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DAWN - Opinion; April 05, 2008

April 05, 2008

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Student movement revisited

By S. Haroon Ahmed and Saleem Asmi


PRIME Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s welcome move to revive student unions takes us back to the first all-Pakistan students’ body, the Democratic Students Federation.

This paved the way for the progressive outlook of the National Students Federation (NSF) and also the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). The DSF is either ignored or misrepresented in most accounts of the students’ movement in Pakistan. At this critical juncture of Pakistan’s history, there is a need to set the record straight vis-à-vis the DSF.

In the unprecedented mass migration that followed Partition in 1947, Karachi attracted a large number of immigrants, most without financial backing or social support. They were sustained only by a commitment to Pakistan. That was also the period that saw the beginning of the Cold War that divided the world into socialist and capitalist camps. Young minds nurturing dreams of an equitable and just society were drawn to Marxist and socialist ideologies. The Jamaat-i-Islami’s youth wing was on the defensive as the party had opposed Pakistan.

The Muslim League Students Federation was basking in the glory of its success in having achieved its objective. Student activities, limited to college unions, could not address the grave social and economic issues a large, uprooted student population faced. With no place to stay and very little money in their pockets, their main concerns were the high cost of education.

The DSF was launched in 1950 by Mohammad Sarwar, Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi, Asif Jaffery, Asif Hameedi, Yousuf Ali and S. Haroon Ahmed — all of whom were studying in Dow Medical College. Feeling the need to address such issues, these youngsters met in Oudh Restaurant on Mission Road. Mohammed Sarwar was elected convenor. Then followed hectic efforts to contact students in other colleges.

In 1951 a general body meeting was called and elections held. M. Kazim was elected president while Mohammed Sarwar was voted the general secretary. The DSF headquarters were Rehman Ali Hashmi’s room, 29 Meetharam Hostel. By 1952 the DSF had a presence not only in Karachi colleges but also in Lahore, Faisalabad and other cities of Punjab. The DSF swept elections in all Karachi colleges. Thereafter the High School Student Federation was also organised and a new fortnightly publication edited by S.M. Naseem, the Students Herald, was launched. Its high standards won it international acclaim.

The DSF’s first challenge came in 1953. We drew up a ‘Charter of Demands’ that addressed issues like tuition fees, library facilities, better classrooms and the need for a proper university campus (at that time the university was housed in a few flats behind Dow Medical College). It was decided to hold a ‘Demands Day’ on Jan 7, when we would meet the education minister, Fazlur Rehman. The administration blocked the protest and resorted to lathi-charge and tear gas. Some students managed to reach the minister’s residence, where some of them were arrested by the police.

Meanwhile, as has been the wont in the history of the Left in Pakistan, another students’ group, the World University Service, which enjoyed the patronage of the vice chancellor of Karachi University, met the minister and announced that all the students’ demands had been met.

We responded to the police action and in a bid to pre-empt the sabotage of the DSF campaign announced that Jan 8 would be observed as a protest day. As students marched through Saddar their procession was attacked by the police who tear-gassed them and then opened fire, killing six protestors at Regal Chowk. Several were injured and arrested. Enraged, the students torched a government vehicle which turned out to be the interior minister’s.

The situation spun out of control and finally Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin sent feelers to the DSF leadership. He invited a delegation to meet him and the DSF appealed to the students to disperse peacefully. It was a cordial meeting and firm promises were made. Although Nazimuddin was soon replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra, the negotiations continued. Mr Bogra, fresh from the US, showed us a plan of a university to be built in Mexico. Everyone liked it. The new campus of KU was then identified and construction ordered.

In 1954 the DSF, along with the Progressive Writers Association, labour unions and the Communist Party, was banned and sweeping arrests were carried out. We tried to keep the organisation intact clandestinely, meeting secretly at various places including the residence of Saleem Asmi at PIB Colony. The seniors among us passed out of college in 1955-56. Our junior colleagues picked up the threads and revived the student organisation under a new name, the National Students Federation.

