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Trade Union and Working Class Struggles: Makhan Singh and the TU Movement in Kenya .

Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University . 17 February 2010


Makhan Singh, the family man  

– Inderjit Kaur Gill–




t gives me a great pleasure to stand here today and pay homage and tribute to my father, Makhan Singh, on behalf of his family, especially my brothers Hindpal Singh Jabbal and Sawrajpal Singh Jabbal. Shiraz Durrani has just presented the political aspects of my father, Amarjit Singh Chandan has thrown some light on his literary qualities and I would like to talk about his personal, family attributes, which I have compiled from my own and my family’s feelings, recollections and experiences. As he was a very private, detached and aloof person none of us really got to know him well. From now on I would like to refer to my father as Papa ji – Punjabi word for Dad – makes it rather personal and special for me.  

Brief life history  

Papa ji was born on 27th December 1913 in the village of Gharjakh , District Gujranwala West Punjab and spent his early years in utter poverty and very difficult circumstances. He was only seven, when his father, Sudh Singh left for Kenya to join the Railways as an artisan, leaving Papa ji and his younger sister, in the care of their mother. For the next seven years he studied in various Sikh Missionary schools in and around his village. It was also during this period that the incident of Jallianwala Bagh took place, in which several hundred innocent and defenceless Indians were massacred in Amritsar in cold blood by General Dyer. This incidence, the Sikh scriptures which he listened to at the local village Gurudwaras (Sikh temples), the Sikh history of martyrdom and self sacrifice that he may have read or experienced in his formative years, left a lasting impression on the young mind of Papa ji.

Papa ji first came to Nairobi at the age of 14, together with his mother and sister, to join his father, who by now had started a small contracting business and a part-time printing press. Papa ji was a very bright student and passed his London Matriculation examination in 1931 from Government Indian High School (Duke of Gloucester School for Boys and now Jamhuri High), where ex-Chief Justice of Kenya, Hon. Chunilal Madan was his classmate and later assisted him with legal services. He joined his father’s printing press to give him a helping hand as he could not be sent overseas for further studies due to financial difficulties. It was during this period that he started taking keen interest in the labour trade union movement.

In 1939, just at the start of the Second World War, Papa ji went to India , together with my mother and my brother Hindpal. Within six months of his arrival, he was arrested by the Colonial British Government for his political activities, and imprisoned for two and a half years in various camps in India . He was finally released in 1944 after serving a further one year restriction in his village. After that he was active in the struggle for independence for India . He returned to Kenya on 20th August 1947 (having celebrated Indian Independence Day on board the ship). His political activities then continued in Kenya and were at their height until he was arrested on May 15, 1950 and was restricted for an indefinite period, without trial, in remote and isolated parts of Kenya (lasting 11½ years).

During Papa ji’s detention, we (my mother, my brothers Hindpal and Swarajpal) were looked after by my grandfather, Sudh Singh – we are all greatly indebted to him. Man of principles Papa ji was very conscientious, determined, sincere, truthful and a man of principles. He was one hundred percent devoted for good of the workers of all races and fought for freedom from imperialistic subjugation both in India and Kenya . He taught us to respect all mankind, race, colour, creed and religion – if as children we ever used any denigrating terminology we were corrected immediately; he did not hesitate to correct any of the relatives or friends either. In appearance Papa ji retained his Sikh attire but strongly believed in a pristine communism (not the communism of subversion and party line but it was really practical socialism). When my mother asked him why he did not accompany her to the gurudwara (Sikh temple) his reply was: He was already practicing Sikh philosophy and what is the point of reciting the scriptures like a parrot. He followed a path of righteousness as illustrated by an incidence my mother often narrated: During a wedding ceremony the bridegroom was usually expected to recite a naughty couplet (a chhand) to the young lady friends and sisters of the bride. Papa ji at his own wedding ceremony, in his usual serious tone chose instead to recite a verse from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy book), viz Sachey mārag chaldyān ustat kare jahān which means that “those who lead the path of righteousness are the ones remembered in the world”.

When he was detained I was still quite young and do not remember specific things but all I know is that he never flouted rules and regulations laid upon him; for example he would not put one step outside his limits of two mile radius of his residence, always tried to stay within the law. This is what baffled the colonial Government. His belief and his commitment to his ideology came before everything else, including his family: When my mother admonished him to give up his political and trade union activities and take care of his family his curt reply was: Satwant, I’m sorry, but as far as I’m concerned, you can all perish in thin air but I cannot give up my political activities in this country.

Papa ji was a totally un-materialistic person – I have yet to come across one like him. When my dear grandfather was ready to retire he asked Papa ji to take over the printing press business, His reply was that he cannot become an owner of a business but would be happy to work there as an employee – even for Shs100/- a month. He was highly principled to the point of deprivation and self sacrifice. He wrote two books: the first one being “Kenya Trade Union Movement to 1952”. The last page of his second book “1952-1956 Crucial Years of Kenya ’s Trade Unions” was on the type writer when he died. This book was then edited by Prof Ogot and published posthumously. All the takings on these books were donated by him and subsequently by the family to the Historical Association of Kenya and the Central Organisation of Trade Union (COTU). He had many chances of becoming wealthy, both during his detention and after Kenya ’s independence – but he chose the path of simple, true to his beliefs and a self-less life. During his life time he owned no property or car, wore simple clothes, ate simple food, never touched alcohol – just lived a simple life.

