Vali Jamal’s Thank You Letter to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: The 1972 Expulsion of Asians from Uganda

The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan with Secretary-General U Thant at his home on 23 June 1971. Photo: Teddy Chan, United Nations.

The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, as Mohezin Tejani noted in his Thank You letter published earlier as part of Simerg’s Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures, was “a man for all seasons.” Tejani thanked the late Prince for his multifarious activities which included being the High Commissioner of UNHCR, a collector of Islamic art which will be housed at the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and a spokesperson on environmental issues. Vali Jamal’s focus in his thank you letter published below is on the role that Prince Sadruddin and the UN played worldwide in ensuring the safety, well-being and resettlement of thousands of Asian refugees who were forced to flee Uganda on Idi Amin’s orders. Although Vali is an Ismaili he writes the letter on behalf of Uganda Asians of all communities who were assisted by the UNHCR. He consulted many people in his book in writing this letter. The Prince was the uncle of the present Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan.
May 23, 2012.

Dear Prince Sadruddin,

How I wish you could read this letter, but all life passes and yours was taken away at just 70 years. I like to think you will feel our prayers as people of all religions and races read this tribute letter to you.

To me as an Ismaili youth you were from the Noorani family, beloved of your father, our 48th Imam. We used to see pictures of you with Prince Aly Shah and princes Karim and Amyn, wearing the fez, your head slightly tilted, since you were taller than the others. We remember you at the Diamond Jubilee in Dar-es-Salaam, quite chubby at 7 years old, on your head a pagri with a feather on it. You were our Wahala Shahzada Sadruddin. Then you became our hero when you were appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1966. In your twelve years you turned the agency around from being Euro-centric to one concerned with refugees world-wide. In 1972 you became a personal hero to all Uganda Asians of all communities when you airlifted around 5,000 of us to refugee camps in Europe from Idi Amin’s Uganda.

Prince Sadrudin Aga Khan pictured with Ugandan Asian refugees at the Naples refugee centre. Photo: Vali Jamal Collection. Copyright.

It fell on me to write about that 1972 episode in our lives, our place in history. Idi Amin had that dream in which he believed divine instructions were given him to cleanse Uganda of the resident Asian community. We were but 60,000 people then, just 0.75 percent of the population, but goodness, we controlled nearly 75 percent of the non-food parts of the GDP. Amin couldn’t take it any longer. The deadline was ninety days, in some kind of bizarre reference to the 90-days pre-harvest credit Asian traders used to give to the farmers, and a concession as compared to the 90-hours notice Gaddafi, his new-found mentor when the coup-facilitators deserted him, had given to his Italian “blood-suckers.” The British conceded to accept 30,000 of their citizens; 2,000 were paroled in by the USA; 5,000 dispersed to European countries. Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, opened the doors and eased the way for the settlement of 7000, the first time the country received such a large batch of non-White refugees. It is now known that your nephew and our Imam, His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, a long time friend of Trudeau, played a major role in this when he picked up the phone during the crisis to ask the Prime Minister to make Canada a safe haven. We have never forgotten Canada’s open doors in our time of need.

We were keeping tabs from Kampala – and so were you in Geneva! Already on 22 September, you wrote to Mr George Ignatieff, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN:

“I wish to thank you for sending me the text of the statement made by the Prime Minister of Canada on the decision to offer assistance to the Uganda residents of Asian origin. Those who find their claim to Uganda citizenship invalidated, and are not recognized as citizens of any other country, might well become refugees under my mandate. I have thus very special reasons for watching this development very closely. I hope the example set by your country will be followed.”

On 24 October, just ten days to the deadline, the Secretary General designated you to assist Asians of “undetermined nationality” in obtaining travel documents and places of resettlement. Around 5,000 people were involved who had either not succeeded in securing residency visas, or who, although confirmed of their Uganda citizenship, were frightened off from any thoughts of staying by Amin’s threats of rusticating them to Karamoja and forcing them to “live like Africans.” Your agency along with the Red Cross and the European Migration agency in a heroic mission picked up 4,572 refugees in 40 flights in just ten days. The stuff of legends — except most of us were gone by then, wondering what all that white stuff on the ground was as the plane came in to land.

That story, respected High Commissioner, is told in my book through the stories of the “real” refugees who ended up in five European countries. How much gratitude they all show to you! Many of them met you personally at the centres. Here are some names that we cite in an honour roll-call: Vinod Kataria (from Traiskerchen camp (Austria) to Sweden); Thanki family (from Naples to Norway); Sherali Ahmed Kassam family (from Malta to Norway to UK), Chandulal Vyas family (Austria to Holland); Razia Ratansi (Naples to Canada); Nilesh Nathwani (Geneva HCR HQ to Vienna).

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan meeting Pyaralli Virani at Vancouver, the only African to leave with the expulsion. Photo: Vali Jamal Collection.

