Asian Politics in Kenya before Independence
When I first joined Kenyan politics in 1957 while still a student in high school in Nairobi, the Kenya Indian Congress and the Kenya Muslim league were actively at the forefront in assisting African Nationalists in Kenya with the task of scripting the political future of the colony.
Both the Asian parties had a recognized voice with British policy makers in London. It was well known that both were protesting against the colonial tyranny and demanding ‘Kenya for Africans’. They were fully supportive of freedom fighters, Mau Mau leaders and others with a similar aim. They were much interested in the release of the African leader Jomo Kenyatta who was imprisoned while talking to his people for the fight for free Kenya.
On the eve of the first Lancaster House conference in 1960, the Kenya freedom party emerged as a third Asian political organization. Its main aim was to communicate a sense of crisis and to realign Asians with the politics of the new African state.
It was only in the middle of 1960, when the British Government lifted a ban on the formation of a Kenya African political organization. Consequently the two major political parties, Kanu centered on late Jomo Kenyatta and led by Odinga- Oginga, Tom Mboya and James Gichuru and Kadu was formed by Roanald Ngala, Daniel Arap Moi, John Keen and other minority tribes as the opposition party.
Kanu was formed a few weeks earlier. Its main AIM was to release Jomo Kenyatta and achieve Uhuru[ Freedom] for Kenya. It was dominated by large ethnic groups, mainly Kikuyus and Luos, who wanted a centralized government with control over the various regions of the country.
Kadu was formed a few weeks later, composed of the smaller ethnic groups who were afraid of the authority of others i.e. larger tribes in Kanu, and advocated a federal system which would give a little power to the central government.
All the Asian political parties backed the more militant African leaders in both Kanu and Kadu. In opposition to the new Kenya Group, the white dominated United Party led by Group Captain Briggs, was formed to continue white political dominance of the Kenyan colony and to undermine the movement of the Asian political group which, although in minority, wholly and powerfully supported Africans.
The Indian congress supported conservative Africans‘demands for additional seats in the legislative council. Two Indian congress members even took the decision to resign from the legislative council as demonstrative of support of African demands for additional seats in council. Some Asian elected members walked out to begin a boycott.
In July 1959, the prominent Asian legislative councillor and congress member, Mr. Arvind Zamindar, formed a multi racial Kenya National Party which comprised of one European, six Asians and ten Africans, members of the legislative council.
The Kenya National Party advocated the formation of a democratic government by a political party with a majority in the legislative and constitution written for the safe guard of the minor communities. It also advocated the immediate release of Jomo Kenyatta and other detainees.
Asian political parties not only supported militant Africans and their ‘undiluted democracy’ and Uhuru struggle, but also the destruction of the socialist state. They supported African majority rule. Kenya Freedom Party became an official and publicly recognized voice of the Asian community.
Although anyone could join it, the party was composed almost wholly of Asians. Chanan Singh, a former member of the legislative council and congress and well known supporter of Jomo Kenyatta and Uhuru, became its first President assisted by A.Rauf, K.P.Shah and I.K. Mehta. Perhaps I was the youngest member of the party, mostly assisting K.P.Shah in translation of his writings and speeches. A highly respected Nairobi “merchant served as a Treasurer and Mr. Mehta as a secretary.
My work was to publicise the activities of the party in most of the local and daily news media. The central aim of the Freedom Party was to represent and educate Asian public opinion and to work with Kanu who had the similar policies. Kanu and KFP were on very good terms and Tom Mboya worked hard to attract mass Asian sympathy and support.
With Chanan Singh as a dynamic leader, the party was able to propagate his ideas in the “Colonial Times” which served as the mouth piece of the organization. I had my own column in the publication and my main work was to translate the speeches of Chanan Singh and K.P.Shah and to be published in the Gujerati Publications ,‘Daily Chronical, ‘Africa Samachar ‘and ‘Nutan Africa’.
While reluctantly accepting the new Macleod constitution, and the government proposals for election procedure, KFP joined hands with Kanu to initially upon the new constitution, despite its faults, as an instrument for immediate independence and decided to join the new government.
Several Asian members offered to run for election for the Kenya Freedom Party. They were victorious, on a platform of ‘undiluted democracy’; Freedom Party candidates who had been given a mandate by Kanu. In addition to elections the Freedom Party devoted itself fully in the issue of release of Jomo Kenyatta, Makhan Singh and other detainess. It drew up a blueprint for the ‘type of state and society Kenya needs’, with respect to economic planning, education and health care.
I had personally taken a keen interest in boosting the blueprint. I was still in secondary school but my English was strong and fluent by that time. Moreover I was brave and I could talk very freely and impressively in the huge gathering in English, Kiswahili, Hindi and Gujerati very fluently.