Caring, loving and affectionate

We have some loving and sad memories of him. Before his arrest I remember how in the morning he used to pick me up and my younger brother Sawrajpal on either side to give us a hug each before leaving home for his day’s jobs. On Sundays sometimes he used to take us all to the movies – this of course did not last very long! Papa ji was the most dear person for me and I loved him greatly. The most hurtful feelings I still have and when I remember them they form a very dark / thick cloud over me – that is the morning when he was arrested – I can still see him being taken away by two white policemen flanked on either side, in a black car which was parked on the foot path along Park Road, Nairobi across from our house, while I was clinging to my mother’s leg. As a five year old child I could not understand what was going on, that my Papa ji was being taken away from me – it was a very traumatic episode. I do not remember anything else afterwards other than what my mother told me that for quite sometime I became very quiet, withdrawn and sickly looking. Papa ji was a very organised and a methodical person. He would record everything long hand in beautiful clear writing, make cuttings from newspapers and magazines, and store them chronologically. When we visited him during his detention in Lokitaung, a remote village in Northern Kenya , he would structure the day for me and my brother Sawrajpal so that we won’t get bored. Since many toys did not exist in those days and we could not afford them anyway, Papa ji used to improvise and make tiny cups, saucers, plates, cars, airplanes, spinning wheels and many other things from used bottle tops and twigs. During our daily evening walk my brother and I used to collect these tops thrown along road sides. Such bottle tops are these days recycled to make decorative and functional objects by the local people of Kenya . Whenever we became sick he went back and forth to the doctors getting medications, sitting up all night with us – a very caring and a compassionate father. Once we started school, we visited him during each school holiday – travelling on trains, lorries, Land Rovers – the roads were pretty rough and at times when rains were heavy we could not cross the flooded rivers until the waters went down and had to spend the night sitting up in the lorries – bless my mother who went through these rough times with us two young children. On our arrival Papa ji would have hot water ready and a meal prepared for us, which along with his warmth made us forget the tortuous and uncomfortable journey. The early part of my learning was all from Papa ji as I did not start school until fifth standard – he was a good and a very patient teacher. He helped me and my brother Sawrajpal with our school work and sorted out our academic weaknesses. My brother Hindpal had no help in his school work from him as he was not allowed to visit him until he was to depart for his further studies in India . The aim of the authorities was possibly to block direct communication between father and son and create emotional frustration in them.

He had a great interest in poetry and used to write poems in Punjabi in his early life, as Amarjit has just mentioned in his talk. During this isolation period I don’t think he wrote any poetry, possibly due to the threat of being investigated or searched anytime by the authorities. But he did enjoy reciting classical Punjabi poetry to us and I still remember the words of some of them. He was a voracious reader and used to receive selective books and newspapers, which were censored by the authorities, from the Nairobi Central Library. I picked up this habit of reading from him – and so have my brothers. During his detention we could only communicate via brief letters as all his mail was censored. He really cherished getting our school reports and felt very proud to see his children doing well despite his absence. I do not know but may be subconsciously I worked hard to always perform well at school in order to please my father and get his approval. My nephew Arvinder who is in the audience remembers him as a quiet, softly spoken man who never lost his temper. I too don’t remember him ever scolding me. Arvinder recalls that when he and his younger brother, Manmit were left in his care, he had difficulty controlling the two unruly boys but never once raised his hand. However, Arvinder does not recall him to be affectionate or emotional. By this time Papa ji had been shunned away from the political arena and possibly as a result had further withdrawn into himself. It is so sad that this was when he could have really enjoyed some normal family life, especially his grandchildren – my brother Hindpal’s children. Social views Papa ji was a very forward looking husband and father. My mother often used to tell me that when they got married it used to be a tradition for the daughter-in-law to cover her face with a chuni (scarf) in the presence of father-in-law and other elders – which he put a stop to right from day one. He was all in favour of me to do further studies and was happy to send me away to Canada . Once I completed my MSc he very much wanted me to carry on with a PhD (for which I was not ready at the time).

When I later wrote my PhD thesis here in the UK, it was a hard slog as both my children were only toddlers – that is when I used to draw inspiration from his thoughts and often used to say – Papa ji you are not here now but I’ll somehow complete this for you. When I left for Canada his going away advice to me was that with perseverance and determination one can accomplish anything – this advice has seen me through all the upheavals in my life right up to this day.

