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By Ramnik Shah

The focus of "They came in dhows and left in jets" (Awaaz, Issue 1, 2006) was the Asian diaspora ('The Departed'!) that has sprung out of East Africa. Here we examine what led to the migration of large numbers of East African Asians (EAAs) to the UK and North America, with particular reference to Kenya, and to assess its significance in a wider historical context

'Wind of Change': writing on the wall

The starting point has to be the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan`s famous "Wind of Change" speech at Cape Town in early 1960, signalling that the UK was to liquidate its African empire in haste. With this writing on the wall, the settled EAA population (and the Europeans also) began to worry about their future. As things turned out, the period of transition was too short and the changes taking place too fast and drastic for them to make any considered plans or detailed preparations for what was to come.

They were naturally concerned about their businesses, properties, employ-ment and pension rights and above all physical security. All these were dependent on an orderly transfer of power to African majority rule and were to figure highly in the succession of Lancaster House conferences leading to final independence. They were looking for continuity of existence in a society that was being rapidly transformed; such a conundrum had inherent contradictions which were not going to be easily resolved.

Citizen: to be or not to be

In this context the question of their legal status, in terms of nationality and residency, assumed primary importance in the negotiations between the various parties in the run-up to independence. Under the package that was eventually agreed, automatic local citizenship was to be conferred on all persons born in Kenya but only if one of their parents was also born there, with a consequential and immediate loss of British nationality; those who did not fall into this category remained British indefinitely until they obtained Kenyan citizenship at a later date (if then eligible, though they were given an unconditional option to acquire it within the so-called 'grace' period of 2 years after independence), at which point they would cease to be British; dual citizenship was not permitted except in certain transitional situations. This is a broad outline of what were in fact very complex legal provisions, with many exceptions to the general rule. They also followed a template that had been devised for Tanganyika and was later applied to Uganda.

Citizenship was seen as the key to commitment to the country, particularly as a number of basic rights were potentially, if not immediately, to flow from that. Almost 99.9% of the black African population qualified for automatic Kenya citizenship on Independence Day. The rationale for this was simple: they were indigenous and 'belonged' to the country. As for those from the immigrant Asian and European communities, it was felt that the longer they had been settled there, the greater would be their sense of attachment to the land and its people and so those of them who were, at the least, second generation born, whether through the father or the mother, were put on the same footing as their African compatriots. As with all lines drawn in the sand, as it were, these technicalities were bound to, and did, give rise to some anomalies and instances of individual angst. While migration from the Indian sub-continent to colonial Kenya had become firmly established by the First World War, it had still remained a fluid movement until well after World War II, with continuing additions, and some returns, so that circa 1962, not all Asians in Kenya had either been born there or, if so born, had a parent who had also been born there. At independence, then, there were some 177,000 Asians in Kenya of whom only about 100,000, more or less, became 'automatic' Kenya citizens, with the remainder retaining either their British or other (mostly Indian) nationality - these figures are extrapolated from Robert Gregory's Quest for Equality - Asian Politics in East Africa 1900-1967.

Transitions: Uhuru and after

The pace of change that had already begun in anticipation of independence accelerated after it by leaps and bounds. Schools and other public institutions, as well as places of meeting and entertainment etc, were being desegregated; there were programmes of what we would now call affirmative action for recruitment of more Africans into all grades of the civil service and their speedy promotion through the ranks of the police, armed forces and other uniformed services; the constant cry was for greater African participation across the whole socio-economic spectrum. Above all, it was in those sectors, both public and private, where the presence of Asians (much more than Europeans) was so noticeable and overpowering that the pressure for 'Africanisation' became more pronounced. Small Asian shopkeepers in the retail trade became an easy target for these moves. The Asian clerical and administrative workers in the civil service and their counterparts in the commercial sector, also felt vulnerable and feared both for their jobs and more particularly for their pensions (as not all of them were covered by special schemes applying to those, mostly white British, employed under 'expatriate' terms). All this was going on against the background of raw politics involving, among other things, assassinations, splintering and regrouping of parties, abandonment of the original 'Majimbo' constitution for a more centralist and one-party form of government and so on. In the midst of such political turmoil, in 1966, came the deportation of six individuals, of whom the most prominent was Pranlal Sheth. So it was inevitable that the Asians felt as if they were caught between a rock and a hard place!