With the collaboration with Kanu, the campaign for the release of Jomo Kenyatta and other detainees was accelerated. Mr. Ambu H.Patel, the well known Indian publisher, launched his campaign for the freeing of the detainees with a large public organized demonstration in Kiambu. His voice shook the British rulers and this was a domestic discussion in parliament in London.
The Freedom Party thought that continued detention and restriction of a leader JK’s caliber was morally wrong and unjustified and harmful to the best interests of Kenya. He should be released by all means. Kenyatta’s immediate release would help to restore confidence in the future of Kenya and its economy. I wrote in daily newspapers very aggressively. My severe attacks on the Colonial Rule were the subject among patriotic Asians.
For the whole of 1961 the Freedom Party struggled on behalf of the public for Kenyatta’s immediately release. His release would pave the way to early independence and create confidence in the minds of businessmen, industrialists and foreign investors who had been discouraged by the political and economical instability in the country.
The colonial rulers tried to create a negative image of Jomo Kenyatta and other freedom fighters who in reality were the true patriots. They termed them as violent, terrorists and merciless people. The Mau Mau became a most feared name among the common people and Kenyatta was drawn as their fearful leader. The British of the time tried their best to spoil the good name of Jomo Kenyatta who was in reality the number one freedom fighter of Kenya.
In the middle of June, a six man delegation from the Freedom Party visited Jomo Kenyatta at his new detention centre at Maralal where he assured us (I say us because I was one of the delegate as a recording secretary) that the future of the Asians in Kenya was secure. They need not be under any fear at all.
I first met the first Father of the Nation, a lion in a colonial cage, a most optimistic, confident and proud freedom fighter who had the future of Kenya in his sight. It was a pleasure to talk with him for few minutes.
I can’t forget that bright day when after a long and rough journey, I met a great African hero under very tense circumstances at the detainee camp, guarded by his own black policeman; a man with a beard which covered his emotions and his plans of future of Kenya. I was delighted to meet the First to be President of Free Kenya.
We gave him the book of Mahatma Ghandhi, the great Indian freedom fighter, and he thanked us for that. He told us about his high opinion of a Mahatma who sacrificed years in the fight for the rights of his African brethrens in South Africa before he joined the freedom struggle in India. Jomo Kenyatta was inspired and encouraged by the literature, we were told.
Undoubtedly, Asians played a major role in the struggle for a free Kenya. Colonial rule could no longer be justified.
I was tortured by the white masters twice, once in a Kamiti prison near Kahawa, when my nails were pulled out by pliers and again in Nakuru when I was forced to sleep over a log of frozen ice for five continuous hours.
Threats were made against me to stop writing and talking against colonial rule so aggressively otherwise I would find myself in a trouble.
I ventured to enter the new Stanley Hotel, where whites only were permitted and forced the white stewards to serve us. I was with three Asian students and six African friends. We were served unwillingly but we had to spend two more nights in the torture cells of Ngong.
K.P. Shah and then the Indian High Commissioner, H.E. Mr. Apa Pant not only assisted our release from the hell but encouraged me personally to go ahead with the movement as Kenya needed young Asians of my caliber to reach to the right objectives.
The role of Kenya freedom party was highly acclaimed when it succeeded in the release of Jomo Kenyatta and other detainees, to the amazement of several leaders for whom Uhuru seemed to be too distant a goal.
Kanu, although in the majority did not form a government as Jomo Kenyatta was not yet fully free. Kadu, the minority party won the opportunity to form a government with Ronald Ngala as the leader. Later on, James Gichuru, the powerful Kanu President, formed the government and Jomo Kenyatta became the first Prime Minister of a free Kenya, the movement and the leader all Africans and the majority of the Asians were awaiting.
A strong delegation of leaders from India represented during the first Jamhuri Celebrations. Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta in his long English speech to the Nation praised the role of Asians in the Uhuru struggle and assured them the secured stay in independent Kenya.
Thus Asians, both Indians and Muslims played a major role in the Uhuru struggle and their participation was recognized by most African leaders.
President Giri, the then President of India was a prominent guest among several international leaders including Duke of Edingborough.
Kenyan independence was a mile-stone as an achievement and a lesson to other African states struggling for independence.
Asians’ role in achieving Independence should never be forgotten. They had taken the lead as freedom fighters through protests, writings, financing African groups, joining local parties and making their voices heard in Parliament and councils. Some of the Asian leaders had even been jailed several times for the sake of Kenyan independence.
Their sacrifice should not be ever overlooked by the present generation. Their participation should be recorded in the books of Kenyan Independence. Asians should never be treated so harshly at times only because they support the ruling party. They have the reason for that and that should never be overlooked. They have to be faithful to the Government and support the ruling party. After all they are part and parcel of the country and their stay as such is very beneficial for the development of the Nation as a whole.