On a February morning in 1965, a celebrated Kenyan freedom fighter, journalist and politician stepped outside his home in the affluent Nairobi neighbourhood of Westlands. A charismatic man of Goan origin, he got into his car with his two-year old daughter and was set to drive away when a gunman shot him dead. The assassination of Pio Gama Pinto, which happened three days after his friend Malcolm X was killed in the United States, shocked the newly-independent East African nation. A month short of his 38th birthday, Pinto had become free Kenya’s first political martyr.
Born in Nairobi in 1927, Pio Gama Pinto was the son of an official in the British colonial administration. At the time, the British colonies in East Africa had a significant number of Goan clerks, accountants and administrators. Little is known about Pinto’s childhood aside from the fact that his father sent him to India at the age of eight for his education. In his late teens, he had a brief stint as a clerk in the Royal Indian Air Force and also worked with the Posts and Telegraph Company in Bombay.
“It seems likely that Pio’s formative influence was the trade union dissidence in Bombay, which in a fundamental way was linked to the greater aspiration of national independence,” British Asian writer Selma Carvalho wrote in the Joao-Roque Literary Journal. “In all likelihood, the trade union movement which was largely co-opted by leftist leaders engaged in India’s class struggles, profoundly influenced Pio’s own politics.”
The liberation of India and the eviction of the Portuguese from Goa in particular were causes close to his heart. He attended the meeting in Londa in August 1946, where the National Congress, Goa was formed and thereafter took active part in the umbrella party, he says in his writings. Around this time, the Portuguese were clamping down on Goan freedom fighters, deporting some to Portugal, Angola and Cape Verde. It is possible that Pinto too was under the watch of the authorities. In the end, he returned to Kenya in 1949.
Encouraged by the Indian freedom struggle and the departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent, Pinto became actively involved in Kenya’s freedom struggle.
The British rule in Kenya mirrored the experience of other colonies. Several restaurants and clubs, for instance, only allowed Europeans, strictly barring Africans and Asians. Pinto would regularly break such rules and spearhead the movement to have them changed. His socialist leanings made him deeply empathetic towards the plight of the Kenyans.
“Conscious of the travails that the Kenyan people were being exposed to by British colonialists, he, together with Kenyan nationalists Joseph Murumbi and Walter Odede, formed Kenya African Union (KAU),” Kenyan academic Jeremiah Mutuku Muneeni wrote in an article for the Another World? East Africa and the Global 1960s website. “It would metamorphose into KANU – and, later, usher Kenya to independence.”
According to Muneeni, Pinto chose jobs strategically to get opportunities to interact with global citizens and voice his beliefs. He actively entered journalism in the early 1950s and worked with the Press Trust of India and All India Radio as a correspondent. He was also an editor of the Daily Chronicles.
When the Mau Mau Uprising – a war between Kenya Land and Freedom Army and the British colonisers – began in 1952, Pinto was the editor of The High Command, a paper that supported the uprising and the Kenyan freedom struggle. The British arrested him in 1954 and imprisoned him without trial. “Pio Gama Pinto spent 5 years in detention for linking the Kenyan struggle with the outside world which provided valuable diplomatic and communication support to the liberation movement,” according to Tony Omondi, a Kenyan academic living in Mumbai. “Through Gama Pinto’s efforts, broadcasts from Radio Cairo provided news and views abroad from the liberation movement’s point of view.”
Liberation of Goa
Pinto is widely remembered as an internationalist because his focus stretched beyond the British colonisation of East Africa, to as far as Goa and Mozambique. In 1960, he became one of the founders of the East African Goa League. “Through it Pandit Nehru would be convinced to organise and international seminar on Portuguese colonies,” Muneeni wrote. While Pinto’s exact role in the Goan liberation struggle is debated, it is quite clear he was in close coordination with the Indian authorities to garner international support for the Goan cause.