For nearly a decade the NSF ruled the colleges. Influenced by the ideological debates then raging in international forums, the federation became ideologically focused and lost touch with the issues affecting the students of Pakistan. Eventually, it split into pro-Soviet (Kazmi) and pro-China (Rashid) camps. Another group also calling itself the DSF emerged from one of the many communist parties but made no headway. These were a far cry from the issue-based Democratic Students Federation that had attracted progressive, liberal, non-aligned and even conservative students so long as they adhered to the ideology of the core group — that is Marxist-progressive.

Contrary to popular belief, the DSF was not a student’s wing of the Communist Party, although it had links with all the progressive organisations — Progressive Writers Association, the nascent workers unions and journalist bodies. DSF’s ideology was Marxist and progressive and it was formed independently by progressive students, including some who had been members of the All India Students Federation before Partition.

In fact, in Dow Medical College, DSF members nominated Abdul Rauf, a liberal Sindhi student, over a Communist Party member Ayub Mirza for union elections. The student movement at that time stood very tall compared to other progressive movements. DSF’s goal was improving education and literacy standards as a way towards national progress.

In the same vein, the Pakistan Medical Association has been erroneously called the ‘PMA Communist Party’. After graduating from college, many Dow alumni hunting for jobs or settling down in private practice were in the political wilderness. In 1969 Dr Haroon Ahmed, then joint editor of the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, invited some friends to PMA House to consider joining the near dormant association.

Ex-Dow graduates gathered at a major convention and decided to take over the PMA. Dr Rehman Ali Hashmi was elected secretary general at the biennial meeting in Dhaka by a big margin. In 1971, much before the 1974 Alma Ata Declaration, the PMA adopted an ‘alternate health policy’ (drafted by Haroon Ahmed) that advocated a preventive, integrated strategy with emphasis on rural health. The progressive stamp is still the distinguishing mark of the association.

Much later, when Ziaul Haq banned student unions in 1984, students organised themselves on ethnic and linguistic bases, losing the secular, democratic framework of the earlier student bodies. The Jamiat-i-Tulaba Islam and the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation flourished in this milieu. But the earlier commitment to social justice and the idealism of yesteryear was gone.

The writers are a practising psychiatrist and a former editor of Dawn, respectively.

A balancing process

By Shamshad Ahmad


SINCE its independence, Pakistan’s foreign policy has been marked by a complex balancing process in the context of this region’s turbulent political history, its geo-strategic importance, its security compulsions, and the gravity and vast array of its domestic problems. It has always had to respond to exceptional challenges inherent in its ever-volatile regional and global environment.

Its geographical environment has always had an indelible influence on Pakistan’s personality and conduct as a state. But as anywhere else in the world, our foreign policy is inextricably linked to our domestic policies and situation. And domestically, Pakistan’s post-independence political history has been replete with endemic crises and challenges that perhaps no other country in the world has experienced.

The last seven years have been a fateful period for Pakistan. It has been going through the worst crisis of its independent statehood. It is being weakened methodically through its ubiquitous engagement on multiple external as well as domestic fronts. Ours is the only country in the world today with an ongoing military operation against its own people.

The sum total of Pakistan’s post-9/11 foreign policy has been its new identity on the global radar screen as the hotbed of religious extremism and terrorism, and a country afflicted with an incorrigible culture of violence and sectarianism. The US, in particular, sees Pakistan as ‘ground zero’ and a pivotal linchpin in its war on terror. We have brought Washington’s anti-Taliban war into Pakistan and have placed our armed forces on the wrong side of the people.

Our problems have been further complicated by the complex regional configuration with Americans sitting in Afghanistan, a growing Indo-US nexus, India’s strategic ascendancy in the region and its unprecedented influence in Afghanistan with serious nuisance potential vis-à-vis Pakistan.

