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Uganda to UK: A long journey

Ugandan Indians in UK mark 40th anniversary of their escape to freedom from Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s clutches, an event that is being marked throughout Britain in 2012-2013. Dipankar De Sarkar reports.

world Updated: Jan 20, 2013 01:22 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

In the year Priti Patel was born in London, the then Ugandan dictator Idi Amin informed his nation that God had instructed him (in a dream) to expel Ugandan Asians.

Later he called the thriving trading community “bloodsuckers” and gave them three months to leave — those with British passports first, then the rest.

In all, 60,000 Asians fled Uganda, around 28,000 of whom settled in a cold and grey Britain, with not much more than a suitcase and the clothes on their back. Others moved to Canada, the US, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia.

Patel’s parents were Ugandan Indians who had managed to leave the east African nation only a few years before Amin’s expulsion order of August 1972.

But bumptious dictators have a way of messing up things in their own lair and Uganda’s loss became Britain’s gain. In May 2010, at the age of 38, Priti Patel became the first female Asian MP in Britain.

On the 40th anniversary of the deportation, an event that is being marked throughout Britain in 2012-2013, the achievements of Patel and other Ugandan Asians are being held up before a nation that is struggling to overcome the effects of a financial crisis.

South Asians today make up 2.5% of the population but account for 10% of Britain’s national output — led by entrepreneurial Gujaratis from east Africa.

Asians from Uganda are special. Once in Britain, these persecuted refugees (they were allowed to take a maximum of £50 each), quickly managed to overtake the host White population as well as those who had come directly from India — both in education and work.

“Dad had to drop out of studies to look after the family. He opened a newsagent’s shop in Tottenham (north London),” said Patel.

“We lived in a rented room in a house. Those were difficult times, and there was racism. But they were determined to get on in life because Britain had opened the door to them.”

Ugandan Asians are best known for their business skills. Starting out as shopkeepers in a nation of shopkeepers, they kept their shops open after 5pm and on weekends, when others would be shut.

Today, many are multi-millionaires — the richest is cosmetic-maker Lornamead boss Mike Jatania (no. 99 on the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List, with a family fortune of £760mn). Equally, they are high flying professionals.

The ruling Conservative party has done well out of Ugandan Asians. Priti Patel is one, as is one of its whips — ex-Conservative vice-chairman Shailesh Vara, who was born in Kakira in eastern Uganda.

Self-made multi-millionaire Dolar Popat, who arrived in England with only £10 in 1972, is a prominent party donor and heads the influential Conservative Friends of India lobby group.

“Our values mirror those of the society around us,” said Popat, who once worked as a waiter in a fast-food restaurant.

He lists these values as “aspiration, enterprise and the importance of family,” drawing parallels with the successful Jewish community in Britain.

Very few Ugandan Asians took state handouts after arriving in Britain — indeed, ex-PM Margaret Thatcher often extolled Conservative values and Asians in the same breath.

“They reskilled and requalified themselves; they sought white collar employment, which many achieved; they moved into self-employment; and they gained better quality housing,” says professor Vaughan Robinson in his widely-quoted study of East African Asians in Britain, Marching into the Middle Classes?

There are parallels with 2013. “All of this was achieved during two major economic recessions and in the geographical areas in which they were originally resettled. Few other minority groups in Britain have achieved so much in such a short period of time,” says Robinson, now with Kings College London.

A typical case is that of Rajan Mehta, who stepped on to windy Stanstead Airport in southeast England on a Thursday and queued up at the job centre the next day, he remembers.

He worked as a clerk at the social service department, went to night school, qualified as a chartered accountant and today, at the age of 58, is the financial controller of a credit insurance company.

“Three things I remember: language — accent was a big problem — the cold weather and the quietness of England,” said Mehta. In the city of Leicester, 10,000 Ugandan Asians settled down, creating 30,000 jobs.

“I see nothing but success stories,” said Keith Vaz, the MP who represents Asian areas of Leicester.

But back then, the refugees’ arrival threatened to spark off a serious backlash — Conservative MP Ronald Bell wanted them to be sent to India, saying: “They were either born in India or have retained close connection with India. They have no connection with Britain either by blood or residence.”

A British SOS to other Commonwealth countries was rebuffed by Australia, Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka (only Canada and Malawi said yes).

Senior civil servants even suggested settling the Asians “on a suitable island in the (British) dependent territories” — such as the remote Falklands or the Solomon Islands.

But Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath bravely stood his ground, earning his party the gratitude of thousands of Asians.

Priti Patel thinks there are lessons for Britain in the way the Ugandan Indians rebuilt their lives.

“I don’t know of any Indians who have been on the dole queue because you wouldn’t entertain a life on benefit.” Britain, she says, has “lost that essence of hard work. People never ask how we got there. Now we (government) are looking to end the culture of dependency.”

There is one last ironic twist to the story of Ugandan Asians — many of the younger generation have been looking at India with interest.

At a recent literary festival in London, an entire panel of second generation Ugandan Indians confessed to having little or no interest in the east African country of their parents. Few had visited, even on a holiday. Rather, after Britain, they considered India their home.

“Third and fourth generation east African Indians in the US are taking a year out to go to India, live in local conditions and contributing to development projects,” said John De Souza, a Ugandan-Indian who works for the Madhvani Group, Uganda’s largest industrial operation.

“I look at Africa with a degree of sadness,” admitted Patel.

“I’d go to India first.”