Fruits of Independence

These were undoubtedly tumultuous times, but exciting and empowering nevertheless, full of promise and prospect of things to come, as well as of foreboding because of uncertainties about what lay ahead. Those of us who lived through them however were conscious of being part of history in the making, something that we in our youthful exuberance simply took in our stride.

Change was most noticeable in road transport. This was a period of rapid and massive expansion in roadbuilding. The Mombasa-Nairobi trunk road was being fully tarmacadamized, as were many others up-country. The African population was on the move, from the rural to the urban areas. The coming of independence had released the latent hunger and energies of the people, both as consumers and providers of goods and services; their horizons and ambitions were let loose; and the fact that the road transport business could be operated with minimal capital and organizational skills or experience provided an incentive to small-time African entrepreneurs to enter the world of commerce.

But in bringing this about, the Transport Licensing Board had to navigate a very difficult course between the perceived notions of procedural fairness and professional propriety on the one hand and temptations and pitfalls of nepotism, bribery, opportunism and aspiration on the other. One could see the beginnings of a culture of corruption, maladministration and injustice setting in - this is not meant to be morally judgmental but merely to state it as a fact. After all, we were witnessing a quiet revolution - not bloody or sudden - taking place, whereby the established colonial order was being changed without sufficient training for those who were to run it. There was thus bound to be a long period of adjustment and reorientation, with some 'collateral damage' in the interim!

Changes: gathering storms

Not surprisingly therefore, many Asians were hedging their bets, or were genuinely torn between the familiar and the unknown. Certain developments however were to make up their minds for them. The 1966 deportations of Pranlal Sheth and five others has already been mentioned. The year before had seen the imposition of exchange controls , which brought in strict limits on how much money could be taken out of the country on emigration and for other purposes. Then, in 1967, came the Trade Licensing Act and the Immigration Act. The first was aimed at businesses owned by non- Kenya citizens, and the second curtailed the permanent residency rights of non-citizens, different classes of whom were now required to apply for work permits. The practical implementation of these measures was fraught with a huge potential for mischief and resultant uncertainty and anxiety. These then were the forces at work during that critical period following independence. It was little wonder therefore that many Asians did begin to leave Kenya, though a lot of them left a back door open for reentry in case things did not quite work out. Some went 'back' to India, but a lot more used their new UK passports to move to Britain. In the first 3 to 4 years after independence, such emigration was happening at a fairly unhurried pace and in a low-key fashion. But the passing of the two Acts in 1967 changed this; the numbers began to rise, the movement became more pronounced and consequently began to be noticed and to cause alarm in Britain. Coming in the wake of the Sterling devaluation crisis and the resulting economic gloom, it triggered calls by the MPs Enoch Powell and Duncan Sandys for a ban on the entry of the Asians into the UK. Their authoritative voices aggravated the climate of hostility and stark racism that had been building up ever since the General Election of 1964 when a leading Labour politician, Patrick Gordon Walker, lost his seat in Smethwick (Birmingham) to a Conservative whose campaign slogan was "If you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour"!

Duncan Sandys, it must be remembered, was the British Colonial Secretary who had presided over arrangements for Kenya's independence and so he knew full well the constitutional and historical background to the legal position of the Asians concerned, while Powell had, some ten years before, as Health Minister, been involved in the recruitment and immigration of West Indians to work in British hospitals and railways. But they were clearly disturbed at the spectre of yet more non-white immigrants coming into the country to, as they saw it, take advantage of a generous social welfare system and exacerbate the perennial problems of housing, health, education and employment to the detriment of the locals. The net effect was circuitous: as the number of Kenya Asians trekking to Britain increased, the more vociferous was the reaction to their coming, which led to an even greater rush as the Asians began to fear that the door to their free entry would soon be closed, and so the flow turned into a flood.

