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Narendra Patel; Uganda's first non-British speaker of Parliament

By Vision Reporter

Added 9th August 2012 11:52 AM

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro­ ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE pro­ les Uganda’s ­ rst Indian Parliamentarian, Narendra Patel

Narendra Patel; Uganda's first non-British speaker of Parliament

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro­ ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE pro­ les Uganda’s ­ rst Indian Parliamentarian, Narendra Patel

To mark 50 years of Uganda’s independence, New Vision will, until October 9, 2012, be publishing highlights of events and pro­ ling personalities who have shaped the history of this country. Today, JOSEPH SSEMUTOOKE pro­ les Uganda’s ­ rst Indian Parliamentarian, Narendra Patel

When Apollo Milton Obote’s political party, the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) defeated the Democratic Party (DP) to win the biggest number of parliamentary seats in Uganda’s fi rst post-independence general elections in 1962, what was left was UPC uniting with Kabaka Yekka.

The latter party had swept all the Parliamentary seats in Buganda and its union with UPC gave birth to Uganda’s fi rst independence government. The union was the only way UPC and KY could keep DP, their common nemesis, out of power.

But the news that Obote was to form the first post-independence government of Uganda found him in his hometown of Lira, where he had just won elections as MP for Lango North East.

According to Praful Patel, who was part of the Indian community which supported UPC in Mbale, Obote was afraid for his life over the journey he had to make to Kampala. So, for precautions about his safety, he took a public bus to Mbale via Soroti. Mbale was at the time one of UPC’s most vibrant strongholds in the country.

When he reached Mbale, Obote then had to fi nd a trusted UPC colleague who had a car to drive him to Kampala. Hesettled for Narendra Patel, a Ugandan of Indian origin, who was one of UPC’s leading lights in Mbale. Other UPC stalwarts in the Mbale region were Balaki Kirya and others.

Praful reminisces that Obote entered the Narendras’ family car, with his friend and fellow UPC diehard, Narendra by his side, and, with the family driver, set off for Kampala where Obote was welcomed with loud cheers at the Parliament.

When, after a few days, Obote named his 17-man cabinet, the fi rst postindependence cabinet of the country, Narendra was appointed the deputy minister of internal affairs. He was the only Ugandan of Indian origin on the cabinet list.

Relocating to Uganda as a lawyer

Narendra M. Patel was born and raised in India in a small town called Pij, in the Kheda district of the Gujarat Province of India.

He studied in India, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws Degree from the University of Bombay in 1947. After graduation, he worked as an advocate of the Bombay High Court for one year, before moving to Uganda to join and work with his father at his law firm in 1948.

His father, Manhubai, had been practising law in Kampala since the turn of the 1940s decade. In 1954, Narendra went to the UK for further studies and qualifi ed as a barrister at law. Upon returning to Uganda in 1957, he moved to Mbale where he opened a branch of the family law firm.

Joining politics

Narendra’s law practice in Mbale made him very popular with the locals, especially as he always argued cases on their behalf. Praful says that the lawyer at times represented the locals against the colonial masters free-of-charge, thereby earning immeasurable popularity among them.

Narendra also, together with friends, set up a paper and book manufacturing firm in Mbale, called UGESNA, where many locals were employed. It is additionally said that natives were treated well and paid handsomely at the factory.

So when nationalism started growing among the natives, with the Asians on the side of the locals, Narendra was one of the Asian-Ugandans who joined UPC and strengthened its hold in Mbale.

When the 1962 general elections came around, Narendra rode on his popularity among the natives to get elected as an MP for the constituency then called Mbale.

Becoming ­ rst non-British Speaker of Parliament

In 1963, the British expatriate whom the colonialists had left behind as the Speaker of Parliament, Sir John Bowes Griffi n, left the country and Narendra was unanimously elected by fellow parliamentarians as the Speaker.

Narendra was to see the country through the turbulent early postindependence years of the 1960s, until 1971 when Idi Amin usurped power and dissolved Parliament. Many people blame him for having failed, as a Speaker, to stand up against Obote’s autocratic policies, which were forced onto Parliament and the country at large, in the 1960s.

It was during Narendra’s time as Speaker that President Milton Obote abrogated the Constitution after falling out with the Buganda Kingdom and introduced the pigeonhole constitution in 1966.

Narendra was also the Speaker when Obote banned all political parties and declared Uganda a one-party state in 1969. Some actually argue that Narendra was privy to Obote’s machinations. But

Henry Kyemba, who was the prime minister’s principal private secretary at the time, disagrees with this view.

For him, if Narendra is to be called ‘weak’, it should be on grounds that he allowed opposition MPs to challenge the prime minister on claims that they couldn’t substantiate the Gold Scandal in which the opposition MPs failed to prove Obote’s wrongful involvement.

On the whole Kyemba acquits Narendra of ‘weakness’, saying he simply tried to be fair to both the ruling and opposition sides by allowing them to argue out whatever accusations they had against each other.

Praful says that Narendra was a very outspoken and articulate man who liked arguing over different issues, but one who, nonetheless, was intelligent and wellinformed on many issues.

Life after Uganda

Following a coup by Idi Amin in 1971 and the dissolution of Parliament, Narendra remained in the country doing his private law practice, until Amin passed the decree ordering all Ugandans of Asian origin to leave the country in 1973.

Narendra left for India, and after a few years settled in Darwin, Australia, where he continued his legal practice. Narendra still lives in Australia, retired and too old to communicate.

He married his wife in India before moving to Uganda in 1948, and on moving to exile, left with her and their three sons.

Ever since he left Uganda in 1972, Narendra has returned to the country once, in the late 1980s, when he came with his wife and visited several national parks as well as his former favourite haunts in the city. But he remains a lifetime member of the Indian Association of Uganda.

Narendra Patel; Uganda’s first non-British speaker of Parliament

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