Kenyan Asians find new fillip in politics

In 1979, Nairobi lawyer the Mombasa-born Krishna Gautama surprised many when he won the Parklands parliamentary seat against Wachira Waweru.

It was a time when many thought the Kenyan Asian community would never make it back to parliament.

In 1963, those holding British passports had been asked to either take Kenya citizenship or leave.

While the British were eager to compensate their ilk — the white settlers — the Indians were given little space for that.

The February 1965 assassination of nominated MP Pio Gama Pinto, the most promising Kenyan Asian politician, had left the community in limbo, frightened and disoriented.

More than 50 years later, the number of Asians seeking electoral positions is an indicator of how far the country has progressed politically.


But still some laws that were passed to make life hard for the Asians are still in place – only that we hardly known their origins.

Ostracised and discriminated in the 60s and 70s, the community had been forced out of limelight as the country passed laws targeting them and forcing them out of business.

This was made worse by Uganda’s Idi Amin’s expulsion of Uganda Asians — and the political fate of the community looked like it had been sealed.

Ten years earlier in 1969, Dr Fitz de Souza – a veteran lawyer of the Kapenguria Six had lost the Westlands seat to lawyer Samuel Kivuitu – the man who set history by losing his seat in 1974 by a mere five votes. (Kivuitu is the man who would later bungle Kenya’s 2007 elections triggering the post-election violence).

De Souza was in parliament during troubled times. He was the sole voice that defended the community in the House at a time when the Kenyatta government started passing anti-Asian laws camouflaged under the Africanisation policy.


In 1968, the British Queen Elizabeth had made things worse for the Kenya Asians when she signed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act that was aimed at Asians left in Kenya after independence.

The new law ended the automatic right of all British passport holders from entering and living in Britain thus leaving thousands stateless.

This followed a debate in British House of Lords, which took a record 19-hours, and which was described by Rev Lord Beaumont as “shameful and disastrous”.

“We have ruined our relationship with the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the human rights movement,” said Rev Lord Beaumont, a liberal church minister who had also become the president of the Liberal party.

In Kenya, the Asian community had found themselves between a rock and a hard place.


As the Jomo Kenyatta government was passing new laws to restrict the community’s business acumen and restricting their employment in the civil service through the Africanisation policy, many youths found themselves jobless and with no place to go.

Many had never been to India, where their grandfathers had left more than 80 years earlier to either build the Kenya Uganda railway or with the promise of setting up businesses.

At that time when the British were locking doors on them, there were an estimated 200,000 Kenya Asians who were entitled to British passports but Britain and Kenyatta had agreed to a quota system that only allowed a maximum of 1,500 a year — mostly the highly qualified.

While the balance was supposed to stay in Kenya, the 1967 Immigration Act required all foreigners living in Kenya to either apply for Kenya citizenship or for a work permit.

When Former British High Commissioner Malcolm MacDonald tried to intervene with the Kenyan Government over some stranded Asians in London airports, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi told him: “They are Britain’s responsibility,” he said. “Why should they come back here? They can go to India.”


But even the Asians who took the Kenyan citizenship were not guaranteed jobs within the civil service. More so, a Kenyanisation Bureau had been set up to remove all foreigners — and quietly all Indians — within the civil service doing jobs “which could be done by a Kenyan”.

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From the fall of de Souza in 1969, it took another 23 years before casino-owner Amin Walji won the Westlands seat in 1992 on a Kanu ticket. But after holding the seat for only two years, Mr Walji died giving way to Fred Gumo’s rise in Nairobi politics.

Things appear to have changed since the promulgation of a new constitution. In the current parliament we have Embakasi South’s Irshad Ali Sumra, Kisumu East MP Shakeel Shabbir Ahmed, and North Imenti’s Abdul Rahim Dawood bringing to seven the number of Asian MPs in Kenya’s post-independent parliament.

There is also nominated MP Sunjeev ‘Sonia’ Kaur Birdi, the first Asian-Kenyan woman lawmaker who was running for Westland’s seat during the nomination on a Jubilee ticket.


While the previous three MPs came from Parklands, then inhabited mostly by Asians, the current crop of politicians are elected in constituencies that are far-flung.

Already, Dawood has won the Jubilee nomination in North Imenti. Another Jubilee nominee is the Kesses parliamentary candidate Swarup Mishra.

In Kiambu, Kalpesh Shah won the Juja Ward nomination on a Jubilee ticket too and many others could emerge as the nominations season comes to a close.

