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posted by Morning Star in Arts

A book on Makhan Singh pays due tribute to his outstanding role in the labour movement during the struggle for national liberation, says DAN THEA

Makhan Singh: A Revolutionary Kenyan Trade Unionist
Edited by Shiraz Durrani
(Vita Books, £7.50)

THIS book’s alluring title, with a silhouette of a turbaned and bearded man, pays tribute to an outstanding Kenyan trade unionist during the country’s struggle for national liberation from British colonial rule.

As was common in the subcontinent, as a child Singh left occupied India for Kenya during the construction of the notoriously dangerous Mombasa-Uganda railway.

It was intended to serve British strategic and economic interests, including heading off rival European imperial competition for territory during the notorious “scramble for Africa.”

The arrival of the Indians in the footsteps of the Europeans, who in turn had followed the Arabs, gave Kenya its present day multiracial character.

The book’s early chapters are primarily fond recollections and reflections on Singh by family members. They describe his austere and simple character and stress his devotion to fighting for trade union rights and national independence.

In this section, editor Shiraz Durrani writes a longer and more comprehensive chapter — which bears re-reading — on his trade union and political work and asserts Singh’s brilliant trade union leadership as well as political activism.

In particular, Singh is credited with making the first public call for Kenyan “independence now.”

On his return to India, the authorities imprisoned him from 1939 to 1945 for his political activism. Upon his release, Singh rejoined the Indian independence struggle, including working as a sub-editor of the Communist Party publication “Struggle for Independence.” He ended up celebrating the demise of the Indian Raj before returning home to Kenya.

There, among many other achievements in the trade union movement and the wider independence struggle, he founded the East African Trade Union Congress under the patronage of the Kenya African Union.

For his principled stand and unbending courage in fighting for justice and Kenyan independence the British exiled Singh in 1950 to the country’s remote, hot and dry northern wilderness for 11 years.

When the British declared the Mau Mau war in 1952 a similar treatment was meted out to Jomo Kenyatta and his fellow “Kapenguria Six,” political leaders who were wrongly accused of leading the armed liberation struggle.

The book includes some of Singh’s writing and a large “photo safari” section, all of which serve to affirm the range, depth and importance of his work.

But was Singh the “revolutionary” of the book’s title? “I am a communist,” he declared to both the British and the Kenyan authorities and, by all accounts, while in India he was no closet theoretician or mere activist but a principled, informed and disciplined thinker and an energetic participant within a revolutionary organisation — a revolutionary, in other words.  

Yet apparently when in Kenya, where he lived the bulk of his life, he was not active in a revolutionary organisation.

Noticeably, nowhere in the book is it demonstrated, affirmed or even merely claimed that Singh was a participant in the Mau Mau, the Kenyan national liberation movement.

Neither in Durrani’s previous book Mau Mau: The Revolutionary Force From Kenya nor in this book is any link shown between the “revolutionary” Singh and that force — there may be photographs galore with the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, Raila Odinga, Achiengo Oneko and others. But there are none of him with the Mau Mau.