The Wheel Turns Full Circle for Uganda Asians

Letter from New Delhi

Expelled by brutal dictator 45 years ago, Uganda Asians prospered in Britain, went back to Uganda 25 years ago and maintain strong links with their roots in India, reports Kul Bhushan with exclusive inputs by Uganda Asian leaders.

Initially discouraged in 1972 to settle in Leicester, Britain, Uganda Asians are now hailed as model immigrants who have contributed to Britain, Uganda as well as India. When dictator Idi Amin expelled them over 45 years ago, Britain published advertisements in Ugandan newspapers dissuading them to go there. The advertisements in Leicester warned them not to go there as there was no housing and no jobs. Still, 28,000 homeless migrated to Leicester as they had no option.

Their story begins in late 19th century when the British recruited Indians to build the Uganda Railway and after its operations, they settled in Uganda and Kenya. Lord Dolar Popat, an ex-Ugandan who migrated and prospered, recalls in a motion in the House of Lords to take note of 40 years of Uganda Asians settlement, “Some of them became very successful entrepreneurs and established themselves among the business elite. One company alone, the Madhvani Group, accounted for 12 per cent of Uganda’s national output, and many other firms excelled. Uganda was granted independence in 1962, and the Ugandan Asians set about working with the Government to build the economy further, including constructing schools and hospitals. Yet, as we all know, things did not progress smoothly.”

Lord Popat went on, “On 4 August 1972, Idi Amin announced that he had had a dream in which God had told him to expel the Asians, and he issued a decree ordering almost all Asians-some 60,000 of them-to leave. At the hands of this brutal dictator, who murdered and tortured hundreds of thousands of people, these 60,000 people were forced to leave behind everything but the clothes on their backs. They were brutally evicted and given only three months to leave. India made it clear that the 60,000 were Britain’s responsibility. Kenya closed its borders to them.” Lord Popat has been appointed by the British Prime Minister as his trade envoy to Uganda & Rwanda.

These Asians worked very hard and changed the retail trade in Britain by opening their corner shops for long hours and over weekend. Educating their children and their grandchildren, they have excelled in the professions and play a sizeable role in British economy.

Hon Jaffer Kapasi, OBE, the Consul General of Uganda to the Midlands, compiled a short list for this article of Uganda Asians who made it to the UK rich list to include Lord Dolar Popat, Hotels & Care Home; Lord Rumi Verjee, Thomas Goode & Co; Lord Jitesh Gadhia; Jitu Patel, Europa Foods; Lord A Sheikh, Finance; Hasmukh & Kamlesh Thakrar, HKS Petrol; Shahid Sheik, Clifton Packaging; Pravin Majithia, MPK Garages; Nik Kotecha, Morningside Pharmaceuticals; Shiraz & Amin; Tejani in paper products; George & Mike Jatania, Lornmeads, Yardley to Lypsil, to name a few. Added Hon. Kapasi, “Listed above I know of, but there are many more of them. This list is endless.”

In 1997, recognising the economic contribution lost to Uganda, President Yuweri Museveni invited the Ugandan Asians to return home. While some families did, most chose to remain in Britain as integrated British Ugandan Asians, one of this country’s greatest success stories. But they also started trading and investing in Uganda. Two of the famous global industrial groups – Madhvani and Mehta – revived their factories, farms and other businesses. Many new businesses were set up; Subash Thakrar constructed a shopping mall. They import coffee, cotton and soon oil from Uganda and sell pharmaceutical, engineering, manufactured and packaging goods, among other industrial inputs.

The next Asian business delegation going to Uganda is planned for September 2017, said Hon. Kapasi. Lord Popat has been appointed by the British Prime Minister as the trade envoy to Uganda & Rwanda and so he may lead this delegation.

Uganda Asians have maintained strong cultural and religious links with India as majority of their families migrated from India to Uganda and then to Britain. They visit India for pilgrimages, tourism and their ancestral villages and towns. Of course, business is a major part of these bilateral relations as Uganda Asian traders import engineering goods, pharmaceuticals and other manufactured goods from India.

Meanwhile, India has reached out to Africa in a big way with the Third India-Africa Summit in 2015 attended by almost all the heads of state in Africa were welcomed by Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi. This deepened cooperation in many areas and at many levels.

This Summit has been followed up by the annual CII-Exim Bank Conclave on India Africa Project Partnership held in March this year addressed by the President of India, Pranab Mukerjee who said India has supported development in Africa through Lines of Credit estimated at over US$7 billion.

Over 27,000 Indians origin are contributing to Uganda’s economy today and India has strong bilateral relations with Uganda. In February 2017, the Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari, visited Uganda and met the Ugandan President Museveni for promoting bilateral relations. President Museveni said the bilateral trade between India and Uganda, involving goods and services such petroleum products, automobiles, IT and machine products, among others, stands at US$ one billion and US$57 million respectively.

On the future prospects of Indians and Asians in Uganda, the erstwhile leader of Uganda Asians, Praful Patel, has some reservations because of the insurgency in Northern Uganda and the instability experienced by Museveni. He said, “Our people were expelled by the brutal regime of Idi Amin but prospered in Britain and a lot of my friends have gone back to Uganda in the last 30 years and are making vital contribution to the development of Uganda.”

“Thousands of Indians from India have moved back to Uganda and taken over the retail business which our ‘Muhindis (Indians) used to run,” he said, “If you travel round rural parts of Uganda, you see many small businesses run by Indians from India.” The wheel has turned full circle.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

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