Millennium Post

Diaspora Dilemmas

V  S Naipaul, the Trinidadian West Indian author’s 1979 novel, A Bend in the River, perhaps remains the best-known literary work in English till date, addressing the Indian experience in East and Central Africa. The book takes us deeply into the life of one man, Salim, an Indian who has come to live in an isolated town at the bend of a great river in a newly independent African nation. Naipaul lifts the curtain on an ethnic group that has become central to East Africa’s life since the late 20th circa. On celluloid, the Uganda-born Indian director Mira Nair’s Mississipi Masala, captures the tryst  of immigrants  born in Africa but owing their origins in India. Yet earlier, in 1937, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, in his classic adventure, Mountains on the Moon, chronicles the adventures of a Bengali boy Shankar in the forests of Africa. He shows how Shankar’s life changes dramatically when he encounters Alvarez, the intrepid Portuguese gold digger in an exciting quest for diamonds amidst the man-eating lions on the Rift Valley. Such is the gamut of contemporary fiction and cinema on the diaspora dilemma of approximately 4,20,000  immigrants  from India in the 54 countries of the
African subcontinent.

Can the Indian-born immigrants accept Africa as their real home and alternatively has Africa accepted Asians living in their subcontinent? When did all this begin? Numerous theories abound as quaint as the fact that Indians were present in various parts of Africa from as early as the first century AD, according to The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

Attempts by the Indian government to track the Indian dispora in africa began a decade ago. Since then the Indian diaspora has ebbed and flowed, when African governments  have looked at the Indian presence with anxiety.

After the British banned slavery in 1843 it was the turn of what was described as indentured labour. Many came from the British colonies – primarily India. In South Africa, which has the largest Indian diaspora today (see the table of Ministry of External Affairs) the exodus began in the 1860s with the export of over 30,000 Indians, mostly, the hardy Sikhs. Wedged between the Whites and the Black, the place was volatile. Nehru ceaselessly urged the Asians to accept citizenship in the country of domicile. Much of his liberation theology inspired Mandela of South Africa, Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenyatta of Kenya and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. But as the Africans surged to Independence they began to define themselves.

In Uganda, Idi Amin had ideas of his own and Kenyatta of Kenya began to talk of Africanisation.
The bloody uprisings of the Mau Mau had the Asians of Kenya apprehensive. Ever since Kenya became independent in 1963, the Asian population began to queue up for British nationality; many left. Approximately 82,000 PIO’S (People of Indian Origin) obtained British passports and less than 50,000 accepted Kenyan citizenship. When Kenyatta’s Kenyanisation hit a roadblock, he switched to Africanisation when he realised that a lot of Indians have already aquired Kenyan citizenship. Which now meant cancellation or non-renewal of trading licences to non-blacks whatever their nationality.
The fate of the Kenyan Indians sparked off a parliamentary debate in March 1970. Surendra Pal Singh, Deputy Minister for External Affairs, argued that India’s responsibility was only limited to the PIO’s as they were Indian citizens, which simply meant NRI’S. Nosy parker or indifferent- the Indian response fell in between.

The dilemma exploded in Uganda. On 6 August 1972, Idi Amin decreed to expel within 90 days all persons of Asian origin who were citizens of UK, India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.

India responded similarly as it had done in the Kenyan  case urging safe passage for Indians who wanted to leave. They meant NRI’S who numbered approximately 4,000. What needs to be  noted is that  in the early 1960s when the British colonies of Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda finally gained independence there were over 3,60,000 Asians in East Africa. Today the Indian diaspora in east Africa does not even touch 2,00,000. In short, the Asian Indians were in dilemma – the dilemma of belonging has never really gone away.

The Indo-Africa diaspora encounter has pretty much played out today. The PIOs of East Africa have no interest really in acquiring dual citizenship. However, till today the inward gaze of African Indians remain. Shiva Naipula commented, ‘the Indian in East Africa brought India with him and kept it inviolate’. Close knit-living behind high walls in the swishy upmarket enclaves of Kampala, Addis and Nairobi, watch Indian TV serials and do not forget to get their spices from back home.

But that is not all in this story. The Indian diaspora has made a place for itself in Africa. They built the railways in Kenya, they are deeply entrenched in commercial trade, many returned to Uganda after President Museveni in 1992 appealed for them to come back home. As of now the Mehtas and the Madhvanis have created multi million dollar empires in Uganda. Madhvani returned to Uganda in 1985 to rebuild the family business in sugar and hospitality to a $200 million empire. Manubhai Madhvani has come a long way since he was jailed in 1972 in a dungeon named Singapore Block, his wealth confiscated and expelled by Idi Amin. He was one of the 80,000 Asians in fight.

Despite Indian resurgence in Africa, sometimes one looks through the glass darkly. Shades of that inner war do not readily surface in the print or TV media. Rather one has to look at cinema. The horrors of Uganda and Idi Amin have been revisited several times. The latest film off the marquee is a film Ugandan directed by Patrick Sekyaya. Watch it for the love, retribution and xenophobia  in Amin’s Uganda. Lots have changed since then. No wonder Salim, the Naipaulian protagonist thought to himself ‘Nobody is going anywhere; everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where?’

Kalyan Mukherjee  is  thedirector of  KAS Movie Makers.
Research by Aman Ramrakha
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