Makhan Singh (Kenyan trade unionist)

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Makhan Singh
Born(1913-12-27)27 December 1913
OccupationTrade Unionist
Known forAnti-colonialist

Makhan Singh (27 December 1913 – 18 May 1973) was an Indian-born Kenyan labour union leader who is credited with establishing the foundations of trade unionism in Kenya.


Makhan Singh was born in Gharjakh, a village in British-ruled India's Gujranwala district, a Sikh-majority area in the province of Punjab (since 1947, his native region has been a part of Pakistan). In 1927, at the age of 13, he moved with his family to Nairobi, a municipality which, since 1905, had functioned as the administrative capital of the British East African protectorate. In 1935, he formed the Labour Trade Union of Kenya and, in 1949, he and Fred Kubai formed the East African Trade Union Congress, the first central organization of trade unions in Kenya.

Makhan Singh presents a new and unique challenge in analysing the history of political detentions and human rights. His eleven-year detention in the late 1950s in the desert prison camp near Lodwar, Northern Kenya, under the "control orders" issued by the British rulers of Kenya Colony, has become highly significant since both the Guantanamo Bay and Belmarsh Prison detentions of 2000.

After having spoken out in clear and strong terms against British occupation and colonial rule in Kenya on 23 April 1950 at Nairobi's Kaloleni Halls, Makhan Singh was arrested within 21 days on 15 May. He had inadvertently given the British colonial masters an opportunity to silence him. At a trial in Nyeri, Chanan Singh (later Justice Chanan Singh) defended him eloquently and with rigour. He was acquitted.

Like the Belmarsh Prisoners and their detentions in the UK, the then Kenya Colony Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell, ordered that he be detained for an indefinite period. He was released after eleven years of being confined without any charge or trial on 20 October 1961.

His detainment and situations surrounding them is history repeating itself. Sir Philip Mitchell could not send him back to India after his acquittal as India was a new country- sovereign in its own rights. The British administrations idea of using its colonies and friendly (puppet) maharajas (kings) in various Indian kingdoms and Kala Pani (Andaman Islands) as convenient rendition sites for people who threatened the empire was a common practice. Makhan Singh was a resident in Kenya Colony. India ( a new democracy then 1947), would not accept his "rendition".

Kenya was a centre of Ghadr/Kirti Party till 1947. Three Punjabis Bishan Singh of village Gakhal Jalandhar, Ganesh Das and Yog Raj Bali of Rawalpindi were summarily tried and hanged to death in public in December 1915 for possessing and distributing Ghadr.

Between the world wars Makhan Singh, Gopal Singh Chandan (1898-1969) and Wasdev Singh (1904-1991) were its chief organisers. Quite a few Ghadr leaders, like Bhai Rattan Singh, Gurmukh Singh of LaltoN and Teja Singh Sutantar, passed through Kenya clandestinely en route to Russia for revolutionary training and back home. The Kenya Ghadr/Kirti secret branch sent Devinder Singh 'Katal' alias Lal Singh (c1900-1937) of Sansãrpur, Ujãgar Singh Kirti alias Aujla (1904-1970) of Boparai Kalãn Nakodar and Suba Singh (1894-1970) of Thathiãn Mahantãn Amritsar to Moscow for revolutionary training.

Makhan Singh died of a heart attack on 18 May 1973 in Nairobi at the age of 59.

Known Indian playwright Atamjit has written a play in Punjabi on the life and contribution of Makhan Singh. It was published from India in 2011. The play's reading sessions were organised in almost all the important places of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. It also got tremendous response in London, Nottingham and major cities of Canada.


  • Chandan, Amarjit (2004). "Gopal Singh Chandan: A Short Biography & Memoirs". Jalandhar: Punjab Centre for Migration Studies.
  • Singh, Makhan (1969). History of Kenya'a Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East African Publishing House.
  • Patel, Zarina (2006). Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh. Nairobi: Awaaz.

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