Basdeo Panday, celebrated first prime minister of Indian descent in Trinidad and Tobago, dies at 90

He became the first prime minister of Indian descent since the arrival of Indians in this Caribbean nation as indentured labourers from India between 1845 and 1920.

Paras Ramoutar Jan 03, 2024
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Basdeo Panday

“If you see me and the lion fighting, don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for the lion”. That was Basdeo Panday’s tagline.

Basdeo Panday, the first prime minister of Indian descent, and the fifth person to hold that office since independence in August 1962, died at the age of 90 years on January 1. 

Panday was born on May 26, 1933, and served as prime minister from 1995 to 2001. He was educated at New Grant Government Primary School and later Presentation College, San Fernando where he obtained his Cambridge School Certificate. He worked as a primary school teacher and also as a civil servant, taking notes in the Magistrate’s Court as a note taker. Panday later left to study in England, where undertook a Diploma Course in Drama from the London School of Dramatic Art in 1960, and in 1960 he earned a degree in law in 1962 from Inns of Court of Law where was a member of Lincoln’s Court and was called to the  Bar. Additionally, he received a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the London University as an external student, and was awarded a British Commonwealth Scholarship to study for a doctorate in Economics, in India, but came back to Trinidad to see his parents, but was wooed by the late Stephen Maharaj who was one of the founders with C. L. R. James, a known socialist, of the Workers and Farmers Party and fought the Naparima  parliamentary seat, but Panday like the other 30 candidates, all lost their deposits,

Panday was an established actor and played leading roles including in a film on Mahatma Gandhi, “Nine Hours to Rama “.

However, he entered Parliament as an opposition Senator in 1972 after a split away from the governing People’s National Movement government.

Panday, in 1973, joined the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Union and later became its president. He later founded the United Labour Front, and a year later, he successfully fought the general elections in November 1966 in the Couva North constituency and became the Opposition Leader.

In a match to fight Dr Eric Wlliams’ People’s National Movement (PNM), Panday teamed up the likes of A.N. R.Robinson, who later became Prime Minister and President; Lloyd Best of the famous Tapia House Group, and assembled the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) and it trounced Dr Williams’s PNM capturing 33 of the 36 electoral seats, the first time that the PNM was defeated at the polls.

After a serious collision with Robinson, Panday formed the United National Congress(UNC) in February 1988, and in a snap general election formed an alliance with the NAR. He became the first prime minister of Indian descent since the arrival of Indians in this Caribbean nation as indentured labourers from India between 1845 and 1920.

Panday had several allegations of corruption against him while in government, and was also convicted of failing to declare a bank account in London to the Integrity Commission, but the charges were later dropped.

Trinidad and Tobago President Christine Kangaloo, in a statement, said she was saddened by his passing, and on behalf of the nation, “union leader, politician, statesman, husband and father. Mr Panday was a giant of a man who led this country with passion and compassion”.

Prime Minister Keith Rowley said that Panday had made an indelible mark on this nation, having served the nation so long, and in so many different ways with such resolve and panache, he can only be recognised as a true believer in this nation and its potential. 

Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar, said Panday, from whom she inherited the UNC, was a great leader and spent most of his life helping the oppressed and the poor. “This was a great leader and he will always be remembered with love and admiration”

Winston Dookeran, a political philosopher, who served as a minister with Panday in the NAR government pointed out that, “ Mr. Panday changed the political calculus of the nation’s politics, and that mood, he tried to change the sociology of the nation and its politics. He will always be remembered as a historical figure.”

(The author is a Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago-based journalist. He can be contacted at paras_ramoutar@yahoo.com)

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I will never forget my experience with Mr. Basdeo Panday when I went to Trinidad & Tobago in early 1990s, to cover the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean. He gave me a significant amount of time despite his busy schedule and spoke lovingly of the history of the country and its people. He had a great sense of humor. Wishing his family and loved ones condolences.
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