Forced to leave in 90 days: how Ugandan Asians made Britain their home
“For us at that age, we didn’t comprehend the full situation of leaving the country and moving to somewhere else. To some extent it was an adventure, but it was frightening as well because we had the army guarding all the way to the airport, [and there was] very rough treatment at the airport,” my uncle, Jitesh Sanghvi, explains to me on the phone as I ask him about his experience as a refugee.
In 1972, Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin, announced his policy to expel all “Indians” — as he referred to them — from Uganda within 90 days. Amin argued that as long as “Indians” owned shops and occupied administrative positions, money from the country’s exploits would never fall into the hands of the black Ugandan. By 7th November 1972, people of South Asian descent who did not hold Ugandan citizenship were expected to have vacated the country.
It seems strange to draw parallels between today’s politics and the experience of Asians forced to leave Uganda. But the decade from 2010 to 2020 saw the exponential rise of populism, causing issues like migration and national identity to become central to political discourse. So what does it mean to belong to a country? And how does it feel to suddenly find yourself no longer able to live in the place you had called home since you were born?
Jitesh Sanghvi was exiled from Uganda at the age of 14. He is one of the 27,200 Ugandan Asians who emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1972 following Amin’s announcement. His father, born under the British Empire before Ugandan independence, held British citizenship and was allowed to migrate with his family to the UK.
At first, the spirit was one of excitement. “I thought we were going to a fairly developed country and things were going to be better than what it was in Uganda.” He was anticipating a land where all things — education, music, even fashion — were an improvement on Uganda. “I suppose we were looking forward to it.”
But his first year in Southall, London was tough, rife with racism and discrimination. For a sheltered, middle class teenager, the animosity was harrowing.“In my class, I was the only Asian…A lot of [Asian migrants] got to the situation where they were almost dropping out of school because they were either facing beatings in school or being called names.” The effect of the prejudice made some students “almost suicidal.”
After 48 years in the UK, Sanghvi now calls Britain his home. “Home was always UK once we had settled here, even though we had a longing for Uganda…I’ve never known of any other place which I could call home.” Asked whether he considers himself British, he replies with a decisive “Yes, I do. I’m a UK citizen….I’ve spent more of my life here than anywhere else. This is all that I know of as home.”
The relationship between place and identity is complicated for many diasporic communities, particularly families of indentured labourers who were encouraged to migrate from one colony to another. After Idi Amin’s verdict, many Ugandan Asians were abruptly confronted with the question — where is home? Forced to abandon the only country they had known, a country that had never truly considered them citizens, and thrust into a foreign, cold and distant environment where they were often treated with hostility and suspicion, many found themselves unsure of where to place their allegiance.
Sanghvi describes an ambivalent nostalgia towards Uganda. “I felt I had left a country I was born in, grew up in, was fairly well settled in. Perhaps on reflection now, although I called it my birth country, or birth home, we still had the Indian identity… In actual fact we never called ourselves Ugandans, we were always Indian Ugandans.”
Not all Ugandan Asian migrants, however, experienced the same racism. Kishore Chandarana, who also moved from Uganda to the UK in 1972 at the age of 23, describes a fairly smooth transition to his new home in the UK. “Because I was young and I got on with everybody and I never really experienced any racial issues…people respected you for who you are.” He explains that he didn’t endure many challenges, except maybe the cold weather.
But Chandarana expresses an affinity towards India. “I consider myself British Indian, I think Indian first in a way. To give you an example, if India and England are playing cricket, I will support India. But if England is playing [against another nation], then obviously I’ll support England.” Why India? “In Uganda, we lived like Indians as our parents who were first generation immigrants taught us Indian values.”
Though loyal to India, like Sanghvi, Chandarana now regards Britain as home. When asked what Uganda means to him today, he states, quite simply “probably not a lot because I’ve spent more of my life in this country than Uganda. I miss it and the people there are so nice, so kind.”
Both Sanghvi and Chandarana however, differ in their views on Brexit. Sanghvi is critical. “Over the last few years, we seem to be have been going backwards rather than forwards.” Having developed an ability to adapt, he finds it disconcerting that ideas like sovereignty are central to the Brexit debate. “There’s been a lot of old thinking of imperialism. We have to move with the times and let go.”
Chandarana, on the other hand, believes that the British public has always been sceptical of an alliance with Europe.“When we first joined the EU there was lots of uncertainty — some people were happy, some not happy and [the] same is the case now. I think as time goes on, dust will settle and you’ll probably not see any difference whatsoever.”
Belonging and citizenship have always been complex concepts for migrant communities. For most Ugandan Asians, however, home is now the UK.