Marginalized, Forgotten and Revived Political Actors


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Presentation made at  Seminar organized by Ifra on 23-24th Sept 2013: ‘Marginalized, Forgotten and Revived Political Actors’ by ZARINA PATEL

Word Count: 2697

First and foremost I must congratulate the organisers of this seminar for remembering, and thereby commemorating, our ‘Marginalized, Forgotten, and Revived Political Actors’.  It is a topic which is rarely if ever addressed, and because of that, our history and discourse remains incomplete.

As someone said yesterday: ‘History is written by the victors.’ So true and perhaps inevitable! For 50 years BEFORE independence it was captured by the colonialists. For these 50 years AFTER we gained our so-called independence, it has been the playground of the ruling elites who have promoted their own narrow interests.

Over many centuries, the colonised have struggled, and the Kenyan masses  continue to struggle, valiantly and courageously with self-sacrifice and determination; to attain social justice and a democracy that works for all, as opposed to one that works only for the minority elite. A society which has as its basic tenet: to each according to their need and NOT to each according to their greed.

It is the mission of the dominant group to do everything in their power to promote their, very much, in quotes ‘heroes’; and to obliterate as far as possible the people’s heroes. (I prefer not to have a separate category of ‘heroines’ for women because that is when issues of hierarchy and competition come in). I say ‘as far as possible’ because in spite of all the resources and power in their domain, they are fighting a losing battle. The people through their songs and art, their rich oral traditions and their story telling; have kept alive the memory of their heroes from generation to generation.

That is why it is so important for us, the ruled, to research and write our own history, to learn from it and to disseminate it. Our meeting here today, and yesterday, is one such approach and must be applauded. I make no apologies for researching and writing about my own South Asian community. The litmus test, I think, is whether I do so as a chauvinist or as a nationalist.

Fortunately, Kenya’s, and Africa’s, history is being rewritten from a patriotic perspective. We may not agree with all that is argued – history is not written in stone and the people have their contradictions; but generally, in my opinion, it is only valid when it encompasses the experiences of the majority and confronts the Empire which subjugates and exploits our world today.

Suppression, marginilisation and outright distortion of the social context of Kenya’s South Asian community was contiguous with the advent of colonial rule. The Indians outnumbered the whites 10:1. The Indian rupee and Indian laws governed society. The Indian babu may have come to East Africa penniless but his communal networks gave him access to capital. Add to this his, and her, thrift and hard work  –  clearly the Happy Valley set did not stand a chance! But the major determinant in the drive for equality and freedom, in my opinion, was the colonial experience that the Indians and Africans shared – a unity of purpose which made them a formidable opponent of colonial injustice; and which therefore, became a major target of Britain’s divide and rule policy.

Lamentably, these colonially inspired divisions and categorisations still persist, 50 years after our flag independence; and attaining proper recognition of Kenya’s wazalendo, South Asian and others, is an uphill struggle. Even getting a road named after a nationally acclaimed South Asian leader, an exercise which should be a national concern and the responsibility of the government, the community has to ‘beg’ for it, and maybe even pay for it. Statues, commemorative plaques, mentions on national days, inclusion in the school curriculum and official history are dreams for another generation.

It has taken us 50 years to begin to recognise the Mau Mau Movement and its armed wing, the Land and Freedom Army, and to address the gross injustices and human rights violations perpetrated against those heroes. Even now at this late date the task remains a civil society initiative, with government making token gestures. Needless to say, the South Asian component is never featured. And yet, while there were those South Asians who fought alongside the British johnies and many more who sat on the fence, there were those who actively supported the Land and Freedom Army. To name just a few: Pio Gama Pinto who sourced for funds from India, ferried arms to the forest fighters and fed the communication channels nationally and internationally; Jaswant Bharaj who imparted the skill of making home-made guns; Ambu Patel who ran the printing press in Mathare Valley and published the documents of the Mau Mau Central Command and Yacoob Deen of Karatina who supplied food, weapons and medicines to the forest fighters. There were others who prefer to remain anonymous.

The gaping ideological divide in the post-colonial, or more correctly the neo-colonial, government policy, between a people centred approach and the rule of an elite minority with vested interests; continues to stymie efforts to build a functioning democracy and an all-inclusive history which would generate a Kenyan identity. The South Asian community, being less than 1% of the population and easily identified, is prone to scapegoating, discrimination and side-lining.

But colonial and bourgeois history is being rewritten, and Kenyans are discovering what this small minority has contributed to their patriotic history. In the short time available it is not possible to mention, leave alone portray, these many forgotten and marginalised heroes. I shall just focus on some of the better known personalities, for those who are interested to learn more there are several books now available – but of course a lot more research needs to be done.

