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Exiles once, pillars now

- Uganda rediscovers Indians
Idi Amin

New Delhi, Aug. 24: Sanjiv Patel’s earliest memory of an airport lounge is scarred by the image of his mother bursting into tears when he asked her to buy him a bottle of Coke.

Seven-year-old Patel and his parents were flying out of Uganda’s capital Kampala, expelled with over 70,000 other South Asians by the dictator Idi Amin. Forced to leave behind most of their property and almost all their cash, Patel’s mother had no money on her.

Almost exactly 42 years later, Patel is part of a small 27,000-strong community of returned Indians, including 30 Bengali families, that is propping up not just Uganda’s economy but also its government. The extent of their pivotal role stunned even seasoned Indian diplomats last month.

The community, less than a tenth of a per cent of Uganda’s 36 million people, today contributes over 60 per cent of the government’s revenues, Ugandan foreign minister Sam Kutesa told Prime Minister Narendra Modi and foreign minister Sushma Swaraj during his end-July India visit.

A list of Uganda’s 1,000 top taxpayers for 2012-13, accessed by The Telegraph, appears to corroborate Kutesa’s assertion. Multiple Indian-origin tycoons led by Sudhir Ruparelia, the richest man in East Africa at a worth of $1.1billion, figure prominently on the list.

Uganda, community leaders say, has re-embraced them. If at all, it is India, they say, that has forgotten them.

“The political class as a whole in Uganda today recognises the continuously growing dependence of the country’s economy and the government’s revenues on Indian-origin businesses and individuals,” Patel, who owns a food-packaging firm and is a member of an umbrella Indian Association, said from Kampala.

“But unlike Idi Amin’s time, this contribution is seen as helping not just the Indian community but all of Uganda.”

Joining Ruparelia, who has diverse interests ranging from broadcasting and banking to real estate and resorts, on the top taxpayers’ list are other Indian-origin multimillionaire families.

Among them are the Madhvanis, Mehtas and Jivrajs, who are together estimated to be worth $1bn.

All these top industrialists had fled Uganda after Idi Amin, on August 25, 1972, ordered South Asians to leave the country within 90 days.

Amin infamously said he had had a dream in which God told him to evict all South Asians, mainly Indians, and redistribute their property and wealth among ethnic Ugandans. Most fled to Britain, Canada and America while some returned to India.

President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in Uganda in 1986, invited the Indian community to return. Many who had by then settled in the West chose not to, but a trickle started.

It grew in the 1990s when Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for the past 28 years, aggressively started seeking out Indian businessmen and professionals. Museveni promised to return the property Amin had confiscated, and mostly did.

“Today, Uganda’s government revenues and the tiny Indian community are interdependent more than ever,” said Goutam Das, a 57-year-old mechanical engineer who was born in Calcutta and studied in IIT Madras.

Das runs one of East Africa’s largest engineering hardware manufacturing firms, Aquva International Ltd.

The magnitude of the interdependence that Das spoke of took even Indian government officials by surprise when a beaming Kutesa, who takes over as chairman of the United Nations General Assembly this September, met them here in the last week of July.

“This was not a lobby group, not a chamber of commerce but Uganda’s foreign minister sharing a nugget that most people have no clue about,” a senior Indian official said.

Kutesa handed Modi a letter from Museveni that highlighted the role of Uganda’s Indian community, dominated by Gujaratis, and invited the Indian Prime Minister to his country.

The 42-year transition from penniless exiles to Uganda’s economic pillars has been rough for many of these Indian-origin families.

Patel’s father owned multiple textile mills when they were evicted, and the seven-year-old couldn’t understand his mother’s sobs when he asked for a soft drink at Kampala airport.

Once families like Patel’s — or the Madhvanis, Mehtas and Ruparelias — returned to Uganda in the late 1980s, they had to rebuild their businesses up from scratch.

But today Uganda is home again. Das, who heads the Bengali Association of Uganda, is currently preparing, like Bengalis in many parts of the world, for Durga Puja celebrations.

Modi, they argue, should take up Museveni’s invitation and not repeat a mistake that many among those who had to flee four decades ago still blame India for.

When the Indian community was expelled in August 1972, the Indira Gandhi government here threatened strict action against Amin’s regime but eventually did little.

“Uganda and East Africa just slipped off the radar for the Indian government,” Patel said. “A repeat today, with the clout the community has rebuilt and the opportunities this presents to India, would be tragic.”