We Are Here Because You Were There

I have borrowed the title of this paper from the book of the same name by Ian Sanjay Patel, published in 2021. The book’s essential theme is the racism and hypocrisy that underlies British nationality and immigration law over two centuries, which informs my subject here: the factors that led to the Asian expulsion from Uganda in 1972 and the ensuing dispersal to Britain and Canada. The rest of this paper will deal with future prospects in the lands they have migrated to and for those who remained behind. For this particular topic I am much indebted to the thought of Mahmood Mamdani, an astute scholar and social thinker whose homeland is Uganda and who has recently published a book titled Neither Settler nor Native, The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorites. Mamdani himself was a refugee among a bunch of Ugandan Asians who were transported to the UK and housed in a refugee camp. He has narrated that story in a very readable account of how it is to be confined as an inmate run by a set of indifferent bureaucrats in a country hostile to all non-white immigrants. I will come back to Mamdani later.

This led to a British focus on a loose set of white Anglo-Saxon Commonwealth that included Canada, Australia and New Zealand; and was expected to expand to further territorial gains wherever white settlers managed to seize control of a given colony. There were two hitches to that dream of a world empire.  The existence of a defiant United States of America and the non-white millions of India, ‘the jewel in the crown’ colony, although the idea that that world empire would survive thorny groups like Kaffirs and Maoris was also embraced. The failure to set up a united white Central African Federation including both North and South Rhodesia in the mid-twentieth century, as well as settler ambitions in Kenya being thwarted by a violent insurrectionary movement, the Mau Mau, put paid to that dream. White settlers in Kenya and South Africa resented immigration from non-white countries like China and India. Yet the need to administer these localities necessitated the intake of skilled workers and cheap labour to build the railway, serve as petty clerical workers and develop trade.  The flow of non-white South Asian immigration to African colonies continued until India after independence in 1947, declared itself a sovereign, democratic republic in 1950 thereby renouncing allegiance to the Crown.

Now we come to what Patel calls, ‘one of the most astonishing pieces of legislation ever passed by a British Parliament’: the 1948 British Nationality Act. Its genesis began with earlier immigration laws such as the 1905 Aliens Act which was concerned with arrivals from the Russian Empire, especially undesirable Jews! Alarm at non-white immigration came later. The 1948 British Nationality Act converted the status of all those who had previously been ‘British subjects’ into the new status of ‘Citizen of United Kingdom and Colonies’. This granted 600 or more million people across the world full rights to move into Britain and live there.

Into this morass the boat Empire Windrush docked in London, bringing in some 800 Caribbean passengers in June 1948.  The Labour government of the day freaked out but could find no way to stop the immigrants from landing and settling in Britain.

The flow continued, until by the late 1950s there were more than 200,000 non-whites living in Britain. In 1958, there were anti-immigrant riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham. Immigration figures from South Asia began to rise steeply. The word ‘Paki’ became a word of abuse; later Enoch Powell famously made his ‘Rivers of blood’ speech. I personally experienced racist abuse as a student in London in the early sixties.

The universal right of entry under the 1948 Act was curtailed by a series of government statutes but Kenya’s British Asians were left free to exercise the free-entry loophole until 1968 when the notorious Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed, restricting free entry to only those who were themselves born in the UK or who had a parent or a grandparent born there. Accusations of a naked racism followed from multiple quarters, including from Indira Gandhi, but Britain remained committed its its objective, namely letting whites into Britain and keeping the blacks and the browns out.

An important point to note about the status of the Asian minority in all East African countries is well described by Neal Ascherson, the reviewer of Patel’s book in the London Review of Books in November, 2021, much of which is paraphrased in my chronology here. (Direct quotes are in italics or in inverted commas)

Throughout East Africa, the African population resented the South Asian minorities, perceiving them as an integral and exploitative part of the colonial system. It had long been obvious that they would stand or fall with that system, which had brought them to the continent only a few generations earlier, and that majority rule would uproot their social and economic position – if nothing worse. In Kenya, Africanization began immediately, and new residence permits were refused to Asians whose presence was not ‘of benefit to Kenya’. A flow of emigration to Britain began, bringing with it Patel’s own father and grandparents. At first the figures were modest. But in 1967 – as well-founded rumours spread that the Labour government was preparing to shut the free-entry loophole – the flow thickened into a panic-stricken torrent, until by February 1968 almost two dozen flights a day were leaving Nairobi for London, bringing a thousand people a week. This flow was abruptly stopped by the passing of the notorious 1968 British Nationality Act mentioned above.

Protests by many now-stranded British Asians followed at the British High Commission premises and a complicit Kenyan Police assisted the harassed British officials in suppressing the demonstrations. I myself played a small role as an assistant attorney with the renowned criminal lawyer AR Kapila in fighting criminal charges against some of these protestors. I have recounted that story elsewhere in AwaaZ, in an obituary article about AR Kapila which I wrote after his demise in 2003. 

But to move on to the topic of the Uganda Asian expulsion briefly: the facts leading to the Idi Amin decree are well known, and I will only make some general observations based on Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native, The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorites. Mamdani starts with the observation that the Nuremberg model of punishing individual German actors for crimes against humanity  did not solve the problem inherent in the nature of the nation state, which structurally contains a majority-pitted-against-minorities  contradiction; the Nuremberg model  did not resolve the fundamental problem in contrast with the creation of a post-apartheid South Africa in which process colonial identities were depoliticized to form a true postcolonial state by dismantling the many distinctions between the ‘settler’ and ‘native’, thereby reimagining their shared community as a collective of survivors.

Applying Mamdani’s analysis to current day Uganda, the situation of the Asian minority is not promising, in my view.  Adding the numbers of all those who never left, the big business and property owners coming in as returnees and a fresh injection of new immigrants from South Asia add up to a 1916 BBC headline like this: ‘Ugandan Asians Dominate Economy After Exile’.

In my view, the Asian minority is likely to prosper, driven as it is by a historical material-success ethos. In a region troubled by unrest and violence, a minority unwilling to assimilate with the majority black natives owing to fundamental cultural differences, the majority likely continue to be plagued by the ravages of poverty, political turbulence and forced mass migrations, the scapegoating of an Asian minority may well occur again in the Idi Amin manner, in the absence of any prospect of a South African style political regeneration by the dismantling of colonial categories of  native and settler, racial and ethnic identity, similar to that suffered by a prosperous Chinese minority in Indonesia in the mid-1960s.  I hope this pessimistic nightmare never materializes.

As to the future of Ugandan and other East African immigrant communities in western countries, there is every prospect of a successful assimilation into majority democratic national identities, as evidenced by, for example, the rise of leading Asian figures among British officialdom, although it is too soon to say whether a white racism inspired by centuries of imperial domination has been uprooted. 

As to Canada, just a word of caution: the status of East African Asian migrants is that of ‘settler’ in contradistinction to ‘native’ in Mamdani’s sense.  The long- term consequence of becoming a part of the settler colonization is that the Asian minority becomes an integral part of the exploitative conquest of native territory and the genocidal wiping out of the ‘native’, through its participation in the corporate capitalist process that permeates the North American economy today. But its full integration in the mainstream remains precarious as it also easily fulfills the role of victim in times of trouble and turmoil which release the inherent fascist tendencies lurking under the smooth surface of the modern neoliberal nation state. 


  • Rasik immigrated to Canada from Kenya with his family in 1974. He is a passionate fighter of refugee claims in Canadian tribunals and promotes refugee causes generally.

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