I start with Allidina Visram. Colonial history, many will say, has recognised him. Yes – as a highly successful trader and as a compliant partner. Much lesser known is the fact that Allidina Visram had teamed up with A M Jeevanjee and others to confront Delamere, Grogan and the settler crowd, and was the first president of the Nairobi Indian Association founded in 1907, committed to demanding equality.

Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, my maternal grandfather, came to East Africa to expand his business, but provoked by settler racism he took on the colonial authorities, turned to politics and demanded equal rights. In that struggle he lost his business empire and vast fortune and died a bankrupt in Nairobi in1935. In 1972, almost a decade after independence, when I was appointed by the National Christian Council to head a community and race relations project, its general secretary, John Kamau, advised me not to refer to my ancestry as Jeevanjee had the reputation of being a hustler. It was only when Kenya’s much revered patriot, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, welcomed me as Jeevanjee’s descendant, that I realised that there was a serious disconnect in our understanding of history.Jeevanjee was not only the father of South Asian politics in Kenya – by founding the East Africa Indian National Congress in 1914, he brought Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle onto the national stage AND internationalised it. He, and later the Congress, raised awareness in London and Bombay of the colonial injustices being perpetrated in Kenya. All African political organisations, in accordance with colonial law at that time, were ethnically based; but the EAINC was not only nation-wide, it was regional.

One of Jeevanjee’s protégés was Manilal Desai, a young law clerk from India who took up the leadership of the EAINC, published the East African Chronicle, politicised and mobilised the Indians and gave voice to their demands for justice and equality. He was a close friend of Harry Thuku, printed his broadsheet Tangazo and it stands to reason that he must have influenced Thuku in the latter’s formation of Kenya’s first multi-ethnic African political organisation, the East Africa Association in 1921. Desai was an outstanding fighter in his own right yet the demolition, in 1993 of the historical Desai Memorial Hall and Library built to commemorate him, and which had been a meeting place for African nationalists and Asian and African trade unionists in colonial times, went completely unnoticed by the government.

Following the unexpected demise of Desai in 1926, Jeevanjee brought in Isher Dass whom he had met in London, to fill the vacuum. Dass was a fiery Marxist who accompanied Jomo Kenyatta on his first trip to Europe in 1928, and was a strident voice for African rights in the Legislative Council. It was he who organised the sit in led by Muindu Mbingu to protest against the decimation of Kamba cattle by the colonial government. Today we have a Muindu Mbingu road in Nairobi but there is no mention of Dass anywhere. The press which printed Sitaram Achariar’s Democrat paper printed Kenyatta’s Muigwithania. Why is the EAINC and its patriotic leadership so forgotten? 

Hardly any Kenyans have heard about the Ghadr Party or know the names of any Ghadarites who lived in Kenya. Ghadr means revolution in the Indian language – it was a political party formed in 1910 by the workers and peasants of the Punjab and had its headquarters in San Francisco, USA. Based on the tenets of the Russian Revolution, it sought to both vanquish colonialism and unshackle the workers.

The Ghadr Party had branches all over the world including East Africa and Ghadarites were active members of the East Africa Indian National Congress and Trade Union Movement. Mombasa was a transit point for Ghadarites travelling to and fro between India and Moscow. At the start of the First World War, the colonial Government deported some of the Ghadarites back to India, imprisoned several in Fort Jesus and three Indian fuel contractors in Voi were summarily executed on trumped up charges of collaborating with the German enemy. The Ghadarites are the forerunners of the progressive and left tendencies in East Africa yet they remain virtually unknown.

Makhan Singh was a Ghadarite. He founded the Trade Union Movement in Kenya and, with Chege Kibachia, Fred Kubai and others, propelled it to become the engine of the Mau Mau Movement. Recently I was informed that he, together with Appa Pant and Pio Gama Pinto, had taken the Mau Mau oath. The late Achieng Oneko told me, without any hesitation, that Makhan Singh was a Mau Mau. For his resolute struggle to uplift the workers and oust the colonialists, he was detained for over eleven years in Kenya’s NFD and before that for four years in India. So feared was he by the colonialists that they detained him BEFORE and released him only AFTER they had done the same to Jomo Kenyatta.

All these afore-mentioned Kenyans had been close comrades in the anti-colonial struggle yet come independence, the relationship changed drastically. Jomo Kenyatta, now president of the Republic, turned on his one-time comrades but while the African radicals such as Fred Kubai, Achieng Oneko, Murumbi and even Jaramogi Odinga were absorbed in the government, South Asians like Makhan Singh, Pranlal Sheth and Ambu and Lila Patel were written out of history.

