Vol. 44 No. 19 · 6 October 2022

The Asian Question

Mahmood Mamdani writes about the expulsion from Uganda

3721 words

Iwas​ in my mid-twenties in November 1972 when I left Uganda on the orders of Idi Amin, who had seized the presidency in a coup the previous year. The expulsion of Uganda’s Asian population, estimated at seventy thousand, was announced in August; we were given three months to leave. Around twenty thousand had Ugandan citizenship. Roughly the same number had applied for citizenship, but their applications remained unprocessed – a sign of how politically explosive citizenship had become. Then there were those who had never applied for citizenship or a passport. I was among those who had registered as a Ugandan citizen at independence and whose nationality was later rescinded. With at least 25,000 other Ugandan Asians I headed for Britain, and was placed in a youth hostel on Kensington Church Street, just behind Kensington Palace, which had been turned into a transit camp for the refugees. Six months later I took up my first academic post at the University of Dar es Salaam. After the fall of Amin in 1979, I returned to Uganda as an intern with the All Africa Conference of Churches, a Nairobi-based ecumenical Christian alliance, working at the Church of Uganda’s offices in Kampala. The following year, I joined Makerere University. I made a point of asking most of the Ugandans I met to share their thoughts about the expulsion. For most of them, it wasn’t the decision to expel the Asian population that was troubling, but the way the expulsion had been carried out: this was the beginning of wisdom for me. Ten years later, whether we met in Uganda or in Britain, I put the same question to friends, former neighbours and schoolmates of Asian heritage from the pre-1972 period. To my surprise, more than 90 per cent of them said they would not want to return to the years before Amin ordered them out: whatever they experienced at the time, they – like the ‘indigenous’ Ugandans I’d been questioning since 1980 – had nothing against the expulsion. Why did an overwhelming majority of current or former residents in Uganda, brown or black, feel this way?

The answer, I learned, is that what happened in 1972 was the culmination of a process that had started a few years earlier, when many Ugandan Asians were disenfranchised both by British and Ugandan law. At that time, they had been a presence in the country for about seventy years. The kingdom of Buganda became a British protectorate in 1884 and the territory was rapidly expanded to roughly the size of modern-day Uganda. In 1895 a 300-strong contingent of Punjabi troops was brought in to put down an uprising by the Nubi in the north-west, which had led to the killing of several British officers. It was already possible to identify three groups of Indians in Uganda by the time the Punjabi regiments were withdrawn in the 1930s. The first were those who arrived to run a string of dukas (shops) set up by Indian merchant financiers on the initiative of Allidina Visram. Visram had made his fortune in Zanzibar and Mombasa and encouraged small and medium-size commerce deep in the hinterland, including Uganda and eastern Congo. The second group was drafted from India by the British after 1895 to build the Ugandan railway: 35,000 Indian labourers, mostly from Punjab, were recruited to work on the project; after its completion in 1901, about seven thousand of them stayed on in British East Africa. The third group was brought from India to serve in the British colonial administration.

Unlike the neighbouring colonies of Kenya and Tanganyika (which was German until after the First World War), Uganda had a ‘native’ elite, whom the British administration had handsomely rewarded for their role alongside colonial forces in enlarging the protectorate. Buganda itself was an expansionist state, with a standing army and civil administration. As it absorbed new territories, it sought alliances against its dominant neighbour, the kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. The British played a key part in this process: first, they intervened in Buganda when a civil war broke out between three factions, followers of French (Catholic) and English (Protestant) missionaries, and Muslim supporters of Kabaka Muwanga, tipping the balance in favour of the English-aligned faction; then they drafted most of Buganda’s adult population into military service and set about subduing Bunyoro-Kitara. Eventually a third of the territory of Bunyoro-Kitara was transferred to the Buganda monarchy as a reward for its collaboration and eight thousand square miles of Baganda land were distributed as freehold to Protestant notaries, laying the groundwork for a land aristocracy.

