The life and times of Makhan Singh
Makhan Singh was born in Gujranwala, now Pakistan, in 1913 and grew up in poor circumstances in the era of the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre, and the trade union struggles against British colonialism. In 1927 he immigrated to Nairobi, Kenya and completed his high school education. Though a brilliant student the family could not afford to send him for further studies and so in 1931, he joined his father’s printing press. There he learned of the miserable conditions of the workers generally and devoted the rest of his life to bringing South Asian and African workers together, organizing them into unions to fight for their rights and mobilizing them to push forward the on-going anti-colonial struggle.
The prospect of Asian and African workers uniting, and organizing against colonialism, was extremely intimidating to the British Government. In 1950 the East African Trades Union Congress was banned and Makhan Singh and other unionists were arrested. After a kangaroo trial, Makhan Singh was detained in the arid northern district of Kenya where he stayed for over 11 years, longer even than the future president, Jomo Kenyatta. He returned to a rapturous welcome in 1961 but the political climate by then had changed.
These were the Cold War years – Makhan Singh was branded a communist and his erstwhile comrades like Kenyatta had gotten into bed with the imperialists; as well as turned their attention to personal and ethnic interests. Makhan Singh was side-lined from both the political structures as well as the labor movement. He died in 1972 having lived for his ideals and never sacrificing his principles. He adamantly refused to beg for favors, compromise or criticize the turn of events and instead got down to writing the history of the trade union movement in Kenya. His two books are the only record we have of the struggle of Kenya’s workers for their basic human rights and the founding of the trade union movement. Makhan Singh passed away in 1973 at the age of 60. He is yet to be officially awarded the recognition and honor that he truly deserves.