Culture of the Sepulchre: Idi Amin’s Monster
Regime | Newsline magazine

22th July 2014
by Madanjeet Singh

Viking Books, Penguin Group, India, 2012.
237 pages
Book review by Javed Jabbar

Witness to catastrophe
At least for this reviewer, the book comes as a pleasant surprise. Written by a career diplomat and an art historian , a personal viewing of a brutal tragi-comic episode of recent history becomes a well-paced, readable and unexpectedly absorbing narrative.

About 13 years ago , Niaz Naik,former Foreign Secretary and Convenor of the longest-running , still on-going , quiet, non-media-reported (since 1991) Pakistan-India Track-II Dialogue know as the Neemrana Initiative , of which this reviewer is also a member,introduced me to the author, Madanjeet Singh , who was then visiting Pakistan.

As UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador, but more so in a separate individual, philanthropic capacity, Madanjeet Singh was establishing the South Asia Foundation. The aim is to promote friendship and co-operation between the seven countries of the region with particular stress on education, information and cultural exchange, mutual respect and enduring friendship. Several eminent South Asians including two personalities one has had the privilege to know, the late I.K. Gujral, former Prime Minister of India and Mani Shankar Aiyar, former Parliamentarian and Minister, were also associated with this initiative. In Pakistan, in addition to Niaz Naik, artist and art educator Salima Hashmi and information technologist Zaheer Kidwai were also part of this laudable process. After my initial agreement to contribute, one met with Madanjeet Singh at conferences and meetings in Kathmandu and New Delhi. His gracious invitation to be his personal guest at his villa in the south of France was tempting but was politely declined because it was too indulgent to be availed.

Unfortunately, association with the author and the Foundation had to be somewhat abruptly concluded by this writer. Shortly after the mysterious terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 (about which 13 questions posed by the courageous Indian activist Arundhati Roy remain virtually unanswered to this day), Madanjeet Singh issued a statement which unfairly singled out Mahatma Gandhi alone as the sole voice of non-violence and peace in the recent heritage of the region . This writer was of the view that the failure to acknowledge Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s profound belief in peaceful, non-destructive means to pursue goals had been deliberately disregarded. This omission in a controversial bilateral context compounded a certain disquiet that one had already begun to feel about a subtle Indian bias in the Foundation's direction.

The book under review obliges me to re-consider my previous opinion about the author.

While the text periodically reflects his pride in being Indian , there is also a humanism and concern for the rights of all people to dignity and security, regardless of nationality and ethnicity .

Derived from notes made about 31 years ago between 1977 and 1980 when he served as the High Commissioner of India in Uganda , this part memoir is frank, fresh, evocative and engaging. His previous two books were well-received but were on entirely different subjects. For example, his first book was “Indian Sculpture in Bronze and Stone” and “India : Paintings from the Ajanta Caves” (with a preface by Jawaharlal Nehru), published by the Italian Institute of Middle and Far East and by UNESCO.

Being a first-hand witness to the bizarre regime of Idi Amin became the opportunity to closely observe how a mendacious mediocrity can use murder and mayhem to rule , and to ruin. Madanjeet Singh was serving at the Indian Mission in Bogota, Colombia in South America when he was suddenly informed by New Delhi that his next assignment would be in Uganda. He eventually accepted the task with reluctance and arrived in Kampala in 1977 when Idi Amin had already been in power since 25th January 1971 after his ouster of President Milton Obote. In the six years of megalomaniac delusions, the President of the country had acquired several titles including the following by which he liked to be addressed : “His Excellency The Life President of Uganda, Al-Hajji Field Marshal Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC”. The honours ( excluding the Haj pre-fix ) , including the medals, were self-bestowed.