There was also a plantation model in Uganda, with large land grants being given to former British soldiers who grew rubber for export. During the commodity crash that followed the First World War, prices plummeted and the plantations were auctioned off; the buyers were wealthy Indian merchants, the Mehta and the Madhvani families, who replaced the rubber with sugar for domestic consumption, and went on to manage profitable conglomerates with holdings in engineering and manufacturing in towns including Lugazi and Kakira – also known as Madhvaninagar or Madhvani town.

There were no comparable opportunities in Tanganyika – immigrants looking to prosper considered it a poor option – while Kenya was seen as a ‘white man’s country’. If you were an Asian looking to build a future, Uganda was your best bet. As a consequence, at the time of independence in 1962, there were two contending elites: the Baganda landed elite created by the British and the immigrant merchant elite. Uganda’s first independent administration, under Milton Obote, had no real support in Buganda: its political base lay mostly in the north of the country, and Obote was soon faced with a hostile Bagandan middle class of landlords and bureaucrats, which drove his government into an economic alliance with the Asian merchant and manufacturing elite. When Idi Amin overthrew Obote’s ‘northern’ regime in 1971, he turned to the Baganda as his natural allies. He could also count on their enthusiastic support when he decided to ‘solve’ the Asian problem, which had gained political traction since independence.

At the heart of the problem were Uganda’s citizenship laws, drawn up when Britain relinquished its protectorate. A clause in the Independence Constitution of 1962 restricted citizenship by birth to those born of Ugandan parents, one of whose grandparents must also have been born in Uganda. My guess is that no more than 10 per cent of Ugandan Asians would have qualified for citizenship under this clause at the time of independence. Six years later, Britain added an ‘indigenous’ ingredient to its own citizenship laws, and another layer to the complexities facing Uganda’s Asians. As Ian Sanjay Patel argues in We’re Here because You Were There, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrant Act ‘was the first immigration law specifically designed to target non-white British citizens not resident or born in Britain … Astonishingly, Britain allowed its primary form of nationality to be disconnected from a right of entry into Britain’; this legislation ‘dramatically restricted the flow of migrating citizens, but stopped short of blocking it outright’. In 1968 and 1971 ‘rules-based ancestral descent’ became part of British legislation. The new arrangements would block ‘some 1.5 million non-white British citizens (Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies) in various former colonies around the world, Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia and Southeast Asia, who held an automatic right of entry into Britain’. They also violated Article 3(2) of the Fourth Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, which stipulated that ‘No one shall be deprived of the right to enter his own country,’ and Article 5(d) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which came into force in 1969, and held not only that a person had the right ‘to return to his country’, but that this right should be honoured ‘without distinction as to race’.

This left the ‘Asian problem’ squarely with Uganda and other East African countries. In response, Obote’s government passed a Trade Licensing Act (1969) and then an Immigration Act (1970) targeting Asian non-citizens. Several thousand Ugandan Asian British subjects became, as Patel puts it, ‘stateless, though they continued to be described as British citizens’. Three days after Amin’s expulsion order, the foreign secretary, Alec Douglas-Home, said in the House of Commons that his government acknowledged ‘a special obligation for these people’, and declared that there were ‘some 57,000 British citizens in Uganda’. But the government was careful to signal this as a humanitarian, not a legal, obligation. Patel cites T. Fitzgerald, a Home Office official, writing to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in August 1972 that ‘it seems preferable to accept the UKPHs [UK passport holders] from Uganda on the basis that they are “refugees”, whether or not they are technically refugees.’ When it came to drawing up contingency plans to evacuate three thousand white British citizens living in Uganda in September, weeks before the Asian expulsion, the British authorities distinguished them from non-white UKPHs as ‘belongers’.

The last word on this lies with the Ugandan Mission to the UN, which in September 1972 circulated a document at the General Assembly pointing to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968 as the original sin which Amin had simply repeated. As Patel writes,

The 1968 Act, it claimed, was ‘a racist device put in the way of British people of black and brown races’, but not ‘those British citizens whose parents and grandparents were from the British Isles’. ‘Why,’ it asked, ‘should a white Briton from South Africa, Zimbabwe or Hong Kong be able to enter Britain any time he wishes while his counterpart from Asia is refused or frustrated when he tries to gain entry?’