My grandmother simply adored her only son, my Papa ji – for her he could do no wrong. Papa ji was greatly saddened and greatly disappointed when he was not allowed to attend his mother’s funeral despite assurances that nothing untoward would happen. The Colonial Government of the day tried this ploy as an emotional blackmail, but failed miserably. Such an act would be totally against human rights. As my nephew Arvinder says that it is a measure of Papa ji as a person that he never once used this matter against the authorities, even long after the event. Courageous and Fearless Papa ji was a genius in his time, courageous and fearless way of doing and saying things and yet observing the rule of law. He could stand up to the entire British Raj and fight injustice using peaceful means (like hunger strikes and processions). He did not believe in violence or promoted it. My brother Hindpal distinctly remembers an incidence when he was only three years old. As mentioned earlier, just at the start of the Second World War, Papa ji went to India with his family, and within six months of his arrival, he was arrested by the Colonial Government for his political activities, and imprisoned for two and a half years in various camps in India . He was being transferred from Lahore to Deolali Camp and his train was supposed to stop at Delhi Station for a few minutes. My brother was taken by my mother and her father to meet Papa ji at the station. On seeing him behind bars, my brother naturally started to cry profusely. The Police escort guarding Papa ji retorted, “Kaka, (young boy) your father is never afraid of anyone, why are you afraid of us and crying?”. During his trial in 1950 he daringly said to the Attorney General “His Majesty’s Government has no right to rule over this country”. He also said that “I am a communist. There are trade unions in England which have communist officials, but the government never victimizes any union because its official is a communist and that is why I still say I am a communist, let the government try me for being a communist if it is illegal” After independence the new Kenyan government distanced themselves from him because he declared himself to be a communist, a dreaded word in the 60s and 70s – but sadly none of them understood his brand of true communism.


During his restriction in remote places of Kenya he was exposed to various hazards, especially highly poisonous snakes and scorpions in Lokitaung ( Northern Kenya ) and wild animals (elephants, wild buffalos and lions) in Maralal (Samburu district). I don’t remember him ever showing any fear, carried a thick stick with him (his only weapon) whenever he went out. In Lokitaung he became quite an expert at killing the snakes. There were times when elephants would be crossing his path during his walk or they would go right past his residence, at times even rubbing their sides against the huts. He would calmly hide behind a tree or bushes until they had moved away. Often the lions were heard growling not too far from the toilet which was an outhouse with no door. He certainly was a brave man, both in spirit and deeds.




Papa ji was a great nationalist and an exemplary patriot. He was amongst the first ones to use the slogan Uhuru sasa, meaning “Freedom now” in his famous speech on May Day 1950 in Nairobi which set the ball rolling for Kenya ’s eventual independence from the colonial yoke. This happened just a few days before his arrest and long detention. In the history of Kenya there were several prominent Asians who joined hands with the African majority, largely to protect the electoral and business interests of the Asian community in the face of determined European strangle-hold. However, Papa ji’s role was unique in that he selflessly, with total devotion, and without expecting any rewards whatsoever, fought for the basic rights of the unprivileged working class (very largely African) to improve their living conditions. After Kenya 's Independence in December 1963, Papa ji was not given any position or recognition in the new Government. Fitz DeSouza, who was a close associate of Papa ji once, asked him if he (Fitz) could speak to Jomo Kenyatta (the President) on his behalf to offer him (Papa ji) a suitable post in the Government. His curt reply was: "Fitz, I am willing to do anything worthwhile, but I don't want to ask anyone on my behalf for a job. Never in my life have I asked for anything, begged for anything. I'll never accept any job that has been asked for, any offer that is not a spontaneous recognition of my usefulness". He was no one’s stooge. The short period that I spent in Nairobi after his release, not once did I hear him complain or even mention anything about not being given the recognition by the current ruling government. Whenever anyone raised this issue, his answer was “I did the work not for receiving any rewards” – a totally selfless person. However, he did become very quiet and withdrawn; I am not sure whether he revealed his feelings to anyone at all or not. All I remember is that in his latter years he worked feverishly at his typewriter trying to finish his books.

He loved Kenya and its workers irrelevant of race, colour or creed. In our family he was the first one to obtain Kenya Passport after the independence. It used to amuse us when he would stand up as the Kenyan National Anthem played on TV or the radio. It is impossible to think anyone today, in any country, actually doing that. Papa ji died peacefully in Nairobi on 18th May 1973 at the age of 59 after a short illness, when I was still in Canada . His passing away devastated me as that was when it dawned upon me that my communication with my father will always stay unfinished. His loving memories still motivate me and will do so until my last breath. Conclusion It is well known that a political man’s family life is usually in disarray, it has numerous impacts on the family members: emotional, psychological, physical, education, financial, health and it goes on and on. We too had a tough childhood but with family support and guidance we all are today successful in our respective professions and family lives. We all remain extremely proud of him – he did not leave any material wealth, but what he has left behind is a priceless legacy and history that inspires and guides us to this day and I hope the coming generations as well. Finally I would like to quote my brother Hindpal: Papa ji “walked the talk” and in his entire life, chose the path of dharma or righteousness, without wavering from his beliefs and ideals.



From left Professor John Gabriel Head Department of Applied Social Sciences London Metropolitan University, Inderjit Gill, Amarjit Chandan and Shiraz Durrani

Photo by Steve Blunt