POWERS OF TRANSFORMATION

Leicester City Council once took out advertisements in the Ugandan Press in an attempt to deter the country's dispossessed Asians from settling in their town. Still they came.The city simply has not been the same since, writes SALIL TRIPATHI.

Picture yourself on a Grey morning in an alien land, with the sky overcast and the rain falling silently, as you emerge bleary-eyed, holding a suitcase in one hand, a precious British passport in the other hand. You have left behind a warm, tropical city called Kampala, with its lush countryside and brilliant sun. You have also left behind everything your family had owned, after building a business over two generations. It isn’t easy being robbed of all possessions and kicked out of one country and landing up on another shore, the passport being the sole, tenuous link.

The British officials are sour and the bureaucrats are cheerless, letting you in reluctantly. They give you ham sandwiches, not aware that you might be a Muslim, or a chaste vegetarian Hindu or Jain. And they tell you not to go to Leicester. “There are no jobs there, no houses either. We cannot help you if you go to Leicester.”

They fear the hordes of other Asians that will follow you from the woodworks of former colonies, flashing British passports, turning up at the doorstep of a once-mighty colonial empire, seeking equal status as citizens. The mood is sullen: the empire has shrunk; the Jewel in the Crown, India, is gone; the Suez debacle has humiliated Britain; and African colonies are becoming independent, one-by-one.

Jafar Kapasi was one of some 30,000 Asians who left Uganda for Stansted Airport in November, 1972. He had £55 with him in his pocket, the sum total of his remaining wealth, but he also had fierce determination. Uganda had been his home; India was where his parents came from, and the British passport was going to be the key with which he would unlock his potential and create a new, even better life for his children than what he had enjoyed in Uganda.

His nightmare began with a coup which brought General Idi Amin to power in Uganda. Within months he began berating Indians: You had come to build the railways for the British. The British have gone. Now you, too, must go, and leave behind the wealth you have milked from Uganda.

Indians did control almost all business in Uganda in those days. Amin saw Indians as parasites prospering while Africans toiled; he called them “bloodsuckers.” In August 1972 Amin informed Indians they had 90 days to leave the country. There were over 80,000 of them, and surely the general must have been joking, many thought in their clubs and gymkhanas, over tea and kanda-na-bhajias (onion bhaji).

To be sure, Indians did keep to themselves. Few married Africans and many were cunning traders, of the kind that emerge in Paul Theroux’s early novel, “Fong and the Indians”. As Amin’s deadline neared, their treatment worsened; some sold their property at distress prices, others found their businesses confiscated. Many were robbed on their way to the airport.

Kapasi and his family left their home, daring roadblocks to get to Entebbe Airport. Abandoning everything but what they could fit into a van, they trundled towards Kampala, being looted by Ugandan soldiers at every stop. They managed to get to the airport alive only because an officer who used to shop at their store helped them. Kapasi refuses to forget what he had been through, but says: “I was determined to get back the high standard of living that we had lost. It provided me with the motivation to succeed.”

It is important for such experiences not to be forgotten because nostalgia can perform its familiar trick, of allowing us to remember the past, but not the pain. For example, last year, as Britain celebrated the 30th anniversary of the arrival of British Asians in the UK, a collective amnesia seemed to grip the country. Edward Heath’s Conservative Government got the credit for opening the door for the British Asians when nobody would accept them. But declassified cabinet papers show that Britain tried hard to fob them off elsewhere. India was a natural option, but it was the first to refuse, reminding Britain correctly that the Ugandan Asians had British passports; and pointing out that the poor country was already burdened with refugees from East Pakistan, which had become Bangladesh less than a year ago. Heath then considered sending them to an island, maybe Solomon Islands in the Pacific, or even Falklands Islands, but in the end, accepted them in Britain.

Leicester officials were alarmed when they heard that Asians wanted to come to their city. Leicester was a declining city then, with businesses closing and city services stretched. The Leicester City Council placed ads in Ugandan newspapers, warning the Indians: “In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Settlement Board and not come to Leicester.”

