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50 years after expulsion, Asians are thriving again in Uganda

TonFairway Hotel In the capital, Kampala, is a good place to contemplate the changing fate of South Asians in Uganda. It was originally the home of Bandali Jaffer, an Indian cotton trader. His son was a member of the first Ugandan parliament, which he turned into a hotel for visiting popes. Then, in 1972, dictator Idi Amin deported 55,000 people of Indian origin from the country and confiscated their property. The fairway was turned into a military base.

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The evictions, which took place over three months and culminated 50 years ago this month, were a traumatic chapter, but not the last. Today, the hotel is back in the family and is managed by Mr. Jaffer’s Canadian-born great-grandson, Azhar. “I never thought I’d end up here,” he said, but now “this is home.”

On a recent evening, the fairways were packed with Indian businessmen: spaghetti dealers and biscuit bakers, pipe makers and detergent makers. Most are newcomers with no memory of the past. The Amin era was like a “nightmare”, said Mohan Reddy, from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, who was busy organizing the Africa-India Investment Summit: “When you wake up, you have to forget it.”

But “the insecurity of eviction,” to borrow the title of a forthcoming book by UC Irvine anthropologist Anneeth Kaur Hundle, lingers. Amin’s decree was welcomed by many Ugandans, who saw it as a move to “Africanize” the economy. For the small traders who organized the boycott of Asian stores, it was a win that was not worth it: the business of deported Asians was handed over to soldiers and officials who turned the country into a mess. Still, memories of the evictions are more ambivalent inside Uganda than abroad.

outsider inside

When South Asians returned in the 1980s and 1990s, it was at the invitation of new governments that tried to rebuild the country through free markets and foreign capital. Ms Hundle argues that their status in Uganda is tied to their economic status as “investor-citizens”. “The government has really perfected ways to reintegrate Asians in Uganda and welcome new South Asians … but still treat them as racial outsiders,” she said.

The most prominent of the South Asians deported in 1972 were wealthy industrialists who returned to reclaim their fortunes at every opportunity. But most were middle-class merchants and shopkeepers— Ducavalas– They continue their search for greener pastures in the UK and Canada. Only a few thousand returned. Their places have been filled by newcomers from all corners of India, not just the ancient heartland of Gujarat, who make up the majority of the 35,000 South Asians in Uganda today. Some took root in Uganda; others saw it as a stepping stone to the west.

Asians run hotels, sugar refineries, plastic steel, fish fillets, imported food, and more. They claim to contribute 60-65% of the tax revenue. Most attribute their success to hard work and frugality: Singh Katongole, a prominent Asian leader, explained that Indians always carry packed lunches instead of eating out. They also benefit from transnational relationships that link them to foreign credit. Some bigwigs profit from political connections. Others profited during the restitution of expropriated property in the 1990s, collecting the assets of those who remained abroad.

Characterizing Asians as “investors” makes it easy for them to come back, but it’s an unstable basis for belonging. Most newcomers are professional workers or small businessmen, not industry leaders. In August, authorities deported more than a hundred foreigners, including Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese. Officials said the deportees had promised to build and operate factories but were instead running electronics stores.

Meanwhile, big Asian companies are the most visible faces of local capitalism and its inequalities. Small farmers have accused South Asian-owned companies of grabbing land for sugar and palm oil plantations. Workers complain about bossy bosses.

Ugandan historian Samwiri Lwanga Lunyiigo’s New History of Asians in Uganda portrays South Asians as junior partners in British colonialism who remain “the true masters of Uganda” today. It’s a reckless exaggeration, but there’s a mild sense of resentment widely felt by Ugandans. Tony Galiwango, who trades auto parts in Kampala, believes the government needs to “create a level playing field for all involved” or “people will demand a second Amin”. In 2007, an Indian businessman was killed by mobs, but incidents of overt racial hostility are thankfully rare.

mind your own business

There are no Ugandan Indians in Parliament. “We are essentially apolitical,” said a member of a prominent family. “Our interests are as business people.” Like most investors, the South Asian tycoon tends to believe those interests are best served by backing Yoweri Museveni, an authoritarian president since 1986.

“For the government, they are a resource because they have no political base in the country,” said Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan Asian intellectual at Columbia University. “Since independence, all governments have used this business community as a force against the local business community, competing with each other.”

The outsider status of Asians in Uganda is protected by a constitution that views citizenship through an ethnic lens. It lists 65 “indigenous communities” whose children are considered citizens at birth. Some Asian leaders are pushing to join the Bahindi (“Indians”). Legal nuances matter less than gut feelings. “There’s always a little bit of anxiety about getting fired,” said Mr Jaffer of the Fairway Hotel.

Yet despite the troubles of the past, there is also a sense of community getting along. Younger generations are building bridges: A TikTok video of an Asian man speaking Ugandan has 3.3 million likes. Valuable traditions remain. During the Navratri festival, a group of old friends chat at Patidar Samaj, one of the many Indian community associations. They recall their bachelor days in the 90s, when they came panning for gold and sometimes slept in an office behind a temple. Outside, hundreds of people danced in a joyful circle, their arms twirling under the lights. “It’s like being in India,” one of them said as the band cranked up the tempo.

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