Punjab Research Group

The Unsung Indian Hero of Kenya

Posted in Articles, Diaspora, Migration by Pippa on January 2, 2014

Makhan SinghPublished in The Tribune 25 December 2013

Following link for full article http://epaper.tribuneindia.com/203331/The-Tribune/TT_25_December_2013#page/19/2

Makhan Singh not only organised the labour movement in Kenya, but also raised the slogan of total independence of the country. He remained in prison for 16 years. But the contribution of this valiant son of Punjab remains unknown in Kenya as well as in India.

WHEN I visited Kenya for the first time in 2005 as an educationist, it was inconceivable then that I would soon be writing a play on an unsung Indian hero Makhan Singh, who had migrated from Punjab in 1927, organised the labour movement of the country, became the first person to call for total freedom from the colonial rule, remained under detention for 16 years and was the first leader to be arrested and the last to be released after independence. If about 20 readings of the play Mungu Comrade in India, England and Canada attracted hundreds of people, who were riveted to the spoken action, it was not the magic of writing; they were actually enchanted by the mesmerizing protagonist who has rightly been termed as a “totally unadulterated idealist”. Dr. Fitz De Souza, Deputy Speaker of Kenya’s first National Assembly said about him, “he wouldn’t compromise his principles on anything.”

He was born on December 27, 1913 in Gharjakh, a town near Gujranwala (Pakistan) in the family of Sudh Singh who went to Kenya in 1920, about two decades after the British took Indian labour to Kenya to lay the railway track from Mombasa to Kisumu to feed their commercial needs. In the 16th century the Portuguese had also imported workers from the then colony of theirs, Goa, to help build the coastal Fort Jesus. But it was in the last years of the 19th century when 37,000 workers and petty tradesmen were introduced from Punjab and Gujarat for the line that is termed by the African tribes and subsequently by Robert Hardy as The Iron Snake. The slithering of this ‘snake’, passing through the dense forests took life of about 2,500 workmen; roughly four persons per mile of the track. Another 6,500 were injured seriously. We have seen this terrain in the film made on the first-hand accounts written by John Henry Patterson in Man Eaters of Tsavo.

The Kenya Land & Freedom Depository Project, London

Posted in Events, News/Information by gsjandu on July 19, 2013

Kenyan born artist Tajender Sagoo is inviting artists, activists, journalists, thinkers and citizens to contribute to a depository of experiences, reflecting on life in the British colony of Kenya, especially during the Emergency 1950 – 1960 and the Mau Mau liberation struggle.

The Land & Freedom Depositions project seeks to explore the silences present in the ongoing British narrative of Kenya via the construction of a new visual dialogue. Sagoo aims to create a space for untold stories. The deposition project will become part of an exhibition to be held in London at the end of the year.

“Listening to my father talking about the reality of living and working in British Kenya made me realise how much the British state have hidden from us,” says Sagoo.

All types of *physical or non- physical items and ideas can be deposited in the project. It can be text based, oral or a photograph of an object or a copy of a Kipande (pass card) or a Loyalty certificate. (Other items might be essays, articles, diaries, schoolbooks, adverts, tickets, domestic items, textiles, recipes, songs, poetry etc.) Or you may want to present a talk or event that can be recorded for the depository. *(please do not submit original material).

Deposits submitted to the project will undergo a system of classification where they will be divided into a white, grey or black group, (in reference to the classification system used in the internment camps).

For more information about making a deposition please contact Tajender Sagoo or Saleh Mamon.


In October 1952 the British declared a state of emergency in Kenya to suppress a growing independence movement commonly known as the Mau Mau war of liberation. (Mau Mau was also referred to as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army).

There are many people living today who were in Kenya during the Emergency period, in which the British administration operated a colour bar system, racially segregating the African, South Asian and European communities.

The Kenya Emergency was a brutal campaign of detention without trial characterised by a system of punitive punishments put in place to counter the calls for independence. Communities were interned in camps and underwent a system of “cleansing” called the Pipeline. People were classified into White, Grey or Black groups according to how loyal to the Kenyan State they were. White being the most loyal and Black being ‘Mau Mau’.

Recently, in a case spanning 10 years, three Kenyans Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85 and Wambugu wa Nyingi, 84 took legal action against the UK Government for the torture they suffered at the hands of British officials during the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960.

In an historic judgment (October 2012), the High Court rejected the British Government’s attempt to strike out the claims of the three Kenyan victims of British Colonial torture on the grounds that the claims were time barred.