Bloody foreigners, Leicester’s leaders must have thought, presaging arguments about “bogus asylum seekers” today. Indians would be scroungers who wanted benefits without contributing to the State, they assumed. These worries found an echo at the highest levels. In 1974, after Labour returned to power, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government feared further immigration from Kenya, where President Jomo Kenyatta had passed a law requiring foreigners to have work permits. Indians, stung by the Ugandan experience, feared this was the precursor of another expulsion. Anticipating another influx, Home Secretary James Callaghan changed laws which effectively ended the freedom of entry of Asians, but not the white settlers, from East Africa. Even after acknowledging that the idea of creating a new class of citizenship and restricting the right of some British citizens to settle in Britain would run counter not only to international legal standards, but also to a liberal, inclusive ideology which Labour claimed to possess, the cabinet went ahead, spuriously claiming that the distinction it was drawing up between two classes of British nationals was geographical, not racial. Those who could trace UK ancestors were exempt -- and few, other than whites, could trace UK ancestors. Callaghan protested: “I repudiate emphatically the suggestion that it is racialist in origin or in conception or in the manner in which it is being carried out.”

Recounting a recently declassified memo in an article in the New Statesman, Mark Lattimer reveals Callaghan noting: “It is sometimes argued that we can take a less serious view of the scale of immigration and settlement in this country because it could be more than offset by total emigration. This view overlooks the important point that emigration is largely by white persons… while immigration and settlement are largely by colored persons. The exchange, thus, aggravates rather than alleviates the problem. When we decided to legislate to slow down Asian immigration from East Africa, we took our stand partly on the ground that a sudden influx of this kind …. imposed an intolerable strain on the social services.” Today’s red-tops would approve such a message; they’d find a pithier way of saying it.

Callaghan’s legislative changes came on top of the thunderous “rivers of blood” speech Enoch Powell made in Birmingham in the late 1960s, warning Britain of the kind of bloody warfare that lay ahead, if citizens of former colonies were allowed into Britain without any control. What was deemed a fringe view was now becoming a government policy. Graffiti like “wogs go home”, and abbreviations like “KBW” (Keep Britain White) began sprouting like weeds in an unattended backyard in summer. Columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who was a child when she arrived from Uganda, told the BBC last year she remembered “people standing at airports with placards telling us ‘to get back to where you came from’.” 

Today Kapasi can afford to laugh at this as a bad dream. Much has changed in his life. Not only is he a leading financial consultant, he is also a proud recipient of an OBE, runs local charities and is regarded as a community leader. And the community has grown, in size and wealth. Educationally, Indians are outperformed only by the Chinese, and according to the Sunday Times’s ratings of the richest people in the UK, Indians from East Africa, such as Manubhai Madhvani and Jasminder Singh figure. According to an analysis by Garavi Gujarat, a leading Gujarati publication in Britain, some 65% of Indians earn more than £30,000 a year. The average Indian earns £460 a week, when compared with Pakistani (£270), black (£260) and white (£334).

To understand Indian wealth in Leicester, step out of Kapasi’s office and turn right, heading for Belgrave Road, once marked for demolition, but today it is known as Leicester’s Golden Mile. Belgrave Road used to be a motley collection of run-down buildings but today Asian business presence has transformed the place. The Diwali celebrations in Leicester, heralding the Hindu New Year, are believed to be the biggest outside India. Today more jewelry is sold, it is said, in Belgrave Road than anywhere else in Europe.

Belgrave Road is the high street of Indian Leicester, and Leicester is the most Indian city in Britain. By 2011, it is believed, the majority of Leicester’s population will be of Asian origin, making Leicester the first city of its size where the white community will be a minority.

In a dramatic reversal, Leicester is not alarmed by it; rather, it celebrates it. Last year, the City Council apologized for those advertisements it had placed in Ugandan newspapers in 1972, urging Indians not to move to Leicester. Ross Wilmot, the Leader of the Council last year, told the BBC: “It was clearly a mistake. Of course there are people in our society who still have very strong, negative and racist views. But I know in Leicester the experience of living in a multicultural city has helped educate people to live together in peace and harmony.”

