For Uganda NRIs: A grim reminder of Idi Amin's dark days
Apr 18, 2007 - 10:01:27 AM
'The worst NRI nightmare is Idi Amin's Uganda,' recalled Shanti Lakhani in Leicester, UK. 'A glimpse of the same horror was repeated last week.' No matter where they live, all non-resident Indians - recoil with panic at the brutal treatment by the Ugandan despot Amin. The recent violent demonstrations near Jinja and in the capital Kampala were a reminder of the dark days of the Amin era from 1971-1979 during which the dictator ordered all Indians to leave Uganda in 1972. This mass expulsion from their homes and businesses without taking any assets remains the ultimate disaster for all NRIs.
Lakhani should know. He and his family came with just 50 pounds to Britain 35 years ago as 'Ugandan Refugees'. Before he flew out, he buried his gold ornaments in a secret spot in his home. Moving to Leicester where other Ugandan Indians were converging, he started from a scratch as a petrol station attendant. Working almost round the clock, he bought the business a few years later with a bank loan guaranteed by his friends. It took some more years to repay this loan. By then, the new Uganda President Yoweri Museveni invited the Ugandan Indians back to Uganda 'to re-construct' their former homeland. Lakhani went back but only to dig up his ornaments from his home now taken over by Africans. Other Indian traders, including the two major Indian business groups, the Madhvanis and the Mehtas, returned to restart their operations and prospered again.
And now 35 years after this exodus that grabbed world headlines, the anger against Indians in Uganda resurfaced in all its ugliness when Indians were attacked, forced to close their shops and a young Indian was lynched to death. It all started with a protest by environmentalists who wanted to save part of a forest that the government wanted to hand over to the Mehta Group for developing a sugarcane plantation. 'Save the forest' protest by the opposition morphed into an anti-Indian diatribe. The protesters carried banners screaming 'Asians should go' and 'For every tree cut, five Indians dead'. From Jinja, it spread to Kampala.
The Indians hurriedly downed their shop shutters to save them from being ransacked by the furious mob. The Indian banks also closed down. Some Indians sought refuge in a temple that was attacked. And an Indian, Devang Rawal, was stoned and beaten to death by a vicious mob during a protest. A day after his death, oblivious of what had happened in Kampala, Devang's mother in Ahmedabad was joyfully informing friends of her son's return in May and his wedding preparations. When his body arrived in Ahmedabad, his mother and family were inconsolable.
'Although Indian shops in Kampala opened on Saturday, Thursday's mob attack that saw Indians being dragged off motorbikes and beaten, their shops looted and a Hindu temple attacked, revived bitter memories of virulent anti-Indian bashing by former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who expelled nearly 75,000 Asians in 1972,' wrote the 'Hindustan Times'. Leading Ugandan newspaper 'New Vision' editorialised: 'The violence against the Asian community, resulting in one Asian killed, is unforgivable. It has led to the loss of life and the destruction of property of innocent people. It has diverted a noble cause into a racial one.'
After the Indian government expressed concern over the safety of Indians in Uganda, the Ugandan government assured that no harm will be done to Indians in Uganda. President Museveni promised, 'Such hooliganism will not be allowed to happen again'. He said: 'Ugandans need 'foreigners' to develop our country. They bring their savings here, their technology, their management skills and buy what we produce. Others come here as tourists and bring money. How can anybody claim to be pro-Uganda and be anti-foreigners who are contributing to our prosperity?'
But the incident shows how quickly the hatred against the immigrants flares up when peaceful protestors become hysterical attackers. As a witness to the Amin era, I have observed all this at close quarters from Kenya and reported on the plight of Ugandan refugees in Britain. Visiting Kampala a year after Amin took over, it was clear that the richly endowed country was on a steep slide into poverty and anarchy that ensued.
A 75-year old retired chartered accountant Natubhai Shah, who is living in Ahmedabad, recalled Amin's reign of terror in an interview with 'The Times of India', 'Here I was, on an official tour with Idi Amin's entourage, trying to cross the Nile River when a military van stopped me from going ahead. One of the army men discreetly handed me a pair of binoculars. It was a chilling sight. Amin was standing beside the river, cutting flesh off an Asian man and feeding it to crocodiles in the river.' Lakhani knows it all too well and prays, 'God forbid, no NRI should face it!'
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