Reshma Saujani, a candidate for the position of public advocate of the City of New York, is the descendant of Indian immigrants – but with an unusual family history. Saujani, who was born in Illinois, is the daughter of Gujarati parents who were expelled from the East African nation of Uganda by then-dictator Idi Amin in 1972.
The so-called “Ugandan Asians” have since carved out their own particular destinies over the past four decades in India itself, Great Britain, Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and elsewhere as one of the most well-educated and prosperous groups of refugees that world has ever seen.
The order by Amin in 1972 created a diplomatic crisis involving Uganda, India and Britain. Saujani herself had said her parents had been rejected by many countries before the U.S. agreed to accept them. Indians had often been the target of resentment and violence throughout their sojourns in Africa. Indeed, as reasons for his expulsion order, Amin cited that the Ugandan Indian community had exploited the local economy and refused to integrate with black African people after a century in the country.
Amin committed many atrocities during his bloody rule of Uganda, including the mass murder of up to 300,000 of his own people. In that respect, the expulsion of 90,000 Asians from the country may have become overshadowed over the years. Amin himself was overthrown in 1979.
The expulsion is largely forgotten today, except by the Ugandan Asian themselves and their descendants who have spread across the world. For them, it was a traumatic experience which highlighted the inherent insecurity of migrants and their place in a rapidly changing world.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on the Ugandan Asian saga to explore this topic. Vishva Samani is a London-based freelance journalist and is herself a descendant of expelled Ugandan Asians.
IB TIMES: Idi Amin seized power in Uganda in January 1971 -- the order to expel Asians came 19 months later. During that interim were there any indications that he wanted to remove the Indian community, or did it come as a complete shock and surprise?
SAMANI: Most of the expelled Ugandan Asians I have interviewed who now live in the UK say the order came as a complete shock and there was no real indication it was going to happen. When Idi Amin came into power, he made the working conditions for business favorable. Many Indians, especially non-citizens that engaged in business, commerce and trade, actually viewed Amin's assumption of power with some relief. There had been fear surrounding measures introduced by his predecessor Milton Obote over entry permits and economic reforms that sought to redress the balance between Africans and non-Africans. But after 1971 Idi Amin had started offering residence permits, granting import licenses to businesses and generally opening up the market for importation, Asian businesspeople started to repatriate capital and investments back to Uganda. Early measures introduced by Amin were not exclusively beneficial to Asians, but as Asians operated the majority of business and trade, they benefited from them the most. Most expelled Asians felt settled in Uganda, indeed many of their parents were born in Uganda (second generation), and it was regarded as their home country.
IB TIMES: Given Amin's erratic and eccentric behavior, did some people not take the expulsion order seriously and dismiss it as a joke?
SAMANI: I have not come across anyone who has dismissed it as a joke. But it is fair to say many Asians felt it was simply a threat and that it would be overturned. Through diplomacy, many Asians believed the British would arrive at a negotiated settlement by which the order would be reneged -- but this obviously did not happen. Most Asians do not seem to have a strong opinion about Idi Amin as a person, and often say his erratic behavior became visible only in later years.
IB TIMES: What kind of relationship, if any, did Amin have with the Indian community prior to the expulsion?
SAMANI: From what people have described, the Indian community mainly kept to themselves (a legacy of colonialism) and were either operating businesses or working as civil servants or as doctors and lawyers. Amin's predecessor Obote introduced measures that prevented Indians from trading in certain areas - but Amin did nothing further to hinder Indian business activity. In fact, he relaxed rules on trade, which benefited Asians.
IB TIMES: Did the majority of African Ugandans support Amin's decision to deport Asians?
SAMANI: African Ugandans themselves were strongly associated with their respective tribes, so it is difficult to lump them all together in one category of opinion. The general impression I have from speaking to African Ugandans is that many were not in favor of the expulsion, especially those who were employed by Asians. The expulsion put many African Ugandans out of work. Some saw Asians as job-providers and essential to the proper functioning of the economy. There were others who welcomed the expulsion. This was mainly expressed by politicians who were aligned with Amin's way of thinking.
IB TIMES: Did the order to expel Asians include other ethnic groups like Chinese or Arabs?
SAMANI: I have not come across any record of Chinese settlers in Uganda at this time. Arabs made up a very small proportion of the population, a fraction of the number of Indians. The order was directed at the large Indian community, particularly those in business and trade, the vast majority of whom had British passports.
IB TIMES: Were most Indians in Uganda at the time Gujaratis? Were there Sikhs and Muslims among them? If so, did Amin (a Muslim himself) spare Indian Muslims from the deportation order?
SAMANI: A large proportion of Indians, approximately 80 percent, were of Gujarati origin, including both Hindus and Muslims. There were a few other Indians from different states in India, including the Punjab. The official argument for expulsion seemed to hinge on national identity and economics rather than religious difference. Consequently, Muslim Indians were treated the same as Hindu Indians.
IB TIMES: Prior to expulsion, what was the legal status of Asians in Uganda? Were they citizens of Uganda?
