Colonization, unlike the Commonwealth, was not a cutesy philanthropic enterprise of glitzy soft power. It was the methodical exploitation and emasculation of the uncivilized natives by any means necessary.
On the backs of the civilizing British colonialists is the origin story of the Asian community in Uganda. Consequently, the relationship between Uganda and its Asian community remains complicated even as the country marks 50 years since Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of Asians from Uganda.
In July 2013, Professor Mahmood Mamdani speaking at the commemoration of the Aga Khan anniversary, reflected upon the disquieting and persistent questions plaguing Uganda since independence. Questions like “the Buganda Question, the Northern Question, the Karamoja Question, the Asian Question,” he noted, have at one point been resolved using violence. Mamdani stated: “And each resolution has proved unsatisfactory and thus temporary, calling for more violence.”
Historian and author, Professor Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo has a new book interrogating the Asian question. The brief title of the book, Uganda an Indian Colony 1897-1972, strikes a strong provocative pose that commandeers attention.
Speaking at the August 17 Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) seminar, on the relationship between Indians/Asians and Ugandans during colonial Uganda, Lwanga- Lunyiigo asserted, “They understood us; we never understood them.”
He opined that when the Indians came to assist the British colonialists, the Indians came along with their customs such as the caste system, which meant racism towards the natives had to thrive. He further explained that the natives failed to penetrate Indian religions and languages reiterating, “We never got to know them.”
Ugandan Asians are locally known as Bayindi or Bahindi, which term Mamdani in 2013 argued put the Asian community on the outside, being defined by their ancestral origin, not their present context. He contended, “To be a permanent visitor is, however, to be permanently insecure and permanently irresponsible. If the Asian minority is daily plagued by this insecurity, the majority is forever conscious of the Asians as irresponsible to society.”
In 2017, Kenya officially recognized its’ Asian community as one of its tribes. The outgoing President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta observed, “Kenya’s diversity is not a cause for division, it is our greatest strength.”
Buoyed by Kenya, Ugandan Asians hoped for similar recognition. Former parliamentarian, Ugandan Asian, Sanjay Tanna, urged Parliament to recognize Bayindi as one of Uganda’s tribal communities. President Yoweri Museveni has publicly voiced his support for this proposal.
On August 19, the deputy speaker of Parliament, Hon. Thomas Tayebwa pressed Ugandans to treat Indians as fellow citizens so that they/Indians can live a peaceful life in Uganda, reported
the Daily Monitor. Tayebwa encouraged the Indian community that “as the government, we are trying hard to see that Indians are not treated like second-hand citizens; they should also share the same benefits as Ugandans.”
Browsing through the hundreds of comments on the Daily Monitor’s Facebook post of Tayebwa’s remarks, the main sentiment was highly critical and rabidly opposed to Tayebwa’s call.
Most of the commenters accused Indians of discriminating against Ugandans. The more radical commenters praised Idi Amin as the only leader who dealt favourably with the Asian question. Others opined vehemently that Tayebwa should have instead urged Indians to treat Ugandans well. Some were particularly peeved that Ugandan men could not marry Indian women.
Enter Hon. Fred Opolot. The Uganda Parliamentary Forum on Indian Affairs launched with a bang on August 3 when its chairperson, Opolot requested the Indian community to allow Ugandan men to marry Indian women to deepen the relationship between the two countries.
Opolot’s comments received bored derision as several people wondered if the parliamentarian was seeking media attention so his constituents could see him on TV. The Indian High Commission in a press release noted that the forum would enable continuous dialogue and cooperation between parliamentarians of the two countries.
Perhaps, Opolot, formerly a diplomat and government media centre chief, was drawing from his bag of smooth diplomacy to address a difficult conversation. In the lead-up to Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians, Amin castigated them for refusing to integrate with Ugandans.
According to the Times of India dated August 23, 2007, Amin complained, “It is particularly painful ...since the first Asians came to Uganda, the Asian community has continued to live in a world of its own... that Africans in this country, have for example, hardly been able to marry Asian girls.”
Observer Columnist and scholar Yusuf Serunkuma posited in 2019 that another expulsion of Asians from Uganda could occur noting that the infamous 2007 Mabira riots exposed the festering sewer of local resentment towards Asians.
Lwanga-Lunyiigo is also convinced that 1972 is likely to reoccur stating that the context of economic domination and exploitation, which precipitated the 1972 expulsion, is afoot. He interpreted the Asians’ failure to integrate locally as proof that they view themselves as a superior race.
How does a community break out of being “permanently insecure and permanently irresponsible”? What is the face of integration? Is it cross-cultural marriage, obtaining citizenship or becoming Bayindi, addressing the economic dominance by a minority group?
The Times of India article concluded that widening the gene pool (marrying outside) could be the eventual win-win for all sides.
The writer is a tayaad muzzukulu.