J M Nazareth remembered

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London Calling Special

I have been re-reading J M Nazareth`s `Brown Man Black Country: A Peep into Kenya`s freedom struggle`.  It is more like a political memoir than a straight autobiography, though inevitably interspersed with snippets of his personal life and professional career. He had begun the project in 1971 and completed it in 1975, but some six years elapsed before the book was published in 1981 – in its original form, but with a short Postscript added in 1980.

At the time of writing, he was much exercised about the Kenya government`s Africanisation policy, its accompanying rhetoric and practical implementation.  We will come to that later, but first it is important to understand his biographical background at some length.

Nazareth was born in Nairobi on February 21, 1908, “in the heart of Indian Nairobi, on River Road, in a wood and iron house” (p22).  He describes how his family`s fortunes went up and down.  When he was five, the whole family, except for his father, left for India for the sake of the children`s education.  He studied at St Mary`s High School and then at St Xavier`s College, Bombay, both well-known Jesuit institutions, where he excelled, and graduated with a first-class arts degree. In 1930 he went to Britain to read law at the Inner Temple, and qualified as a Barrister three years later, winning top marks and prizes, and spent a further year doing his pupillage in chambers.  He also read economics as an external student of London University but could not complete the course due to a problem with his eyesight.

He then returned to Kenya in June 1934 as a mature adult, having accumulated “a debt of Shs. 30,000, a very large sum in those days”. He had been away for nearly 20 years, and was immediately struck by the stark reality of racial divisions in the country`s population.  “There could not have been a better, a more illuminating, introduction to the politics of Kenya and the vicious policies of the settler community” (p 40).  Indeed, the unequal black, brown and white colour motif of the book`s front cover neatly captures the multi-racial structure of Kenyan society of then and now.

At any rate, in 1935 he commenced practice as an advocate in Nairobi and within less than ten years had established himself as a successful lawyer of high calibre and standing. Until 1944 however, though “always keenly interested”, he had not thought of taking an active part in politics, but in that year he was persuaded to stand for election to the management committee of the Nairobi Indian Association (NIA) and was duly elected. The NIA, being a constituent member of the East African Indian National Congress (EAINC, or Congress for short), he automatically gained a footing on the EAINC, eventually to serve as its President during 1950-52. That was quite remarkable for someone who had no specific communal backing: “I had no narrow tendencies to regard myself as being merely a Goan, and not a part of the Indian community.  “So it had become natural to me to think of myself as an Indian and be proud of it” (p 44), and that remained true to the end of his life. 

His political trajectory then took off to impressive levels, both within Congress and nationally, and most of the book is devoted to his involvement in Kenyan politics during the middle decades of the twentieth century, leading to independence and its sequels.

But undoubtedly the crowning moment of his public life was being elected to LEGCO in 1956, for a four-year term ending in 1960. This was a highly contested election with three other candidates, one of them a sitting member, for the Western Electoral Area (for Indians) spread across a vast region that embraced the towns of Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret and Kitale.  This is what he writes about it:

“My supporters thought that on polling day I must make myself a visible presence in each of the major towns in my widely-spread constituency.  I engaged a helicopter [and] I believe I am the only candidate in the history of elections in Kenya who went round his constituency on polling day in a helicopter”. (p 206).

Note, this was 1956: helicopters were still a rarity in those days, as was the sight of an election candidate flying from one place to another to show his face!  Indeed, even in Britain the routine use of aircraft on the campaign trail did not begin to happen until much later.  He won, but does not state by what margin.      

Between 1952 and 1956, a lot had been going on both on the political front and in his professional life.  In August 1952, he went to India for a prolonged visit that lasted until December of that year.  Apa Pant had given him a letter of introduction to Nehru, who “when I met him [in] Delhi, was good enough to give me something like 40 minutes of his hard-pressed time.  Nehru listened to me attentively, but very quietly, almost impassively, with scarcely any interruption.  The subject to which I devoted most of my time was his practice of referring to Indians in Kenya as `guests`.  Kenyatta … had taken that up with alacrity and enthusiasm and not infrequently referred to Indians in Kenya as `guests`.  I tried to convey to Nehru that Indians living in Kenya fell into two classes: those who had made their homes in Kenya and intended to remain there, and those who were birds of passage and who could rightly be referred to as `guests`. I made it quite clear to him that he was doing Indians a serious disservice lumping them all together and referring to them as guests” (p 170). 

He adds that Nehru was silent and raised no questions or made no comment and he came away feeling that he had succeeded in convincing Nehru not to use the `guests` label again.  Years later, going through records, he found that Congress too had been protesting in 1953 to Nehru on this very point, and discovered that “Nehru had been expressing these views as early as 1937.”  In hindsight, we can attribute Nehru`s naiveté in this regard to his ignorance of the nature of Indian emigration and settlement within the British Empire.  In a reverse scenario, would he have described the Moguls, the Parsis or the Sidis in similar terms?

