On 2 November Buckingham Palace celebrated the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of the Indian community from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin.
On 4 August 1972, Idi Amin, then President of Uganda, gave the South Asian population in the country just 90 days to leave, leading to a mass exodus of Ugandan Asians. Some 40,000 migrated to the United Kingdom.
Amin attributed his decision to a dream in which God personally told the president to “exorcise” the country of its approximately 80,000 Asian residents.
In 1895, the construction of the Uganda Railway began by the Imperial British East Africa Company, using labourers from Punjab. This sparked years of immigration from Indians hoping to capitalise on the economic opportunities on the African continent.
By 1972, most Asians were third-generation citizens who had only ever called Uganda home and formed the majority of the country’s middle class.
Like many minority groups, Asian Ugandans were blamed for the misfortunes impacting the country, including slow economic progress and widespread corruption.
This was supported in Amin’s eyes by their supposed lack of integration into Ugandan society, a trope that is still used in countries across the world today to foster suspicion and hatred.
In November 1972, The New York Times described scenes akin to a dark novel; “Dissidents, real or potential, are dragged screaming from bar or cafe by gun‐toting young men in dark glasses; bodies of well‐known former citizens are washed up on the shores of otherwise picturesque lakes.”
My grandparents were Indian immigrants on the continent. Hardev and Harjinder Birdi grew up in Mombasa, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda, respectively. They left the continent after word spread that the situation was getting increasingly tense for Indians.
“With Idi Amin, there were always rumours that there was going to be trouble,” Hardev Birdi remembers. “People would come to your home and your business and say this is nice, it will be nice when I take it. A lot of people couldn’t sell their properties because nobody would buy their properties because of the tension.”
“A lot of people left everything there, their houses and businesses,” he adds. “Some left Uganda with only the clothes they were wearing. Some went to India and a few came to the UK because they were British citizens at the time.”
Both of my great-great grandfathers were economic migrants from Punjab. One owned a sawmill in Kampala, the other moved to Kenya to take advantage of the opportunities that arose from the Uganda Railway that linked the country to the port in Mombasa.
By the time my grandmother arrived in Kampala, society was segregated into Indian, African, and European societies.
Harjinder Birdi’s grandfather sent her along with the rest of her family back to India when word spread that trouble was brewing.
“My childhood was beautiful there,” she recalls. “But when English people left, Africans were quite bitter. They had it in their mind that since the English are gone it is now our turn.”
Hardev Birdi remembers fleeing Indians being robbed of all their possessions on their way to the airport.
“Soldiers would stop the buses and rob all the passengers, taking all the gold, rings, bangles, any jewellery they’re wearing and money.”
Both took a boat trip that lasted 10 days from the continent to India, where they stayed before travelling to the UK.
The response from the UK at the time was one of pure outrage.
Harold Wilson, at the time leader of the Labour Party, publicly called Amin “mentally imbalanced”. The Sunday Mirror ran “He’s nuts” as their front page.
Some left Uganda with only the clothes they were wearing. Some went to India and a few came to the UK….”
In 1968 the Sunday Times ran an opinion column that ran with the lead “most British people refuse to feel guilty about the Kenyan Asians, unlike idealists who cling to the inverted myth of imperial mission.”
Today the country is run for the first time by a second-generation East African Asian. Appointed auspiciously on Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been largely applauded by the British Asian community as a symbol of progress.
Despite this, Sunak favours his party’s anti-immigration policies. He strongly supports the controversial Migration and Economic Development Partnership (MEDP), which outsources inadmissible asylum seekers, who are often fleeing life-threatening situations, to Rwanda for processing and either resettlement or deportation to their country of origin.
In recent years, the Conservative Party has seen many Asian politicians of African descent rise up in its ranks. They seem to be firm anti-immigration advocates. Home Secretary Suella Braverman is of partial Kenyan Indian descent. Speaking during an interview with the Times newspaper, she described the British Empire as “a force for good”.
But when English people left, Africans were quite bitter. They had it in their mind that since the English are gone it is now our turn.”
Her predecessor Priti Patel, a well-known name in the Tory Party, is a second-generation migrant from Ugandan Indian parents. Her policies have garnered a reputation for ruthlessness as she was a strong advocate for harsher immigration policies in 2014, 2015, and 2016, which led to the wrongful deportation of dozens of immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa.
Remembering the past
Noreen Nasim, the author of Expelled from Uganda, a memoir of her father’s life in Africa and afterwards, says the way migrants and refugees are seen has “changed massively”.
“I think attitudes are changing depending on where migrants or refugees are coming from,” she says. “People tend to look at the circumstances. They’ll think, ‘these guys come from Ukraine, they need all the help we can get [them]. And then we’ve got people that are in Palestine, that have been victims of oppression for so many years.”
“Are they truly getting the help that they need?” she says. “The answer is simply: No.”
Nasim’s book delves into what she calls the “golden period” in Uganda and the subsequent aftermath of her family’s expulsion from the country.
“It’s a forgotten part of history and to remember it is a part of their healing”, Nasim says. “The onus is on us to carry on remembering. This is part of the thread of the cloth we are made from”.
For Nasim, there are many reasons why history has been buried.
“So many that were expelled don’t talk about it openly, it’s only now that we’re approaching anniversaries,” she says. “We’re starting to become a bit more comfortable with that trauma.”
She adds: “We have to start asking those questions and documenting that side of history because in just doing a bit of research for my book, I noticed there wasn’t a lot of material out there, and it’s not been given media attention.”
Dolar Vasani was one of the 80,000 who migrated from Kampala in 1972. Inspired by the lockdown during the pandemic, she started a podcast, “Expulsion@50”, which talks to a wide range of the community of Ugandan Asians impacted by the expulsion.
From Belgium to the US, Vasani has spoken to those who were expelled, those left behind, and generations impacted by this mass migration.
She describes the transition from the international school she went to in Uganda to her small town in England where she was only one of few children of colour in her class.
For many, this transition came with its shocks, but Vasani says this has created generations of a “tenacious and resilient community”. She said, “Today, there should be more focus on what and how migrants can contribute to society and less on them being viewed as parasites. With Brexit and Covid, there is a labour shortage in the UK, and yet people are not allowed to work. Where is the justice?”
“That is the narrative for Ugandan Asians – look at how well they did. So the question for me is – what facilitated it so we were able to work? Why has that changed?”
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