Knee-jerk nativism

Two weeks ago, two people of “Indian origin” were beaten to death by a crowd in Kampala, Uganda. The crowd rioted because the Mehta Group, a huge multinational with significant investments in Uganda, has asked to be allocated one-third of the Mabira Forest Reserve, one of the country’s last remaining natural forests. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni supports giving away this rich source of biodiversity.

When I was a kid, a documentary called Shocking Asia made its way into our cinemas. At the time, Kenya was into censorship. The Six Million Dollar Man was banned because it would make young boys jump off roofs. Kenyans could not kiss on television because it would result in instant national sexual orgies. Yet, for some mysterious reason, which wasn’t so mysterious after all, Shocking Asia played for years on end, “due to popular demand”.

I went to watch it, all of 14, and hoping to see a nipple. I left feeling nauseous, vowing never to visit India. Here was a place of mutations and multiple arms and trunks all having twisted sex. And dirty rivers and foetuses and general horribleness. Sodom.

For the school-going Christianised population of Kenya, who loved Reader’s Digest and watched The Sound of Music, India was the closest thing to a future hell. In high school “crusades”, we were told that Indians brought demons to Kenya.

The truth was that a new generation of get-rich-quick politicos wanted Kenyans of Indian origin to leave. Under the banner of “Africanisation”, the new rulers hijacked the economy and proceeded to disembowel it.

And, of course, their anti-Indian demagogy was not without other results. During our abortive coup in 1982, hundreds of women from Nairobi’s “little India”, Parklands, were raped.

Finally, it seemed the end of an old history was beginning. For our history has been intertwined for at least a millennium. When Vasco da Gama arrived in Malindi, a city-state on the coast of what is now Kenya, he hired a Gujarati captain to ferry him to India.

This is not taught in Kenyan schools.

We were going to be Black-Surrey-on-Rift-Valley.

The Kenyan upper-middle class inherited disdain for the shopkeeper. As the highly subsidised nation of white settlers came to expect things they did not earn, so did this new generation of Kenyans. To send your child to India for university was “hellish”; to send your child to England was your natural right and you were furious that you could not afford it. You came back from England determined to plant bougainvillea and chase away the grubby shopkeepers. Kenya was going to leap from independence to become a country of doctors and teachers and chrome skyscraper multinationals. But we did not want to have to make cheap goods in smelly factories. 

A political class of people has created a certain expectation: that the angry masses will react predictably to their “monsters” because those monsters have already been created. In Kenya, as in Uganda, a class of people incapable of building wealth used crude knee-jerk nativisms to rob. They stole windowpanes and machines, turned viable cotton ginneries into scrap metal, stole even the raw cotton supplied by poor farmers. Stole until the factories stopped running. All the time pointing fingers at Shocking Asia, at a shop near you.

The new elite nearly destroyed Kenya to send their kids to school in England. The people they shook down were almost always the small-time traders. Meanwhile, many highly skilled people were kicked out to make room for the mediocre.

So look behind the mob, to the whispered meetings held by small-time politicos the night before over meat and beer, to find motivation.

In all this steam and frenzy, people will be quick to forget that the Mehta family has built many essential industries in Uganda.

It is not in question that Museveni sees himself as a religious figure, fated to answer all questions for Uganda.

The Mehta family also has an ego problem. From the group’s website, on the late founder: “… Shri Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta—“a humanist whose heart was filled with immense love and affection for people ... a contemporary of the Father of the Nation who practiced the doctrines of the Mahatma.”

These two oversized egos have overreached themselves. I am sure there are the usual lazy political entrepreneurs who are playing crowds and boardrooms to make money and make political names. Is there anybody as dangerous as those who want to profit politically and financially from the “rage” of the “people”? There are enough examples, in our recent pasts—in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere—to warn us about the danger of this sort of ethnic paranoia.

There are no easy “exploitation” stories that we can extract from the incoherence of the mob.

There is no possible benefit to this. Except more killing. Lives are at stake in these cheap jostles for power.

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