Manilal A. Desai, 1878-1926
Manilal A. Desai was born in 1878 in Surat District of Gujarat in India. After finishing school he studied law. He worked for a few years in the legal field in India and in 1915 migrated to Kenya where he was employed by a firm of British lawyers in Nairobi. Like in the rest of the country, in lawyers’ offices, too, there was racial discrimination. Once when his European employer found him smoking at work, Desai was told that he was not to smoke in the office, that only Europeans could smoke there. Unable to put up with such blatant racism, he resigned there and then.
He then opened a small shop on River Road. However, he did not have much interest in running the business which after a short time he handed over to his nephew. His real interest was in the anti-colonial politics of the country.
Background to class formation and class struggle
Under the British rule a form of apartheid was practiced in Kenya by the colonial authority which favoured the European settlers. Fertile agricultural land in the highlands was taken over by the British colonial administration for settlement of white farmers who mostly came from Britain or South Africa. The original African owners were rendered landless and homeless, and were forced to provide labour on the now European settler owned farms. In towns the best residential areas were set aside for Europeans; Asians could only live in specially designated areas which were generally situated between European areas (with a portion of ‘no man’s land in between) and those allocated for Africans. The African areas were the poorest, where tens of thousands of people were crowded into small areas with little or no amenities. In health, education, in fact in every sphere, the three racial groups were provided with highly discriminatory and strictly segregated facilities: those for the Europeans were by far the best; those for the Africans the facilities were either non-existent or f very poor quality.
In the colonial political field, the Legislative Council and municipal councils were entirely dominated by European settlers and administrators. The Asian were given a nominal representation in these. (In 1917 Desai was chosen to represent the Asian community in the settler controlled Nairobi Municipal Council). However, the African majority was excluded altogether from these bodies.
A majority demand of the Indian Association, which was the organisational arm of the Kenyan Asian trading class, was for equal representation with the European settlers in these councils. It also wanted the representatives to be elected and not nominated by the colonial administration.
Reflecting the two distinct classes of Kenya Asians who had made the country their home, their anti- British campaign was also of two types. One class of Indian immigrants were petty traders who had started settling on the East Africa coast since the middle of the 19th century. With the colonial conquest of Kenya by the British, who had also conquered India, increasing numbers of traders were encouraged to settle here. This was intended to facilitate the penetration of British manufactured goods into the country. Following the first influx of these traders, many more were who were rendered landless and jobless during occupation of India migrated to East Africa where they initially worked for the early traders. Later they opened their own little shops in the interior. Some of these were later to become commercial and industrial giants, while the majority retained the status of retail traders, the so called dukawallas.
The second group of Indian immigrants were the workers who had been brought into the country to build the railway. During the period 1896-1903, a total of about 32,000 workers were hired. Over a half of this number eventually returned to India on completion of their contracts. Some 2,500 lost their lives on the job; 6,500 had to be sent back because of illness and injury caused during the construction work, many of them crippled for life. A total of 6,724 settled in Kenya and Uganda on completion of their work. These were skilled and semi-skilled workers who formed the nucleus of Kenya Asian working class in the early years of the century. They were employed in the railway workshops and in the government public works department around the country; or they set up their own independent little workshops in towns. Later some of them were employed in the emergent private industrial sector. Their numbers were augmented by the coming of skilled workers (masons, plumbers, blacksmiths, carpenters) who found employment in the construction industry, and others such as shoemakers, tailors, mechanics to service the growing populations of urban centres. Along with these wage-earning workers, there were salaried workers who were employed at clerical levels in the colonial administration and commercial sector, and such professionals as teachers and accountants.
The petty bourgeois and working classes led two distinct struggles. The former fought for equal opportunities with the European settlers in the economic and political spheres. The later organised themselves, along with their African workers, into trade unions and fought for just returns for their labour. The first recorded organised resistance against colonial employers took place almost with the very introduction of workers in the country, namely the 1900 railway workers’ strike. The working class struggle was, by the late 1940’s, to develop into a formidable political instrument against the British colonial system as a whole. The colonial response to the workers’ struggle was much severe than that to the constitutional struggle against institutional racial discrimination. The colonial authorities resorted to jailing and deportation of its leaders right from the earliest days. For example, following the 1914 strike of the railway and public works department workers, their leaders Mehrchard Puri and Tirath Ram were arrested and forcibly deported from the country.
Desai plunges into anti-colonial struggle
Desai’s plunge into the anti-colonial struggle was via the Indian Association of which he became the Secretary. A.M. Jeevanjee, the pioneer trader, shipowner and building contractor, was its President at the time. Along with such other leaders such as B.S. Varma, Shamsudeen, Hussein Suleman Virji, S.J. Amin and Mangal Dass, he greatly strengthened the Association organisationally. In addition, he worked towards greater cooperation of all East African Asians. This led to the re-emergence of the East African Indian National Congress linking the Asians of Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Zanzibar, the four British colonial territories in the area. He became the President of the Congress.