As if this were not enough, there have been reports in recent weeks suggesting US plans in the making, modelled on the American strategy in Iraq’s Anbar province, to pour more money and arms into our tribal areas, thus making Pakistan another Iraq. These alarming signals have been reinforced by a recent report in The Washington Post on the escalation of US unilateral strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, allegedly with Islamabad’s consent.

There is also a growing perception of Washington seeking to influence the post-election process of political transformation in Pakistan and interfering with the implementation of the popular will which overwhelmingly rejects Musharraf’s one-man rule.

These concerns were deepened by the unmannerly and untimely visit of US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher to Pakistan last week.

It is against this backdrop that the new government in Pakistan is confronted with an immediate foreign policy challenge. It must redefine the US-Pakistan relationship, giving it a larger conceptual framework with a shared vision beyond the traditional equation of narrowly based and vaguely defined issue-specific priorities. The people of Pakistan want a new relationship with the US based on sovereign equality and mutual benefit.

Despite the chequered history of their relationship, Pakistan and the US have been friends and allies for 60 years now. For much of this history, however, this relationship has lacked continuity and suffered interruptions in its intensity as well as integrity. The ‘hinge’ has purely been one of mutual expediency as the goals and objectives to be derived from the relationship were always different for the two sides.

For Pakistan, the issues of security and survival in a turbulent and hostile regional environment and its problems with India were the overriding policy goals in its relations with Washington. The US policy interests in Pakistan, on the other hand, have traditionally encompassed a wide range of regional and global issues, including nuclear and missile proliferation, drug trafficking, human rights, and now the war on terror.

What both sides now need is to set a better bilateral perspective for this relationship. According to US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Joseph Biden, this has traditionally been a “transactional” relationship which needs a new approach to make it a mutually beneficial “normal, functional relationship” with a policy focus on the people of Pakistan rather than on one man.

There could not have been a better diagnosis of the situation. US-Pakistan relations will stand or fall depending on whether they benefit the people of Pakistan or any particular regime or ruler. Our foremost challenge in this whole process is not what we are required to do for others’ interests; it is what we should do to serve our own national interests and to safeguard our sovereign independence, territorial integrity and national dignity.

A comprehensive policy review would require a threadbare and incisive debate, including public hearings at expert levels in parliament on all issues inherent in the US-Pakistan equation. The objective must be not to weaken this important equation but to strengthen it by infusing in it greater political, economic and strategic content. Democracy, pluralism, security, market economy and people-oriented development must be the constant features of this relationship.

While undoing the systemic aberrations and policy distortions of the previous regime, the new government will also have to review the rationale and stretch of Pakistan’s role in the war on terror. Wars do not bring peace. Terrorism will not disappear through military operations. It is a perverse mindset that needs to be treated like a disease. Nabbing or killing a few individuals or changing the leadership in a couple of countries will not bring an end to terrorism.

Only a steady, measured and comprehensive approach encompassing political, economic, developmental, human rights and humanitarian strategies that focus on the underlying disease rather than the symptoms can bring an enduring solution to this problem.

Tolerance and moderation, not extremism or obscurantism, should be our strength. This requires a democratic culture and socio-economic-oriented priorities.

US engagement with Pakistan must go beyond the question of terrorism. It must reach out to democratic and liberal forces and the business community in our country, and also the younger generation in Pakistan which may resent US power but not its ideals. And in their success alone lies the very future of Pakistan as a strong and stable democratic country with a moderate and progressive outlook and as a factor of regional and global stability.

Our friends and allies must also recognise that under a democratically elected civilian government and with stable institutions strictly adhering to their constitutional roles, Pakistan will be a more responsible, more reliable, more effective and more appropriate partner of the free world in pursuit of common goals and in defence of shared values.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The dawning of a new era

By Dushka H. Saiyid


IT seemed like a defining moment for Pakistan when the PPP candidate for the prime minister’s office was elected by an overwhelming majority of 242 votes. He dramatically ordered, right there and then on the floor of the house, that the judges who had been incarcerated should be released.

