If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants
– Isaac Newton
The Ugandan Asian Expulsion of 1972 is the story of 80,000 Asians who were given 90 days to leave their homes. The story of my family, of my grandparents and great grandparents. This is the story and the reason behind why I am here today, privileged and honoured to be able to capture this moment in time. It is a dark history full of prejudice and injustice, but also one full of hope, resilience, and perseverance. Through interviews, research, and inherited knowledge, I hope to contextualise the scope of this movement of my ancestors across three continents and to portray the complexity of their world in a wide range of colours.
The Protectorate of Uganda
Britain’s colonisation of Uganda began around 1860. In 1888, the East African Company took control of the region by royal charter, and in 1894 the UK government officially declared the country a protectorate under its rule. Uganda, as what would ultimately happen with much of the African continent, had become swallowed up by the intense period of competitive colonisation known as the ‘scramble for Africa’. Although other countries like France and Belgium played their part, the British Empire, ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’, would at its height control 23 percent of the world’s population and 24 percent of all land on earth. Uganda would never be the same.
As well as transforming everyday life for native Africans, Uganda’s colonisation disrupted the centuries-old web of interconnectedness between East African and Asia. In 1896, for instance, the East African Company’s plan to construct a railway from Kampala to Mombasa for the purposes of colonial expansion relied on Indian labour to get by. As the project had not been going to plan due to a lack of adequate finances and a skilled labour force, indentured labourers were sent from India to plug the gap. Around 32,000 workers, mostly Muslims from Punjab, arrived to build the railway.
However, the largest wave of Asian migration was to follow in the early 1900s.
For centuries, merchant sailors from the north-western coastline of India had been trading with Africa and holding extreme power and influence in the region. The British colonisation started by taking over these trade routes which would ultimately become the source of their wealth in the region. The British initially took Indians out of the picture, but soon enough they realised that to operate more successfully they needed the Indians back! And so, with Lord Salisbury’s encouragement, Asians started trading again. This was when my great grandfather, the Gujarati entrepreneur Rugnath Jeraj Manek, immigrated to Uganda.
Most of these business-minded Indians were the merchant class and came from Gujarat, Kutch, and Kathiawad. As Lord Popat says, “There is a Gujarati proverb to the effect that Gujaratis will prosper wherever they settle.” Together, this community began to form a class responsible for much of the country’s economic growth in the following decades.
As Uganda settled into its new colonial reality, it is starkly clear that a stratified society was formed and operated for many years. In this social structure, the Europeans sat at the top, the Asians were the middle class, and the native Africans persevered at the bottom. It is said that these ‘classes’ didn’t intermingle at all, and everyone respected this hierarchical structure for many years. Lord Popat, both in his interview and his book, speaks of how badly the Ugandan Asians treated the local Africans. They would rarely mix with the Africans and didn’t show them much respect in most instances.
The lives of Indians in Uganda
My elder family members remember their days in Uganda with a lot of fondness – it was their home and their world. They enjoyed good weather and a wonderful lifestyle. The land was fertile with plenty of food for everyone. My great grandmother speaks about the peacefulness and the togetherness that she experienced – she misses her neighbours the most, especially during Diwali. Both my grandfathers continue to eat mogo and matoki to this day, the African staple foods that grow in abundance in Uganda. My grandmother focuses on how amazing and predictable the weather used to be – she said people could plan picnics a year in advance and know that the weather would be wonderful!
The early traders/bankers such as Visram, Manubhai Madhvani and the Mehta family ran multinational enterprises in cotton, sugar, rubber, and tea. Lord Popat said that the Madhvani group alone accounted for 12% of Uganda’s national output. Along with this enterprise came more infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. However, things did not progress as smoothly as the Ugandan Asians may have liked them to.
The fall of the Protectorate and the rise of Idi Amin
As the years progressed, life became increasingly more challenging for Uganda’s Asian population. Slowly, the seemingly rigid class structure began to change with upward social mobility for the Asians. This shift caused resentment amongst the African entrepreneurs competing for the same opportunities, leading to attacks on Asian shopkeepers and businesses in the 1950s. Furthermore, the same divides between Hindus and Muslims found within India since its independence in 1947 caused tension within Africa’s Asian communities, as well. These divisions would come to a head in the following decade when in 1962 the Protectorate of Uganda came to an end. By declaring its independence from Britain, the country took its first uncertain steps towards establishing a new reality for its people, initiating an era of uncertainty for its Asian population.
Milton Obote, Uganda’s first African President and a socialist, took advantage of the rising Indophobia within Africa by beginning to put pressure on Asian monopolies like the Mehta and the Madhvani groups. The process to reclaim the continent for native Africans and halt more Asian immigration had begun—well before the tumultuous decade that was to come.