Here are two vignettes from Naples. You notice an African face among the admiring people thronging you. You ask: “What are you doing here?” And he says simply, “Sir, I am Ismaili.” His name: Pyaralli Virani. Three years later when you visit Vancouver, he comes forward to greet you and says he never wants to go back to “that” country. Also, you become attached to a Karim Hirji. He is bilingual with French. Karim is severely handicapped from two recent car accidents. He says he isn’t feeling too well and would like to miss the Eid prayers. You persuade him to come. You fix him up to be picked up by Denmark. A few weeks on, the family receive a cable that Karim has passed away.

Thank you Prince Sadruddin for being there for us in 1972. That year your agency had been appointed the lead agency for all UN humanitarian action. You were dealing with 10 million displaced persons from Bangladesh, half a million from south Sudan, and similar from Rwanda and Burundi, yet you cared so much for us? You are hero to not just the 4,572 people who ended up in your refugee centers, but to all Uganda Asians.

How wonderful life was
When you and Uganda were in our world.

Yours sincerely,

Vali Jamal,
Kampala, Uganda.


Copyright: Vali Jamal/Simerg. May 2012.

Dr. Vali Jamal

About the writer: Vali Jamal has a BA from Cambridge (Trinity College) and a PhD from Stanford. He was a Senior Economist with UN-International Labour Organization from 1976 to 2001. His forthcoming book is called Uganda Asians: Then and Now, Here and There, We Contributed, We Contribute.It should be out by October (2012) at 1250 pages, just in time for Uganda’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He pieced together the accounts relating to the HCR’s role in the 1972 expulsion from internal memos at the HCR office in Geneva and from people’s contributed stories for his book.  He is shown in the picture on left at the Bulange (Baganda Parliament) to collect an endorsement letter from the Katikiro (Prime Minister) in April 2012 for his forthcoming book.

Vali Jamal’s other pieces on this website:

5 Palace Gate when it was a privilege to be in England
Remembering Kampala Jamatkhana: Special in so many ways


We invite your contribution for the thank you series. Please click on Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures to read about the series and links to published letters.

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10 thoughts on “Vali Jamal’s Thank You Letter to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan: The 1972 Expulsion of Asians from Uganda

  1. Remembering is a kind of sub-meeting. Thus this thank you letter remembering Prince Sadruddin is appropriate considering the work the late Prince accomplished during his lifetime.

  2. Good to see many people who benefited from the UNHCR’s rescue operartion on our behalf have expressed their thank you to the chief of the UNHHCR then. I hope he gets a posthumous award from the Government of Uganda during the celebrations for our Golden Jubilee.

    Zarina Bhatia was of course a neighbour in that Namiremebe Road-Rubaga Road-Hoima (Bakuli) Road tringle. “Of course” meaning that 66.66% of Ismailis lived there prior to the mid-1950s, then Kololo, etc. I have the story of Zarina’s father, her brother Dr Mahomed Bhatia, her brother Mansur, her brother Nizar (tributes by fellow scouts), and her nephew Shamir M Bhatia in my book. Phew! The book’s going to have some readers in that family! I have the story of Zinat Virani from his family and of Pyaralli Virani, African Ismaili. That story appeared in IsmailiMail. Janak and Vinod ended up in UNHCR camps during the expulsion. I have their stories and of 12 others in the same situation in my book.

  3. I just noted what Vali wrote, ‘The-then quasi-president of the council Zinat Virani has passed away without anyone recording his story’. Dear me, Zinat Virani an Ismaili Lawyer was my late brother Dr Mohamed Bhatia’s friend and fellow resident in Mbale in Uganda where he practised and settled. They both were together again in Calgary, Canada as Ismaili pioneers, so to say. Shamir, my nephew only a few years old joined a school. Later with the arrival of my other late brothers Mansur and Madat with their families, my eldest sister late Roshankhanu Kurji and her family from Nairobi all settled in Calgary Canada. Vali is right in saying that no historical records are kept by our new generation really.

  4. Dear Vali, what can I say about your wonderful research on the plight of Ugandan Asians? Late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan’s vital role in his capacity as UNHCR, United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees enabled also my relatives to quit. My eldest brother Shamsudeen (Bha) and his family of 3 children with my late father Huzurmukhi Gulamhusein Jiwa Bhatia became refugees like many, having to arrive in London as ‘Bha’ held UK passport. In spite of several efforts of standing in queue for days during the 3 months Idi Amin had given as ultimatum, the family got nowhere with getting Ugandan passports! Bha was recently in Birmingham with me for his 90th birthday. We celebrated it again at Ismaili Darkhana Senior Club in London with Dr Aziz Kurwa, Al-Waiz Ghulam Abbas Hunzai and others. Bha and I talked about those difficult days during 1972. I had returned home then for summer vacation after 5 years of being away to UK when the news of Asian expulsion came as a bolt from the blues from President Idi Amin of Uganda. Every day his decision changed as to who should leave and he appeared on Ugandan television. My nephew Shamir Bhatia in Vancouver informs me that you have included our family in your book. I am waiting to hear of its publication.

