A picture of a man of Asian descent bleeding heavily with a shirt soaked in blood dripping from his head, as he was being helped to safety has not left me ten years on.
So are protestors holding placards reading, “Asians Must Go” and “For Every One Tree Cut, Five Asians Dead.”
I have neither forgotten the gruesome murder of an Asian man who was pulled off his scooter before being bludgeoned to death with stones and thick sticks. All these happened in one day, April 11, 2007.
On this same day, a group of over 40 Asians had to be evacuated from of an Indian temple under heavy security. An angry mob of natives was waiting outside to assault them for their Asian-ness, which had become synonymous with the plan to cut down Mabira forest – for just sugarcane growing.
These incidents were quickly branded racist and condemned. I do not intend to downplay or appear to condone their racist undertones. But I want to extend the ways in which we thought about this “racism” in the aftermaths of violence.
My contention is that violence has often been instructive – as it never happens in a vacuum but builds upon a series of events. First, the poor cannot be racist. Racism is an infrastructure which privileges one group over another – and is often set into motion by the powerful.
Racism has material benefit which is often either denial of access to resources or is a method of stealing labour. It is not merely labelling and name-calling. Second, in moments of exploitation – say, the attempt to cut down a country’s largest natural forest with potential to damage an entire ecosystem – those protesting against exploitation cannot be called racist when they target the exploiter and the entire political-cultural system upon which the exploiter thrives.
One would then ask, why did the Save-Mabira forest protestors target an entire community – Indians/Asians – and not the individual exploiters, that is, Mehta Group/family or SCOUL?
This question can only be answered through the context of Uganda’s colonial history. At the conclusion of colonialism, the slaves of the British – often euphemised as “indentured labour” – who had been ferried into East Africa from India/Bangladesh were actually left privileged at independence.
These yesterday’s slaves had become plantation owners, manufacturers and monopoly traders – to the absolute disadvantage of natives. Left in firm control of Uganda’s economy – controlling 97.5 percent of retail trade in Kampala, and 92 percent countrywide; banking in British banks and selling British-manufactured products, Indians/Asians came to be seen in the same light as the colonisers.
Matters were not helped with their acute racism and absolute bad manners shouting and ridiculing the natives they employed as hands.
Stories of Indians spitting, throwing rocks, and constantly berating their native workers were too common across East Africa. To this end, native Ugandans felt truly independent only after 1972 when Indians had been expelled – a matter even confirmed by the Ugandan-Asian academic, Mahmood Mamdani who has made a career writing and theorising their eviction.
[His major book, Citizen and Subject, is so embarrassingly biographical that, for his lack of ethnic rootedness in the land, he spends copious amounts of time fictionalising that there were no ethnic natives in colonies – and tribes were an invention of colonialists].
The events described above ought to be rudely instructive to our Asian-Indian compatriots (less to native-Ugandans) for they have gambled a lot. By the way, this is not an effort to bundle an entire community into the crimes of a few.
As a Muslim, I know first-hand, how dangerous generalisations and broad-brushes can be. Sadly, however, our Indian compatriots have created all those discriminative and self-group-profiling institutions projecting themselves not only as a singular group, but one that is also distinct, and exotic: the Indian Association in Uganda; Indian Community in Uganda; magazines such as Indi-Vision.
These groupings are nothing but racist self-profiling and self-alienation in the name of uniqueness. To this end, the crimes of one Indian are seen as the crime of the group – already self-identified and defined.
Is it not absurd, that in addition to living in secluded and secretive circles, these Ugandan-Asians still celebrate independence of the Republic of India – yet they seek to relate as integrated citizens.
Ten years on, the socio-political discourse in Uganda still sees “Abayindi” as a loathsome and abhorred group of people in Uganda. As I argued last week, our privileged Indian compatriots continue to project themselves – in overtly racist terms – as special and different.
They forget that privilege and exploitation tend to mean one and the same, and the exploited will often seek for an opportunity to bring them down. I will return with part three on the theft of re-appropriation after expulsion.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.