achieved this by his unwavering commitment to his core principles. Like his dear friend John Humphrey and so many others of his era who were his allies, dad was a forward-thinking visionary. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
Chief Justice Ivor Archie arrives with his wife Denise Rodriguez-Archie 

“Always able to think outside the box to come up with solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Age never slowed him down in this regard. He became energized anytime you engaged him in discussions about political, economic and social issues. He was always willing to listen and to advise when asked. And this continued right up to the end of his life.

“He was a pioneer who genuinely believed in equality and non discrimination. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
UNC senators Wade Mark, left, Damien Lyder, second right, and Jerlean John, right, with Naparima MP Rodney Charles

“And his government’s achievements in the six years that he was prime minister are a testament to that. My father’s government introduced the Equal Opportunity Act, Maternity Protection Act, Freedom of Information Act, and established the Interim Revenue Stabilisation Fund now known as the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh, centre, with former government ministers Mervyn Assam, left, and Carlos John.

“The Dollar-for-Dollar Programme, built schools and police stations, paved our roads, provided water and housing, paid off our country’s debts to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and kept crime at its lowest this country has ever seen in recent history.

“Dad never spoke the language of race publicly or privately. He was equal in his treatment of everyone in both his public and private lives. He was a genuine patriot who believed in equality for all. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
Political leader of the UNC Kamla Persad-Bissessar arrives at SAPA

“His guiding philosophy was always that the purpose of life is happiness, and happiness is a right of everyone, providing one’s happiness does not harmfully impose upon another’s. He strove all his life for all of our nation’s people to achieve this.

“Dad was blessed with my dear mom, a devoted wife, and four daughters who loved him fiercely.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Supporters of the late Basdeo Panday at the Shore of Peace at Mosquito Creek before the cremation

“And two granddaughters who adore their grandpa. He was a great father who supported us in all our choices without ever being judgmental. 

“And while he may not have always been physically present when we were growing up, he was always there when we needed him. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
Soldiers carry the body of Basdeo Panday before the religious rituals at the Shore of Peace

“He taught us that it was not always about being the best, but about doing your best. 

“And while he taught us to be focused, he also taught us the importance about having a sense of humour.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Mickela Panday, right, carries the coffin of her father

She told a story about a Christmas play with her primary school at Gulf City when she was about five or six years. She said her father had promised that he would be there.

Mickela said, “So, there I was onstage, running around in a circle, and at the same time trying to look in the audience for dad when I slipped and fell. Full of embarrassment, I got up and continued with the performance. 

Basdeo Panday funeral
Trade union stalwart John Jaglal, a close friend of the late Basdeo Panday speaks to some supporters of the former prime minister

“When the play was finished and lights went on, I was so ecstatic to see dad and excited to ask him what he thought about this very importance dance. And he said, ‘Mic, it was great, but that was the first time I ever see a snowflake fall so hard’. We hugged and burst out into laughter. That, was our dad.”

Basdeo Panday funeral
Riot police were on hand but had little to do

She was high in praise for Minister of Foreign and CARICOM Affairs Dr Amery Browne who liaised with the Panday family on funeral arrangements.

Mickela said, “I don’t know if I’m going to breach protocol by saying this, but I have to say to Dr Amery Browne and his team who moved mountains to help bring our dad back home and absolutely everyone who worked tirelessly to pull together a state funeral of this magnitude in less than a week.”

The brother of the former prime minister, attorney Subhas Panday said his elder brother was like a father figure to the rest of his siblings and “his life was larger than life itself.”

Subhas said his brother’s dying wish was towards helping the poor.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Supporters brought a sugar cane plant, remembering Basdeo Panday as a trade union leader for sugar workers

He said, “He spent his entire life helping the poor, wanting to give to the poor. Even in death, he told Oma, my sister-in-law… ‘my grandmother had given me a small piece of land. I want to give that to the poor, for battered women and homeless children.’” 