Today, Indians are as important to Leicester as the Jews, fleeing Tsarist pogroms, were to Manchester, or the Huguenots, fleeing French Catholic vengeance, were to Spitalfields. Remarkably, the textile trade played an interesting role. Huguenots in the East End traded in silk; Mancunian Jews focused on waterproof clothing, and Leicester had its hosiery and knitwear trade, a business Indians understood intimately. The arrival of Indians transformed Leicester.

The writer Nathan Franklin, who grew up in Leicester, noted recently: “In the 1970s and 1980s, Leicester suffered the same decline as any number of post-industrial towns in the Midlands and the north of England. But whereas other towns become more alike in success, their progress counted in branches of McDonald's and Gap - each declines in its own way. Partly because the recovery of the city and its satellite estates is not quite complete, Leicester’s individuality remains palpable.”

What makes Leicester unique are Belgrave Road’s glittering shops selling gold jewelry and a veritable basement bazaar (T.F. Cash and Carry), a no-nonsense 7,000 square ft shop selling everything from incense, idols, Indian music, even cooking vessels made of stainless steel. There are vast sari shops and busy vegetarian restaurants, a lively handicrafts store and the tasteful art gallery of Maz Mashru, an internationally-renowned photographer, whose clients include Sir Trevor McDonald and former Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd.

“Jai Shri Krishna”, Leicester’s Gujaratis greet each other, as they go about buying clothes and foodstuff in this perpetual oriental bazaar, stepping into Mirch Masala restaurant for a Jain bhel (no onions, garlic or potatoes), buy audiotapes from Jeram Music Centre, drown sorrows in Club Mumbai Blues, and try out salwar-kameez outfits at the trendy shop,  Indi-Kal. Many of these shops are owned and run by Ugandan- or Kenyan-Indians. Arriving with nothing, they quickly set about trying to rebuild the luxurious lives they had lived in East Africa. “They never seem to retire,” says Professor Richard Bonney of Leicester University, who has studied the community.

It is easy to find Ugandan Asian success stories elsewhere as well. In politics Shailesh Vara is now vice-chairman of the Conservative Party while Lata Patel was Mayor of Brent. Asif Din was an accomplished Warwickshire cricketer, while Tarique Ghaffur is the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Manubhai Madhvani’s business empire, with its interests in sugar, brewing and tourism, is estimated at $245 million.

Today, Indians account for some 25% of Leicester’s population, and 15 of the 56 councilors are Asians. The community’s success has not aroused resentment or envy, but there are some rumblings.

Internally, community elders complain about rising divorce rates. Over snacks at a restaurant, several of the old men complained of “our girls” wanting to marry boys they meet in pubs. One man complains that he saw somebody’s daughter hugging and kissing “a foreigner” (which could mean a Muslim, a black, or a white) at a bus stop in broad daylight. While the City Council has embraced the Diwali celebrations, and pays for dandiya ras, a folk dance performed with sticks, the city’s non-discriminatory policies mean Leicester’s Hindus cannot prohibit others, particularly Muslims, from participating. “Then those boys meet our girls, and trouble starts,” one man laments. Another man recounts how he saw an Indian teenager smoking, and asked him not to smoke, but the teenager shot back: Mind your own business. “Arre, even Idi Amin was better. He only took away our assets. This country is taking away our children!” he sighs.

One peculiar issue has emerged, galvanizing some Indians into action. Some Hindus feel strongly about their right to immerse the ashes of their dead relatives in the river around Leicester, an Avon tributary. Britain allows such immersions in three rivers, and Leicester’s Asians would like to add a fourth one.

Such discussions exasperate Ramnik Kavia, who will take over as Leicester’s Lord Mayor in May, the third Asian to hold that august office in its 300 year history. Kavia says: “There are alternatives available, such as sending the ashes to India, where a priest will perform the proper ceremony in the holy Ganga. What is the need for insisting upon doing it here?” Pravin Ruparelia of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, a voluntary Hindu organization affiliated to the controversial Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Voluntary Force) of India, agrees. “Hindus need to emerge from this blind faith over rituals. Is the immersion of ashes really the most important issue affecting Hindus?”