Nazareth continues: “Meanwhile, during my absence in India, Kenyatta had been arrested and a State of Emergency had been declared.  Had I been in Kenya at the time of his arrest I think it not unlikely that he would have asked me to appear for him as one of his counsels, and I would not have refused” (p 172).  This might sound like an empty boast, but he had interacted with Kenyatta and others in the nascent nationalist movement, besides being a prominent advocate.  As it happened, in 1953 he was among the three top Indian lawyers who were asked by the government to serve as acting puisne judges of the Supreme Court (the first time ever that Asians had been considered for any judicial posts) to try Mau Mau cases carrying a mandatory death sentence.  His wife was against him accepting the appointment, but he had consulted Apa Pant and they were both agreed that given the state of the emergency it was “the duty of citizens to assist in the maintenance of law and order”, so he did.  Almost twenty years later, however, Makhan Singh criticised him for doing so and not explaining his reasons “to the Africans as they held it against me” (p 174).  

But when he was asked to renew his appointment, which had lasted five weeks, he declined, as his conscience had troubled him over passing the death sentence, and so in one case he had acquitted the accused on strictly legal grounds.  At some time, though we are not told exactly when, he was made a QC together with three other leading Asian lawyers (Mangat, Sorabjee, Madan) each of whom had also, like him, served as President of the Law Society.

Fast forward to his time in LEGCO (which incidentally occupies almost one half of the book`s content) and two significant events may be mentioned. First, the 1959 Hola Camp scandal – the details are too well known to merit reciting here. The killings had been vigorously debated at length in the House of Commons on 16 June and, on 29 July, Dr Kiano tabled a motion expressing loss of confidence in the Kenya government`s administration and calling for resignation of the ministers and officers in charge. Nazareth seconded the motion and at the end of his speech, Mboya and Kiano passed him a note: “That was a brilliant performance as a lawyer”! He goes on to give details of who voted for and who against and that when “[t]he House divided … the motion was defeated by 45 votes to 14 (pp 370-371)”. 

Then, in November, the new governor, Sir Patrick Rennison (who had replaced Evelyn Baring) announced the end of the Emergency, but added that Jomo Kenyatta and four of his associates would not be released.  He also announced that the British government had decided that a Constitutional Conference would be held at Lancaster House in London on 18 January 1960, to which all elected and specially elected members were to be invited (p 374).

Once again, Nazareth used his considerable skill and power of speech to oppose the decision not to release Kenyatta and his cohorts.  To quote just one sentence, he said: “Jomo Kenyatta is a person with such wide support in the country, and particularly among the African people, that the continuance of restrictions after the serving of his sentence may well do more harm than good”, and he continued in that vein to advance a solid case for his immediate release with reasoned arguments that exposed the government`s weakness.

Indeed, to jump ahead, in July 1960, after the Lancaster House conference, he and Eliud Mathu, with a view to paving the way for Kenyatta`s early release, sought Rennison`s permission to visit him at Lodwar, but it was refused on the ground that a projected visit by Kenya government ministers to meet Kenyatta had not yet materialised and so it would have been wrong to let them (Mathu and Nazareth) see him first (p 423). 

The 1960 Lancaster House conference was the climax but also a turning point in his political career, for there he had made a speech (the full official summary of which is produced in an appendix) that did not go down well with the African and some Asian members (say `the liberal lobby`). 

Nazareth had signally failed to grasp the implications of the `wind of change` that was blowing across the African continent, and to see the writing on the wall.  His opposition to the one-man-one-vote franchise that was being demanded by the liberal lobby, expressed in measured, lawyerly language, was to elicit this critical comment from Masinde Muliro: “no one who proposed a go-slow policy would be welcomed in any party by Africans” (pp 393-4).  But he looked back upon his Lancaster House speech “without regret [and] with deep satisfaction” (p 395). 

According to him, his approach “to the question of the common roll had always been … realistic”; he was “against a mock form of common roll in which the voters vote on tribal lines, there are no genuine political parties and the members of the Legislative Council of one race are in effect foisted on it by the members of another race or have no representation of their point of view at all”. This was also the stance he took on the Legislative Council Elections Bill in December 1960 (p 441). His nuanced arguments for a qualified franchise, however, were based on the pre-existing state of a racially divided polity and he could not see how that could be transformed into a truly democratic system in one go. He was, alas, swimming against the tide of history in the making.

At the end of 1960 he bowed out of active politics, though remaining interested at a distance.  The countdown to independence was then about to begin and it proceeded at a phenomenal pace thereafter, so that uhuru was accomplished in less than three years!