The new Indian envoy’s presentation of credentials to the Head of State introduced him to a strange and disturbing personality. With a pot-belly protruding like “an 8-month pregnant woman” and a towering physical bearing, the eyes were noticeably small, rolling from side-to-side as he spoke, revealing either complete insincerity or creeping insanity. Having already , onwards of August 1972 expelled from Uganda over 70,000 Asians, mostly of Indian origin , Idi Amin informed the Indian High Commissioner that he wanted to welcome new technicians, engineers, doctors and lawyers and other experts from India to promote Uganda’s economic development.

While the diplomat was figuring out how to reconcile this message with the previous policy of expulsions, he was invited with other envoys to the airport to be present with Idi Amin in order to welcome the arrival of the second Boeing 707 aircraft purchased by Uganda. The President came dressed as a cowboy. Folk dancers rendered a colourful welcome to the jet plane. However, when the door opened, no one appeared for quite some time. Instead, mooing was heard from within. The President proceeded to enter the aircraft and to personally push out the first of the passengers. These turned out to be a herd of Friesian cows shipped from England at a cost of $60 million. They had been bought because of the surmise that, with their repute for being bountiful milk-producing bovines , with further breeding in Uganda itself , new rivers of milk would soon flow across the land. Only a few weeks after this comic spectacle, the envoy learnt that because the beef of the Friesian cows turned out to be more delicious than their milk, all of them ended up as steaks cooked by Idi Amin’s Nubian tribe, specially on the Eid festival.

Yet the banal could not divert from the barbaric. There were the early, cold-blooded killings of persons such as Archbishop Janani Luwum and Ministers Charles Oboth-Ofumbi and Ernayo Wilson Oryema. Then there were other numerous prominent citizens and officials who would simply be found dead one day due to “tragic car accidents”. Then, on a visit to a fellow Ambassador at his residence the host remained unperturbed when Madanjeet Singh could clearly hear heart-rendering screams from the place next door. He was informed that the neighbour was the State Research Bureau where victims were tortured daily and so routinely that the screams no longer surprised neighbours. The author was informed by reliable sources that the Head of State also showed a perverse interest in the corpses of some who died mysteriously : he would ask to be left alone with a corpse in the mortuary. It was speculated that, as part of a primitive savage rite, Idi Amin may well have liked to taste the blood of a person he considered his enemy , so as to achieve complete conquest of his foe.

The author underlines the irony that the horrific acts of a de-ranged ruler and the heedless plunder of a nation’s resources were committed in a country of overwhelming beauty. Madanjeet Singh eloquently describes the mesmerising landscapes and the natural splendour of Uganda. He writes : “Uganda, like a beautiful woman, did not need ornaments to look presentable…”. Nature has endowed this part of the planet with forests, lakes, rivers, plains, flora and fauna that together create a magical ambience.

Portraying his professional duties and his private life , the author vividly describes a wide variety of interesting experiences in Uganda and in neighbouring countries as corruption and anarchy increase and Idi Amin's regime approaches collapse in 1979 . Brave attempts to help Ugandan Indians , and some Pakistanis still resident in rural and urban areas, the contrasting conditions in Rwanda, Burundi and Kenya , apalling conditions in the capital including daily killings and violence , continued presence in the midst of complete chaos. And in the backdrop : disinterest from his own Ministry back in New Delhi due to a personal animus against him by the then-Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta, only partially and belatedly redressed through a warm letter of appreciation from then-Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The book inevitably prompts reflection on how single individuals --- and even those of obviously imbalanced , pathologically-sick minds --- can seize control of an entire State and run it to ground , on how vital it is for institutions to be built and strengthened in order to prevent mass suffering and catastrophes.

It saddens to know that the author passed away in 2013 just when he had established entirely new credentials with this manuscript as a fine chronicler of recent and contemporary history .

His services for his country, his services for humanity and for South Asia, and his books comprise a worthy legacy of distinction.

The reviewer is the author of " Pakistan -- unique origins ; unique destiny ?

As published in the July 2014 issue of Newsline magazine, Pakistan

(But without the first 5 paragraphs as below ... ! ... with the prior consent of the writer in response to the respected Editor's suggestion that space limits and distractive considerations be considered)