    Finally, I am so touched by seeing Pyarali African Ismaili’s photo; just on Friday night in London Darkhana before returning to Birmingham I met Fatmabai, late Gulam Habib Ratansi Virani’s wife, they had helped in converting Pyarali, their employee to our faith. I remember this clearly as a child; we were living a few houses away from them in William Street in Kampala!

    My gratitude goes, of course also to, Abdulmalik Merchant the Editor of for initiating this “Thank You” series.

  5. Dear Vali,

    A very beautiful tribute to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Many times I have wondered what would have been our fate if it was not for the UNHCR under the leadership of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan who facilitated our departure from Uganda to a safe heaven. Even today the mere thought of uncertainty we faced during the expulsion period sends a shiver down my spine. I have no words to describe the relief we felt when UNHCR arrived and took us under it´s wings. Thanks to Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan and UNHCR that we today have a new home in a beautiful country where we have progressed and live a peaceful life. He will always be remembered by our family.

    Kind regards.

    Janak Thanki

  6. The writer Mr Tahir Ahmad, is son of Dr Lal din Ahmad, who was personal physician to Aga Khan III on his visits to Uganda.

    Hi Vali,

    A Very Beautiful Letter Vali – How We All Wish He Was With Us To Share This Letter But His Blessings are and Will Always Be With Us – Ismailis or Non Ismailis – Late Prince Sadrudin and His Highness The Aga Khan Have Always Been Very Open and Universal Towards All Faiths and Have Embraced The People of Those Faiths With Love and Have Never Been Biased Towards any one Faith. I Have a Lot of Love and Respect for The Aga Khan Family, and so have been all my family members.

  7. Arif Babul writes:

    “It is my sincerest hope that the events and stories are not simply left in the care of fragile human minds.”

    I am trying in my book that the events of 1972 in Uganda are not left to die with the dying generation – after all they are past 65 now. I think history matters. On the role of the Imam in our evacuation I was able to piece out something from the diary of the chief of the Canadian Uganda rescue mission. The more intimate discussions should be in the archives at Ottawa. The-then quasi-president of the council Zinat Virani has passed away without anyone recording his story.

  8. Email from Vinod Kataria who ended up in Sweden via the Tanskirchen camp
    —– Forwarded Message —–
    From: Vinodlal Kataria
    To: vali jamal
    Sent: Thursday, 24 May 2012, 12:21
    Subject: Re: you have been mentioned – Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (UNHCR)

    Hi All,

    This is Vinod From Sweden.I owe a debt of gratitude to UNHCR and specially to Prince Sadrudin Aga Khan for helping us out of Uganda so quickly and efficiently at a moment when everything seemed so hopeless.Through years I have been thinking of our fate if UNHCR were not there to help us out in those last criticall days.You will be remembered forever.

    Kind Regards

    Vinod Kataria

  9. Dear Dr. Jamal,

    I want to express my deep appreciation to you for penning this particular piece for two reasons: First, I have long felt that threads of our recent communal history – that leading up to and subsequent to the mass migration to Canada, USA and the UK from East Africa – have been slowly unravelling and slipping away. Your letter, and presumably your upcoming book, are vital to ensuring that our collective memories remain intact. Second, as I read more and more about Prince Sadruddin, I am discovering that he was a remarkable individual not only for the care and concern that he displayed towards the Ismailis, but humanity at large. We would all do well to emulate him. Thank you for sharing your stories.

    On the topic of history and memory, I hope (pray) that there is an ongoing effort on the part of writers like you to record stories and anectodes of the Ismaili (particularly) experience in Uganda and Tanzania (specifically over the period 1968-1973). I am specifically interested in reading an account of how Hazar Imam directly and indirectly intervened to facilitate safe passage of his murids. Our brethren in Afghanistan and Tajikistan have been benefactors of similar interventions. It is my sincerest hope that the events and stories are not simply left in the care of fragile human minds. As a community, we all too often tend to forget the level of Imams’ level of concern and personal engagement in ensuring our safety and well being. I cannot help but feel a sense of urgency that posterity should and must continue to remember and retell these stories.

    • The late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the High Commissioner of UNHCR, truly served by helping to resettle the people of Uganda into various parts of the world-looking forward for a family reunion in the UK.T hank you Dr.Jamal for acknowledging on behalf of all the Ugandan Asians. Looking forward to reading your book. Service to people is service to God.

      Raju Badiani-NewZealand(Ex-Triskehren,Austria)

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