A quarter-century-old struggle of Ugandan Indians for recognition

The Indian diaspora in Uganda represents one percent of the Ugandan population, however they have struggled to be constitutionally recognized as a tribe.
File Photo: Dancers perform at the 75th Indian Independence Day Celebrations in Uganda
File Photo: Dancers perform at the 75th Indian Independence Day Celebrations in UgandaHigh Commission of India Kampala

Indians have lived in Uganda for more than a century. As a result, there are second and third-generation Ugandan Indians today. Still, their struggle to achieve tribal status continues even as the first Indian-origin Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Narendra Patel, passed away last year without materializing this dream.

There are 56 recognized tribes in Uganda. In 1995, the Ugandan Constitution recognized the non-indigenous communities as Indigenous tribes of Uganda who had been there in Uganda since Feb. 1, 1926. Thus the Rwandan and Burundian communities were granted tribal status. Although the Indian-origin community was part of the Ugandan society before 1926, the Constitution omitted them.

The entry of Indians to Uganda began in the 1800s and continued in the 1900s. During British rule, Indians were taken there as construction workers. Since then, the people of Indian origin have contributed to Uganda's economic progress.

Today about 1% of the Ugandan population is of Indian origin. According to Forbes magazine's 2019 edition, the wealthiest individual in Uganda, Sudhir Ruparelia, is Indian-origin.

However, many Ugandans opine that the achievements of Ugandan-Indians are not a relevant reason for them being recognized because they should have been granted tribal status based on the historical fact that they were settled in Uganda before 1926.

In 2015, Ugandan-Indian MP Sanjay Tanna requested the Parliament to grant tribal status to Indians. He gained support for the Constitutional Amendment Bill, but there was also opposition to his plea.

MPs Reagan Okumu and Maggie Mongin, who oppose the bill, only favor citizenship for Indians and not tribal status.

The Indian Association of Uganda is at the forefront of the struggle for tribal status. They believe that once the tribal status is given to Ugandan Indians, the descendants of the Ugandan Indians who fled the country during former President Idi Amin's atrocities could return.

Indian Association of Uganda's Sanjiv Patel, in a media statement five years ago, said, "This is not about land. If we are recognized, we shall be the only tribe spread all over Uganda."

According to media reports, in a statement, the Chairman of the association, Mohan Rao, requested Ugandan President Museveni's support for this cause. "Since 2022 marks 50 years of the dark memory of Idi Amin expelling the Indians, we humbly request Your Excellency to erase that dark memory and give us light and hope by having this matter expeditiously brought to the Parliament that once had a Speaker of Indian-origin," he stated.

During a Diwali dinner in 2019, President Museveni said that the Ugandan Constitution should include Indians.

"There is no problem in having an extra tribe called Wahindi in the Constitution," he said.

"Tribal status matters because, without that, one cannot become a Ugandan citizen unless having lived in Uganda for about 20 years. Thus, even those Ugandan-Indians who carry Ugandan passports and are therefore Ugandan citizens do not have any guarantee that their children will also become citizens automatically," said Mohammed Vaheed, the General Secretary of the Indian Association of Uganda, in a phone conversation with The NRI Nation.

He told The NRI Nation that the Indian Association of Uganda would be hosting a trade show in September and then lobby in support of the Parliamentary approval of the bill.

The NRI Nation