The two sets of citizenship laws, in Uganda and Britain, were a vice in which tens of thousands of Asians were squeezed. After 1968, no British passport-holding Asian in Uganda could obtain a work permit or trading licence in Uganda, or gain entry into the United Kingdom.

In economic terms, Ugandan Asians before the expulsion were a diverse group: as well as thousands of people in precarious circumstances there were a handful of wealthy families occupying leading positions in manufacturing and trade. But an even larger distinction needs to be drawn between the Asian population on the eve of expulsion and those who returned to Uganda in the 1990s, encouraged by Yoweri Museveni after he became president in 1986. Several hundred owners of large properties went back to reclaim them. Not many small property owners returned. Instead they were sought out in Britain and Canada by unscrupulous lawyers hoping to secure power of attorney and eventual right of ownership. Many newcomers took advantage of the new mood of welcome and entered Uganda from India and Pakistan. Most hoped it would be a way station on their journey to the West; some were stranded victims of people smuggling. These newcomers were known as ‘rockets’, moving in a single direction with no prospect of a return journey.

Museveni may have opened the door, but the constitution of 1995 entrenched the barrier against citizenship for non-indigenous applicants, who now had to belong to an indigenous group. Schedule 3 of the constitution included a list of ‘indigenous’ tribes. By this criterion, no Ugandan Asian could be a citizen by birth after 1995, no matter how many generations his family had been in the country. Museveni was careful not to refer to Asians as citizens; he explained that they were ‘investors’, with no right to remain in the country, but entitled to certain privileges denied to their local counterparts in the business and investment sectors. This led to a sense of insecurity among Asians and to Ugandan resentment. Museveni was following Obote’s lead in the 1960s, when he looked to an Asian merchant class to provide a counterweight to the old Baganda elite. For those who have arrived since the 1990s, Uganda is a transit station, as it is for their descendants. For the Asians who were thrown out in 1972, Uganda was home.

There is an unmistakeable tendency to portray the Ugandan Asians expelled in 1972 as victims. Few in the first generation wrote of our experience. As a people, we were not chroniclers, nor were we given to reflecting critically on our own experiences, but the children of the refugees – the second generation – have attempted to address this deficit and their hand-me-down stories have gradually homogenised into victim narratives. For this to work, a villain is required. The corollary of the victim narratives has been the methodical demonisation of Amin as an uncivilised brute, guilty of countless crimes. How Amin, once regarded by the British as a noble savage who delivered the country from Obote’s erratic dictatorship, suddenly became a pariah is a long and fascinating story taken up by several narrators: British politicians, the British media, individuals who encountered him at one point or another, and Ugandan public figures such as Henry Kyemba, who spun tales of Amin as a cannibal and killer, including of his own wives and children. David Owen, foreign secretary under James Callaghan, compared him to Pol Pot; he also looked into the possibility of having Amin assassinated.

But Ugandan Asians are a poor fit as victims. For a start, the expulsion meant different things to different people. For a substantial group – the lowest estimates are upwards of twelve thousand – the expulsion marked the end of an impossible situation. Their predicament originated in the citizenship laws in Britain and Uganda, and the denial of work permits by the Ugandan government, which meant that they could no longer afford decent rented premises and were forced to live in places of worship – temples, mosques, gurudwaras – or to crowd into single-room tenements. According to Bob Astles, a senior intelligence officer under Obote and Amin, they lived in ‘concentration camp conditions’. This group celebrated the expulsion. For UKPHs, it had the advantage of forcing open the gates in Britain. The non UKPHs went to Canada and the rest to UN camps, and from there to an assortment of European countries, primarily Sweden. The industrialists and merchants, a few thousand of them if you include family members, lost valuable property, which they went on to claim under Museveni, but often went on to prosperous lives in exile.

