Trinidad Hindus Win 7 Year Legal Battle
By Devant Maharaj, An Executive Member of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha


In 1999 the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Inc. of Trinidad and Tobago [SDMS]
applied to the government of Trinidad and Tobago for a radio frequency for
the expressed purpose of broadcasting Hindu programming. The Indian-led
party with the Hindu Prime Minister informed the SDMS that they should apply
under a company and not the religious organization as then the State will be
then obliged to all religious organizations. The SDMS complied and then
waited for the application to be processed.


In 2001 there was a General Elections in the twin island Caribbean nation
just 10 miles off the coast of Venezuela and the South American continent.
The victorious African led and Christian dominated party shortly winning
awarded one of its party financiers a radio frequency. The supporter had no
application made to the government and the company awarded the frequency was
not even legally registered. The SDMS cried foul and subsequently took the
matter to court.


In February 2004, the SDMS won its discrimination case against the State.
Justice Carlton Best, presiding at San Fernando High Court, ruled that the
organisation was treated unequally when Cabinet bypassed its application and
awarded a broadcast licence to PNM supporter Louis Lee Sing. In his ruling,
Best said the Maha Sabha had been denied equality of treatment before the
law by the State. The SDMS was awarded redress and costs for senior and
junior counsel. However, the judge stated there was no need to declare that
the SDMS had been denied freedom of expression. Best also declined to give a
court order directing Cabinet to grant the Maha Sabha a licence. The State,
represented by former Attorney General Russell Martineau SC, filed an appeal
against Best's decision.


At the October 2004 appeal Satnarayan Maharaj, head of the Sanatan Dharma
Maha Sabha (SDMS), said yesterday that he was looking forward to taking his
organisations fight for a radio licence to the Privy Council. He said this
even before judgment on the case was delivered by the Court of Appeal. "I am
hoping that the Court of Appeal will respond favourably to our arguments,
but we know that there is another step in this journey for equality and it
is at the Privy Council in London," Maharaj stated.


In January 2005 Cabinet has been ordered to consider the Sanatan Dharma Maha
Sabha's application for a radio licence. However, almost a year after the
religious body won its discrimination case against the State, it failed
yesterday to convince the Appeal Court to order that a licence be awarded.
Instead, in an unanimous decision, Justices of Appeal Roger Hamel-Smith,
Margot Warner and Allan Mendonca directed that the Maha Sabha's application
be placed before Cabinet within 28 days for its consideration. "I would
think that Cabinet is to be trusted to act responsibly and fairly in
determining whether or not a licence should be granted to the appellants.
"There is nothing to suggest that there is a risk that the application will
not be successful," Hamel-Smith said in one of three unanimous judgements
delivered in the case. But in an immediate response, the religious body said
if the Cabinet did not grant the licence, it would petition the Privy
Council, saying that would be "even further evidence of discrimination by
the State."


The Maha Sabha was also unsuccessful, last year, in asking the High Court to
order that it be granted a licence. The body's secretary general, Satnarayan
Maharaj, is in India. Also in a statement yesterday, Attorney General John
Jeremie said Government was reviewing the judgement. "But (we) remain
committed to the rule of law and deeply respectful of the decision of the
courts." The appealed the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy
Council in London as it continued to the deny the Caribbean's largest Hindu
organization.


On July 4th 2006 The Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha was victorious in its appeal
to the Privy Council against the government because of its consistent
refusal to award the organization a radio licence. In a landmark 19-page
judgment Lord Mance said 'in light of the exceptional circumstances' of the
discrimination the Privy Council would order Attorney General John Jeremie
to do all that is necessary to ensure that a licence is issued forthwith to
the Hindu organization. The State was also ordered to pay the Maha Sabha's
legal costs in all the courts.


 The judgment was a unanimous one as the other law lords agreed with the
judgment delivered by Lord Mance. The other law lords were Lords Hoffman,
Hope, Hutton and Brown. In addition to confirming the finding of
discrimination, the court also held that the Maha Sabha's constitutional
right to freedom of expression was also violated. It found that there had
been a conspicuous failure to deal with the Maha Sabha's application for
over three years and ruled that there was 'unexplained and unjustified
discrimination in favour of Louis Lee Sing's Citadel.'


 The court noted that the Maha Sabha's application had been approved since
the 1st September 2000 and found that no explanation was given for the
sudden award of a radio licence to Louis Lee Sing's Citadel Limited which
now operates the I 95 radio frequency. Former Minister of Science and
Technology Hedwidge Bereaux told a media conference that Citadel had applied
for its licence on March 13th 2001 but the law lord said this could not be
correct because the Companies Register showed that Citadel was only
incorporated on the 28th August 2001 shortly before the last general
election after the 18/18 tie.


The court cited a letter dated 18th July 2002 by Permanent Secretary
Emmanuel George to Lee Sing, describing it as 'a vigorous request' for an
explanation from Lee Sing as to why he was applying for a new radio station
when it was clear that he was already operating 92.5 FM. This frequency, as
Mr George had noted, was not given to Lee Sing, but Trinidad Broadcasting
Systems Limited. The law lord noted that no explanation was given by Lee
Sing but he was nevertheless granted a new licence by the government.
The Court of Appeal had ordered the government to consider the Maha Sabha's
application within 28 days however, by letter dated 17th May 2005 the Maha
Sabha was informed, for the first time, that Cabinet had long considered and
refused its application since June 21st 2004 on the ground that it was
incomplete.


The Privy Council described this as 'remarkable' and said that the failure
to disclose this fact misled the Court of Appeal which proceeded to hear the
case 'on a false premise'. The court said "The letter discloses a situation
in which the Court of Appeal was allowed to proceed under a serious
misapprehension in and throughout the course of two substantial hearings.
The Court of Appeal was twice allowed to give judgment on false premises
viz, that Cabinet had never considered the application, still less reached
any decision on it prior to the Court of Appeal's first judgment'.
The court commented that no explanation was given as to why the State
concealed these facts from the Court of Appeal 'although it is obvious that
one would be expected'. The State's lawyer described the position as
'unusual and unsatisfactory' but the Privy Council said this was 'an
understatement'.


The Maha Sabha was represented by Sir Fenton Ramsahoye SC and Anand
Ramlogan. The State was represented by Russel Martineau SC in the Appeal
Court and Peter Knox QC in the Privy Council.


Despite this ruling the State up to September 2006 refused to implement the
judgement and award the radio frequency and as such The Sanatan Dharma Maha
Sabha Inc. issued a strongly worded letter to the Attorney General, John
Jeremy, accusing him of demonstrating contempt for the judgment of the
highest court of the land - the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. As
a result of this threat on Friday 23rd September 2006 THE Sanatan Dharma
Maha Sabha's six-year wait for a radio broadcast licence ended when its
secretary-general Sat Maharaj signed the relevant documents to grant it a
radio licence at the Telecom Authority's offices in San Juan.


The new Maha Sabha radio station will be called Radio Jaagriti (Awakening),
will be based in Tunapuna and be operational by November 1. Maharaj said it
was unfortunate that this kind of treatment could be meted out to anyone in
a democracy like TT. He hoped that no individual or group in TT would ever
have to endure the Maha Sabha's "torture" and that Government would never
allow this situation to repeat itself.


The Maha Sabha will along with the Radio Station also be operating a Cable
Television station making it the first Hindu broadcasting network in the
Southern Hemisphere as well as the Western Hemisphere.