In June 2013, the British government announced an out of court settlement with the torture victims. For further info see http://www.leighday.co.uk/News/2013/June-2013/Statement-from-Leigh-Day-on-Kenyan-torture-victim


Born in Kenya, Tajender Sagoo is an artist/weaver and curator of the Pop Samiti project based in London. Her practice uses textiles in a multi disciplinary approach. She has a strong interest in using pattern and colour to investigates the relationships between objects and the ideas that they express in the historical and modern experience.

Saleh Mamon is co- curator of the Kenya Land & Freedom Depository project. Born in Kenya he is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Goldsmith Centre of Culture Studies. He witnessed the forced removal of Kenyan African men by armed soldiers on open trucks in Nairobi at the age of twelve. He is interested in the ‘hidden’ history of the Third World. In the mainstream discourse the violent process of colonisation and suppression of resistance by armed force remains largely erased. He believes strongly that this production of history needs to be challenged and an alternative explored to reveal the experience of the colonised peoples.

This is an independent project, it is not funded by any organisation or institution.


If you would like to make a deposition or make an enquiry contact:

Tajender Sagoo (popsamiti@gmail.com ) or Saleh Mamon ( salehmamon@yahoo.co.uk)

Limehouse Town Hall

646 Commercial Road

London E14 7HA

Tel:075 3047 2483

Singh: Forgotten hero of independence

Posted in Articles by Pippa on July 8, 2013

Makhan Singh was the father of the labour movement in East Africa and a selfless freedom fighter in Kenya.

He had the courage to publicly proclaim Uhuru Sasa (Freedom Now) in 1950, became the longest serving detainee and the last to be released in October 1961, several months after the venerated Kapenguria Six had been freed.

Yet, Makhan Singh was later shunted aside in independent Kenya by the Jomo Kenyatta government without any meaningful recognition for his contribution to Kenya’s independence.

Zarina Patel, his biographer, states that Makhan Singh was a bigger threat to the British than any other freedom fighter and hence he had to be isolated. At one time while in detention, he requested to be allowed family visits but the British instead offered to release him on condition that he migrates from Kenya with his family and never settles anywhere in East Africa. He declined.

Makhan Singh died a disappointed man, having been side-lined by the new Kenyan leadership for being perceived variously as a leftist, a communist, and socialist who had no place in the capitalist-leaning Kenya.

He was born on December 27, 1913 in a small village of Gharjak, near Gujranwala in Punjab (now in Pakistan).  Pakistan split from India soon after independence on August 15, 1947. His father, Sudh Singh Jabbal, left for Kenya in 1920 to join the Railways as an artisan, leaving Makhan and his sister under the care of their mother. He was only seven.

According to his son, Hindapal Singh Jabbal, as a seven-year-old, Makhan witnessed what came to be known as the Jallian Wala Bagh incident in which hundreds of defenceless Indians were massacred in Amristrar in cold blood by British General Dayer.

The incident left a lasting impression on his young mind and later formed the foundation of his selfless devotion to the freedom of Kenyans of all races as a trade unionist.

Such was his devotion that when he died in 1973, he only left Sh350 in his savings account.

“He never owed anybody any money; he never took a penny for his work in the trade union movement both in India and Kenya. Today, some of the union leaders have fleets of Mercedes Benzes at the expense of unions,’’ says his 76-year-old son, a former Kenya Power engineer.

Makhan came to Kenya in 1927 at the age of 14, together with his mother and sister to join his father, who had now left the Railways and started a small contracting business and printing press.

After passing his London Matriculation examination in 1931 from Government High School (now Jamhuri High in Parklands), he joined his father’s printing press.

It was at that time that he started taking a keen interest in the trade union movement.

His patriotism transcended love for his country of origin. Jailed by the British even when he visited India, Makhan was a committed patriot who fought for the freedom of his country of adoption, Kenya, and preferred years in jail to living a sedentary and comfortable life.

While most Indian immigrants in Kenya were satisfied to improve their lot financially and kept a low profile to avoid getting into trouble with the British, Makhan frequently stuck his neck out.

That is how he managed to transcended the racial and religious divides and managed to unite Africans and Asians against British oppression.

In 1935, he was elected secretary-general of the Indian Trade Union (founded in 1934). He soon transformed it into the Labour Trade Union of Kenya to attract all races.

By 1937, he had succeeded in transforming it into the Labour Trade Union of East Africa, which championed the interest of workers in the entire region. Through it, he succeeded in achieving increased wages ranging from 15 to 25 per cent.

This led the British to change their labour policy in their colonies. In 1937, they enacted the Trade Unions’ Ordinance which stipulated conditions under which Africans could organise themselves into trade unions. After the publication of this ordinance, three additional unions were registered in Kenya: Makhan’s Labour Trade Union of East Africa, the East African Standard Union, and the East African Standard Staff Union.

