Baptist minister, activist want rivers reopened for religious practices

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday


In this April 30, 2020 file photo pool one at Caura River is untouched as the recreational site was among rivers and beaches closed to curb the spread of covid19. File photo/ Roger Jacob

A United National Congress candidate for the 2020 general election and a social activist have written to the solicitor general calling for the reopening of rivers and watercourses so that religious rituals can be done.

Attorneys for Kareem Baird, the UNC’s candidate for Laventille/East Morvant, a Spiritual Baptist bishop, and activist Ravi Balgobin Maharaj say they intend to challenge the Government’s refusal to reopen watercourses for religious use.

In March 2021, beaches and watercourses were included in pandemic restrictions and ordered closed to mitigate the spread of covid19.

On December 20, beaches were partially reopened, from 5 am-noon each day.

The pre-action protocol letter said while the Prime Minister explained this partial reopening, no indication was given why rivers, streams, ponds, springs or similar bodies of water were not reopened, or when they would be.

The letter, written by attorney Vishaal Sieusarran, pointed to regulation 4(3), which provided for the conduct of religious activities and services, but said it did not create an exemption to carry out religious activities at bodies of water other than the sea. He described the distinction as discriminatory and unconstitutional.

He wrote: “Trinidad and Tobago has been described as the Caribbean’s ‘melting pot’ as a number of diverse ethnicities mix into a recognisable cultural identity.

While traditions among groups differed, “The use of natural materials and landscapes for worship by the different groups is well-accustomed locally. Importantly, watercourses such as rivers, streams, ponds are integral for the performance of worship in the Shouter Baptist, Orisha and Hindu faiths…

“Rivers, streams and ponds are used for bathing ceremonies, the invocation of deities, cleaning amulets and for healing ceremonies. In Hinduism, pujas are performed on the banks of same to various deities. Rituals such as the shaving ceremony, post-cremation of deceased relatives, is performed at river banks. Immersion of murtis at the end of worship is done in a ceremony at rivers and ponds.”

He said in Hindu scripture, the river was synonymous with the highest reverence, and most major rituals are held there.

But he said because of continued closure of rivers, streams, ponds, “The Orisha and Hindu faiths have been unfairly denied the ability to freely practise their religious beliefs and observances at these locations.”

His clients were of the opinion the prohibition on non-beach watercourses was unconstitutional, he said, as the Constitution gave all citizens the right to freedom of religious belief and the ability to practise it without fear.

“This challenge concerns the breach of the freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance as constitutionally guaranteed to Spiritual Baptists, Orishas and Hindus.”

Sieusarran said the prohibition also affected a significant part of the lower-income population who relied on rivers for everyday household usein areas which have no water and a scarce truck-borne supply. He also said beaches are not equally available and accessible to everyone.

Beaches, rivers and similar bodies of water posed similar risks, he said, so: “This prohibition is plainly irrational, discriminatory and has a disproportionate effect on persons who use and have relied on the rivers and similar bodies of water…

“There is no reasonable and lawful justification for such discriminatory treatment of activities at the rivers, streams, ponds, springs and similar bodies of water given the express permission stipulated in regulation 4(2) for beaches to be open…”

He also said the argument that there might be greater transmission of covid19 at rivers was misplaced and there was no evidence to suggest why policies for beaches could not apply to rivers, streams and ponds. In fact, he said, reopening them could arguably alleviate the crowds at beaches, thus helping to protect public health. At the very least, he said, the same restrictions should apply.

Sieusarran warned of legal action being filed to have the courts quash the public health regulations banning using rivers and other similar watercourses.

The letter also called on the State to justify the continued closure of these watercourses or agree to amend the regulations to exempt religious practices.

The State was given 30 days in which to respond.

On Wednesday, the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha wrote to the Prime Minister calling for the partial reopening of rivers and streams to allow Hindus access to running water for religious rituals.