It’s been a tempestuous half a century for Kenya Indians as the nation celebrates her 50th anniversary of Independence Dec 12. Kenya’s political developments have directly affected the Indians. They have always worried about their future in Kenya and worked hard as they prospered.
Indians, called Muhindis or Hindis, have been trading with Kenyan coastal towns since Biblical times. The British government recruited hundreds of Indians to build the Kenya Uganda Railway in late 19th century. Once the railway was running just before the century ended, many Gujaratis started ‘dukas’ or shops and came to be known as ‘dukawallas’. The Punjabis worked as craftsmen called ‘fundis’ and laboured hard. Everyone prospered and helped to build Kenya’s most urban towns.
During the violent Mau Mau freedom struggle in the 1950s, the British rulers declared an Emergency. Asians had a tough time being loyal to the British rulers and quietly helping the African freedom fighters. In 1960, when the Emergency ended, Asians, who had been fighting for freedom and one-man-one-vote in the legislative council, became more vocal for human rights.
“What is our future in a free Kenya?” was the question on everyone’s lips as Kenya celebrated Independence in 1963 with Jomo Kenyatta as its first president and father of the nation. A Goan lawyer, Fitz De Souza, became the deputy speaker of the first parliament and another lawyer, Chanan Singh, was soon appointed a judge.
In 1964, a two-year period was announced for all non-citizens to become Kenyan citizens. To conserve Kenyan currency being sent abroad by Indians and others, the Exchange Control Act was passed in 1965. A year later, Kenyatta warned non-Africans to become citizens or leave the country. More panic for Asians.
In 1967, all non-citizens were ordered to have a work permit. Since the Indians mostly held British passports, Britain was worried about their huge influx and decided to pass a bill by February 1968 to fix a deadline. This triggered the Asian exodus of thousands from Kenya. It made world news as Indians who came to Nairobi airport to bid goodbye to their relatives, themselves scrambled on the next flight to Britain. This gave Britain the corner-shop owner from Kenya who changed its retail trade. About 1,400 came to India as well. In their hundreds, Asians left Kenya to settle in Britain, the US, Canada, and Australia.
The next challenge came in 1969. Quit Notices were issued to Asian shopkeepers in Kenya to promote the locals. This Africanisation of trade went on until 1977 as many Asians started small factories. In 1972, Idi Amin surfaced in Uganda and ordered all Asians to leave. This had a ripple effect in Kenya as some Kenyan Africans openly supported Amin. Again, hundreds of Asians left.
President Kenyatta died in 1978 and his vice president Daniel arap Moi took his reins. Asians continued to flourish in business and professions. In the next general elections in 1979, an Asian lawyer, Krishan Gautama won a parliamentary seat. When all tribal organisations were banned in 1980, hundreds of ‘Asians only’ clubs were renamed.
Kenya enjoys cordial relations with India, highlighted with the visit of India’s then president Sanjiva Reddy and then prime minister Indira Gandhi within a few months of each other in 1981. In the aborted coup by the air force, hundreds of Asian shops were looted and again some left the country.
Justice C. Madan was appointed as the chief justice in 1985; he had the courage to rule against president Arap Moi in a case. Global terror came to Kenya in 1998 when the American embassy was bombed in Nairobi, killing hundreds. In 2002, Moi’s 24-year rule ended as Mwai Kibaki became the president. The next elections five years later triggered tribal violence in which hundreds died. Asians were scared but unharmed. Kenyatta’s son, Uhuru, was elected the president this year.
Recent attacks by Somali terrorists have left Asians injured. These attacks culminated in the Westgate Mall attack, which claimed some Asian lives and huge losses to all Asian shops in the mall.
The Asian population has dwindled from around 350,000 in the ’60s to around half by the ’70s, and today it is estimated at less than 100,000. Despite these dramatic political events, Kenya has remained stable in the 50 years of Independence and has developed in all sectors. The Asians have contributed in their full measure to this growth. During the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Kenya’s independence, the Muhindis happily shout, ‘Kenya Juu!” or “Kenya tops” and they mean it.
(Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper editor in Kenya for over 22 years. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)