This is just a flavour of Nazareth`s political activism. The book is dense, written in his characteristically plodding and pedantic style – too much factual and boring detail, with all manner of correspondence, memoranda, parliamentary exchanges, transcripts of speeches and interviews, newspaper reports, extracts from lengthy minutes and diary entries and other records packed into appendices or otherwise reproduced in the text.  A great deal of the material is about not only internal Congress matters and differences over principle and policy between various personalities full of ego, pride and passion, but also wider national debates as well as interactions and communications with other Kenyans and Kenyan and British government officials and ministers through the years leading to independence.  Unfortunately, the manuscript was never edited and it is often impossible to differentiate and identify the time-line of the many long passages in a not easily readable narrative form.  

With this long introduction, let us go back to the beginning of the book, starting at Prologue, subtitled `To Go or Not to Go`, with a Shakespearean touch:

“When Independence came …I said to myself that nothing would make me leave … I was born … in Nairobi.  Here were spent my days of early childhood and all my working life … Here I would live and die” (p 1).   In fact, he had applied for citizenship within three days and received it in record time on Christmas Eve 1963.

His determination was, however, to be shaken within two or three years.  How so? 

He had always felt a deep sense of unease about Asians being referred to as `guests`.  As he put it: “I had been present at African or Indian-African public meetings before 1950 where we had been called “guests” by Kenyatta (p 1). It had so troubled him that, as noted above, he raised the issue as one of grievance during his meeting with Nehru, whom he blamed for using the term in the first place.

He goes on: “Sooner or later the `hosts` might call upon their `guests` to leave.  That sort of attitude seemed to have taken a hold on the minds of many Africans” (p 1). He then spelt out the grounds of his profound misgivings about what was happening in the early days of independence, best summarised in bullet points as under:

1. In Kenyatta`s first cabinet, while a European was found a place, no Asian was included. He discusses the possible reasons for this, but felt that ultimately it was Kenyatta as Prime Minister who bore sole responsibility for the omission (pp 2-3).

2. He gives examples of racist comments by African MPs directed at Asians, with strong echoes of Nehru`s `guests` epithet (pp 4-5).

3. He was most disturbed by the official Public Service Commission of Kenya advertisements for job vacancies which concluded with the statement that “In all cases preference will be given to qualified candidates who are Kenya citizens of African origin”.  These first appeared as early as January 1965 and were, as he put it, “in plain disregard of the provisions of the Constitution” prohibiting racial discrimination.  Subsequently, in the Kenya Gazette issue of 4 January 1966, the statement was changed to “In all cases preference will be given to qualified candidates who are Kenya citizens” (p 7); no doubt second thoughts had prevailed.

4.  In 1966, the Nairobi City Council evicted Asian stallholders, some of whom were Kenya citizens, from a market.  Questions were raised in Parliament but the council did not reverse its decision. “It was left to the High Court to do that in 1968 in a suit filed by six stallholders, the costs being awarded against the council” (p 5).

5. Then there was the matter of the pending citizenship applications that had been made before the two-year deadline expired on 12 December 1965; this is dealt with in great depth, with relevant facts and figures and quotations from some frank parliamentary exchanges (pp 5-9).  The large number of applications had overwhelmed the administration but it was clear that there was a certain reluctance on the part of the government to process them, and this added to Asian anxieties.  He quotes a passage from a book by Prem Bhatia, the Indian High Commissioner to Kenya circa 1968 that “had all the 1,00,000 `brown Britons` applied after 12 December, 1963 for Kenyan citizenship, not even 50 per cent would have been accepted” (p 8).

6.  An examination of the official population statistics of the period between October 1963 and June 1966 revealed that “Unlike the Europeans, the Asians … did not leave the country in large numbers [and] that Independence alone did not arouse doubts or fears strong enough to induce Asians to leave” (p 4).

7. But by then, the atmosphere was turning hostile towards the Asians.  In 1966, the community was shaken by news of the sudden collective deportation of six individuals, among them the lawyer Pranlal Sheth, who was a political ally of Oginga Odinga and in fact a Kenya citizen and who therefore had to be deprived of his citizenship first. 

All these factors were playing on Nazareth`s mind.  A crisis of confidence had ensued.  This was exacerbated by the passing of the Trade Licensing and Immigration Acts of 1967, and compounded by the British government`s immigration restrictions that led to the `exodus` of Kenya Asians holding UK passports in 1967-68.  He put it in these terms: “The wind of change had blown across Africa bringing to the black man independence and the power to turn out the brown man” (p 17), and, by way of validation, quotes this long passage from Pierre van den Berghe`s chapter in the 1970 revised edition of `A Portrait of a Minority` (Ed, Dharam Ghai):

“Kenya Asians … are almost totally barred from the highest administrative positions in the civil service, irrespective of qualifications or citizenship.  In fact the Government openly pursues a policy of Africanization by which it means replacing Asians and Europeans with Africans, irrespective of citizenship. `Africanization` as a policy is distinguished from `Kenyanization` where the test is citizenship, irrespective of race.  Of course, Kenyanization does de facto disqualify the vast majority of Europeans and Asians.  The remaining Asians are discriminated against under the policy of Africanization, which is a kind of second line of attack where Kenyanization does not work.  It is true that Kenyan legislation … makes citizenship the test, and that racial discrimination is unconstitutional.  But in the application of these laws, the actual test is frequently racial” (p 19).