While this has been a long walk into politics for a community that has faced myriads of challenges — the story of their struggles has been lost.

While they had been invited to Kenya to pioneer business in the colony and open up the rural areas, where they set up trading centres, these efforts and struggles are not yet captured in Kenya’s history and were often dismissed as exploiters — though the frugal habits of the dukawallahs (the shopkeeper) that led to their survival has faded with time.


All what Kenyans see at the countryside are the India-styled dukas that dot each and every town.

These were the first target of the independent Kenya government and they were asked to close the retail business.

Those who didn’t were denied operating licenses, which became an annual ritual and are today known the Business Permits.

(They are still renewed every year, though the original intention was to throw out the Asians from their shops!).

Records show most of the Kenyan Asians had not gone into commerce by choice.

Most of the Shahs and Patels, who had come to Kenya were were originally farmers.


In one of his epic speech in Parliament de Souza set this record straight as he fought against the discrimination of the Kenyan Asian.

“They were never businessmen…they went into commerce having been called into this country, and were not allowed to go into any other profession. So the only thing they could do was to start a little shop, they began to save little by little and became businessmen.

They never owned shops before in their lives… they had no idea of industry or commerce whatsoever. However, having been thrown, as it were by historical accident, into business, they have in fact done a great deal for this country,” said de Souza.

Unknown to many, it was the Indians who opened up Kenya’s sugar and cotton industry and import of machinery.

For instance, the Devji Hindocha family set up Kenya’s first sugar industry known as Victoria Nyanza Sugar Mills, Miwani in 1922.


It would become one of the most successful in the region and by 1946 it was producing 20,000 tons of sugar from its 15,000 acres.

It also employed 4,200 people making it one of the biggest in the region.

During the Africanisation of commerce, the government took it over and named it Miwani Sugar Factory and set up Chemelil Sugar from one of Hindocha’s farm. Both are in serious economic ruin.

There was a question that de Souza asked members of Parliament as they went on targeting businesses owned by Kenyan Asians: “Which of the Members here would give half their farms to another tribe or anybody else just because they want to have a more nationalistic approach to this country…?”

Though he never got the answer, the government also set up the Kenya National Trading Corporation to control prices and become the distributor of key commodities – sugar, floor, and rice.

One of the known critics of the Indian business was Butere MP Martin Shikuku who derided them as paper citizens.


De Souza would take most of the insults in the House: “This monopoly of the Indians going around and getting away with it should stop…we are taking care of Mulji Patel by leaving him a quarter of whatever he is having today and the rest will go to Africans. He has been enjoying the fruits of his business for a long time, and it is now time I had my share.”

Another one was Joseph Gatuguta who moved for the restriction of Indians in the transport business.

The Transport Licensing Board became an avenue to control the restriction of Kenyan Asians into the sector forcing them out.

The same TLB had been introduced in 1930 to restrict Asians who were in transport business from competing with the railway as per the recommendation of Sir Osborne Mance .

It was then said that the idea was to “avoid wasteful competition.”

But Shamsud Deen, an Indian MP described TLB Bill as the “most hypocritical I have seen”.


Another Indian MP Isher Dass was perhaps more brutal: “If the mover had stated that the object of this Bill is to eliminate Indians from this Colony by prohibiting the motor transport from the roads…it would have been honest…it is really amusing that he should come here and suggest that this legislation is to protect the interest of drivers and conductors.”

More than 30 years later, the TLB was again used to kick the Indians out of the transport business.

But it was the Business Permit that became the main catch. “Tell them that next year they will not have their licenses renewed and advertise those shops for capable Africans who can do the job…,” said Gatuguta in Parliament, echoing what was thought to be nationalistic.


One Indian shopkeeper told an MP of the community’s feeling then: “We would like to help, but what do you want us to do? Do you want us to give away our shops and go away bankrupt. Do you want us to tell somebody, ‘come and take half my shop…”

With no reasonable solution, many abandoned their shops fearing arrests or sold their empty buildings to groups organized by commerce Minister Dr Julius Gikonyo Kiano from his Kangema backyard.

Some of those who benefited from the Africanisation included the Rwathia Group which created several billionaires in Muranga. One of the founders was recently feted by Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero and President Kenyatta.

For the Kenyan Asians – they are finding some new space in Kenya’s politics; a new voice and acceptance.

[email protected], @johnkamau1

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