Indians in Malawi to seek equal rights

After decades of being apolitical and openly discriminated against, a section of some 4 000 Indians in Malawi are starting to seek equal rights and full integration into the economic and political life of the poor southern African state.

“We want to be identified with this country and the major turning point will be our true integration into the society and political parity,” said Rafiq Hajat, an outspoken representative of the community in Malawi.

Only two of the country’s 193 legislators are Indians. Hajat is a member of the central executive of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) of President Bakili Muluzi. He says despite seven years of democratic rule and the removal of discriminatory law against Asians which barred them from engaging in key the farming and transport business, they do not feel secure in the country because they have been denied the right to be Malawian citizens.

Asians here still hold British citizenship despite a 1992 immigration law allowing them to seek local citizenship.
Hajat, a third generation Indian, claimed that for unexplained reasons, they are still denied to be Malawi citizens.

“We have become the unwanted children of Africa,” Hajat said. The Indians were brought here by the British in the last century to help construct a railway line between Malawi and Mozambique.

They stayed behind to run retail businesses which they monopolised for decades.

“Asians are seeking an extension of the political and constitutional rights,” Nandin Patel, a history professor at the University of Malawi, said. Asians were deliberately kept aloof from the political and certain sections of economic life of Malawi.

Late dictator Kamuzu Banda kept the Asians from agriculture and transport areas for fear they would exploit the country. Until the 1970s, Asians operated as retailers in mainly rural areas of Malawi before Banda decreed that they could move to urban centres of Blantyre, Lilongwe and Zomba to pave the way for indigenous business to operate without competition from wealthy Asians.

This led to their exodus to Britain and the USA and by 1979, there were some 4 927 Asians left down, from 11 299 in 1965.

“The policy to restrict Indians sowed seeds of mistrust and suspicion. This segregated Indians from the rest of the community,” Patel said.

But the Indians, taking advantage of the new democratic and human rights order in Malawi, say they now want to fight for equal rights, especially over land.

Representatives of Malawi’s Indian community have challenged the land policy, arguing that a clause that bars all non-Malawians and foreign firms from owning land while granting freehold status to Malawians only is discriminatory.

The policy allows foreign companies and non-citizens to lease land from government or from private land owners for investment purposes only, while foreigners interested in freehold would be required to form partnerships with Malawians or attain Malawi citizenship to retain their ownership. A clash broke out last week when Land Minister Thengo Maloya labelled Asians “racists” at a meeting called to discuss the controversial clauses in the planned new land policy.

The Asians complained at the meeting that converting of land freehold to leasehold on the basis of nationality, was unfair and would scare away investors instead of attracting them.

A prominent Asian lawyer Krishna Savjani said all that the Asians wanted was to be sure “that they will continue to function in the country without restrictions.”

Malawi is seeking to redistribute idle land to thousands of its citizens, under the land policy yet to be passed by parliament. - Sapa

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