During the writing of Unquiet, the biography of Makhan Singh, I visited the offices of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) but I saw no sign of the movement’s founder, Makhan Singh. On the contrary, its top officials asserted that it was Tom Mboya who founded the trade union movement – the man who actually destroyed the workers’ movement that Singh, Kubai, Kibachia and others had so painstakingly and with great sacrifice, built. COTU knew nothing about Makhan Singh and was not in the least interested. For the past three years I have been trying to have Park Road in Ngara, where Singh lived and whose house has been gazetted as a national monument by the National Museums of Kenya, renamed but with no success.

Pio Gama Pinto, surely one of Kenya’s most acclaimed patriots, was assassinated in 1965. Thanks to the efforts of the Asian African Heritage Trust a side road was named after him only three years ago. Yet, colonial collaborators like Lenana and Karen continue to identify our major roads and localities since independence. Pinto, quite literally, gave his life to the wananchi of Kenya. He was a socialist, a freedom fighter, a trade unionist and a journalist, fully committed to the liberation of Kenya for the benefit of its people. The country has yet to produce another such icon.

And then there were those fearless journalists who were the national and international voices of the anti-colonial struggle. Manilal Desai, Sitaram Achariar, Dharam Kumar Sharda, Pranlal Sheth, Haroon Ahmed and Girdhari Lal Vidyarthi – the last was the very first journalist to be jailed for sedition in Kenya, Ahmed was the second. Vidyarthi’s sons (Bhushan, Anil and Sudhir) today continue to run the Colourprint press and remain committed to its motto of ‘Free, Frank and Fearless’. The press has been raided and fire bombed several times, their opposition publications banned or destroyed, and Anil has been arrested and tried for sedition. D K Sharda’s Daily Chronicle was incapacitated by the colonial authorities and he himself was hounded out of Kenya. Pranlal Sheth, Jaramogi Odinga’s right hand man, was unceremoniously deported out of the country in 1966. He settled in the UK where his exemplary contributions to British society were recognised by the Queen who conferred a CBE on him. He died in London in 2003.

There are the lawyers who gave their all in the face of much colonial hostility to defend the Mau Mau and the Kapenguria Six at a time when Arwings Kodhek was Kenya’s only African lawyer! Chanan Singh, Achhroo Kapila, Chunilal Madan, Jaswant Singh and several others did a sterling job. To date, Justice Madan remains Kenya’s most venerated lawyer for his honesty, his commitment to justice, his un-corruptability and his legal talent. To its credit the Law Society of Kenya has him on their roll of honour; but surely Madan, who was shabbily treated by former president Moi, is a national hero who deserves national acclaim.

Chanan Singh is one of Kenya’s most accomplished public figures. A fearless

advocate, a prolific writer, an outstanding journalist and an incorruptible fighter for the independence of Kenya and for justice, he served his country selflessly for over 50 years. He was elected to parliament and was appointed as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Jomo Kenyatta. Yet he never rose beyond the position of Assistant Minister in Kenya’s independent government.

Forgetting our heroes, African, South Asian or European, is not just a historical omission – it leaves the population and succeeding generations without role models to emulate and to give hope. Right now, in my opinion, Kenya is a nation polarised and in despair – we badly need to remember our heroes, follow in their footsteps and mould a better future for our children. Remembering our heroes is a way of learning and appreciating each other and building nationhood. Most importantly, their histories affirm for us that ‘there is another way’.

In spite of all the negativity, I remain optimistic. The WaSwahili say: Ukweli haizami, inaonelea. The truth never drowns, it floats. It is for us to rescue it, revive it and share it – in a small way this paper tries to do just that.


AwaaZ Magazine;

Gregory, Robert G; India and East Africa – A History of Race Relations within the British Empire 1890-1939, 1971, London.

Gregory, Robert G, Quest for Equality – Asian Politics in East Africa 1900-1967, 1993, New Delhi.

Mangat, J S; A History of the Asians in East Africa c.1886 to 1945; 1969, London.

Patel, Ambu H.; Compiler of The Struggle for Release Jomo and His Colleagues, 1963, Nairobi.

Patel, Zarina; Challenge to Colonialism – The Struggle of Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee for Equal Rights in Kenya, 1997, Nairobi.

Patel, Zarina; Unquiet – The Life & Times of Makhan Singh, 2006, Nairobi.

Patel, Zarina; Manilal Ambalal Desai – The Stormy Petrel, 2010, Nairobi.

Seidenberg, Dana April; Uhuru and the Kenya Indians – The Role of a Minority Community inn Kenya Politics; 1983, New Delhi.

Seidenberg, Dana April; The Mercantile Adventurers – The World of East African Asians 1750-1985; 1996, New Delhi.

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