Vol. 6 | Issue 5 | Aug 2012
Flight of the Asians
August 8, 2012, marks the 40th anniversary of the infamous day when Idi Amin decreed that all Asians should leave Uganda within three months.
Idi Amin had come to power in Uganda through against the government of Milton Obote with surreptitious help from the British and Israeli governments. Ironically, most Asians in Uganda welcomed the changeover because they had been apprehensive of Obote’s socialistic moves under the banner of ‘Move to the Left’.
However, Amin’s erratic and whimsical way of governing soon created an undercurrent of unrest. Amin’s response was to turn the heat on the Asian community as a populist measure since, rightly or wrongly, the successful Asian community was also looked upon by a resentful majority as an alien exploitative group.
What followed was the uprooting of the over 50,000 strong Indian diaspora. Many had never been outside of Uganda or the other two countries of East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. This was the second such mass expulsion of the Indian diaspora since Independence; the previous one being from Myanmar, then called Burma. I had an accidental opportunity to play some role in this by virtue of being the desk officer for East Africa at the Ministry of External Affairs. That story is recounted in my book.
For a young officer with just seven years in service suddenly being thrown into such a crisis situation was challenging and at the same time traumatic given the sudden tragic plight of one’s countrymen especially since many of them were relations or family acquaintances of long standing; my own sister was involved in this.
“Persona Non Grata in Idi Amin’s Uganda”
In all, over 52,000 Asians of various nationalities were brutally uprooted within a period of three months and without most of their possessions to start a life elsewhere. The majority of them, about 29,000, went to the UK where the British government had set up resettlement camps. About 11,000 came to India; 5,000 went to Canada and the rest to various other countries.
When the 8 November deadline was met, the attitudes of Britain and Uganda towards the expulsion on that day were worlds apart. The Times headlined its editorial ‘The Tragedy of Uganda’ while the Uganda Argus on its first page reported that at last Uganda was free. One bitter Ugandan, a Reverend Peter Ban Ochan, in a letter to Uganda Argus (August 18, 1972) wished the Asians ‘a long and very cold winter in Britain’ while The Times (8 November 1972) speculated whether Britain ‘would make a success story of this involuntary transportation of human skills, energies and cultural diversity’. As it turned out, the Ugandan Asians quickly adjusted to their new environment and the camps closed down within six months. Gradually the community quietly brought about a revolution in the British retailing industry with the ubiquitous corner Patel shop. Today the community is prosperous and is often cited by the government as an example of a successful immigrant community which had not only adjusted to the British society but had also made a tremendous contribution to the economy. On the other hand, Uganda suffered a long winter of hardships, economic collapse and civil war for the next 15 years. When I returned to Uganda in 1987 as High Commissioner, the country seemed to have regressed and resembled East Africa of the 1950s. Most of the infrastructure was destroyed and shops were empty with tremendous shortages of basic goods. The security situation was alarming.
In retrospect, the response of the Indian government to this tragedy was too legalistic; it considered the matter as an ‘internal matter’ of Uganda and did not mobilise world public opinion against the Amin regime for its blatantly racist measures. India’s diaspora policy had not evolved then; it was a strange mixture of distant paternalism and a snobbish disdain for Indians overseas for unwittingly creating diplomatic headaches for the government. There was a general overlooking of the interests of its citizens and kin for the sake of propriety. This propriety, in its extreme form, could have been interpreted by tinpots like Amin as weakness. This was aptly summed up in an almost prescient editorial in The Statesman (January 16, 1969), which I quote:
Unfortunately India has very little to offer besides sympathy to the people of Indian origin who now face the prospects of statelessness… India’s ability to persuade the East African governments to retain these people who had once rendered some service and made Africa their home is also sadly limited, in spite of what this country has done in the name of Afro-Asian solidarity. In fact, there were even voices in India which were very unsympathetic to the plight of Asians in East Africa, particularly in Uganda. Many having internalised the typical colonial stereotype of the Indian as an exploiter and profiteer were of the view that they deserved what they got! The result was that the East African Indian community was alienated from India for a long time for they thought that it had abandoned them in a time of distress.
In 1987 at the end of my assignment in Washington where I had coordinated the Festival to India in the US the previous year, I received my posting orders to go to Uganda as High Commissioner. I represented to the ministry that in view of the fact that I had been declared persona non grata from Uganda earlier, it would not be diplomatically proper to represent India there. Moreover, this fact was not conveyed to the Ugandan authorities while seeking their concurrence. I was told that it did not matter because the regime had changed and one official in the PMO even cheekily suggested that my posting was an indication that India had forgiven Uganda! Still, I was apprehensive, and took the help of a Ugandan official working with the World Bank. His brother was then the head of Uganda’s foreign intelligence department. He conveyed to his brother my concern as well as the fact that I had been earlier declared persona non grata. Within four days, the reply came: ‘Any friend of Amin is a friend of ours.”
With four months of my arrival there, a Ugandan rag published a story that I had been declared persona non grata earlier by the Amin regime for ‘spying for the Obote regime’ and now I had come again to spy for Obote. I promptly conveyed this to the ministry expressing that my earlier apprehensions had come true. The ministry’s response was rather strange and incomprehensible: ‘Please ensure that this does not happen again.’
The Ugandans were more sympathetic. I was called in by the foreign minister who assured me that they had no doubts about my bona fides. And the rag was closed down by the Ugandan government! (Courtesy: Harper Collins)
The general attitude of the government and people of India seemed to be one of resignation or indifference to this sudden displacement of vast numbers of fellow countrymen. This was reflected in the lack of any coherent strategy to help and provide succour even to Indian citizens who were entitled to such assistance. One reason could be that most of the Indian citizens were low level technicians on contract with the two largest sugar factories in Uganda or teachers. On return from Uganda, according to many complaints, many of them were even harassed at the Customs. In contrast, we had the spectacle of Foreign Minister Inder Gujral offering an airlift to some of the wealthy Indians from Kuwait after the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait!
No Indian media group even cared to send a reporter to cover the event; in contrast, it was the western media, particularly the British media, that covered the event. That is the reason why the East African Indian community in the UK has strong resentment towards the Indian Government.
On the brighter side, one has to acknowledge that for most Asians who left Uganda as virtual destitutes, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rumour has it that many Ugandan Asians in Britain secretly worship Idi Amin’s photograph for the better turn in their fortunes!
Their entrepreneurial skills had full play in Britain and today they are acknowledged as the most successful immigrant community. The Ugandan Asians also revolutionised the retail industry in Britain. The second generation of Ugandan Asians have branched out into successful fields and many of them have achieved positions of prominence. One prime example is Lady Shruti Vadhera who became development advisor to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It is therefore not a surprise that British Asians, who were expelled from Uganda 40 years ago, are now planning to commemorate the event appropriately. g
(Niranjan Desai is a former member of the IFS. In 1972, he was deputed to Uganda to arrange the evacuation of Indian citizens. He can be reached at email@example.com)
The Ambassadors’ Club
Harper Collins, Rs 599, pp 318