When Indian forces liberated Goa on December 18, 1961, Goans in Kenya released a statement titled ‘Long Live the Freedom of the Colonial People’. A copy of it was discovered decades later by Nairobi-based advocate Adeel Haq and published by Awaaz Magazine. The statement, signed by Pinto and other Goans in Kenya, said, “We, Goan Nationalists, fully support the action taken by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the great Indian statesman and nationalist. His action has the support of not only the vast majority of Goans, both Christians and Hindus, but also of the nationalist organisations who are fighting for their liberation in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea and Cabo-Verde.” The statement also condemned the British and American governments for supporting Portugal and said the two countries had adopted a “self-righteous attitude” and had a “hypocritical approach to the problems of colonial peoples”.
Once Goa was liberated, Pinto set his sights on freeing Mozambique from Portuguese rule. He became one of the founders of the Mozambique African National Union in 1962. The union was formed in the coastal Kenyan city of Mombasa.
Struggle against capitalism
The first direct elections for Kenyans to the country’s legislative council took place in 1957. Six years later, when the country attained full independence, Pinto was elected to the Central Legislative Assembly. Although a member of the ruling political party, Pinto did not see eye to eye with Jomo Kenyatta, who became the first president of Kenya.
“Pinto, a Goan, was a member of the ruling Kenya African National Union (Kanu), headed by Kenyatta, but ideologically he was closer to Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first vice-president and later an opposition leader,” illustrious Kenyan Goan journalist and writer Cyprian Fernandes wrote for Pambazuka News. The American and British governments were well aware of Pinto’s socialist beliefs and were afraid he could bring about a revolution in the country. “He was virtually at war with the capitalist conspirators, largely accused of land-grabbing, that included Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta and his ‘Kiambu mafia,’ and the gods of the Western capitalism led by the US and British governments,” Fernandes wrote.
Pinto received intelligence that his life was in danger but that did not stop him from pursuing his activism. On the morning of February 24, 1965, he was assassinated.
He was buried at Nairobi’s City Park Cemetery. The assassination shocked the newly-independent nation and led to a massive outpouring of grief. Media reports from 1965 indicate that great crowds thronged the cemetery on the day of the funeral. Along with politicians and members of the intelligentsia, people from various walks of life, including the rural poor, came to bid goodbye to the leader. Veterans of Mau Mau paid tribute to the Kenyan Goan who fought with them against colonialism.
The police initially arrested two teenagers for the assassination. One of the suspects, Kisilu Mutua, was convicted and condemned to death. His sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment. Mutua spent 35 years in jail before being released under a presidential pardon. The other accused told investigators that Ochola Mak’Anyengo, secretary general of the Kenya Petroleum Oil Workers Union, had hired them to scare Pinto, but later Mutua said the person who hired them only resembled Mak’Anyengo. It is widely believed that Mutua was made a scapegoat to protect the real killers.
The assassination of the much-loved Pinto has been a topic of discussion for decades. In 2013, Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission said the death was caused by “ideological differences at the heart of the global cold war but also mirrored in domestic politics”.
Pinto’s wife Emma, who migrated to Kenya from India in 1953, told the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation that her husband’s papers were lost on the night of the assassination. Two of Pinto’s close friends – economist Sarjit Singh Heyer and nationalist Pranlal Sheth – threw his diaries, notes, policy strategy papers, newspaper clippings and notes of meetings into a bonfire.
“The two men thought that they were safeguarding Emma, her daughters, and her extended family,” the Daily Nation said in its report. “They were also trying to protect anyone, either Kenyan or foreign, who could be targeted for being mentioned in the writings. Pinto’s friends believed those that had killed him were powerful enough to come for other people.”
A good resource on the life of Pinto is a 2018 book edited by the British-Kenyan writer Shiraz Durrani titled Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr 1927-1965. It includes letters, recollections from family and comrades, and newspaper articles.
In his book, Durrani said the imperialist manipulation of the politics of Kenya “provided the momentum that ultimately led to the assassination of Pio Gama Pinto”. He added that the responsibility for Pinto’s death lay with both Jomo Kenyatta’s government and the British. “The assassination was part of the overall imperialist plot to ensure Kenya remained in the capitalist camp managed by the key imperialist powers USA and Britain.”
Pio Gama Pinto is considered a national hero in Kenya, and a road in Nairobi is named after the man who fought against colonialism and capitalistic exploitation.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.