Uganda an Indian Colony

Author: Prof. Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo
Publ: The African Studies Bookstore

Prof. Samwiri Lwanga-Lunyiigo’s new book, Uganda an Indian Colony 1897-1972 has been touted as a ‘well-researched, provocative’ book. ‘Provocative’ it certainly is – the first 174 pages of this 224-page book is a vitriolic polemic on the Ugandan Indians who, according to the author, ‘colonized Uganda’.

The author has, however, completely overlooked the primary role of imperialism, and its adjunct colonialism, in Third World and African history.  The Indians themselves were colonized people who were experiencing harsh colonial oppression in their homeland.

They were encouraged by the British colonisers to migrate to East Africa (and elsewhere) because the colonisers needed assistance in colonizing their new frontiers. Had they been ‘colonisers’, surely they would not have left Uganda without a whimper!

The majority of the early Indians arrived in Uganda at the turn of the 20th century ‘as paupers’ as the author himself states. Hardly in the position of ‘colonisers’ in 1897! In this strange land, among strange people, they set about building a new life. Some failed and returned to India, those who stayed established dukas (shops and trading posts), others took to farming. Unlike in Kenya, where the Europeans settlers grabbed and hoarded the best land, in Uganda some of the locally owned land was made available to the Indians.

This was the genesis of the businesses, manufacturing firms, ginneries and large sugar and cotton plantations that some of the Indians developed. The majority, however, served as teachers, clerks, mechanics, secretaries, etc – largely middle- class activities. As they helped themselves, did they not make any positive contribution to Uganda’s development? Are we saying that colonialism and   capitalism are entirely negative constructs? Is that not ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’?

Life is not black or white (or brown in this case), our contention is that this book is not an academic thesis, it is more of a polemic. Which is not to say that the points it raises are not valid. Yes, the Indian [South Asian] bourgeoisie did establish and own the commanding heights of Uganda’s economy, and used underhand methods to cheat the peasantry. (Which capitalist business person does not ‘cheat’ and ‘exploit’?) Yes, Indians have a tradition of casteism and racism. Yes, the Indian minority tends to be exclusive, keeps to itself and zealously guards its womenfolk.  

Racism and sexism (and homophobia) are the central pillars of capitalism and class domination. In pre-independence times, the Indian entrepreneurs were facilitated by the British the author explains. And post-independence? Was it not a comprador class of black Ugandans who, in league with the Indian bourgeoisie, continued to exploit Uganda for the benefit of the few and the travail of the majority? Was it not this black and brown ruling class which lived off the sweat of the Ugandan peasants et al; and who was in turn at the beck and call of the Empire?

‘Well-researched’! That is arguable. Certainly, the books, dissertations, articles, archives, newspapers, government and other publications listed at the end of the book and therefore consulted by the author, are impressive. But research only provides the facts and figures, an historical account is authenticated in the pros and cons it presents to arrive at its final conclusions.

ALL negative? No contribution or favourable attitude worth considering! Towards the end of the book on p192 is a paragraph which mentions the names of five ‘Indian’ nationalists in that ‘colonising’ period, and a few more in contemporary Uganda. Needless to say, they all underwent expulsion. Just one example of this sophistry will suffice: p124 records Obote’s ‘heavy dependence’ on Prof. Yashpal Tandon with drafting the documents for the ‘Move to the Left’ and the ‘Common Man’s Charter’ and immediately goes on to conclude that, ‘So, Uganda was dependant on Indians with regard to money and ideas: Uganda was a colony of Indians in totality.’! No mention is made of the late Dani Nabudere, Ignatius Musaazi and several other patriotic black Ugandan Marxist comrades who Tandon worked with. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t!

It is this lack of nuance, this omission of inconvenient truths and the absence of any class analysis which makes the book capricious. To have the Indians ‘colonizing’ Uganda from 1897, to describe the 1960s as Uganda’s ‘decade of socialism’ (p 139); Idi Amin Dada as the saviour of the Ugandan peasants and attribute his ‘heinous acts’ to his British military training (p169); even the use of the term ‘colony’ here is to dilute the real colonialism which came with guns, grabbed our land, killed our heroes, disparaged our culture, religion and history and is still ruling over us.

This book is about villains versus victims. The arch villain is Jayant Muljibhai Madhvani and included in his camp is the irredeemable Obote, twice president of Uganda, ‘whose main problem was the Baganda’ (p125). The victims are the Ugandan peasants.

Was this book written just to vilify the Ugandan Indians, or did it seek also to learn from past mistakes and suggest a different path to the liberation of the Ugandan people?  For liberation they certainly need desperately, even after having expelled, according to the author, their major oppressor. The present reality is that the very basics of a functioning democracy in Uganda are very blurred and the peasants (and most others) cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel.

The critical question is: Who are the real controllers of our destiny, the owners of our economy? In Africa, not just Uganda. With this book the imperialists will log another plus in their divide-and-rule policy – xenophobia is the latest spanner in the toolkit of Neo-liberalism. It is xenophobic to condemn and expel an entire community – and xenophobia is very closely intertwined with negative ethnicism (tribalism). The urgent need is for Ugandans to rescue their failed democracy, rebuild their institutions and protect their economy rather than be side-tracked into yet another internecine project.

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