Flashback: Students activated

September 10, 2011

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Dr S. Haroon Ahmed talks about the students’ political movement during the 1950s

In 1947, Pakistan was a new country. Today it is yet another country — transformed from clean and peaceful to dirty and intolerant, from full of high hopes to the depths of despair and from loving and hospitable to a hateful and brutalised ‘another country’.

After arriving in Pakistan in 1948 I joined the Sindh Muslim College and spent my time at the British Council Library and the Jamat-i-Islami reading room in Pakistan Chowk and United States Information Service (USIS) on Bunder Road in Karachi. Later, I got admitted to Dow Medical College in the batch of 1949.

At the Dow Medical College, I met a group of fine students, including those who were members of the All India Student Federation. Like the others, this group was facing great hardship. They were without social or financial support and yet fired by a commitment to Pakistan.

At that time students were facing a lot of problems. The major issues of the time were hostel accommodation, lack of library facilities (medical books were costly and unaffordable), tuition fees, laboratories and over-crowded classrooms. Among these, hostel accommodation was a very acute issue. There were two hostels — the Jinnah Courts and Mitheram hostel (both occupied by Rangers now) — and the medical hostel on McLeod Road and engineering college hostel on Frère Road (both now extinct and falling prey to developers). The only landmarks used by us which are still there are the High School restaurant on Bunder Road off Khairabad and the tea shop on McLeod Road.

In 1950, a group of students of Dow Medical College called a meeting at Oudh Restaurant on Mission Road and founded the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). A few founder members included: Mohammad Sarwar, MRA Hashmi, Asif Jaffery, Asif Hameedi, Yousuf Ali and myself. We began to contact students in other colleges, drawing Mirza Mohammad Kazim, Mazhar Saeed, Fasih Zuberi, S. M. Naseem, Saleem Asmi and Adeeb-ul-Hasan Rizvi to our folds.

In 1951, a general body meeting of the DSF was called and elections were held. By 1952 we had presence not only in Karachi but all over Pakistan. The DSF swept the union elections in all colleges and Dr Sarwar was elected vice president of Dow Union. At that time the principal of the college used to be the president. The DSF got this constitution changed and forced the principal Col. SMK Malik to become the patron, while the elected student served as the president. Other colleges also succeeded in changing their constitution.

The victory at the college level was followed by contacting high school students to join the DSF. As a result of which Mohammad Shafi, Barkat Alam, Sibghatullah Qadri, Abdul Wadood and many more organised the High School Student Federation.

On January 7, 1953, DSF decided to observe a demands day and rally students for pressing their demands. We wanted to meet the education minister, Mr Fazalur Rehman. In the meantime another patronised student organisation, World University Service, lead by Qamar uz Zaman met the Minister of Education and, in order to defuse the situation, declared that all the demands have been accepted.

This led to further agitation during which police action injured several students. As emotions ran high, a protest day was announced for January 8. The police resorted to baton charge, later firing and killing six students along with a few passers-by near Regal Chowk and arrested a large number of students.

While the situation got out of control, Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin called a delegation and heard our grievances sympathetically. Nazimuddin was soon replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra, but the negotiations continued. Mr Bogra, fresh from the United States, showed us a plan of a university in Mexico. A beginning was made to set up a new campus of Karachi University, which was at that time housed in a few blocks in Ranchor Lines, behind Civil Hospital. Hostels were also built on the premises of the DMC and other colleges.

Soon an All Pakistan Student Conference was called, which was attended by delegations from all over Pakistan, including Mr Mateen representing the then East Pakistan and Abid Hasan Minto with other friends from Punjab. The following year the DSF was banned along with the Communist Party, Progressive Writers’ Association and the labour unions. Mass arrests were made.

During 1955-56, the seniors amongst us passed out of the college. The junior colleagues like Abdul Wadood, Sibghatullah Qadri, Sher Afzal Malik and Ehtisham organised a new party called the National Student Federation (NSF) producing leaders like Meraj Mohammad Khan, Fatehyab Ali Khan and Husain Naqi.

For nearly a decade, the NSF ruled the college unions. However, international ideological debates led to a sharp division of progressive movement into pro- Soviet and pro-China camps. In this process, students’ politics also became victim of this ideological debate and the NSF was divided into pro-Moscow (Kazmi) and pro-Peking (Rashid) groups. Internal fighting gave a chance to other student bodies like the Young Medicos and Islami Jamiat Tuleba (IJT) to gain ground.

All this was in sharp contrast to the issue-based DSF policy which attracted many progressive, liberal and other neutral students. Much later, a dent in the ideology-based IJT was also made by the formation of the issue-based All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO). The burning issue at the time was the quota system. The APMSO later grew into Mohajir Quami Movement and now Mutahida Quami Movement (MQM).

When the unions were banned, ethnic organisations kept propping up — there were Punjabi, Pashtun, Baloch and Mohajir student organisations in every college. That was really the beginning of the end to healthy union activities like sport teams, debates and cultural activities. The nursery of future leaders was blocked in favour of ethnic, sectarian, communal and religious factions backed by banned political parties.

Here I would like to clarify a misunderstanding which still persists, i.e. the DSF was the student wing of the Communist Party. The fact is that while Sajjad Zahir was organising the Communist Party of Pakistan, the progressive writers, journalists and labour unions were also grouping up. Due to the DSF, the student movement during 1950 to 1953 became a freak; it was  vertical, yet strong. Our relationship with the Communist Party became very close and they in fact co-opted us, though we retained certain autonomy.

Beside myself, many of us were members of the Communist Party but would not follow the mandates blindly. For example, during the election of the Dow Student Union the party had proposed Ayub Mirza for the post of the president, whereas the DSF opposed him and, in the absence of any consensus, put up a popular Sindhi student, Rauf, as a candidate, who won. It is true that due to Marxist leanings and ideological orientation the DSF was aligned with the Communist Party, but it was not a student wing like the IJT was to Jamat-i-Islami.

After the senior members of the DSF passed out of colleges, the party eased us out on the plea that since we were looking out for the British and American universities we were of no use to the movement. Possibly a consequence of the immunity we enjoyed when in full cry!