Ugandan Asians throughout the world have been celebrating this year which sees the 50th anniversary of their expulsion by the mercurial self-styled dictator, Idi Amin Dada, who saw himself as the saviour of Uganda, a country that Winston Churchill named the ‘Pearl of Africa’. Stories abound about how wonderful life was for the Indian community until, all of a sudden, a mad dictator had a dream in which God instructed him to get rid of all the Asians, whom he referred to as ‘economic saboteurs’ milking the country of its resources at the cost of its indigenous population.
While stories of human suffering are the stock in trade of all expulsions, the Ugandan expulsion narrative, if it is to have any lasting educational impact, has to be more substantial — going beyond the perilous drive to Entebbe airport or being received with ‘open arms’ in the UK. Narratives of the expulsion have to delve into the pathology of conflict and how Asians in East Africa were placed in a buffer position between the interests of colonial powers and the aspirations of the indigenous populations.
Questions we need to ponder are: Firstly, can Indian minorities in other areas of Africa and elsewhere, such as in former European colonies, suffer the same fate today? If the answer is yes, as I submit it is, what steps can they take to prevent this? How can they organise their lives so that they are not seen exclusively as traders, only in the country to make money? In an era of neoliberal hegemony where capitalism is even bottoming out the middle classes, how can Asian commercial enterprise be viewed as being different to ensure that populist sentiments are not directed at them when governments themselves fail to care for their mass populations. This issue becomes more pressing in countries that have inherited colonial structures where Asians have always played the role of middlemen in the economy such as South Africa , Mocambique, Fiji, Guyana, Malawi, Madagascar and Botswana. Asian entrepreneurialism has to be combined with greater involvement with civil society and a genuine attempt to help indigenous people have a stake in the economy — perhaps most critically at the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
Secondly, what has the expulsion taught Indian diasporic communities about the politics of resettlement in the Western world and Australia? While Canada played a major role in accepting some 6,000 Ugandan Asians, how many were received with ‘open arms ‘in the UK. To quote the migration studies scholar Saima Nasar, “to say that Ugandan Asians were readily and warmly welcomed in 1970s Britain would be to offer a distorted history of immigration and asylum. While Ugandan Asians have no doubt shaped Britain’s economic, political, and sociocultural landscapes, it is important to avoid celebratory narratives that overlook histories of struggle and discrimination.” Nasar goes on to explain that nowhere is this more significant than in the ‘refugee narratives’ of Britain’s Ugandan Asian population, “who have been variously described as imperial subjects, refugees and more recently as model migrants”. Mahmood Mamdani’s book From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain, re-published in 2011 describes the situation very succinctly.
In this context not much is discussed of the role of non-state actors such as the Aga Khan and his role in the resettlement of the Ismailis in Canada, or of the UNHCR and the resettlement of those thousands who became stateless. In the words of Arafat Jamal, UNHCR representative in South Sudan, these are classic examples of “finding alternative pathways to resettlement.” This is a story that requires much greater research.
Thirdly, what background do our children have of the Asian minority situation in East Africa in the 1970s so that they may understand the whole issue of expulsion. Sadly, very little of this has emerged in any discussions. Scholars such as Yash Ghai, Yash Tandon, (both still alive) and Piyo Rattansi who recently passed away, are not even known. Books such as Portrait of a Minority: Asians in East Africa , a 1965 OAU classic on this subject, are not referred to or discussed, as is the case with memoirs of Diplomats, such as Prem Bhatia’s Indian Ordeal in Africa which highlights the daily ordeal Indian minorities faced in East Africa at the hands of corrupt politicians who had no time for history let alone for a community that felt vulnerable and, in the words of Yash Tandon, were seen and treated like “stepchildren of the colonial empire.”
Fourthly, what is the lesson for African governments or governments in other parts of the world that view the Indian minorities who were brought there by the colonial authorities as workers, petty traders, or petty administrators as exploiters worthy to be expelled or maltreated. This issue remains real and alive in countries such as Fiji, Madagascar, Malaysia, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Botswana, Malawi, and ironically Uganda itself today. Here the situation is quite clear. Some may wish to emulate Idi Amin and threaten that they would do the same. Others may learn the lesson from Uganda itself and see how the country suffered economically for years until the Indians were invited back to the country to re-play the critical role they once played in the distributive trade.