With the entry of Desai in the Kenyan Asian political struggle, it took a more militant path. It now also stated looking at the colonial situation as a whole, and not merely from the perspective of the Kenya Asian middle class.
Having had a first-hand experience of the anti-British colonial struggle in India, he saw that the colonial exploitation and oppression in the land of his birth and in his adopted home were similar, even though the concrete forms these took in each country were different. This perspective had two results. On the one hand, he realised that the struggles in India and Kenya could learn from each other and also be strengthened if some sort of unity or coordination could be achieved since the two countries faced a common enemy, the British colonialism. For this purpose he sought he sought contact with the Indian National Congress. On the other hand, he took an active interest in the African anti-colonial struggle in which he saw similarities with the fight for independence that was going on in India. In the Kenya context, he realised that Kenyan Asians could not carry on their struggle in isolation from the African fight for their rights. In fact, from the outset he recognised that the African struggle was of primary importance.
Once having correctly analysed the colonial situation, Desai forged the instruments with which the struggle could be carried out. He saw publicity and propaganda as one of the main weapons with which the oppressed people could be informed and politicised for further action. The British colonial administration and European settlers used newspapers to propagate their interests. To combat this propaganda, Desai founded a Gujarati-English weekly, East African Chronicle. Through this paper he publicised African and Kenyan Asian grievances arising from the colonial racist discriminatory and segregatory practices. The paper also demanded political rights for the Kenyan Africans, Asians and Arabs.
Desai was instrumental in drawing the Kenyan Asian struggle closer to the African struggle. His East African Chronicle offices became the centre for the meeting of the leaders of the two communities. He worked closely with the Africa nationalist leader, Harry Thuku, who headed the East African Association. The two leaders, both bachelors, met during their spare time at Desai’s place, which consisted of a single room on River Road which was provided to him by A. M. Jeevanjee. The East African Chronicle publicised the work of the East African Association, its protest meetings and also the African grievances and demands put forward by the association. Among the issues it protested against were the appropriation of the African owned land by the colonial administration for the settlement of European immigrants; the compulsory registration of Africans and the carrying of the registration and employment papers in a metal container (the ‘kipande’) round the neck at all times; increasing taxes without any government facilities being offered in return; forced labour on European owned farms.
Desai also published Thuku’s Kiswahili paper Tangazo, and the leaflets and posters which publicised the public meetings organised by the East African Association. In addition, he helped Thuku draft a protest memorandum outlining the African demands. In July 1921 this memorandum was sent to the colonial government in England and to many overseas sympathisers of the Kenyan people.
In 1921 when the British colonial governor, Edward Northey, called a meeting of European and Asian leaders to discuss the country’s future, Desai protested at the non-representation of Africans and Arabs at the meeting, and made a forceful speech making demands on their behalf as well.
By 1922 the African protest against colonial injustices had reached a high point. Thuku and other East African Association officials were touring the country holding well-attended public meetings and demanding drastic changes in colonial policies. The colonial government was getting into a state of panic and on 14 March 1922 arrested Thuku and 50 other members of the Association. In protest against the arrests the Nairobi workers called a general strike which paralysed the town. On 16 March they organised a mammoth procession through the streets of the town, at the end of which they gathered outside the police lines, where Thuku was being held, at the present-day site of the University of Nairobi. They called for his immediate and unconditional release. The colonial police opened fire on the unarmed protesters. Gun-wielding Europeans at the nearby Norfolk Hotel joined in the shooting. Some 1501 people were killed and many more were injured. Among the first one to be shot and killed was a woman leader of the demonstration, Muthoni Nyanjiru. The extent of the support for the protest among workers of different nationalities can be seen from the fact that among the injured were some Asians, as the East African Standard of 17 March 1922 reported. Following the massacre, hundreds of workers were arrested. The East African Association leaders, Thuku, Waiganjo wa Ndotono and George Mugekenyi were deported without trial to Kismayu, Lamu and Kwale district respectively. Among the many who were imprisoned was another leader of the Association, Abdullah Tairara.
In his East Africa Chronicle, Desai gave a detailed account of the whole episode, strongly condemning the colonial administration’s ruthless handling of the incident. In conjunction with B.S Varma, Shamsudeen and Mangal Dass, he fought against the deportation orders and sought the release of the African leaders. While Thuku was in Kismayu, Desai corresponded with him to keep him informed about the developments in the country. The papers were forwarded through Thuku’s Asian shop owner contact in Kismayu. He also kept in touch with Thuku’s mother and helped her financially during her son’s enforced absence.