Tassa drummers were at the Shore of Peace

Also paying tribute were former works minister under Panday’s regime John Humphrey, his granddaughter Eva Cameron and son-in-law Daniel Tarlow. Adriana Achaibar played a piece on the pan before the tributes and the event at SAPA ended with Kees Dieffenthaller singing My Way, the tune played by the military band in the process that brought the body into auditorium.

The Hindu rites were performed before at Panday’s home at Brayan’s Gate in Phillipine and Pundit Surenda Maharaj officiated with some of the rituals on stage at SAPA. Religious music for the ceremony was done by Dave Ramkission, the brother of Oma.

Reflecting the multi-religious tapestry of T&T, as stated by the master of ceremonies Josanne Leonard, were prayers by Imam Dr Hamza Rafeeq (who was minister of health under PM Panday); Rev Joy Abdul-Mohan of the Presbyterian Church; Chief Ricardo Hernandez of the Santa Rosa First Peoples; Rev Karl Patterson of the National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith; Pundit Doonath Chadee of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha of Trinidad Inc.; Roman Catholic Archbishop of Port of Spain Jason Gordon; and the Anglican Right Rev Bishop Claude Berkley.

Pundit Maharaj said that Panday believed in constitutional reform and as a Hindu he said he may be reincarnated to fulfil his destiny.

In her tribute, President Kangaloo alluded to this.

Basdeo Panday funeral
Mickela Panday is assisted in the religious rituals around the pyre by attorney Rikki Harnanan

She said one of her enduring memory of Basdeo Panday was at her inauguration in March of last year. 

President Kangaloo said, “With the charm for which he had by then become legendary, he locked his eyes with mine, and disarmed me completely with the words: ‘Congratulations, that was an excellent speech.’ 

“Having got me where he wanted me, he then said: ‘I’m afraid to tell you, though, that you will get nothing done,’ paused briefly, and concluded, still smiling, ‘without constitutional reform.’

“If there was one thing about Basdeo Panday, it is that he was dogged. Where constitutional reform is concerned, he was like a boa constrictor with its prey in its grip. 

“Stubborn to a fault on that issue, he never let go of his vision for changed arrangements in the way we govern ourselves. But that was the man, and a critical ingredient of his success – he never gave up in a fight.”

Basdeo Panday funeral
The pyre of Basdeo Panday

Mourners trickled in at SAPA with only a handful viewing on a big screen available at nearby Skinner Park.

Former People’s National Movement (PNM) minister Karen Nunez-Tesheira jumped the barrier of the compound to get in. She was followed by former Senate president Timothy Hamel-Smith who parked his Porche Cayenne on the Rienzi Kirton Highway.

Nunez-Tesheira  told the media that she tried to get the attention of Dr Browne and Hamel-Smith was also trying to get in touch with him to secure an invitation to the funeral.

Dr Browne told the media that Nunez-Tesheira’s behaviour was “unbecoming” and that all arrangements for the funeral were done in consultation with the Panday family.

Nunez-Tesheira and Hamel-Smith tried to enter the auditorium but were instead seated under a tent with a big screen. A number of people were there including two former ministers Sadiq Baksh and Nizam Baksh.

Panday’s coffin entered SAPA with full military parade.

When it left, thousands were at the Shore of Peace at Mosquito Creek in Oropouche for the cremation.

As the pundit instructed the family to make the five stops before the pyre to commence the religious rituals, military personnel had to prevent mourners from getting too close.

Subhas Panday, as the brother, took part in the ceremony, but as the body was to enter the pyre, Panday’s wife Oma and four daughters – Niala, Mickela, Nicola and Vastala – did aarti and even walked around pyre as it was lit.

Rana Mohip and his wife Susan sang bhajans during the ceremony at the Shore of Peace. There was a gun salute by the Coast Guard vessels in the water near the Godineau Bridge.

Mourners told of stories about “Bas” or “Chief” as he was fondly called. Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar and some of her MPs were present at the site. She is the political leader of the United National Congress – the party that Panday founded.

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