During this turbulent period, there were parallel debates going on both in Britain and Kenya in all kinds of public forums, not least through the many letters and articles in the two principal Kenyan English language papers, the Nation and the East African (EA) Standard: for example, I had a number of highly charged exchanges with one Bill Court, an expatriate Englishman who could not stomach the idea of a mini-invasion of the Asians into his homeland. All this reached such a fever pitch by early February that the British Home Secretary James Callaghan caved in to the demands of Messrs Powell and Sandys!

UK slams the door: 'diabolical chicanery'

And so on 23 February 1968, he introduced a Bill in Parliament restricting the entry of British Asians into the UK. Upon hearing the announcement on radio, I sent off a scathing letter to the EA Standard attacking the British government which was published on Monday 26 February under the heading "This 'diabolical piece of chicanery'".

The 'Exodus', already under way, reached its peak in the following week. The Asian community rose to the challenge in a variety of innovative and cooperative ways, which they were also to demonstrate subsequently during the Ugandan expulsion in 1972 and more recently at the time of the US Embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998. They organized assistance for those too poor to afford the airfares or have funds for re-settlement in the UK. They helped out in many other ways too: ferrying passengers and families to the airport, giving temporary shelter and food to those from outside Nairobi, donating warm clothing for the English winter to the needy, facilitating tax clearance and other exit procedures and so on. Every available flight, whether scheduled or charter (and there were not many of either kind), was taken up. There was a steady stream of traffic to the airport and all public spaces there and around were jam packed with people and vehicles. All this is well recorded in press reports, TV and newsreel footage and broadcast archives of the period.

The consequences

There was much activity in the public relations arena as well. The Kenya Indian Congress (KIC), which had almost become defunct after independence, came out of hibernation to protest through its erstwhile and redoubtable chairman S G Amin. He gave interviews to British and other foreign newspapers and the BBC. A delegation consisting, among others, of JM Nazareth QC and Achhroo Kapila (both of whom were in fact Kenya citizens but were appalled by the action of the British government, within whose senior ranks they had personal contacts) and Dr G S Sandhu, was quickly formed and dispatched to London to make urgent representations to the politicians and public there but ultimately to no avail. I was part of a small coterie of planners and advisers (which included Arvind Jamidar) who were providing logistical and legal support to activists on the ground. Later that year, after its timely resurgence, I became Acting Secretary of the KIC, though the body was soon to relapse into obscurity once again.

The Bill became law as the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968 within a week, and came into effect on 1 March. In effect, it reduced the EA Asians, who had retained British nationality after independence, into second class citizens by taking away their automatic right of entry into the UK. It set up a Special Voucher Scheme to regulate their future entry for settlement there by an 'orderly' queue, subject to a world-wide quota of 1500 heads of household per annum. In the first few years of its operation, the Asians were subjected to arbitrary treatment and even racial abuse by the British Consular staff administering it. There were long delays and many cases of acute hardship as a result. Some families had been split; others were facing deportation, closure of their businesses or loss of employment without any legal means of redress. As predicted in my letter to the Standard, there were many British Asians who were refused entry into the UK and who were then stranded or 'shuttle-cocked' around the world in dire conditions. There were a few who, out of desperation, staged 'sitin's at the UK High Commission offices in Nairobi to highlight their plight, and when they were charged under Municipal Bye-laws for obstruction a small group of us lawyers defended them pro bono in the City Magistrate's Court, which only gave more publicity to their cause and lowered the image of the British even further. Again, as I had envisaged in the letter, it took nearly 6 years before the European Commission of Human Rights upheld a complaint from a number of the people affected and to declare that the UK government had indeed discriminated against them on racial grounds in enacting the 1968 legislation, but the Act and the Voucher Scheme remained in force nevertheless for decades after that (see 'Epilogue').

Good riddance

There was a chain of reaction from other governments as a response to such downgrading of the British Asians' status by the UK itself. Most imposed visa restrictions on them. Even as travel documents their passports were severely devalued. They had become international pariahs. While all this was undoubtedly embarrassing to the British, it also cast Kenya in a negative light on the global front and brought its Africanisation policies under critical scrutiny. Indeed, in July 1968, when Tom Mboya was asked (during a CBS Television programme broadcast from New York) a question "about reports of discrimination in Kenya against Asians who retain their British citizenship", while denying them, he paradoxically went on "to state categorically that the Asians who have left Kenya can be regarded by all of us as good riddance (and) the sooner they leave, the better"! (Daily Nation 18/07/1968).

