Cover Story: Uganda Diaspora

Kampala burning

Uganda broke into the news after a mob attack that left an Asian and native Ugandans dead and several bleeding. Fears that racial tensions were on the rise got quelled somewhat following a Presidential goodwill mission to India led by Uganda’s Minister for Internal Affairs
By Sayantan Chakravarty

Every fire needs a spark. In April, Uganda’s proposed felling of a part of the lush Mabira forests provided just that. It drew protests from Save Mabira campaigners. But what should have been a peaceful march on April 12, turned vicious, and scary. A mob of a few hundred let loose on the streets of Kampala, soon the picturesque capital city was burning with rage. For a couple of hours, as Ugandans of Indian origin fled for their lives, hid and even took a mauling, along with local Ugandans, it seemed that Idi Amin’s 1972 had come revisiting this African nation 25 years later. One of the placards said, “Asians should go! Five Indians to die for each tree cut.”

There was mayhem. Shops were looted, buses and vehicles were torched, and riot police chased down angry men with water canons. While two Ugandan nationals lost their lives, what triggered speculation about Uganda’s racial history revisiting after many years of peace was the stoning of Devang Rawal, 24. The young man was following a car that unwittingly knocked against the protestors. While the car driver fled, Rawal, on a motorcycle behind, couldn’t. He got sucked in the vortex of the fury, was thrown down and savagely pelted with stones, and left for dead. His employer Mukesh Thakrar, managing director of Translink Co Ltd., a distribution firm in Uganda, told INDIA EMPIRE, “Devang got caught because he happened to be behind the car.”


TEARS AND MAYHEM : The family of Rawal in Gujarat breaks down after his body is flown in from Kampala, riot police gets into action, vehicles burning, and an Indian pelted with stones

New Delhi protested immediately, especially after reports came in that Asians might have been targeted because of the decision to fell Mabira. Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma called Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kuteesa who assured that firm action against the perpetrators of the violence was being taken. Even President Yoweri Museveni assured the Asian community that Uganda was safe and the country needed the community to build an economically stronger nation.

What is the Mabira proposal all about? The protests began over a proposal by the Government to denotify and transfer 7,500 hectares of land to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Ltd (Scoul) for expanding its sugarcane plantations. A cabinet paper says that the plan will generate 3,500 jobs and contribute 11.5 billion shillings to the treasury. The total area of Mabira, a reserved forest since the year 1932, is 30,000 hectares and it is home to several rare species of birds, even monkeys.
Scoul itself is a heavy weight business entity. It bills itself as one of the largest employers in East Africa, with a 7,300 workforce manufacturing sugar and industrial alcohol at its 10,000 hectare Lugazi estate. The sugar company is owned by the Mehta Group, established by an Indian immigrant Nanji Kalidas Mehta. PIOs, mostly from Gujarat, were taken to build the railway system by the British. They formed a prosperous trading community in Uganda before they were expelled by Idi Amin in 1972. Many returned following Amin’s downfall, but some Ugandans view their presence and role in business with suspicion.But there seems confusion about Mabira. While the sugarcane plan is opposed by Ugandan MPs because of its environmental impact, the Minister for Internal Affairs Ruhukana Rugunda (who visited India on a goodwill mission on behalf of President Museveni) told INDIA EMPIRE that the Government was proposing to give that part of the forest land away that had been encroached upon for several years, and had been laid bare by wood cutters. In any case, the proposal had not met with any cabinet or executive approval and was only at a preliminary stage of consideration. But that itself was enough to fan the mob’s anger.

Memories of 1972 did come back to haunt the Indian community. Especially since some placards carried by demonstrators said that Indians were unwanted in Uganda. Manju Dhiri, a British citizen of Indian origin had a rather narrow escape from the mob. She was rescued by a shopkeeper who sheltered her for hours. When she eventually managed to escape to the safety of a police station, and then flew out to Nairobi, she recounted her close encounter to The Saturday Standard at The Hilton. “Angry mobs waved placards reading, ‘Asians should go! Five Indians to die for each tree cut.’ They yelled and screamed along the streets,” she recalled. “The rioters did not care who you were as long as you looked like an Asian,” Dhiri said.Much of Dhiri’s fears, though, might have been vastly exaggerated. The goodwill mission left no stone unturned in profusely apologizing at what had happened, for what it saw as a one-off incident. As Sanjay Tanna, an Indian origin MP from Tororo explains, “I’ve been elected from a constituency where there is not a single Asian voter…had there been any racial tensions would this have been possible?” Adds Sanjiv Patel from The Indian Association, Uganda, “I am a third generation Indian in Uganda. This is not anywhere close to 1972. The media over-exaggerated the racial tension. We are very safe.”


Flashback 1972

TROUBLE LOOMS: Idi Amin rides into Kampala and from then on Uganda isn’t safe for Indians any more. MARCHING ORDERS: In 1972, Amin gives 75,000 Ugandans of Asian descent 90 days to leave the country.

UPHEAVAL AND TURMOIL: It was a bad time for Indians who had only two choices: exile or face Amin’s goons. EXODUS: Most Ugandan Indians left for Britain while the rest settled in Canada, the US and other places in Europe.

In her 1991 film Mississippi Masala, acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair tells the story of Jay and Kinnu, an Indian couple in Uganda that leaves after dictator Idi Amin Dada orders Asians out of the country in 1972. The couple land up in Mississippi in the deep south of America. But Jay eventually returns to the country of his birth, like thousands of other Indians who had been forced to go away. As Rugunda says, “The Indians who left were lucky, they at least escaped with their lives. But thousands of Ugandans disappeared, we know what happened to them. To all Indians who returned, we welcome them with open arms.”

That should put a lot of anxiety to rest.


May 2007

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