In 1967 then, Nazareth made tentative plans to leave “for Goa for good at the end of 1968” (p 17), later stretched to the mid-70s (p 20), but it never did happen.  He explained this in his 1980 Postscript thus:

“Sometime in 1974 I changed my decision to leave and made a fairly firm decision to stick it out in Kenya” (p 450), continuing further down: “And it still holds. African hostility towards and suspicion of the Asians, which was so much a feature of 1967 and 1968, has, it is generally felt, greatly diminished” (p 451). He ends the book with these memorable words: “And so, born in Kenya, I hope to continue to live in Kenya and to die in Kenya no guest but friend and brother”. He did so and died there in 1989.

I cannot conclude this critique of Nazareth`s life and politics, howsoever it may be interpreted, without adding some further observations of my own.

I was fortunate to get to know him, both as a lawyer and more informally in a social and cultural setting. The latter was during the early 1970s when, as we now know, he was going through a period of conflicting emotions. That was also when he was a bit lonely, while his wife was away on an extended overseas sojourn visiting their children who had long flown the nest. We never discussed politics, or talked about the colonial past or fellow ex-politicians, but it was good to gain his insights into matters then current. There was a general acceptance of the reality of independence and the need to face new challenges.

In the wider legal, political and public circles, he was undoubtedly well regarded as a man of principle and impeccable integrity.  Even those who disagreed with his views respected him for his intellectual honesty and the fearless way he expressed them, never shying away from uncomfortable truths as he saw them. In the book, he cites many instances of his political contemporaries, media pundits and other interested parties, of all shades of opinion, complimenting him, but even those who criticised him for things he had said never attacked his character or impugned his motives. In person he was always courteous and caring.

As for Nazareth`s concern about the lack of an Asian presence in Kenyatta`s first cabinet, yes, I do think that an opportunity was lost then, for what should have been welcomed as an inclusive government, reflective of a broad cross-section of the whole population, of which the Asians were a valuable component. Their historical contribution to the political and economic development of the country deserved to be recognised in that way. Indeed, after the Lancaster House conference, Masinde Muliro, the then KADU leader was reported by the Nation on 11 October 1960 to have said: “Kenya`s Indian politicians have saved Kenya from becoming another Southern Rhodesia.  Without them, the struggle for democratic independence would have been more difficult”, adding that anyone accusing Asians of sitting on the fence had to give credit to them for that (p 430).  

On Africanisation, however, Nazareth took too legalistic a line. Constitutional guarantees surely had to be weighed against political realities and, more importantly, certain moral imperatives.  In none of his strictures as recorded in the book do we find any discussion of this.  It can hardly be denied that the transition to independence had been too hurried, without any proper preparations. There were hardly any high or even middle ranking African civil servants and other public officials, trained to take over from the departing colonial establishment when the time came.  The transfer of power to the African majority was therefore meaningless unless the key positions in government – at a mix of policy, advisory and executive levels – were visibly seen to be in their hands.

In late twentieth century parlance, `Africanization` would have been equated with `affirmative action`. How else could the legacy of a fundamentally racial imbalance in the governance of the country have been rectified?  And there was another dimension also: the indigenous majority who had long been deprived of an opportunity to engage fully in the economy of the country were bursting with energy and ambition, and ready, to do so. This too required a range of sympathetic measures and administrators to facilitate that. The fruits of independence could not have been held back for long without some serious social unrest – witness what is happening in South Africa!

For all these reasons, what Nazareth saw as the spectre of Africanisation needed to be tempered with an empathetic understanding of how the new government was trying to grapple with these issues and put past wrongs right during that crucial first decade of independence.  What was initially dubbed `Africanization` was later redefined as `Kenyanization`, though admittedly in the short term non-African citizens were relegated to a second-class status and many of them did suffer as a result. The transformation however was achieved peacefully and in the final analysis, Nazareth did come to terms with it, willy-nilly!

Ramnik Shah


  • Born in Kenya, practiced law in Nairobi from 1964 to ’74 and then for the next 30 years in England, where since retirement he has been engaged in academic research and writing on migration and diaspora related subjects and general literature. His first book Empire’s Child has just been published. See also www.ramnikshah.blogspot.com