He is right. A more important issue affecting all Asians is the glass ceiling. While many admirers praise Asian entrepreneurs and point out how Indian-owned cornershops, Bangladeshi restaurants, and Indian-owned pharmacies have transformed British retail industry, Shailesh Solanki, executive editor of Garvi Gujarat, points out: “Asians are successful in these businesses not because they have a special aptitude for it, but because they found it difficult to succeed in mainstream companies.” At a discussion forum organized by the Centre for Social Markets in Leicester, one entrepreneur points out how he was persistently overlooked for promotions by a blue chip British company, which kept sending him to training courses instead. “I got fed up improving my qualifications, as though I was perpetually the one requiring training.” British Asians look at the astonishing success of Indian professionals in the United States, where Indian-Americans run many of America’s top corporate icons.  Rajat Gupta runs McKinsey and Co., Vinod Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems, Victor Menezis is one of the seniormost executives at Citicorp, Arun Netravali heads Bell Labs, Fareed Zakaria edits Newsweek magazine, and Indra Nooyi is President of Pepsi, the highest-ranked Indian woman executive in the US. There aren’t any similar Asian corporate achievers in the UK among similar, iconic British companies.

Result: Many Indians have formed their own businesses. And now, some have formed the British Asian Uganda Trust which raises money for British charities. The trust’s logo shows an hourglass in which the Ugandan flag turns into the Union Jack. Madhvani, who chairs the trust, said last year: “We came here 25 years ago full of anxiety in an unknown land. The British people extended a welcoming hand, enabling us to make this country our home. Very few people tend to say thank you. We intend to be different.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has also appealed to the Asians to consider investing in Uganda. “Amin was wrong; don’t punish your home,” he said in an emotional speech at the impressive Swaminarayana Temple in Neasden a few years ago. “You may not forget what happened, but can you forgive?” Museveni asked plaintively. Some British Asians have made investments in Uganda since that visit.

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After the riots in the North last year, which engulfed Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, many analysts feared Leicester might be next. Disaffected and jobless Asian youths had gone on a rampage targeting white areas, and white youth, in turn, tried tormenting Asians. It was a long, hot summer. The British National Party put up candidates in the troubled cities and won some support, including a handful of seats. The Leicester Council has commissioned a study to identify the city’s strengths which have prevented such violence in Leicester.

Kavia believes Leicester’s dynamism will prevent the situation from turning ugly. “The BNP won’t have a leg to stand on if it comes here,” he says. “They thrive in depressed areas, and Leicester is not depressed,” he continues. There is another element, too, one that is politically-incorrect to state.

Unlike Bradford and Burnley, the majority of Leicester’s Asians are not Kashmiris, Bangladeshis or Pakistanis, but Indians. And while there are Muslims among the Indians, many of them are from the Gujarati community of Bohras, who are traders first. Disaggregating the Asian community in this manner may run counter to multicultural cliches about communities, but it helps identifies and clarifies issues. As Britain becomes a more multicultural society, and that multiculturalism spreads beyond M25 to other parts of the country, clearer understanding of communities is vital. To do that, multiculturalism will have to be divorced from political correctness. It is nobody’s case, except paranoid right-wingers who still fear Powellian rivers of blood, that migration is fundamentally bad for Britain. Societies which remain open to migrants -- the United States is the foremost example, but others like Canada, Australia and Singapore too have relatively open borders -- are able to maintain vitality and dynamism which make other societies appear sclerotic. The success of the Ugandan Asians in overcoming the catastrophic consequences of expulsion is the soundest argument against restrictions on immigration.  Asians from East Africa proved that far from being a drain on the resources of host countries, immigrants often become creators of wealth and employment. This is a lesson the US has known for more than two centuries.

Australia-born and bred Patricia Hewitt, a minister in the Blair cabinet and a Member of Parliament from Leicester West, wrote last year: “We should remember that our diversity brings not only cultural richness, but also economic and competitive advantage. In this global economy, the globe is at home in Britain. The new generation of British Asian, Caribbean and African professionals and entrepreneurs not only grow businesses here, they also create trade and investment links abroad.”

Britain took about 30,000 immigrants from East Africa. Today, in Leicester, which once so opposed the arrival of the Asians, an estimated 30,000 jobs have been created through the rise of Ugandan Asian businesses. The debt, then, has been repaid.