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Makhan Singh, The Unsung Sikh Kenyan Freedom Fighter

Hardip Singh

Jan 14, 2009
Makhan Singh, The Unsung Sikh Kenyan Freedom Fighter

When people speak of Kenyan freedom struggle, few if any, will recall the massive contribution to the independence struggle made by the trade union movement and one pioneer trade unionist in particular, Makhan Singh (1913 Gharjakh, Gujranwala - 1973 Nairobi). Fewer still will be able to tell you that when the Kapenguria Six started 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 in the in hospitable area of Dol Dol under restriction for almost another year.

When people talk about the Indian or South Asian contribution to Kenya, they are most likely to speak of the building of the Uganda Railway and commercial life. Few, if any, modern Kenyans will recall members of the South Asian community such as Makhan Singh, Isher Dass, Pranlal Sheth, Ambu Patel, Manilal Desai, AR Kapila, FRS DeSouza, Pio Gama Pinto, Chunilal B Madan and others who made huge sacrifices and personal contributions to the struggle for independence.

But what distinguished Makhan Singh from many legendary leaders - including even the great Mahatma Gandhi - was that he went out of his way to bring together all the races in his politics. He refused 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. He demonstrated, for the first time in colonised Kenya, that Asians and black Africans were bound by the same fate and that their liberation was inextricably linked.

Indeed, Makhan Singh was already a forgotten man by the time he died of a heart attack in 1973 aged only 59. Says Patel: "Friends, relatives and workers and a handful of trade unionists attended the funeral; there was no official government recognition of the passing of this great Kenyan patriot." This quiet, unassuming man had a will of steel and a mission to fight for social justice for all Kenyans irrespective of colour, tribe, race, creed or religion.

Patel adds: "Makhan Singh crossed the race barriers and brought together African and Asian workers on a common platform. This was British colonialism's worst nightmare - the fusion of Indian political experience and the African mass struggle. So they detained him, first in India, then in Kenya's Northern Frontier District, for a total of almost 15 years. They offered to release him on condition he left Kenya forever but Makhan Singh would not hear of it. Once, when his lawyers appealed for his release and, in order to elicit a favourable response, in their petition termed him as 'this misguided man', Makhan Singh objected strongly and retorted that it was not him, but the colonialists, who were misguided. His advocate, C B Madan, later Chief Justice of Kenya, said in his eulogy that it was kind of him not to call his lawyer misguided."

Makhan Singh had no problem being called a Communist, or a Marxist, or a Leftist, or a Kenyan. He fought for independence, suffered in the struggle and sacrificed all he had, including his family life and comforts, to see Kenya free from colonialism. At the end of it all, not only was he not properly recognised by his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, he was also to be sorely disappointed when many of these people came to power and forgot what the struggle had been all about.

Makhan Singh may have faded from the national consciousness into near oblivion after Independence, but he did not completely go away. He joined the Historical Association of Kenya and, with the help of old comrades such as Fred Kubai, Bildad Kaggia, Dennis Akumu, Bethwell Ogot and others, he wrote a detailed history of Kenya's trade union movement up to 1956.
Never once did he express any bitterness or even criticism, despite the fact that the Kenyatta regime not only sidelined him, it harassed him. Promises were made, only to be reneged upon: Voice of Kenya requested him to write a script of Jomo Kenyatta's life for a series of 15 broadcasts. From 25 March 1966 to 17 April 1967, Makhan Singh made 62 phone calls and 31 visits only to be finally told that his scripts had been lost.
Makhan Singh could have amassed a fortune; instead he chose to ride buses. Whether it was the colonialists, his family or the leaders of the day, they could not prevail upon him. He could not have been an easy person to live with and yet he inspired, and continues to inspire, thousands if not millions of' the wretched of the earth.

He was a man totally given to the cause of the worker in Kenya. Aged 14 when he came from India to Kenya to join his father Makhan attended the present-day Jamhuri High School. He graduated in 1933, but the family could not afford to continue his education. So he joined his father's Khalsa Printing Press in Nairobi. It was here and from the African workers that Makhan Singh learnt the effects of colonialism on the Kenyan people.
Meanwhile, Indian workers were then organising labour protests, but it was on and off - until in1936. When he was barely 23, they appointed Makhan Singh the secretary of the Indian Labour Trade Union. He took it on knowing full well that it was a purely voluntary job.

Makhan Singh never looked back, and never earned a cent, leave alone shillings and pounds. He dedicated his life to establishing trade unionism in Kenya and linked the movement to the struggle for freedom. His entire living, being and thinking were focused on these goals and no-one, but no-one, could deflect him from his chosen path.
Makhan Singh, an unsung Sikh hero of Kenyan and Indian freedom struggles, who has been forgotten by Kenya, India and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), has been portrayed in a play,“Mungu Comrade” (Mungu is a Swahili word for God), by noted playwright Atamjit. While the Punjabi version of the play will be staged in various parts of India and other countries, its English version will be arranged in African countries where Makhan waged a non-violent war against British imperialism.

The biggest contribution of Makhan Singh was he crossed the race barriers and brought together African and Asian workers on a platform. Though the British offered to release him on condition he left Kenya forever, he did not pay any heed and continued to fight for the struggle of Kenya. Makhan Singh also ignored the advice of his near and dear ones to leave Kenya and save his life. He fought for independence, suffered in the struggle and sacrificed all he had, including his family life and comforts, to see Kenya free from colonial rule.
Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada

May his soul be blessed for ever !

Hardip Singh

Jan 14, 2009
Narayanjot jee,
I had this photograph of S. Makhan Singh in my data bank but could not load it in the SPNs message box, as when I press the icon "Insert Image" it asks for the URL address of the photo to be loaded. All my data bank is in my PC and thus does not have any URL address and thus it becomes very difficult to upload the images.
Pl advise the exact way to upload the images over here.
Thanks and regards.
Hardip Singh


Jun 1, 2004
Hardip Ji,

The best way to insert an image is to attachment them along with the message. The Manage Attachments button is right below the smileys.

Or you can upload all your images in our Albums section and then insert the url by clicking the insert images link.

I hope this helps,




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