- How Gujaratis changed corner shop biz in UK
Courtesy: Subramanian, Kalakad
"So much has happened. And so much has been forgotten."
- Manubhai Madhvani, Tide of Fortune
They were called the Rockefellers of Uganda. They dined with presidents and wined with kings. But when mad dictator Idi Amin took power in Uganda, Manubhai Madhvani, the doyen of one of Africa's biggest industrial empires was thrown into a high-security prison, dependent on his family's high-level connections for smuggled vegetarian food. He wondered hourly whether he'd be the next one in the screams of tortured and dying prisoners he could hear from his grimy cell.
Four decades later, Idi Amin gave all Asians - whether with British or Ugandan passports - a three month ultimatum to leave the country. Ugandan Indians - and Kenyans and Tanzanians - are seen as a jewel in the Indian diaspora crown, and equally a jewel in the British immigration story; a community that reached its shores as refugees but has since then both integrated and changed the society they adopted.
"What most people don't get is that those who took the Arab dhows in the 17th and 18th century to leave their villages and set up life in an alien land were already an entrepreneurial and driven minority, in search of a better life. They communicated that hunger to their children," says Raxa Mehta, director at Nomura, based in Tokyo and first generation child of Kenyan Indian parents. So it doesn't surprise the Gujaratis that they did well in Britain - it only surprises the Brits and Indians. The Gujaratis are a trader community. As Manubhai says, they always left the fighting to the others. If there's one diaspora community that East African Asians model themselves on, it's the Jews. Except of course, the Jews get more publicity than they do.
The East African Gujarati community brought in the corner shop revolution; one that changed forever Britain's antiquated retail laws. The second and third generations have gone on to integrate and succeed, becoming high-fliers and professionals in every walk of British life, from politics to business to finance. "Yes, being Ugandan Asian is good brand name in the UK today. We took no state handouts, we integrated, we prospered," says Kamlesh Madhvani, son of Manubhai, and one of the few who have gone back to retrieve and rebuild their business in Uganda. "But we don't know how long this goodwill will last," says the man who at 17 found his family homeless and stateless. He, like all of them, never counts his chickens until hatched.
He does hope, though, that in time the East African Asian community can be like the Jewish diaspora. "They've been here longer," he says. They're richer, and can splurge on community initiatitives. "There were so many lives lost, so much suffering. Every family has own story, like how they smuggled out family jewels fried in batata vadas," he adds.
At a time when the British are again turning inwards, and closing their doors and minds to 'johnny foreigners', East European or Asian, the tale of the East African and Ugandan exodus has become more than relevant. Sadly, theirs is a story, which though biblical in scope and drama, is wreathed in misconceptions, historical inaccuracies, and old wives tales - and an appalling lack of interest by developed country media. It's no surprise that Manubhai had to publish his memoirs himself. Or that the Madhvani group is best known in India for the fact that one of Manubhai's younger brothers swept yesteryear Bollywood sex symbol Mumtaz off into domesticity.
That's one of the reasons why Praful Patel, the still exuberant member of the UK government's Uganda resettlement board, and financier and political activist, spent his time last year organising a series of events to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the year when over 27,000 refugees from Uganda arrived in Britain.
Ask Patel though, and typically, he isn't considering this a watershed year for immigrants: "'It's because I may not survive to see the 50th anniversary." Like all exodus or holocaust stories, it's never easy. Patel talks of hate mail he's received; bitterness runs deep. In 1972, Britain refused to accept East African refugees, and India did too. Just before the Ugandans were given 90 days to leave the country (usually without their assets, which were stripped of them if not hidden in batata vadas at border checks) the British parliament, in one of those late night hurried votes (1967) chose to classify British passports issued in colonies as not valid for entry into the country; shades of the hypocritical Gurkha problem a few years ago. Enoch Powell gave a historically famous speech about rivers of blood flowing if Asians were allowed into the country in masses. If that sounds vaguely familiar to Theresa May, history repeats itself. The East Africans didn't create rivers of blood. They just sold eggs and tea and milk to people after 5 pm.
Patel, who as member of the resettlement board was responsible for negotiations, is much more forgiving of the Indian position in 1972 than many younger African Indians are.
"I met Mrs Gandhi. She agreed that another 27,000 people would be a drop in the Indian population ocean. But she wanted to ensure that Britain did not shirk its responsibility for its own citizens. And that was right. We were British citizens." And oh by the way? Those Pravasi Bharatiya hooplas? Patel (and all of us expat Indians) think it's a colossal waste of taxpayers money. "Good food. But no real value," says Patel.
Post your comments to Facebook
Designed and maintained by AKR Consultants