Secretary General of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS), Satnarayan Maharaj, has died. He passed away shortly before midnight last Friday. Maharaj, 88, suffered a stroke in early November.
Maharaj was one of Trinidad and Tobago’s most easily recognised personalities. This is owed to his prolific public speaking on matters he believed negatively impacted Hindus and East Indians in T&T and the Caribbean – views that were mostly controversial.
Never one to shy away from bachannal, even at age 88, Maharaj was still making the news.
In April this year, Maharaj navigated one of his more memorable battles, after he was threatened with sedition charges over comments made on his television programme, “Maha Sabha Strikes Back”, on Radio and TV Jaagriti. Maharaj had remarked that crime was chasing tourists away from T&T and implied that Tobago’s men were mostly rapists.
The statements led the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) to search the Tunapuna office of Central Broadcasting Services Ltd (CBSL), the parent company of Radio and TV Jaagriti, for material related to Maharaj’s statement.
Under the threat of a sedition charge, Maharaj, through his attorneys, raised an alarm that he was being targeted and that the police had searched CBSL without a warrant.
But the police were not the only ones concerned about Maharaj’s statement. The general public reacted – badly – scolding and condemning Maharaj for his “racist”, “divisive” and “unpatriotic” comments. Calls were made for him to apologise to the people of Tobago, including by Hindus based there.
Maharaj drew criticism even from some Hindu organisations and leaders, who sought to distance themselves from the SDMS. Undeterred, he further took to the media to dare the authorities to bring on the sedition charges. So Maharaj filed a constitutional challenge against the sedition legislation, which was deemed a relic of the colonial era.
In 2016, Maharaj found himself clashing with citizens and clergy over Government’s amendment of the Child Marriage Act, effectively outlawing child marriage and setting the marriageable age at 18.
Maharaj was vehement that this was a constitutional violation of the rights of Hindus and opined that the new law opened the doorway for young girls to become wayward. The national community heaped scorn on Maharaj, accusing him of supporting child abuse and statutory rape, while he went on to clash with former Roman Catholic Archbishop, Joseph Harris.
Harris had publicly stated that child marriage amounted to statutory rape and that some cultural traditions were not right.
Maharaj took offence, sending a message to Harris to mind his “damn business.” Harris responded that he would not be drawn into a war with any other religious leader.
In 2018, Maharaj butted heads again, this time with political leader of the United National Congress (UNC) and former prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Once bosom buddies, Persad-Bissessar was cast out by Maharaj after defending an on-the-job teacher, Nafisah Nakhid, a Muslim, who was told she could not wear a hijab at Lakshmi Girls’ Hindu College where she was assigned to teach science. In typical Maharaj style, he had said Lakshmi Girls’ was “not a training ground for teachers” and that anyone accepted to teach must conform with the school’s code of conduct.
Persad-Bissessar was disinvited to the SDMS’ Indian Arrival Day celebrations that year and Maharaj called on the Hindu community to shun her.
Born April 17, 1931 in Chandernagore Village, Chaguanas, Maharaj’s tenure as Secretary General of the SDMS saw the organisation grow to operate over 150 mandirs and over 50 primary and secondary schools, as well early childhood education centres.
Maharaj was credited by many for securing the Indian Arrival Day holiday and as having revived the celebration of Phagwa in T&T.
The Maha Sabha also introduced a Children’s Cultural Festival, Baal Vikaas Vihaar, which showcased talent in schools. He attended the Canadian Mission Schools in San Juan and Biche.
In 1953, he married late wife, Shanti, the daughter of prominent East Indian business, Bhadase Sagan Maharaj, whom Sat Maharaj recalled as an overshadowing figure.