Manilal Ambalal Desai: The Stormy Petrel

Author: Zarina Patel
Publ: Zand Graphics, 2010

It is worth reviewing this book – more than a decade after it came out – because we now have better tools to discuss its message in wide popular debate. The events carefully documented by the book occurred around one hundred years ago: early organizing against not only colonial rule but also the formal enforcement of white supremacy in Kenya.

Who was Desai?

Desai was labelled ‘the stormy petrel’ by the British as he was like the small bird whose appearance is thought by seafarers to signal a coming storm. Although the book is not only about him, but rather about a movement, his life is the framework for the story told. Born in Surat, India, Desai had high school education and worked in a legal firm before moving to what was called the East African Protectorate in 1915 in his early thirties.

His skills quickly propelled him to leadership in East Africa’s freedom struggles, especially through the East Africa Indian National Congress (EAINC). He also knew the value of the press and started the East African Chronicle in 1918. The newspaper was shut down in late 1921 due to government pressure and lawsuits that bankrupted it. But there was a proliferation of newspapers. The East African Standard, started as the African Standard by A M Jeevanjee and still going today, was sometimes a vehicle for right wing British opinion, but the EA Chronicle and the Democrat, ‘the people’s paper’ where Sitaram Achariar wrote articles promoting causes of the Asians and Africans, demonstrated another trend. Principles of equality, liberty and justice were promoted in the EA Chronicle and the Democrat.  

Asian – African coordinated action

Desai was a friend of Harry Thuku, founder of the Young Kikuyu Association, later the East African Association (EAA), in 1921. For a while Harry Thuku was based in Desai’s newspaper office. Desai printed Thuku’s Tangazo broadsheet and others gave proof-reading and technical assistance to his organization as he tried to agitate for African people’s rights. This included such things as drafting meeting resolutions to lobby the colonial government. Later there was a newspaper in Kikuyu called Mwigithania, which was printed by Achariar’s set-up.

Throughout the 1920s, Desai and other colleagues campaigned to take part in government and for Asians to be given equal representation in the political institutions of the time. This included the administration of the capital, Nairobi. Although these struggles largely did not succeed in achieving anything like equality, they kept up the pressure. This included an organized boycott of tax payments in 1921, beginning with a mass meeting in Jeevanjee Gardens on 6 March 1921.

In July the same year Harry Thuku chaired a meeting of around 2,000 Africans under the auspices of his East African Association (EAA).  EAA resolutions were passed, adding African support to the demands of the Asians. It was resolved to have the Asian deputation to London the same year also represent the Africans. This threw the British Governor in Kenya and the Colonial Office in London into panic and fury. Harry Thuku was arrested in March 1922, which provoked a protest involving Africans and a few Indians who had gathered on the grounds of the present Nairobi University. near the Norfolk Hotel and Central Police Station where Thuku was held. 

The European position

The book documents all that was going on meanwhile in the British colonial government in London as well as the politics of the white European community in Kenya. For a while Winston Churchill was the Colonial Secretary, when his political party, the Conservatives, were in power. The colonies included Kenya Colony and Protectorate, as well as Uganda, Tanganyika and India, among many others. In 1923 the Colonial Office produced a report on‘the Indian Question in the Kenya Colony and Protectorate’. It was called the ‘Devonshire Declaration’ and is produced in full as an appendix to Zarina Patel’s book on Desai.

Basically, the British asserted governmental control over Kenya in trusteeship for the natives. While stating that ’Indians’ had certain rights as subjects of the British government, and noting the population of Kenya as 2.5 million Africans, 22,822 Indians, 10,102 Arabs and 9,651 Europeans; a policy of grants of land to Europeans only in the highlands and segregation of the races was established. The argument for this policy of segregation was based on reports of sanitary and health risks, specifically for Europeans in relation to Indians.

These were the policies of the British Colonial Office, but the white European settlers’ opinions were even more racist. These white settlers strongly opposed Asian participation in Kenyan governance. They were very put out by Desai’s interventions whenever he took part in the Legislative Council and the Municipal Council of Nairobi. His reasoned arguments, sharp legal mind and understanding of procedural rules of government administration infuriated them. He could score points in debate – such as when a settler said he wished Africans could be trained to replace the Asians, Desai supported this, saying he hoped they would take the place of the settlers as elected members. That debate took place in 1925.