For the Indians the lesson is plain – to survive in the Africa of today they have to diversify their interests and do exactly what they were once accused of doing. That is having their ‘tun, mun and dhun’ (body, mind and wealth) in different parts of the world which in today’s globalised world is much more acceptable than 50 years ago when it was viewed as a sign of disloyalty.
Indians have achieved this versatility through sheer hard work and resilience through years of sacrifice and garnering of their resources very carefully. In the words of Iqbal Asaria, a leading exponent of sustainable development, “we did not achieve this by landing on a bed of roses. We worked very hard. This is experience gained by being baptised in the fiercest of fires.”
Fifthly, how do those brought up under the shadow of the expulsion rid themselves of the trauma — actual or inherited? For Sophie Kanabar, her mother never spoke about what she had to endure in Uganda and also at the time of the expulsion. She felt this must have been painful and talking about it would have been therapeutic. Sophie herself changed her name so that life would be easier. She is only now coming to terms with the trauma. Others recall the fear of those early days. For all our waxing lyrical about how many bankers we have produced and how many millionaires arose from this debacle, there still remains the pain of expulsion and being thrown out overnight from a country many had come to love as home.
Sixthly, there is the notion of racism. How did this play itself out at various levels of interface? What did the Asians of East Africa face when they first arrived in Uganda? How did they combat this? Who were the great stalwarts who fought racism? Then there was institutional racism so deeply embedded in colonial immigration rules and more surprisingly in the independence constitutions themselves — not to mention the Ugandan Immigration Act that mirrored the British one in 1968. What about racism in Britain with Asians arriving in the country on the back of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and going to Leicester, the very city that placed an advert in a leading Ugandan daily warning them not to come there. The notion of “open arms” needs to be carefully reconsidered. There is also the question of racism at the level of Indian daily family life in Uganda in the colonial period as well as in the early days of Independence. This is very clearly brought out in a play called “90 days” by Ashok Patel produced at the Curve Theatre, Leicester on 4 August 2022, marking the day Amin passed his edict. The question of interracial dynamics is brilliantly portrayed in Mira Nair’s prizewinning film “Mississippi Masala.”
Seventh, what if this happened today and if it did, might the Western countries respond the same way as they did 50 years ago? The answer I feel is probably no. The world is a different place today. Populist movements are much more vocal, socially active and influential. Immigration would become a critical factor and could be used in a much more politicised way.
Diasporic Indians by and large would suffer untold suffering. A small segment would leverage its global networks to a much greater extent than it was ever able to do in the past. Perhaps diasporic communities settled in the West may be in some position to help. Asian minorities globally have become in Roger Ballard’s words “skilled cultural navigators”. Asians would go to any country willing to accept them. However as ‘skilled cultural navigators’ they would perhaps realise that prevention is better than cure and that — living in former plantation colonies whose economies are still based on extractive capitalism —they would be best advised not to be seen only as a commercial community. They should conduct themselves as commercial communities whose entrepreneurialism is informed by principles of social justice and ethics. They should show more visibly how their commercial ethics are aimed at improving the quality of life of themselves and others among whom they live and who are in need.
With the global networks many Asians have built today this should be a possibility with some of their children going back and forth to the countries from which they moved to the West. Their children with a background of first world technology coupled with commercial acumen acquired through family training might be in a much better position to do this than the governments to which they were, in one way or another, affiliated at the time of the “wind of change.”
Uganda 2022 is a time to celebrate but at the same time it is also a time to reflect. As Milan Kundera, the famous Czech writer reminds us. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” If Uganda 2022 is going to be of educational value for future generations, we need to ensure that memory is fully aware of how power was actually played out at every level at different times. Here oral history is of some value, but it does not capture the whole story. The educational programme on which this year is predicated would gain enormously with making teachers in schools aware of history, and the actual dynamics of a region which was caught in a number of crossfires such as the Cold War, nationalism, unsolved end-of-empire issues and, above all, the question of the nation state and its impunity in the face of a growing consciousness of human rights.
About Dr. Mohamed Keshavjee
Dr. Mohamed M Keshavjee is an international specialist in cross- cultural mediation who lived in Kenya at the time of the decolonisation of East Africa. He is author of the book “Diasporic Distractions” – a book of short stories reflecting the predicament of the Indians in East Africa at the time of Independence. He is also the author of a book on South Africa entitled “Into that Heaven of Freedom” that describes life for an Indian extended family under apartheid South Africa.