The expulsion industry, as I’ve come to think of it, has produced shelf on shelf of books. In this chorus, Neema Shah’s portrayal of an Indian merchant family in Kololo Hill stands out for its candour.* The story unfolds through the eyes of Asha, the newly married daughter-in-law of a wealthy couple living in a prestigious neighbourhood in Kampala. Asha settles in with her husband, Pran, a shopkeeper, only to discover that he is caught in a web of self-serving lies and deceptions, along with his parents, the extended family and what seems at times to be the entire Asian merchant culture. The novel raises many questions about the standard depiction of Ugandan Asians as victims of theft, rape, violence – all of which are now commonplace in the expulsion genre.

It is worth noting that there was no large-scale loss of life in 1972. Indeed, none of the sporadic massacres that occurred in Uganda in the seventy years since their arrival involved the Ugandan Asians. Nor did they suffer much in the way of robbery or looting: the expulsion itself was a grand, well-organised act of theft, which left little room for pilferers to take advantage. Amin’s army were ordered to make sure that no rank-and-file soldier tampered with goods and property earmarked for the officers. The greatest privation was the loss of our home, a loss shared by all the refugees. A sense of belonging develops over generations. Those who were expelled went on to live as ‘strangers’, musafir in Hindustani; wherever they fetched up, they had a sense that it was provisional and that they might have to uproot again at short notice. When I visited friends who had resettled, I noticed that their living arrangements were like those of people staying in guesthouses.

Ahead of the fiftieth anniversary of the expulsion, Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo, emeritus professor of history at Makerere, published Uganda, an Indian Colony 1897-1972. The title is a publisher’s dream: no Ugandan could resist the provocation, since most of us think of Uganda as a former British colony. Lwanga-Lunyiigo argues that although Indians in East Africa may not have constituted a colonial power, they were ‘deputy imperialists, sub-imperialist, privileged workers of the colonialists’. Arguments in Uganda about which groups were or were not ‘sub-imperialists’ are fierce and go back a long way. During the 1960s and 1970s they focused on the kingdom of Buganda’s collaboration with the British; the remuneration of the predominantly Protestant elite, who collaborated actively; and the fact that once Britain’s military objectives had been accomplished, agents from Buganda were posted to subjugated territories with orders to organise a Buganda-style hierarchical administration. In light of this history, the argument ran, Buganda should be seen as Britain’s junior partner in colonisation. The counter argument was that the Baganda remained an oppressed people, whether or not they had been complicit in the oppression of others. For Lwanga-Lunyiigo, a similar debate can be had about the Ugandan Asians.

At heart, this is a question about ‘indirect rule’, the system devised by colonial powers to harness junior partners – local or not so local, native or immigrant – to do the dirty work of conquest, market capture and daily administration. In return, they were rewarded with privileges and sometimes, like the Baganda notaries, given land, but they remained colonised. When these debates were at their most heated, in the first years of independence, ‘sub-imperialism’ and ‘indirect rule’ implied antithetical outcomes. Sub-imperial agents were the enemy; agents of indirect rule were potential allies, with a place in the anti-colonial united front. Lwanga-Lunyiigo does away with this distinction; in his view the Ugandan Asians were agents of indirect rule and yet no alliance with them was possible.

His account of the conferences Amin held with Asian leaders in the months before the expulsion reveals an astonishing failure of imagination on their part. Amin opened the bidding with a list of Indian shortcomings: they were guilty of social exclusion and a self-justifying racism that glossed over the petty privileges colonialism conferred on them while blaming the British for the colonial legacy; their business culture was dishonest; their commitment to Ugandan society was minimal. He invited them to reflect on a way forward, but they refused. They were a small community, they argued, with no role to play in government decisions.

Asians in Uganda, as in East or Southern Africa, were immigrants, not settlers. The difference is telling: immigrants are prepared to accept the arrangements of the state to which they move, including its borders, and therefore to be part of an existing political community, whether or not they favour its mode of governance; settlers aim to create their own discrete political community or colony, hence the term ‘settler colonialism’. Settlers are always at odds with the native communities among which they live. It is difficult to find a settler without a gun. It is just as difficult to think of a dukawalla, or Asian shopkeeper, with a gun. (The only example of Indians using guns were plantation owners during the 1958 trade boycott by the Uganda National Movement.) The dukawalla is proverbially known for being accommodating, even timid. This is hardly the material from which conquerors or colonists are fashioned. It is, however, the material from which merchants are made. When an elite emerged among the dukawallas, they rose to economic rather than political prominence.

The Indian community did produce individuals who possessed greater imagination. Rajat Neogy, the editor of Transition, collaborated with the lawyer-politician Abu Mayanja and the political scientist Ali Mazrui in producing a magazine that imagined the contours of post-colonial Africa. There were also the more overtly political activists from a younger generation who formed the Uganda Action Group, associated with Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress. But they were not ‘Asian’ political leaders. If anything, they distanced themselves from the Asian community, riddled in their eyes by caste and sect. Traces of their thought survive in the founding document of a group called the Asian African Association of Uganda, formed in the post-1995 period:

We are not South Asians (Indians, Pakistani or Bangladeshi), for South Asians live in South Asia and are committed to making a future there. Nor are we overseas South Asians, who are part of a South Asian diaspora whose members aim to return home to South Asia after a temporary sojourn overseas. True, our origin is South Asia, but our present is African. Many of us hope to make a future in Africa. We are Africans of Asian Origin, Asian Africans.

There is much to reflect on fifty years after the expulsion. The great strength of African societies in the pre-colonial period was their ability to absorb newcomers. The Baganda, for example, are said to have started out as four clans in the 13th century, expanding to more than forty by the 20th century. The African tradition is to integrate, not to segregate; it is common to Amhara, Arabs, Hausa, the Waswahili, Zulu and others. But Uganda’s first constitution suggested that newly independent East African countries were likely to follow the colonial, rather than the pre-colonial, tradition and the 1995 constitution produced under Museveni confirmed this tendency. Faced with the multi-party polities authorised by the 1995 constitution, the Museveni administration has extended its use of ‘indigeneity’, making it a prerequisite to local government by multiplying district boundaries on the principle that each minority should be recognised as ‘indigenous’ and granted its own district. The alternative would have been to acknowledge the principle of equality for all residents in a territory. Whether or not we agree with the way Lwanga-Lunyiigo frames it, the Asian question has not gone away. But in the Museveni era, it is no longer the same question. His insistence that recent Asian arrivals – even if some of them have Ugandan passports – should be seen as investors, and as holders of property rather than political rights, exonerates them from political obligations and forces them to live year on year in the country as permanent strangers. In the African imagination, they have become the prototype of the mercenary community. In their own minds, they are there on sufferance, always on guard, never at peace.

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Vol. 44 No. 21 · 3 November 2022

Mahmood Mamdani writes about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in 1972 (LRB, 6 October). He cites Alec Douglas-Home’s assertion, as foreign secretary, that Britain had a special responsibility for the Ugandan Asians at the time of Amin’s order. This obscures the fact that for some time previously, Edward Heath’s government had been touring countries, in the Caribbean among other places, trying without success to persuade them to take ‘their share’ of the refugees. Only when it became clear that no one was prepared to do so did the UK government adopt an apparently responsible humanitarian position.

Mamdani makes something of the class divides within the Uganda Asian population. I ran a project in one of the refugee camps during the winter of 1972-73 and it was clear to me that these divides meant little or nothing to the people expelled. All the refugees arrived with the one suitcase they were allowed, having been stripped of property, belongings and most if not all of their money before they left for the UK. In some cases the British government had sent members of the same family to camps hundreds of miles apart, so that our biggest initial task was to bring together families whose members were as far apart as Devon and Scotland.

Gary Craig

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