A first-hand account of the rescue of Indians from Uganda that, at times, reads like a gripping novel
Culture of the Sepulchre by Madanjeet Singh contains a personal account of the last two years of Idi Amin as the President of Uganda, who ruled during 1971-79 and its aftermath. It is written by an unconventional diplomat who had a ringside view as India's high commissioner at the time. This is not Amin's biography, though it is largely about the despot whom an American diplomat described as ‘Hitler in Africa.' It also reveals a lot about Africa, both its beauty and the downside. Besides, the book has another focal point — the author himself.
Written three decades later, the book emerged in response to the request of an Indian woman whose parents were rescued, together with many others, from ‘the bloody clutches' of Amin by the Indian high commissioner and his team. Today when India is engaged in revitalising its multi-dimensional engagement with Africa, exploring how to leverage the presence of Indian Diaspora on the continent, this poignant story has special relevance.
Amin rose from an assistant cook in the British colonial army to be Uganda's army chief. He overthrew Milton Oboe to become President. His coup was welcomed initially, but the saga of decline and destruction began soon, with the infamous expulsion of Asians in 1972. He aggravated ethnic and religious tensions. His methods were violent and brutal. Estimates of the number of people killed on his watch range between 80,000 and half a million.
Singh presents a first-hand account of extra-judicial killings, persecution and tortures masterminded by state agencies, including the Public Safety Unit. Once unknowingly he ends up playing golf with its director, the much-dreaded Ali Towelli and Amin's ‘killer-in-chief.' The moment he learns of his partner's real identity, Singh's drives and putts collapse completely, forcing him to look for a quick exit. One cannot but be reminded of Nazi Germany where Hitler's henchmen could strike terror without lifting a finger.
Amin's sins have been analysed in some detail, including reports regarding his weakness for human flesh, decision to keep the severed head of his wife's former lover in his refrigerator, and his security agents' gruesome practice of breaking opponents' heads with a heavy hammer. How his vendetta-driven goons turned Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa' according to Winston Churchill, into a burial chamber, has been graphically presented in the chapter ‘Culture of the Sepulchre' and elsewhere.
Singh narrates a tale of tragic bestiality without missing the funny and absurd facets. Amin was unpredictable, working on his whims. He often compelled the diplomatic corps to wait for him for hours in the African sun. He once climbed into the belly of a Boeing 707 to personally push out Friesian cows imported from England, ‘squarely putting his protruding paunch behind each cow and twisting its tail' — in full view of ambassadors and television cameras. Among numerous titles he gave to himself, one was ‘Life President', and the other was ‘CBE' — Conqueror of the British Empire!
With a photographer's flair, Singh presents Africa in its multiple hues. His prose goes poetic in describing the African landscape and animal kingdom. But he also pans on poverty and deprivation, gullibility of people manipulated by their leaders in the name of religion and tribalism, and the ever-present danger of violence.
Analysis of Uganda's relations with neighbours is succinct. The terrible role played by Gaddafi's Libya in fomenting regional strife gets a clinical mention. This was Africa's nadir, symbolised by Amin's election as chairman of the Organisation of African Unity. Who would have imagined then that, two decades later, the world would not get tired talking about African Resurgence?
Contribution of Indians to Uganda's economic development and their travails through 1970s are noteworthy. Evacuating them from remote parts during the war time, the author wonders what kept Indians in Africa. Indian communities in eastern and southern Africa have come a long way since then, demonstrating their amazing resilience. However, as I myself discovered in my time as India's high commissioner in Kenya and South Africa, their innate sense of insecurity has not disappeared altogether.
Singh spent two decades in the Indian diplomatic service and later had a long stint at UNESCO. He presently serves as UNESCO's Goodwill Ambassador. Referring to his time as a diplomat, he talks about ‘a life full of moral conflict and torment, especially for a person of any sensibility.'
His recounting of personal relations, under trying circumstances, with his near and dear ones — wife Kiki, son Milki, poodle Puchi as well as the sister and the niece — presents a fascinating autobiographical stream.
His professional side reveals a delicious paradox: he was told by a mandarin in Ministry of External Affairs: “The success of your mission (in Kampala) will depend on how you manage to do absolutely nothing.” Yet, he achieved much representing India, defending its interests, and helping Indians and others to a remarkable degree. His battles with foreign secretary Jagat Mehta make an interesting reading, but it is a one-sided account. His portrayal of MEA colleagues as “vultures” is unfair.
At times, this work reads like a gripping novel; at other places, it becomes a rather dull military history. Nevertheless, it reflects his profound sympathy for Africa and his intense patriotism.
I wish the book had a photographic section which would have enhanced its appeal.