Makhan Singh was the founder of Kenya’s trade union movement. He was born in India on 27 December, 1913. He arrived in Kenya in 1927, and in 1933 joined his father’s Khalsa Printing Press.
He was hugely successful in mobilising the masses, forming the Indian Labour Trade Union in 1935, before bringing all registered trade unions under the East African Trade Unions Congress (EATUC) in 1949.
In January 1940, while on a visit to India, he was arrested by the colonial government there and imprisoned without trial. He was released in January 1945.
Evading a prohibition order, he sneaked back in Kenya in 1947, and in March, 1950, he called for a boycott of the celebrations marking Nairobi’s elevation to city status. “There are two cities in Nairobi,” he declared, “One for the rich and one for the workers and the workers have nothing to rejoice about.”
Two months later, the workers staged a general strike which lasted ten days. The EATUC was proscribed and on 6 August, 1950, Makhan Singh was transported to the remote Northern Frontier District and detained without trial for over 11 – he was not even allowed to attend his mother’s cremation in Nairobi in 1958 – and released in October 1961, to a rousing welcome from ordinary people.
But he remained in political obscurity, shunned by his former comrades who had taken power. He was not even officially invited to the Uhuru celebrations a year later.
He passed away on 18 May, 1973, at only 60 years of age.