But Makhan Singh came to the attention of the British when he organised 6,000 Mombasa African workers to go on strike. The British had now noticed his role in the union and his radical streak. To avoid arrest, he escaped to India in December 1939.

Makhan Singh continued with his union and political activities in India, for which he was imprisoned from 1939 to 1944. Upon his release, he was placed under restriction in his village, but continued with his independence struggle as the editor of Jange Azadi (struggle for independence). He returned to Kenya on August 22, 1947.

On arrival, he was declared “a prohibited immigrant” and the British wanted to deport him to India.

But the plan hit a snag because India had become independent and could not take orders from the British.

Now officially an adopted Kenyan, Makhan Singh openly associated with Africans despite the existence of colour bar and racial discrimination. Fred Kubai and Chege Kebachia were among his allies.

He later formed the East African Trade Union Congress (EATU-Congress) in 1949 with Kubai as president and he as secretary-general. More trade unions came into being such as the Nairobi Taxmen Union and the General Maskini (poor people’s) Union.

In 1950, the EATU-Congress organised a 10-day strike to boycott the presentation of city status to Nairobi. Together with Kubai, John Mungai, L.K. Kigume, Moses Ujagar, Tom Mbotela, and James Beauttah, they demanded increased wages, an eight-hour work day, 14 days paid leave, equal pay for equal work, one month’s notice for termination of services for all categories of workers, sick leave with pay, and provident fund for pensions.

But it was Makhan Singh’s May Day 1950 declaration of Uhuru Sasa at Kaloleni Social Hall, jointly with the Kenya African Union and the East African Indian National Congress that set the ball rolling for Kenya’s eventual independence. Two weeks later, Makhan and Kubai were arrested on May 15, 1950.

For 11 years, Makhan was detained in various places such as Lokitaung in Turkana for three years, Maralal for seven years, and later Dol Dol for the last year. On his release in October 1961, he found that his comrades had changed radically. He was the first non-African to join Kanu.

The labour movement was now led by the Western-leaning Tom Mboya. He appealed to Kenyatta to be nominated by Kanu to Parliament but was turned down because he was associated with the radical wing of the party led by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Bildad Kagia.

Achieng Oneko, who was close to Makhan, recalled in a documentary by Zarina Patel:

“When he came out in 1961 he talked of betrayal. Some of us who had asked for positions were directed not to associate with Makhan Singh because he was a leftist. But he was not a communist, as purported by the British,but a law-abiding citizen with so much love for his country”.

Makhan tried to get help from the government but all doors were closed. So he was left desolate with no job. He spent most of his time writing two books on the history of Kenya’s trade union movement. He was also appointed secretary of the Historical Association of Kenya.

But it is the assassination of his comrade-in-ideology, Pio Gama Pinto, in 1969 that devastated Makhan Singh.

“He was withdrawn and almost became a recluse… he fundamentally lost his drive and died of frustration at 59, while my mother died at 83,” remembers Hindapal.

Makhan did not bring prosperity to his family, contrary to his belief that the labour movement would bring prosperity and progress to the people of Kenya. Instead, he brought “sweet” pain.  Sweet because the selfless devotion to the cause put him at the level of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Pain because he left nothing for his family.

Is Hindapal bitter? No. “The ideology had shifted and we could not blame anybody. He was not alone because people like Kagia, Kubai, Oneko, and Odinga suffered the same fate. This was a decision the leaders of that time made and whether they were right or wrong, that is for history to judge,” he says, adding: ‘‘People like Makhan Singh never expect any rewards. They do selfless service to whatever cause they passionately believe in, then quietly depart, leaving a great mark behind.”

Read original article in the Daily Nation: http://www.nation.co.ke/Features/DN2/Singh-Forgotten-hero—of-independence-/-/957860/1907640/-/item/2/-/10rnmlo/-/index.html

What Makhan Singh means to me by Amarjit Chandan

Posted in Articles, Poetry and Literature by Pippa on June 9, 2009

Paper presented at:

Trade Union and Working Class Struggles: Makhan Singh and the TU Movement in Kenya. Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University. 25 March 2009

 From the window of the departing train I vaguely remember the figure of Makhan Singh waving and saying Sat Sri Akal (God is Truth) – goodbye (God be with you). This was to be the last time we saw him. My father and Makhan Singh never met again. Four months later Makhan Singh was to be arrested and spent almost 12 years in solitary confinement. My father was to die in the Punjab in 1969 and Makhan Singh four years later in Nairobi.

Read full paper:what makhan singh means to me

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