• 13 Apr, 2024

Spotlight on Indian Leadership: Adrian Cola Rienzi

Spotlight on Indian Leadership: Adrian Cola Rienzi

Spotlight on Indian Leadership: Adrian Cola Rienzi

This is the third part in an on-going series on the political history of Indian leadership in Trinidad. Last week, we looked at the 1925 General Election—the first election held in Trinidad and Tobago. In this article, we will look at one of the most prominent Indians of the early labour movement.

At just 18 years old, Krishna Deonarine became both the President of the San Fernando branch of the TWA and the Association’s chief organizer for South Trinidad in 1924. In 1930, he went to England to study Law where changed his name to Adrian Cola Rienzi — named after the Roman Politician Cola di Rienzo.

Upon his return in 1934, his request to re-join the TWA was reluctantly accepted by Captain Cipriani. Due to their ideological differences, the two never saw eye-to-eye and Cipriani would often squash any ideas or initiatives Rienzi proposed. The conflict between them ultimately led to Rienzi’s departure and his subsequent formation of the Trinidad Citizens League (TCL) which attracted Cipriani’s disenfranchised followers, most notably Tubal Uriah Butler.

Around the same time, Cipriani dissolved the TWA and formed the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP). But Rienzi never intended the TCL to be a political rival to the TLP. The political ineffectiveness of the TCL eventually led to Butler’s departure who went on to form the British Empire Workers’ and Citizens’ Home Rule Party in 1936 which would become the major opposition to the TLP.

After the infamous 1937 riots, Butler was arrested and placed under house arrest during the second World War (1939–1945) to prevent any further agitations. Rienzi filled the void that was left behind becoming perhaps the most significant union leader in the history of Trinidad. He formed two of the most influential and long-lasting unions: The Oilfield Workers’ Trade Union (OWTU) in September 1937 and the All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factory Workers Trade Union in November that year.

Adrian Cola Rienzi was elected to the Council in 1938. Although he was well-respected by both Africans and Indians, his political endeavours and his work as an activist is perhaps best remembered by his championing of equal rights for Indians.

In 1936, he advocated for an advisory Board on East Indian matters and by 1937 the government appointed an East Indian Advisory Board. Rienzi also served as the first Vice-President of the East Indian National Association—a position which he used to champion the rights of Hindu and Muslim marriages, state recognition of Hindu and Muslim schools, greater employment of Indians in the civil service, as well as the right to cremation. He was also a founding member of the India Club and was its first elected President. In the 1940s, the India Club donated over $54,000 to the poverty stricken people of Bengal.

The 1946 election was an historic moment in Trinidad and is one of the most significant elections since it was the first election held under universal suffrage. Although there were some residential qualifications, income qualifications were lowered so that the right to vote was now extended to 46 percent of the population as compared with 6 percent in 1925.

There was, however, one restriction that disproportionately discriminated against the Indian population. The language proficiency test, which was also a requirement in 1925, had not been repealed. This rendered more than half the Indian population ineligible to vote since they were considered illiterate. Adrian Rienzi was a key figure in expanding the voting franchise to the Indian population.

In his 1943 Minority Report in the Council, he labelled the language test a “most impractical and undesirable recommendation” and argued that it deliberately deprived a large portion of the Indian community of the right to vote which was an “unfair discrimination against an important section of the population”.

Although he had support from the Colonial Secretary of State, the motion was defeated when put to a vote. Adrian Cola Riezni’s cause was later joined by Mitra G. Sinanan and Murli Kirpalani who formed the Indian Central Committee. A six-week campaign was launched and they argued that the language test violated the terms of the 1921 Imperial Conference resolution which gave recognition to the rights of overseas Indians to full freedom and equality. By 1945, the language test was removed by Order-in-Council.

Rienzi would soon begin his career as a public servant and did not re-enter politics until 1966 when he formed the Workers and Farmers’ Party alongside CLR James and former Democratic Labour Party member Stephen Maharaj. The party, however, was unsuccessful in the election and did not win any seats.

Rienzi later changed his name to Desh Bandhu—meaning, National Patriot—emphasizing the need for Indians to take pride in their ancestral heritage, but also display loyalty to their new home. He passed away in 1972 at the age of 67.

Having left the political arena in 1944 only to return to a disappointing defeat in 1966, Riezni did not benefit politically from his efforts to secure equal voting rights for the Indian population. But the goal of these efforts was beyond any self-serving interests.

Whether it was as a trade union leader, member of the Council or Vice-President of the EINA, the name Adrian Cola Rienzi should be highly recognized in this country yet there are no monuments in his memory like that of Cipriani or Butler. Our history should not be convenient or selective. What kind of nation do we expect to build if so many are unaware of its foundation?

Jean-Claude Escalante

JC has an obsession with all things 20th Century Communism. He also enjoys reading the works of Thomas Sowell. Video games & pro wrestling keep him sane.