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.”