And so the upheavals caused by the combination of the Kenyan Trade Licensing and Immigration legislation and the UK 'Exodus' Act of 1968 continued to dominate public discourse both in East Africa and Britain, where newspapers were full of acrimonious correspondence from readers of all persuasions as well as other forms of op-ed material. On 13 January 1970, in an editorial entitled "Asian 'mini-exodus'", the E.A Standard sought to minimize the problem, and Britain's share of responsibility for it, in these terms: "Britain certainly has a responsibility to British citizens, even though so many British passport holders did not originate in Britain. So have the Governments of Pakistan and India to take their own kith and kin who are in extremity".

In around May of 1970, some disgruntled Ugandan Asians even kidnapped a couple of members of the staff of the British High Commission in Kampala, in a misguided effort to speed up their entry into Britain! The situation in Tanzania was not much better, even though the numbers affected were much smaller, though their difficulties were much compounded by Julius Nyerere's socialist policies of nationalization of properties and farms.

The fightback

Meanwhile, at the beginning of 1970, I had been elected to the Council of the Law Society (of which I was to become Vice-President, later to be termed Vice-Chairman, for 1973/74) and attended the Commonwealth Law Conference in New Delhi in January 1971 as the Society's official delegate. I seized that opportunity to further publicise the cause of the British Asians at the first plenary session of the Conference chaired by no less than Lord Parker, the Chief Justice of England. The official rapporteur noted that:

"Mr R Shah commented on the paper of Mr K Subha Rao (former Chief Justice of India). He complained that the immigration laws enacted recently in Great Britain were discriminatory as between British nationals of Asian origin and of English origin. He felt aggrieved that British nationals of Asian origin in Kenya had no remedy because the Courts in England were powerless to declare invalid any laws enacted by the British Parliament".

While in Delhi, I made some useful contacts among the Commonwealth legal fraternity and spoke to many Indian jurists, which led me to write a short piece in the Times of India of 22 January 1971 under the heading "Kenya Asians" .

The Ugandan Expulsion

Over the next few years, many British Asians either gave up their British nationality in order to become Kenya citizens belatedly, or obtained work permits, or left the country as they got clearance to go to the UK and otherwise things began to settle down slowly. However, they remained subject to a delicate underlying tension and balance between resentment and restraint. Then in 1972 came Idi Amin`s whimsical order to the Asians to quit Uganda. It created a flurry of international diplomacy and the world media descended upon the region. It caused some panic in the neighbouring countries also, but this was kept under check. I remember being interviewed by Richard Linley for the British ITN 'News at Ten' and being asked about the reaction in Kenya; my response was that while Mzee Kenyatta was a wise leader, we (meaning Asians) felt as if time was not on our side!

At any rate, the wholesale expulsion of the Uganda Asians made nonsense of Britain's 1968 Act, because the UK had no choice but to accept its passport-holders notwithstanding that they did not technically qualify for immediate entry under that Act. To its credit however the British government of the day managed the crisis well. In the result, a large part of the Asian population was removed from East Africa at one stroke. It also prompted many young professionals (with growing families and many years of working life still left) to look for greener pastures elsewhere and countries such as Canada, USA and Australia were quite receptive to them on account of their skills, resourcefulness, adaptability etc. This process went on in a quiet and controlled way, without any public outcry, during the ensuing years until well into the 1980s.

The Exodus in Retrospect

Although as a phenomenon it was relatively short-lived, the Exodus nevertheless indelibly marked the uprooting and migration, en masse, of thousands of Kenya Asians into Britain and became a recognizable turning point in their spread as a diasporan people. From a global perspective, however, the impact of the 1972 expulsion of the Asians by Idi Amin was much greater, as it caught the imagination of the world as a singular dramatic event. Even now, all EAAs who ended up in Britain are more thought of as, or are confused with, 'refugees from Uganda' (or their descendants) than as people who came to settle in the UK as British nationals. And the story of their rite of passage from mere holders of British passports into fully-fledged UK citizens would form yet another chapter in the continuum of their history.