SAMANI: In the leadup to Uganda's independence, the colonial government offered British nationality to people of Indian origin. A majority chose to become British nationals, which seemed the obvious and more secure choice. A small number opted for Ugandan citizenship at this time. They were a negligible minority; at a guess, around 1,000 Indian families chose Ugandan passports. Choosing Ugandan citizenship enabled you to trade in any part of the country, without the same restrictions that were applied to those who carried British passports.
IB TIMES: Asians were expelled from neighboring Kenya in 1968. Did that set a precedent from Amin in 1972?
SAMANI: You would expect that it would have played a part, but I am not aware of Amin referring to the Kenyan expulsion at any point. The Kenyan Indians were expelled in a much more civilized way; it was not at gunpoint. They were allowed to keep their possessions and leave with their money.
IB TIMES: Of the 90,000 or so Asians who left Uganda, did most of them go to Britain? If so, did they already carry UK passports and have the legal right to settle in Britain?
SAMANI: Around 50,000 Indians came to the UK, a small proportion went to India, and many of the Ismailis (an Indian Muslim community) went to Canada. Those who settled in the UK did have British passports, and did have the legal right to settle in Britain. However, most of them had never lived in the UK before.
IB TIMES: Did some Asians remain in Uganda in defiance of the expulsion order? If so, what did they do in the country?
SAMANI: A small number of Asians remained in Uganda. But that was not in defiance, some were allowed to stay because of their vocation, and a few had become Ugandan nationals at the time of independence. The general impression I have is that anyone who could escape, did escape. The army had turned on the Asian community, and everyone was afraid. Amirali Karmali is a Ugandan Asian entrepreneur who stayed in the country, and rebuilt his business in the early 1980s; today, the Mukwano Group of Companies is one of the biggest conglomerates in Uganda.
IB TIMES: Did Ugandan authorities strip the Asians of all their wealth and assets prior to their forced departure from the country.
SAMANI: Yes - all assets were confiscated, there were army checkpoints on all major roads, any gold, jewelry or money Asians were carrying with them was taken. Asians were also unable to access their bank accounts, so they landed in Britain without a penny to their name. A few of the wealthier Ugandan Asian families probably held foreign bank accounts, but the vast majority would have arrived in the UK with nothing.
IB TIMES: Amin claimed that Indians in Uganda were dominating and exploiting the economy at the expense of local Africans. Is there any validity to this assertion?
SAMANI: Indians did not really have any power to marginalize African Ugandans. They were operating under rules set by a colonial government. The economic segregation primarily arose due to 'know how' and trading instinct of the Indians. Even when trading regulations did not favor the Indians, they still prospered. It was mainly politicians of Amin's persuasion that claimed the Indian community exploited Ugandans.
IB TIMES: Indians had lived in Uganda for about a century prior to the expulsion. How did they get along with African people? Did Indians remain isolated, or did they socialize with the African people?
SAMANI: Indians generally employed African Ugandans, and from what I understand, they did not really socialize. You could say the Indians were isolated, but every community in Uganda socialized and mixed only amongst its own people - the Indians were not unique in behaving in this way. This also applied to Ugandan tribes and Europeans.
IB TIMES: Were any Indians killed by Amin's soldiers?
SAMANI: I have no recorded data of this, only anecdotal evidence that perhaps a hundred or so Indians were unaccounted for. There were not really any widely reported cases of murder. Most arrived in the UK having left in hostile circumstances, and there are some cases of individuals who disappeared and remain unaccounted for.
IB TIMES: After the Indians left, did Uganda's economy collapse?
SAMANI: From 1971 to the National Resistance Movement Party's adoption of free market reforms in 1987, the Ugandan economy fell deep into a crisis under the strain of civil wars, the nationalization of certain industries and the expulsion of the Asians. The NRM overthrew Amin in 1979. The instability of the economy between 1971 and 1987 led to the rise of the informal sector. By 1987, President Yoweri Museveni had inherited an economy that suffered the poorest growth rate in Africa.
IB TIMES: After Amin was deposed in 1979, did his successor immediately invite the Indians back to the country?
SAMANI: When Museveni took power in 1986, he invited the expelled Indians back to Uganda, offering back some of their possessions and providing incentives to reboot the economy. A small number of families and individuals returned, some of them -- the Madhvanis and Sudhir Ruparelia for example, are two of the wealthiest industrialists in Uganda today.
IB TIMES: How many Indians have since returned to Uganda? What is their status now?
SAMANI: Estimates indicate there are about 12,000 Indians in Uganda today, the vast majority has settled in the capital of Kampala, but they also have a presence in Jinja, Lira and other small pockets of the country. A small number of these are expelled Asians; a much larger number are Indians who have arrived directly from India, for business and job opportunities. Indians can go to Uganda on a tourist visa and then look for a job --- making it a more attractive option than many other parts of the world. Besides the Gujarati business community, there are new Indian immigrants from Punjab and health-care workers from Kerala.
IB TIMES: When Amin was granted asylum in Saudi Arabia (and allowed to reside there peacefully for the remainder of his life), were the expelled Asians outraged?
SAMANI: There has not really been a cohesive organization of Ugandan Asians to really express any outrage or otherwise. Expelled Indians had their own problems and issues rebuilding their lives in the UK and elsewhere -- they seem to have been too concerned with what was happening in Britain, and getting on with life rather than worrying too much about Amin and Uganda.