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‘Refugees’ feted to tune of Tagore

(From top Rt Rev Bishop Timothy Stevens, councillor Manjula Sood, Eric Pickles and Praful Patel after the service at Leicester Cathedral; the cathedral; Rt Rev Stevens holds the service

Leicester, June 17: Tagore’s verses from Gitanjali rang out at a remarkable service of thanksgiving held in Leicester Cathedral to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Ugandan Asians in Britain.

The dean of the cathedral, the Very Rev David Monteith, said he was adopting the “great words from Tagore” to signify the dramatic change in attitudes that had occurred since the Indians first arrived traumatised from Uganda.

The cathedral was packed with those who had come as refugees in 1972 after being expelled from Uganda with a 90-day deadline by President Idi Amin.

The right-wing authorities in Leicester did everything possible at that time to discourage Indians from coming to their fair city. Last Saturday, several hundred of the same Indians and their descendants loyally sang “God Save the Queen” at the end of the service.

Four decades ago, the newcomers had left behind the warm sum of Africa for the bleakness of an uncertain future in the English Midlands. Monteith brought comfort to his congregation — Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim — by reading an extract from Gitanjali: “This is my prayer to thee....give me the strength to raise my mind high above daily trifles; and give me the strength to surrender my strength to thy will with love.”

The refugees were held up as “an outstanding example to all minorities” by the most senior clergyman present — the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Rev Timothy Stevens.

“Within 15 years all of the nearly 30,000 Uganda Asians who had come here had settled down and made a new life,” the Bishop remarked in an address that may well come to be hailed as a landmark in race relations.

Commending their spirit of “self help”, the Bishop declared that “never before in British history had a persecuted group established itself so well in such a short time, without becoming a drain on public resources”.

He said Uganda Asians had also gone to Canada, Australia, the United States and India. “This gives the Uganda Asian community a unique global and cosmopolitan awareness. They bring to our communities a way of looking at the world that is grounded in global interconnectedness. But the Uganda Asians have also profoundly enriched our culture.”

“And, not least, they have transformed our shopping culture, often living over the shop, opening until late and serving things that cannot be found elsewhere,” he noted.

Speaking on the theme, “Who is my neighbour?”, the Bishop added: “My hope is that in celebrating the story of the Uganda Asians and their encounter with this country over the last 40 years, we will recapture that vision, which is essentially a spiritual vision of what makes for spiritual societies.”

The government was represented by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, who read a lesson, from Luke, and stayed behind to partake of Gujarati vegetarian fare served inside the cathedral — possibly a first in its 1,000 year history.

The community was led by Praful Patel, who had been a key member of the Uganda Resettlement Board back in 1972 and who now gave “thanks to the British government who were inspired by justice (and) to the British people who were inspired as neighbours”.

As chairman of the India Overseas Trust, which is organising events to mark the 40th anniversary of the expulsions, he reminded the multicultural congregation: “In September 1972, a plane landed at Stansted airport bringing refugees from Uganda who had with them nothing but one suitcase each and, if they were fortunate, 50 in cash. They were the first Asians expelled by Idi Amin at just a few weeks’ notice, and they left behind their homes, businesses, shrines and hearts, arriving in a strange land to rebuild their lives.”

Over the coming weeks, some 30,000 Asians were received by Britain — “those refugees have in turn brought to their new home a talent for enterprise, flourishing in politics, business, science and the arts”.

Messages of unity were read by representatives of various faiths, who also lit candles.

The choir sang a hymn, Mendelssohn’s “Hear my prayer”, whose words struck a chord with many: “O for the wings of a dove! Far away would I rove!/ In the wilderness built me a nest,/ And remain there for ever at rest.”

The Indians had indeed travelled a long way, emotionally, psychologically and across continents, till they found shelter in a strange land which is now home.

For old timers, the ties with Uganda have not been entirely broken, though. Shardaben Madhvani, widow of Manubhai Madhvani, once reckoned to be the richest Indian in East Africa, told The Telegraph: “We took his ashes (from London) and scattered them in the (holy) waters of the River Nile.”