So why did the Exodus happen? While the constitutional safeguards written into the independence settlement did of course provide legal protection to the Asians, given the history and nature of Kenyan society and their place in it, things simply could not go on as before. It was clear that the unmistakeable march of progress ("wind of change") that had started was unstoppable against the weight of African expectation. African advancement that had been denied or stifled for so long under colonial rule could no longer be contained. And so the Asians, and others with foreign origins, had to come to terms with a fundamental shift in power from the old certainties to a new set of values and priorities (however unknown in terms of either quantity or quality), because whatever the past had been, the future undoubtedly favoured the indigenous African people. For those who were not Kenya citizens, them.

Lest it be thought that 'good riddance' was a typical African attitude, given respectability by the likes of Tom Mboya, there were many Asian intellectuals within the professional and higher business circles who also thought that the 'clearing out' of the lower middle-class Asians - the artisans, the clerks, the small-time traders and the workers in service industries, etc - made the position of those who remained much more secure because of their usefulness and contribution to a country on the move. In that they were, by and large, to be proved right! The social transformation that has taken place in the last 30 years is beyond the scope of this article but it speaks for itself. In the overall scheme of things, there is also another truth that needs to be faced: that all through the colonial era, and into the early years of independence, the immigrant communities (both Asian and European), no matter how long they had been settled in EA, had always felt a pull of their homelands and moreover, the Asians, having been nurtured under a British system of education and governance, were increasingly looking to the West for a permanent home. Above all, they were always plagued by a subterranean sense of physical insecurity - heightened of course during the Mau Mau years. Culturally they were never a part of the indigenous landscape. Of course a lot of this was attributable to the semi-apartheid like fabric of society of those days. They were thus always a people in transition, not 'Africanised' or African enough (the term 'African-Asian' or 'Asian- African' is of more recent origin); they were ethnic outsiders who never really felt wholly at home or embedded in the soil of Africa, and so there was a kind of preordained inevitability about their departure from East Africa when the opportunity arose or the push came. Of course this was not true of all, and in that sense the logic of the constitutional criterion for conferring automatic citizenship on the second generation-born Kenyans was perfectly sound: they were expected to have inherited or cultivated a sense of loyalty to the country and would have wanted to remain, as so many did.

There are no official or reliable statistics to show how many people did leave and over what period of time, but it is no exaggeration to say that in the first 10 years after independence, Kenya's Asian population probably went down to about 100,000. If it has since gone up - despite a continuing outflow of people, albeit on a much smaller scale - then that is undoubtedly due to the new 'desi' immigrant folk from all parts of the sub-continent in the last 25 years. There are other new realities too: there is a much greater understanding on the part of indigenous Africans of the dynamics of migration and settlement in alien lands and cultures, as they themselves have now become players, shakers and movers on a global level - as economic migrants, expatriate professionals, refugees, students and even as illegal workers. And the EAA Diasporans, having learnt from their own or their ancestors' past experience, are much more in tune with their new adopted homelands and do readily identify themselves with the people of those countries than they or their elders did back in East Africa.

Epilogue The sequels to the UK Act of 1968 were long and hard. Life had to go on and so, despite all the adverse effects of the Exodus, it did stabilize for those British Asians who remained in Kenya, where economic conditions and other developments had so transformed the country that their visibility factor had more or less ceased to matter. They learned to live within the parameters of their second class status as British Overseas Citizens (their nationality designation having changed in 1983) and reappraised their business, employment, investment and personal commitments generally on the implicit understanding that when the time came (for example when their children were grown up or had completed their schooling or wanted to go to university or when family or other circumstances so warranted or simply when they wanted to retire) they could go to the UK for settlement under the Special Voucher Scheme. It was not until 2002 however that the UK passed legislation which enabled these remaining British Overseas Citizens to be registered as full British Citizens subject to satisfying certain preconditions. Of course if account is taken of the intervening three and a half decades, then it is plain to see that many of them (if still alive) would have simply given up and found alternatives, or fallen by the wayside. The formula adopted was by no means perfect but at last this shameful episode in Britain's decolonization saga was brought to an end, after a continuing campaign by many of us! COPYRIGHT: Ramnik Shah


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