When the Ugandan government announced that noncitizen Asians would have to leave their Ugandan home, the only home known to many families, my family was making a different type of migratory move. By choice. With agency. Accompanying my mother in August 1972, I was a toddler-traveler leaving India for the United States to join my father who had secured an engineering position after arriving a few months prior. My father was among those who benefitted from the United States’ 1965 Immigration Act1 that upended previous national-origin quotas and enacted a tiered preference system, including professions and skills that the United States desired. The old quota system, imbued with eugenicist notions of racial hierarchy, ensured that the United States would be primarily populated by people of European national origin. After the Immigration Act, the United States dramatically altered its demographic makeup as immigrants under this new legislation were primarily from Asia, Africa, South/Central America and not Europe. In some ways, 1965 was to the United States as 18952 was to Uganda: a demographic shift in its population due to migration.
As a teen, I understood my family’s immigration story as this: after a Soviet space dog successfully orbited the Earth, President Kennedy wanted to beat the Soviets to the moon and realized that it was advantageous to “import” the scientific brain power rather than taking the time to train the next generation of science-technology experts. Signed into law by President Johnson at a ceremony at the base of the Statue of Liberty, two years following Kennedy’s assassination, the 1965 Immigration Act serves as one peg in a multipronged history of the Indian diaspora. India is notable not only for having the largest diaspora in the world3 but also for that diaspora’s spatial distribution across the breadth of the globe.
Unique in this long history of Indian overseas migration is Uganda. From Frederick Lugard’s nineteenth century exploration of East Africa’s developmental suitability to today’s bilateral relations/trade and many signed MoUs, India and Uganda have shared the same frame for many centuries. The 1972 expulsion reels in trauma, dissonance, and immense complexity; yet, it also figures as only one episode in a long history of networks, narratives, mobilities, and memories.
Lugard’s Indian birth, East African travels, and British heritage and service history make him emblematic of how empire connected lives in Britain, India, and East Africa. Lugard was employed by the British Imperial East Africa Company to determine East Africa’s viability beyond the coasts. Motivated by the need for British commercial success, Lugard undertook expeditions in the early-1890s that concluded with his support to move and develop inland. Railways would be the mechanism; labor usage for building the railways, however, was a topic of much debate. Lugard heralded Indian laborers as “more civilized settlers” and potential examples for the “extremely imitative” African. Problematic as such descriptions are now, he did argue that Indians be imported as colonists and settlers and “not as imported coolie labour.”4 Lugard speculated that if Indians brought commercial success to Africa for the British, then it was automatic success for Africans as well. As a product of post-European Enlightenment social-Darwinist presumptions during the late Victorian period, Lugard’s race-based constructions of Indians and Africans justified Indian labor importation over local African labor.
Far removed from those stark depictions of British puppeteering, today’s postcolonial India and postcolonial Uganda interact with an acknowledgement of shared histories of colonial exploitation and cultural exchanges, extensive economic and trade cooperation, and a convergence of many common issues in a complex geopolitical landscape. The stain of expulsion remains as a triggering memory and reminder for one Uganda-Indian generation about the fragility of stability; yet for another generation, expulsion and its aftermath survive as only a fading part of one’s familial oral history, retold stories, and the stuff of history textbooks. Still, for the newest generation of Indian immigrants to Uganda, expulsion figures quite minimally or invisibly altogether. Half a century has passed and amnesia prevails for many; not only for descendants of returning Indians after the Act to Repossess Properties and Repatriation and Resettlement Schemes of the 1990s, but also for those who were not themselves expelled. As governments navigated the tricky and contested ground between competing constituencies, legal battles raged on over property and repatriations as battles over history and identity and the historical memory emerged. India and Uganda have managed to partner in cordially strategic ways since the 1965 Trade Agreement between the two countries; more recently, bilateral agreements have been marked by visits from recent Prime Ministers Modi and Singh to Uganda, President Museveni to India, and multitudes of Ministers from each country crisscrossing the northern Arabia Sea to arrange partnerships in education, healthcare, security-defense training, telecommunications, and more.
What we understand of the past isn’t always equitable. There are narratives we know and those we don’t; power politics of many sorts play a role here, of course. Revealing the gaps and giving voice to the silences allow us to gain more full and rich insights into the human condition – especially needed when forgetting might feel safer. While it is commonly known that the 1972 Uganda India diaspora scattered exiles primarily to the UK, as most were British passport holders, with Canada as a far second site of refugee arrival, it is less known that expelled Indians were being turned away from London due in part to Britain’s 1968 Immigration Act that was based on a principle of “patriality” that restricted immigration based on birth, parental birth, and naturalization. Out of the 50,000+ British passport-holding refugees, only a few thousand at a time were granted entry to the UK by the Foreign Secretary.5 Another lesser-known thread of the expulsion narrative is the city of Ahmedabad’s two neighborhoods that housed the untold and undocumented narratives of those who were eventually given refuge there. Two neighborhoods. One history. Replete with great variation of how each neighborhood’s residents remember and preserve their narratives, these housing societies were established based on passport status: one neighborhood for British passport holders and the other for Indian passport holders. Here the ostensible difference is citizenship, but the inconspicuous features are status and memories of privilege in Uganda. These neighborhoods serve as memorials to expulsion and are often missing from the historical narrative of Uganda Indians.6
The story of Indians in Uganda is often reduced to one of expulsion; this is unfortunate. The story is equally incomplete if studying only the 1990s repatriation of returnees and the 21st century new immigrants from India – without also considering the two Ahmedabad neighborhoods, for example. On this momentous half-century anniversary, we must continue to learn and to archive the unvoiced narratives of two Indian neighborhoods’ refugees and their descendants, as well as new or renewed migration moments. We must support creative approaches to best understand the life histories and identities of these migrants in ways that have not been properly understood by studying either origin or destination site. Researchers must circulate just as migrants have done to tell a more complete, more true history of this global Uganda Indian community.
As I mark my own fifty years in the United States, I reflect on what brought me to studying Indians in East Africa. Although I do not have any family connections to Uganda, I have visited, learned about, and taught about both places for much of my career. My early research interests stemmed from taking a graduate class on the history of Africa and learning about the pre-British connections between western India and eastern Africa: trade, linguistic, cultural connections that were independent of any European presence in the region. Now as I reflect on my own immigration story, my own research trajectory, and this momentous anniversary, I am struck by the resilience of both India and Uganda in not being defined by a colonial past or “developing” nation monikers. While the legacies of colonialism are significant, creative, open, and strategic alliances hold much promise for these countries and both will thrive, once again, independently of European interventions and priorities.