For a long time, the colonial authorities had been looking for an excuse to close the East African Chronicle. On a number of occasions, it had raided the paper’s offices looking for some incriminating evidence and to harass Desai and the other staff. Finally, in mid-1922 the paper was forced to close down. However, along with Sitaram Acharia and N. S Thakur, Desai carried on the fight in the pages of the Democrat. This paper at one time printed the Kikuyu Central Association’s publication Muigwithania which was edited by Johnstone Kamau (later Jomo Kenyatta).
In the constitutional sphere, the European settlers during this period were pressing for self-government for Kenya under white rule. They demanded a constitution similar to that which the European settlers in the then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) had been granted by the British colonial government. The British government in London, as well as the colonial administration in Nairobi, had always sympathised with the settlers’ demand. In 1919 Governor Northey had proclaimed that ‘the principle had been accepted at home (i.e. in England) that this country was primarily for European development’ and that ‘European interests must be paramount throughout the protectorate’ (i.e. Kenya). in 1922 Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, confirmed this undertaking given to the European settlers and went on to assure them that they could look forward to ‘in full fruition of time to compete responsible self-government’ of ‘all civilised men’; the measurement of the so called civilisation would be by ‘well-marked European standards’.
The population of Kenya at this time was made up as follows:
Thus the destiny of over two and a half million people in the ‘self-governing’ country would be in the hands of 10,000 white settlers. By 1923, it appeared that the fate of the country had already been decided upon. Desai, in a telegram sent to the British Colonial Office in February 1923, strongly challenged this policy. He said that Kenya being an African country, the interests of the Africans should be protected and that there should be ‘no predomination (of) European or Indian settlers’.
In March 1923 the British government called a meeting in London to discuss the future of the country. The Kenyan Asian delegation, comprising among others of A. M. Jeevanjee, Shamsudeen, B. S. Varma, H. S. Virji, was led by Desai. The British colonial government in India sent a delegation to the conference made up of non-official Indian members of the Indian Legislative. These two delegations opposed the European settler demands. African leaders were once again excluded. The leaders of the East African Association, in a memorandum sent with Desai, protested at their non-inclusion at the conference. During the conference itself, Joseph Kang’ethe sent a cable to London on behalf of the Association declaring that Africans ‘should not be handed over to a self-governing Kenya in which settlers predominate’. All this opposition forced the British colonial government to back down.
In July 1923, in language reminiscent of Desai’s February telegram, the Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Devonshire, declared that in Kenya ‘the interests of the African native must be paramount’. However, having made this high-sounding pronouncement, which came to be known as the Devonshire Declaration, the colonial government carried in with its earlier policies of total exclusion of African leadership from the political processes of the country and of racial discrimination favouring the European settlers.
In 1924, seeing that the money collected by the colonial administration was used to run the system that not only did not benefit the people generally, but was, in fact, used to oppress the very people who were paying these taxes, Desai organised a tax boycott. As a result he was jailed.
The following year Desai was selected to represent the Kenyan Asians in the Legislative Council, much to the displeasure of the colonial administration and settlers. He used this forum tirelessly to draw attention to injustices and discriminatory practices of the colonial authority and to challenge the racism of the European settlers. As the African population lacked a voice in the council, Desai worked closely with the leaders of the newly formed Kikuyu Central Association such as Joseph Kang’ethe, James Beauttah and Jesse Kariuki, and presented their grievances and demands. Faced with the colonial administration’s total refusal to pay heed to the Kenya Asian representatives’ demands, Desai, Jeevanjee, Varma and J. b. Pandya staged a boycott of the council.
Acharya and Desai faced enormous financial problems in publishing the Democrat. Lacking advertising revenue to run it on a commercial basis, the paper depended to a great extent on donations from those who supported its stand. In 1926 the two of them set out on an East African tour to raise money for the paper. Desai fell ill during the trip and in July 1926 died in Bukoba, Tanganyika at the age of 48.
To perpetuate the memory of this Kenyan Asian patriot, the East African Indian Congress raised funds to build a monument, the Desai Memorial Hall which stands on the Tom Mboya Street (formerly Victoria Street) in Nairobi. The building housed a library which, following the principle held dear by Desai, was open to people of all races; it was the first library, and for a long time the only one, in Nairobi to have such an open door policy. During the ‘1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s the meeting hall in the building was the venue for countless meetings of Nairobi workers. In addition, a street in Nairobi has been named after him, the Desai Road which links Murang’a Road with the Ngara/Park Roads junction.
A voice of Kenya’s National Service programme broadcast on 12 April 1981 had this to say about Desai:
He had the strength and foresight to take a long-term view of the history of Kenya. He was a courageous leader who did not care for his personal interests and comfort in the service of the cause for justice and equality.
[This is an expanded version of the article published in Alakmalak and Opinion Magazine.]
1. This number was quoted in the British daily Manchester Guardian of 20 March 1929. The colonial administration and the settler press claimed that 27 were killed and 24 wounded.