One of the poignant scenes from the 1991 romantic drama "Mississippi Masala" is that of Indian families tearfully leaving Uganda following the purge ordered by dictator President Idi Amin in the early seventies. Over 60,000 Indians left the African country that they had come to look upon as 'home' since settling there in the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century.
They later returned after President Yoweri Museveni took over in 1986 and invited them back, restoring properties seized earlier. At present, about 30,000 Indians live in the East African country and have become pillars of Uganda's economy. Concentrated mainly in the cities of Kampala and Jinja, Indians are engaged in manufacturing, banking, real estate, and tourism, running companies that provide employment to over a million people. In addition, they contribute about 65 percent to Uganda's tax revenues.
Indian-born Sudhir Ruparelia, chairman of the Ruparelia Group of Companies, was one of those who built a business empire and his wealth after returning to Uganda in 1985 from the United Kingdom, where he went in 1972 following the expulsion of Asians.
The Indian Association of Uganda looks after community service, social welfare, and enhancing ties between Indians and Ugandans. One of its objectives is to boost the educational and artistic prospects of Indians.
The Association has been fighting to recognize Ugandan Indians as a tribe. Without that categorization, the Indian diaspora has difficulty renewing passports or applying for national ID cards. The Ugandan President has assured Indians that in 2022 the government would back their demand for legal recognition as a tribe when they celebrate a century of their arrival in Uganda.
The 1995 Constitution of Uganda doesn't include the Indian community in its list of Indigenous communities even though it was within the set benchmark.
There is an underlying tension among Indians and Ugandans, who still consider the former as exploiters, cornering all the wealth and best business opportunities. As a result, there were sporadic incidents of violence against Indians, and in 2007 there were widespread demonstrations when an environmental protest turned into a racial dispute.
Ironically, the first batch of Indians who came to Uganda in the 1890s were Punjabi laborers, brought in to work on railroad construction, living in horrific conditions. In 1901 when their contracts ended, many returned home, but about 6,000 stayed back, seeking lucrative opportunities.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Uganda in 2018. In his speech to the Ugandan Parliament, he commended the bilateral relations between the two countries. He said, "... let us be guided by the Ugandan saying, 'anayejitahidi hufaidi' which means 'one who makes the extra effort will benefit.' Indians have made that extra effort for Africa. And will always do so. For Africa's benefit."