In 1498, Vasco-da-Gama stopped at Mombassa, in present-day Kenya, on his voyage to discovering the sea-route to India. A Gujarati sailor came on board his ship and guided it to Kozhikode, in present-day Kerala, clearly indicating that the west coast of India and East Africa had age-old connections.
Modern-day Indian migration to Kenya began with the onset of colonial rule in Africa. In 1885, European powers (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and Belgium) concluded the Treaty of Berlin, apportioning Africa amongst themselves. Consequently, in 1895, the British formed the Protectorate of East Africa that formalized their control of a region that is today Kenya and Uganda.
The British sought African labour to harness Africa’s vast natural resources. The reluctance of Africans to provide the much-needed labour led the British to bring in labour from India. Many Indians, particularly Sikhs, came to Kenya as labourers. They were put to work in the mines and to lay railway lines. It was difficult work, often at the edge of the African jungles. Attacks by wild animals were not uncommon. But they persevered – and in doing so, ironically, laid the foundations of the colonial exploitation of Africa and Africans.
The Indians themselves were exploited though they liked to think of themselves as ‘better’ than the Africans. In time, some Indians gained a modicum of prosperity and began to own and operate small businesses. Makhan Singh’s father owned one such business.
Born in Gujranwala district of undivided Punjab in 1913, Makhan Singh made his way to Kenya in 1927 and joined his father who ran a printing press there.
Very soon, Makhan Singh got involved in trade union activities. In March 1935, he was elected Secretary of the Indian Trade Union and influenced the Union to change its name to Labour Trade Union of Kenya and open its membership to workers irrespective of race, religion and colour. Between April and May 1937, the Labour Trade Union, after a well-organised 62-day strike, was able to achieve an increase in wages ranging from 15 to 25 per cent. With this, Makhan Singh was recognised by fellow Kenyans as a kindred soul in their struggle against the British. But British authorities marked him out as a dangerous reactionary – and vowed to deal with him.
The opportunity arose when, in December 1939, Makhan Singh left for India to study trade unionism in Bombay and Ahmedabad. Inevitably sucked into the Indian freedom struggle, he was arrested at Ahmedabad in May 1940. In detention, he came into contact with socialists and communists.
Released in 1942, his movement was restricted and he was confined to his village in Punjab. Between 1945 and 1947 after his restrictions were lifted, he served as the sub-editor of Jang-E-Azadi, a weekly published by the Communist Party in Lahore biding time before he could return to Kenya.
Indian independence was imminent and once it was clear that India was no longer under the British yoke, Makhan Singh decided to head back to Kenya. In August 1947, he set sail for Kenya to continue his unfinished work in his adopted land.
Back in Kenya, among Makhan Singh’s most urgent pleas to fellow Indians was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Africans to advance their political interests. Urging them to make common cause with the Africans, he was at the forefront of questioning Indian prejudices about Africans and the false sense of superiority that they claimed. Fluent in Swahili, he advised all Indians in East Africa to learn the language.
In 1949, the East African Trade Union Congress was founded with Fred Kubai as President and Makhan Singh as General Secretary. Makhan Singh was now ‘Mungu Comrade’ (Mungu means God in Swahili), standing with other Kenyans in their opposition to the British rule.
In an impassioned speech in April 1950, he called for total independence for East Africa. He is credited with coining the slogan ‘Uhuru Sasa’ (meaning ‘Freedom Now’). It was a provocative move. A few days later, the colonial government struck back – a number of charges were levelled against him, restricted to a remote part of Kenya and not allowed to meet anyone apart from his close family. The colonial government was willing to relax these restrictions if he would ‘change his attitude’ or agree to leave Kenya. Makhan Singh did neither. He was to remain under restriction till 1961.
Meanwhile, the anti-colonial struggle in Kenya was taking a very different turn. The Mau-Mau uprising, which broke out in the early fifties, signalled a very violent turn in the anti-colonial struggle. Fought on the issue of British settlers’ extensive ownership of prized agricultural land, the uprising claimed a number of lives and forced the declaration of an emergency in October 1952.
Jomo Kenyatta and a number of other Kenyan leaders were arrested on charges of being involved in the uprising. Makhan Singh went on hunger strike three times to demand that Kenyatta and other leaders be released. As the situation began to careen out of control in the years that followed, by 1960, the British decided to grant Kenya independence.
After Kenya gained independence in 1963, politics in the newly born nation increasingly revolved around Jomo Kenyatta and other African figures who had participated in the anti-colonial struggle. The contribution of Indians like Makhan Singh was largely ignored. During this time, Makhan Singh wrote the history of the Kenyan trade union movement till 1956. A proposal for ‘Mungu comrade’ to broadcast the life of Jomo Kenyatta as a series of radio broadcasts did not fructify.
His role in the freedom struggle and his work were systematically sidelined and Makhan Singh passed away – unsung – in 1973.
The 2010 Punjabi play, Mungu Comrade by Dr Atamjeet, a well-known Punjabi playwright is an attempt to reclaim Makhan Singh’s story, as is the 2006 Zarina Patel authored biography, Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh.
As Zarina Patel puts it, ‘Makhan Singh crossed the race barriers and brought together African and Asian workers on a common platform. This was British colonialism’s worst nightmare – the fusion of Indian political experience and the African mass struggle.’
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