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January 22, 2019

G-Spot: Why in 2017 Makhan Singh is my chosen Shujaa to memorialise

Makhan Singh
Makhan Singh


ixty-five years ago, on October 21, 1952, the people of the then Kenya Colony awoke to reports that about 100 prominent Kenyans had been arrested and detained in 24 hours by the colonial security forces  as part of Operation Jock Scott.

Among the scores arrested on October 20, which today Kenyans celebrate as Mashujaa (Heroes) Day, was a group that would soon become known as the Kapenguria Six: Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei, and Achieng’ Oneko.

Inasmuch as the histories of the six are known, there were other Independence heroes, such as trade unionist Makhan Singh, who are not as well known as they should be.

When the Kapenguria Six began serving their seven-year term in detention, they found Makhan Singh already in jail. And when they were freed in August 1961, Makhan was still held under restriction for almost another year.

Back in 2006, I read and wrote a review of  Zarina Patel’s fantastic book about him, Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh. This story of how Singh and others were mistreated and sidelined after the Independence they had fought so hard for was attained, is a tale that Kenyans need to read to help them understand how we arrived at the place we are at today, where all the struggles for the second liberation, the 2010 constitution and democracy, seem set to be reversed.

Singh was one of many who suffered in the struggle and sacrificed all he had, including his family life and comforts, in the fight for Kenya’s Independence, and the bid to see Kenya freed from colonialism.

When Independence came, they were cast aside by their erstwhile comrades-in-arms as they rushed to enrich themselves and their new cronies, many of whom had been on the other side as homeguards and collaborators of the colonialists.

As Zarina Patel said at the book launch: “Makhan Singh would not dance, he would only march,and soon he was out of step with the post-Independence leaders. He was not alone. Pio Gama Pinto was assassinated, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was detained, Pranlal Sheth was deported and many other great stalwarts, including Bildad Kaggia, were sidelined. The calls for land reform, fairer distribution of wealth and democracy for the majority, did not sit well with the neo-colonial regime, which had grabbed ‘Independence’.”

Makhan Singh had distinguished himself in the struggle by refusing to accept a trade union movement segregated by race and poisoned by the colonial Apartheid that classified black Africans and Asians in a humiliating hierarchy.

By June 1963, self governance had come, and with it Jomo Kenyatta’s government, which  ironically included more people who had fought against the KLFA than had fought for freedom.

Singh died in 1973 with only family, friends and a handful of comrades from the trade union movement to attend his funeral. The government sent nobody and paid no tribute to this great Kenyan patriot. I wonder if that was because they were embarrassed to be mourning not just the man, but their erstwhile ideals as well.

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