Unknown hero of the independence struggle

On Saturday, May 20, 1950, about 750 railway workers of African decent refused to report for duty. 

They had effectively joined a general strike by other sectors in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa, which had been going on for four days as an affront on the colonial administration. 

Among the issues that they wanted addressed were "freedom for all workers, and freedom of the East African territories". There had been growing discontent over mistreatment by British authorities.

Mr Jarnail Singh.

Entry of railway workers into the strike was a big boost. It got the British rulers worried. Operations of the railway corporation, particularly the central workshops and the engineering department, were greatly affected, threatening to disrupt an essential service.

What surprised the colonial powers was the little-known young Sikh who led most of the railway workers to the general strike. Jarnail Singh Liddar was only 20 years old then, but he convinced his colleagues to join the mass action.

On May 19, Jarnail went to the corporation's central workshops and gave a key talk. He told the workers to join the strike that had started on May 16, a day after the arrest of two pioneer trade unionists and political activists, Makhan Singh and Fred Kubai. 

The strike demanded release of the two, as well as of Chege Kibachia, another trade unionist.

Railway workers had generally stayed out of the strike. But young Jarnail, figuring that involvement of this large volume of workers would pinch the colonial administration where it hurt most, decided to woo them. 

Angered by the arrest of his mentors, Jarnail had resigned his job with the Post Office on May 17 to play a prominent role in trade unionism. The absence of Makhan and Kubai begun to be felt. Confusion emerged after some people argued that the strike was unlawful.

Makhan and Kubai were arrested in the early hours of May 15 at their respective houses in Park Road and Pumwani. They were charged with being officials of an "unregistered trade union" – namely the East African Trade Unions Congress.

British authorities had noted that the workers' strikes that Makhan, Kubai and Bildad Kaggia had organised earlier in the month (May 1) to boycott Labour Day celebrations were more political than industrial. The leaders had to be tamed.

Little did the authorities know that a young Sikh would spring up from the background and command enough authority to sustain the insurgency.

Jarnail's first stop – two days after he resigned the Post Officejob –was the railways central workshops. The youthful six-footer got the attention of workers there. He told them of the importance of joining the strike.

The effect of his speech was reckoned with the next day. The specific time of his talk is not documented, but it was in the morning. By lunch hour, he had moved to Shauri Moyo, the centre of trade union activities then, for his next talk. 

The Shauri Moyo address rejuvenated an ebbing morale among the workers to sustain the strike. A day earlier (May 18), police had battered workers in an attempt to split them up and break the strike. On the third day, workers were beginning to tire. Jarnail did not want that to happen.

His talk dwelt on the need for people to be solid in their stand. He pointed out that he had urged railway workers to join the revolt. 

With that, he lifted the spirits of the masses. Railway workers joined the strike the next day. Word spread quickly to other towns in Kenya and the roll over effect drove the colonial administration back to the drawing board.

Although newspaper reports downplayed the workers rebellion, the May 20 boost is recognised in Makhan's book (The history of Kenya's trade union movement to 1952) as one of the most elaborate insurgencies against the British administration.

What had been reported in newspapers as a Nairobi affair spiralled to other towns in Kenya – mostly Mombasa, Kisumu and Nakuru. 

Unfortunately, Jarnail did not get a moment to relish his success. Events of May 20 and the five days that followed found him behind bars. He had become a threat to the colonial administration.

The political undertone of Jarnail's talks as he urged workers to continue calling for an end to widespread discrimination against non-British people worried the administration. 

As soon as he was through with his fiery speech at Shauri Moyo on May 19, Jarnail was picked by police and charged with "inciting a strike in an essential service", meaning the railways. 

He had been scheduled to give another speech at 4pm that day, but that was not to be. He was arrested as he walked out of Shauri Moyo. But he had made his point.

Jarnail was sentenced to six months of hard labour. Thereafter, he was kept on the periphery of political activism – which was mostly channelled through trade unionism. 

It is no wonder that little is said about him during talks on madaraka and uhuru heroes. And not much is written about him, also. A large section of today's Sikh community learnt of Jarnail's exploits after he died in August 1997, when a temple leader told of his political life in the pre-independence era, during a memorial service.