It was not surprising that a roar of excitement and jubilation greeted the announcement in the assembly chamber.

Although the prime minister hadn’t even taken the oath yet, the Islamabad administration didn’t hesitate in removing the police cordons that had detained the judges for the last five months. The alacrity with which the Islamabad administration acted spoke volumes for the purely arbitrary nature of the judges’ detention. However, the attorney general, with his usual sangfroid, had declared that there were no written orders for their confinement.

There appears to be no historical precedent of a movement launched by a legal community with such ferocious conviction and popular support that it changed the political direction of a country. When I say precedent, this includes the western world, our touchstone for the struggle and evolution of democratic institutions. Revolutionary movements of the past were popular uprisings against absolutism and aristocratic privilege: the revolution of 1789 in France, and the revolutions of 1848 that swept Europe, are instances of that.

It was only in the twentieth century that Lenin introduced the concept of a political party organised for the specific purpose of bringing about a revolution. The Russian and the Chinese revolutions were an outcome of this new phenomenon. What distinguished the movement set in motion by the legal community in Pakistan was that it was presenting an alternative political agenda (constitutionalism vs authoritarian rule), with the political parties playing only a marginal role.

In a state of distress I had asked a colleague in November 1999, why isn’t there resistance to the coup and the military takeover? He had replied that we have a deep-seated awe of the army; it is cultural, with deep historical roots going back to the British period, if not earlier. If politics is about timing, then leadership is about courage.

The chief justice broke that spell, when for several hours he withstood the pressure of a uniformed president whose powers of persuasion were buttressed by the presence of a pliant civilian prime minister, and an odd assortment of intelligence chiefs. Pakistan had got an unlikely hero; no charisma, no millions in foreign accounts. His support was also from a unique quarter, the black coats, willing to sacrifice their legal practice to challenge the authoritarian system of the last eight years.

The pressure and mobilisation built up by the lawyers’ movement would not have been possible without the coverage given by the privately owned electronic media. It was this marriage of the legal community and the media which brought about the silent revolution, and was the trigger for the counter-revolution of Nov 3, when the Empire struck back. This movement was symptomatic of the new Pakistan that had emerged under Musharraf: a vibrant media and civil society. But that is how history moves, in contradictions. Remember ‘India Shining’? Despite the phenomenal economic growth under the BJP, the party still bit the dust in the elections.

While a political revolution of sorts was taking place, the political parties were cheerleaders at best. Many aspects of Pakistan have undergone transformation and modernisation, but the political parties seem to be stuck in a medieval time warp. While they struggle for democracy at the national level, there is little of it within the parties.

Run as personal fiefdoms and dynastic monopolies, their central executives are happy to let the ‘Quaid’ of the party usurp its functions. It is ironic that the most democratic of our political parties is the Jamaat, which holds regular and transparent elections, and whose leader is not a member of Pakistan’s plutocracy.

The dire straits of our political parties are directly related to the issue of their financing and funding. There is no recognised and institutionalised system of financing, hence the need for a plutocrat leader who also does fund-raising through his contacts in the financial and industrial world. The whole process is anything but transparent and, once in power, the political parties are obliged to grant ‘favours’ to their benefactors. It is not surprising that new entrants to politics are few and far between, with and the same old faces recycled in different parties or the same one, resulting in political stagnation and a crisis of leadership.

The great disservice to this country has been the degradation of the concept of accountability. Used as the raison d’etre for the military coup of 1999, it increasingly became a political weapon brandished selectively to ensure that the politicos toed the line. Those who swore allegiance found the cases against them put on hold or erased, while the defiant ones rotted in jails or remained in exile.

As the new dispensation takes charge, the initial euphoria of the elections and much-desired change is beginning to be replaced by concern. This is understandable given the past record of these political players. Will our politicians succumb to temptations of yore, or rise to the occasion and show a sense of responsibility and integrity? Or is it just old wine in new bottles?