Documenting the 1920s struggle

It was a hard struggle. Back in 1922 the African demonstration outside Norfolk Hotel was peaceful, but the Europeans, including police, opened fire, killing 23 Africans and wounding 27. Harry Thuku was detained and exiled as ‘dangerous to peace and good order’. He was only released in 1932. Desai and others helped his mother and other family, corresponded with him, sent him books he asked for and lobbied for his release. Colonial documents reveal the response to this was to label him and others as ‘Indian extremists’ connecting with ‘Harry Thuku the native agitator’.

White settler interests, including missionaries, claimed that Asian and African interests were opposed to each other. This version of history was consistent with colonial policy to divide Africans into different tribal groupings, including banning national groups.

Zarina Patel, the author of the book, is a social scientist, and accordingly everything is carefully documented and attributed to written sources. There are chapters on each subject, from Desai’s background and Indian history, through the Indian associations, the newspapers, to the colonial declarations and government institutions in Kenya. The last chapter is on Desai’s death and legacy.

Desai’s legacy

Desai died tragically, alone and taken ill in Bukoba, Tanzania, where he was travelling in 1926 to drum up financial support among the Asian community in East Africa to start another newspaper. He had been barely a decade in East Africa, but his impact was enormous. Among tributes quoted in the following few years it was said:

‘..he never spared himself in the service of his community. It was due to his disinterested labours that the East African Indians were able to wage a long and disheartening struggle…The intense patriotism of Desai rebelled against the threats and abuse levelled…by the European farmer community and he chose the thorny path of constitutional fight for the rights of his community.’

‘He perfectly knew what was in store for him – poverty and want, a beggar’s bowl….’

‘Desai’s true greatness lay in his clarity of mind, breadth of vision…fearless character, and unselfish devotion and absolute incorruptibility. The total sum is the true leader in every sense of the word.’

Later, the Desai Memorial Hall was built in his memory in central Nairobi, although sadly it was demolished in 1993. Meanwhile in 1971 Kenyan jurist Chanan Singh recalled the legacy of the ‘Desai school of politics’ wherein Indians prioritised African interests. 

The struggle continued: other Kenyan Asian legacies

Zarina Patel has also written a biography of Makhan Singh, the great Kenyan labour leader, creator of the union movement in the country. Imprisoned in 1951 for eleven years by the colonial government in Kenya despite acquittal from charges brought, Makhan Singh remained largely unrecognised by the post-independence government until his death in 1973. Pio Gama Pinto, the Goan politician assassinated in the early post-independence period, was another leading Kenyan Asian.

Despite their different religions, languages and varied ethnic origins across the Indian sub-continent, Kenyan Asians also created social infrastructure including its major hospitals, schools and other institutions.

Popular African opinion was often whipped up against Kenyan Asians after political independence. There was active discrimination, for example preventing Asians from holding senior government positions. Following the colonial divide and rule tactics, they were seen as exploiters and labelled as ‘other’ than African; a mass exodus of Asians to UK, Canada and other places followed the newly instituted Africanisation policy. The Ugandan leader Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians there was mirrored by attacks on Asians in the Kenyan failed coup of 1982. But the ‘Desai school of politics’ did not disappear as Kenyan Asians remained who were nationalists.

They were prominent in Kenya’s Second Liberation beginning in the 1990s, and several are singled out for mention in Raila Odinga’s introduction to the Desai book written in 2010, when he was Prime Minister. Singled out were Pheroze Nowrojee, eminent lawyer and outspoken political activist, Salim Lone, Raila’s own spokesman, Zarina herself and Davinder Lamba, one of the leaders campaigning for constitutional reform and against land-grabbing. All ran risks yet persisted, just as Desai had done. Salim Lone was taken to Nyayo House torture chambers and deported, yet later became the spokesman for the UN Secretary General before returning to Kenya for further efforts to free Kenyans.

If you are reading this and are a typical Kenyan brought up in the Christian religion thanks to our missionary legacy, please reflect that, though Raila is a daily Bible-reader, Salim Lone was brought up as a Muslim, Pheroze Nowrojee as a Parsee, Zarina as a Bohra woman, and Davinder Lamba as a Sikh. Reflect: why are they all committed Kenyans just like you?

Also think about Kenya’s press. Has there been a legacy from the early work done by Desai, Achariar and others? What has the Aga Khan done for Kenya and East Africa? Why? Have you ever heard of Sudhir Vidhyarti?

What was the process by which Kenya got a new Constitution in 2010? Who were major Kenyan Asians involved in this?

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