The British had noted a charisma in Jarnail that would pose problems to the system. When Jarnail travelled back to India soon after his release to pursue marriage, the administration declared him a "prohibited immigrant". They vowed not to allow him back lest he caused more trouble.

When Jarnail attempted to return to Kenya on January 26, 1953, he was denied entry and informed that he was unwanted. His re-entry pass, as indicated in his then passport number A41108, was cancelled by immigration officers. He was sent back to Bombay, India, where, as indicated in his passport, he landed on January 29, 1953. That marked the end of his direct involvement in Kenya's pre-colonial activism.

The administration had been wary of his emerging ability to instigate mass action, and would not give him another opportunity. They locked him out of the country, yet his father, Dr Jodh Singh Liddar, and younger step-brother, Bhupinder Singh Liddar, were Kenyan residents. 

Ten years later, in October 1963, Jarnail was able to return to Kenya on the invitation of Jomo Kenyatta. This followed the withdrawal of his travel restrictions after the country attained self-governance (madaraka) on June 1, that year.

Jarnail's childhood friend, Amarjit Singh Gataure, now 75, says Kenyatta had a soft spot for Jarnail. When the prohibitions were lifted, Jarnail was encouraged to return to Kenya. Amarjit remembers Jarnail as a youth who could put everything on the line to support a worthy cause.

Still, after he came back, Jarnail made a spirited campaign to get Kenyan citizenship ... and that frustrated him. He felt that his earlier efforts had not been appreciated. 

On September 29, 1965, he wrote: "... Now, after lifting the ban, I have been allowed to return on an employment pass. This has not solved my basic difficulties and falls much short of my requirements and fundamental rights. Therefore, my humble prayer is that I, being a loyal citizen, my request should be given a sympathetic consideration and I should be granted citizenship of Kenya. 

"It was for purely political activities which were then desirable and necessary in the interest of national struggle, that the colonial government threw me out of the country..." The letter was addressed to the Minister for Home Affairs.

But he got no assistance, prompting him to make another appeal in November 1968. That did not yield citizenship to him, either. He again stated his case on October 2, 1969, reminding the Government that it was yet to consider is application. He was finally awarded citizenship on November 14, 1969. 

Jarnail is little known because his story has never been fully told. This is partly because he, too, following the frustrations he experienced on returning to an independent Kenya, opted for a low profile.

He kept his family out of the picture. Son Jagjit Singh Liddar, who now lives in the house his father bought in 1973, remembers him only as a tough man out there, but one with a soft spot at home. Says Jagjit: "He did not talk much about his experiences to us. Apparently, he did not want us to get too involved because of him."

Jagjit says his father first arrived in Kenya in 1937 as a minor. He was seven years old then and accompanied his father, Dr Jodh. He grew up in Nairobi and attended the Duke of Gloucester School, now Jamhuri High School.

His interest in socio-political activities became evident soon after he left school. Jarnail's younger step-brother, Bhupinder, talks of him as one who was often in trouble with the colonial authorities because of his anti-oppression stance. Jarnail did not last long as a police officer because of that, for example.

Says Bhupinder: "There was an age-gap between us, but I remember my father coming home several times and saying, 'Jarnail is in trouble, again'." 

Their father was then a medical doctor assigned to the police and would use his influence to bail out Jarnail every time he brushed the authorities on the wrong side. The family lived near Kingsway Police Station, which is currently Central Police Station. 

There were about five houses between Norfolk Hotel and the police station, recalls Bhupinder. "We lived in one of them, but Jarnail spent a lot of time away from the house. He was mostly with Makhan, learning the ropes of trade unionism and political activism. At other times he was in Shauri Moyo attending to union matters."

Makhan was an established activist against the colonial regime. By associating with him, Jarnail met and befriended Kubai and Kaggia. He was deeply involved in unionism, albeit in the background. "Makhan was his mentor," says Bhupinder.

The May 1950 strike involved about 100,000 workers. It ended on May 25 after the authorities unleashed the military and arrested about 300 workers, most of whom were detained. But the strike helped workers realise that they had the power to hasten the country's uhuru

Mass action continued in later years. In 1952, the British administration came up with a Trade Unions Ordinance to muzzle workers. A State of Emergency was declared. Those agitating for independence were arrested and detained.