INDIANS IN KENYA: The Politics of Diaspora

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017
Prof. Yash Pal Ghai

Was the chair of the CKRC (Constitution of Kenya Review Commission) and the Kenya National Constitutional Conference

Author: Sana Aiyar
: Harvard University Press:  Cambdrige, Mass., 2015
Reviewer: Prof. Yash Pal Ghai

Ms Aiyar’s book is more comprehensive than any other book on the political history of Indians in Kenya. It covers a long period, from late nineteen century to the 1970s when a large number of Indians left the country under extreme pressure from the Kenyan African government. It starts somewhat shakily, with the terrorist siege in Nairobi of an Israeli owned shopping mall, with invocations of statements from Kenya’s literary figure Ngugi wa Thiong’o, himself an exile in California, and the novelist Shiva Naipaul, neither of them an authority on Kenyan Indians. Ms Aiyar’s implication is that until these figures came on the literary scene, few realised the history or the current presence of Indians in Kenya.  However, there are more books which discuss the history of the arrival of Indians in East Africa and their settlement there than she imagines. But the book picks up momentum soon after the introduction, which is a little too much filled with jargon. She does not dig out a great deal of new material about the history of Kenyan Indians, but she does present a detailed account of the Indian presence; if anything, perhaps too much detail.

The book is essentially a political history. Its main theme is the relations between the three major communities: Indians, Africans and Europeans. Africans is defined narrowly—there is little on Somalis or Arabs who constitute important components of Kenya’s population. Nor does the book say much about the social or theological history of Indians, which is of considerable interest.  In a short time Indians achieved great success as scholars, teachers, engineers, doctors, lawyers - and business people.  Like Africans, who were divided into numerous ‘tribes’, Indians were divided by language, religion, and tradition. Just as Africans found it difficult to mount a united political front, so did the Indians, especially after the partition of India in 1945.  Something of this is captured by Aiyar, but without sufficient background to the diversity within the Indian community - nor indeed among the Africans. The tensions between the different communities would have been easier to understand if the author had explained the colonial policy of divide and rule, and not only between the races, but also among the races (particularly Africans but also Indians).   

This is a major weakness in this political history which in other respects is quite detailed. The scheme of the book is to examine the relations between European settlers, Indians and Africans, at different periods. Their interests varied over different periods. In the early years of colonialism, the European hegemony was unchallenged, but with the access of the Indians to education, they staked their own claims to recognition. Africans did not stake their claim for several years; and when they did they found support from an unlikely source, the newly independent government of India, assisted by Kenyan Indians.  The Indian community was by no means united, certainly not after the partition of India leading to the formation of Pakistan—though this did not affect their support for Africans.  

The best part of the book is the author’s examination of the changing interests of the different communities (though perhaps the best manifestation of this, at independence conferences in London, is not explored by her). For a period of time, Indian politicians supported African claims to independence (though large sections of the Indian community were less enthusiastic). With the imminence of independence, African politicians could dispense with Indian support. The British policy of differential entitlements to races did not help in development of common interests between African and Asians—though by this time Indian politicians were for the most part committed to independence. Many Indians believed that the disregard by the Africans, particularly its leader Jomo Kenyatta, in favour of Europeans, as ultimate betrayal by Africans, despite considerable support over the years from Indian leaders. Aiyar discusses very well the tensions between Indian traders and Africans aspiring to advancement in commerce, and finding Indians as obstacles. This conflict of interests was never resolved and got worse after independence, with the Indian exodus. The book closes at this point—and so missing on a detailed account of how the Indian entrepreneurs adjusted to it, shifting their attention to manufacturing and construction industries—and becoming billionaires which they would never have become from their small dukas, competing with African traders.   

The book has a reasonable sketch of Indian politicians active with and on the side with Africans. Aiyar goes well through the position of the leading politicians and their contribution to the African cause, both financial and other forms of assistance, particularly legal advice and representation. The author discusses in great detail the history of the major Indian political parties, including when they split with the emergence of Pakistan—but noting well that not all Muslims abandoned the Indian Congress Party, for years the major political forum for the Asians. The book is well written with great deal of detail; it is clearly a labour of love.

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