In 1971, Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin, a Ugandan military officer whose preferred titled was “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji, Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Urmila Patel in her book argues that Obote was a flawed leader who made the mistake of promoting Amin within the military. She suggests that with Amin “in full command of the army, Uganda was ripe for military dictatorship. Obote was probably getting ready to remove Amin, and Amin probably knew it.”
Uganda’s Asian population was initially pleased to see the end of Obote’s regime and hopeful for a less turbulent future under their country’s new leader. Little did they know what horrors awaited them and that their days in Uganda were numbered.
A rule of terror followed. Amin would drop bombshell after bombshell on the Ugandan population, saving some of his most severe blows for the Indians – his behaviour was irrational, volatile and malicious. After a few quiet months to begin his administration, Amin revealed his seismic intention: the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian population. Some say it started with a dream, some say it was because he was rejected by an Indian girl. A Ugandan taxi driver I met recently in Abu Dhabi said Amin acted on the advice of a senior advisor. No matter how it was decided, the fate of thousands of people hung in the balance.
Noreen Nasim quoted some of Amin’s first announcement in her book which her family heard on the television:
“I took the decision for the economy of Uganda and I must make sure that every Ugandan gets the fruit of Independence. Since Independence actually, Uganda is not yet independent … Afterwards, I want to see that the whole of Kampala’s main street is not full of Indians. It must be proper black administration in those shops, run by Ugandans.”
As shock settled into the minds and hearts of my ancestors and their peers, three questions reverberated throughout their communities: was the President serious? Which Asians were affected? When was the deadline? When it became clear that the President’s intentions were indeed serious and that the deadline to leave the country was only ninety days, panic began to set in as many struggled to understand who was affected given both the complexity of their differing legal standings and Amin’s conflicting pronouncements. Initially, Amin said that only Indians holding non-Ugandan passports must leave. Then he declared that all Asians must leave, save for some professional communities. This conflicting information drove wedges amongst the Indians until Amin finally confirmed that all Asians had to go.
However, global pressures would force Amin to tiptoe around the starkness of his decree. As leaving thousands of people stateless would cause international outrage, he instead stated that those Asians with Ugandan passports were free to remain in the country. Although this was his official line, he simultaneously invalidated citizenships, endlessly harassed, allowed his soldiers to loot and rape – anything that could be done to discourage any Asian defiant enough to stay. Uganda’s Asian population went through a perilous time. This monster killed many of Obote’s people and thousands of other Africans were murdered in the most terrible ways. Both Lord Popat and Urmila Patel speak of the stomach-churning nastiness that Amin inflicted on Africans as well as Asians. Members of my family were temporarily sent to prison where they saw blood on the walls and severed fingers on the floor.
In the end, 80,000 Asians left Uganda in 1972. Some were killed, some were imprisoned, but most made it across the border carrying nothing apart from one bag or box weighing 10kg and whatever money they had on hand. They left everything behind – their businesses and shops, their belongings, their wealth, their lives. For the 23,242 British passport holders, entry into Britain was smooth enough. The 30,000 Ugandan passport holders, on the other hand, relied on the limited charity of foreign nations. The British government initiated talks with other governments, with Canada only wanting to take the professionals and Australia only interested in those that looked Caucasian. In the end, India took 8000, Canada 5000, Pakistan and America 1000 each. Tanzania, Kenya, and Zambia said they couldn’t help.
Amin got what he wanted – but did the Ugandans really know what this meant for them and their country? Contrary to what Amin must have thought, the Ugandan economy did not bounce back and suffered for years to come. Having struggled at the bottom of a colonial society for over a hundred years, native Africans lacked the social, economic, and physical infrastructure to meet the colossal demands of such a significant national upheaval. Meanwhile, Gujaratis and the other departed Asians carried with them their most precious asset – their minds, skills, and passion for education.
It took a year or so for the Ugandan Asians to settle in their new countries. Most of my family eventually ended up in the UK by way of either the 16 temporary camps put up by the then Home Sectretary, Robert Carr, or by the generosity of family and friends already established in the country. They hit the ground running, got themselves the low-income jobs that the government provided at the time, and started making new lives for themselves. Lord Popat sums it up well:
“Like the Jewish community, the Hindus in Uganda were singled out as scapegoats for society’s ills and, like the Jewish community, the newly British Hindu community didn’t court pity or demand handouts. For us, Britain was a country that gave us freedom, protection, and opportunity.”
And now, 50 years later, I stand here and I honour these stories. I honour the sacrifices that were made on their journey across three continents. I salute my grandparents and great grandparents who worked so hard both in Africa and then in the UK. I am here because of their sweat and blood quite literally. We have learnt many lessons through these journeys and today, as we give refuge to the Afghans and to the Ukrainians in the UK, I look at them and understand what my family experienced in those initial moments. I understand we can’t accommodate everyone in our respective countries, but through war and climate change there is and will be so much more displacement. As a global Britain and as a global family, we have a duty to engage in a dialogue with the goal of providing optimal solutions to this most pressing problem.