Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Revisiting the 1972 Expulsion of Asians from Uganda

Academic journal article Indian Foreign Affairs Journal

Revisiting the 1972 Expulsion of Asians from Uganda

Article excerpt

Indian Foreign Affairs Journal (IFAJ): Thank you, Ambassador Desai for agreeing to share with the Journal your memories of an important event in the Diplomatic History of India. In 1972, the Ugandan Dictator, Idi Amin, based on his whims expelled all 'Asians' - that Included Indian Nationals and people of Indian Origin. You were heading the East Africa Desk in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) at the time and you were rushed to assess the situation and assist in the evacuation.

You have had and continue to have intimate links with East Africa. You spent your early years in Tanzania. After joining the Indian Foreign Service, your first posting was to Kenya. You continue to have family connections in East Africa. In 1987, fifteen years after the '72 expulsions' you were back in Kampala as the Indian High Commissioner.

Before we talk about the evacuation proper, and to put things in perspective, can you describe East Africa in general and Uganda in particular, during these four phases - your early life, in Kenya as junior diplomat, the Idi Amin phase, and your stint as High Commissioner in Uganda?

Niranjan Desai (ND): It is indeed an honour for me to be a part of the Oral History project of the Journal.

I spent the first seventeen years of my life in Tanzania. My father was a small manufacturer, manufacturing washing soap and candles for a goldmine. Life in Tanzania those days was typical of a colonial society. Society was completely segregated. The whites lived outside the town, on the hillside; the Indians lived in the town itself; the Africans were on the outskirts. There were Indian schools, African schools, and the whites used to go to schools in Nairobi. Even sports were segregated. There were separate clubs for Indians and whites. There was a particularly interesting case of a very rich Indian, one Mr Chopra, a famous lawyer and a partner in a diamond mine, who had married a French lady. He could not become a member of the white club, though his wife was a member of the British club.

We grew up without real contact with the Africans. Only towards the end of my schooldays we started playing cricket with the African students and came to know a few of them - but frankly, I had no contacts with Africans of my age. My father decided that I should go to India for university studies. On the advice of one of his friends in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) he also desired that I should try for the civil services examination in India. Accordingly, I obtained admission at St. Stephen's College. At Delhi University I found a lot of African students. I came to know many of them as a member of the Foreign Students Association. Then, as now, foreign students were looked after by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). (Later in service, when I became the Director General of ICCR, I tried to focus on the issues relating to foreign students.)

IFAJ: So, some form of discrimination did exist in the East African society then. How about contacts with India?

ND: I think things have changed tremendously since then. There have been more contacts between all communities. Even marriages are taking place between Indians and Africans. Those days, Indians did not have very live contacts with India too. It was difficult to even get newspapers. The only contact with India was through All India Radio (AIR). It was a done thing that you listened to AIR, especially the Gujarati service, at 7.30 in the morning and 7.30 in the evening. Pakistan also had a Gujarati service for news from Pakistan. Indians formed their own closed community, with its own subdivisions. The Ismailis, the followers of the Aga Khan, kept to themselves - they even had their own schools. The Dawoodi Bohras formed a separate group, but since they were not large in numbers, they attended the Indian schools. The Sikhs were also part of the Indian schools. Among the Hindus there were also divisions like the Patels and Lohanas. These groups did not mix except on special occasions like Diwali. …

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