The forefathers of the current community arrived in Kenya
over 120 years ago to build the Uganda Railway and some stayed
on after it was completed
Letter from New Delhi
Kenyan Indians have been gazetted as the 44th tribe of this East African nation. Popularly known as Kenya Asians, the community has diverse roots in different religions of the Indian sub-continent. An estimated 100,000 Asians are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Ismailis, Bohras and Christians with roots in India and Pakistan. From India, they originated mainly from Gujarat, Punjab and Goa although other Indian states are also represented.
The forefathers of the current community, mostly from Punjab, arrived in Kenya over 120 years ago to build the Uganda Railway and some stayed on after it was completed. The Gujaratis have been trading on the Kenyan coast for centuries and moved upcountry after the railway came. The Goans worked as clerks for the administration. Later, all communities flourished and educated their children to become professionals while many traders morphed into industrialists.
In a gazette notice dated 22 July 2017, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta termed the community an integral part of the nation. “All persons, bodies and authorities within the republic of Kenya shall recognise the community of Kenyans of Asian heritage as being Kenya’s 44th tribe,” said Uhuru. In May, a human rights activist, Ms Farah Manzoor, drafted a petition for the Kenyan President and met him with a few members of the Asian community to urge him to declare Asians as a Kenyan tribe.
This development is also linked to the forthcoming Kenyan General Elections to be held on 8 August 2017. Ms Manzoor expressed loyalty to President Kenyatta and promised that the Asians would support him in the elections. The Asians were not amused as they want to keep their voting choice secret as provided in the constitution. The move was not universally lauded by the Asians. Many Asian leaders were apathetic, indeed critical of this step.
The Kenyan Asian Forum, which identifies with the future of the Kenyan people as a whole rather than the primacy of any particular group, has noted with concern the visit by a group from the Asian community to State House to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta on May 24 to pledge ‘loyalty’ to the President and support for the ruling party.
Zahid Rajan, KAF Steering Committee member, wrote in a statement,” While we uphold the right of individual Kenyans to align themselves to a party of their choice, it is not acceptable to claim to represent the entire community. The delegation, while being composed of some members of the Asian community in Kenya, has no right or authority to speak on behalf of the entire community, and, worse still, commit it to a certain line of action. We understand that the exercise was a front to seek political endorsement for a certain individual in the delegation. If this is so, it is very unfortunate.”
KAF statement further said, “As far as politics is concerned, one does not need to seek ‘recognition’. The Asians have been part and parcel of Kenya’s political struggle from the colonial times and have had MPs and even a Deputy Speaker of Parliament (Fitz D’Souza) in the first Kenyatta government. Makhan Singh, the founder of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement, Pio Gama Pinto, a revolutionary and Kenya’s first post-Independence martyr, and Manilal Desai are just but a few of our anti-colonial struggle heroes.
“In post-Independence Kenya, the community has had representatives like Krishan Gautama, Amin Walji and in the present Parliament three elected MPs, one nominated MP and several MCAs. And of course, we cannot forget Prof Yash Pal Ghai, who fathered the 2010 Constitution. So, what is the community seeking this special ‘recognition’ for? For a community that at best numbers 100,000, i.e. 0.2% of the population, we are well represented in the legislature and devolved governments. Fight for your rights as Kenyans we say – don’t seek favours and patronage,” said Rajan.
The community as a whole is strong and well organised, and wields considerable influence in Kenya’s economy. Unlike some minority African tribes, the Asian community is different and has been fending for itself for over half a century since Kenya became independent in 1963. Everyone does not appreciate how this labeling of a Kenya tribe will help.
Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi