A Missed Wake-up Call on Education 50 years Ago – S.M. Naseem, Jan 2004

Note: This article was originally published in daily ‘Dawn’, Jan 2004

The vigorous student movement of almost five decades ago, with its epicentre in Karachi, in the first decade of Pakistan’s independence has received little attention in the writing of Pakistan’s history. The movement climaxed by the firing and police violence on the peaceful students of Karachi on 7, 8 and 9 January, 1953 – events which radicalised the political and economic discourse in the country and had far-reaching, if not easily discernible, effects on the shape of things that followed in the next 50 years. The purpose of writing this article is not merely to commemorate  the fiftieth anniversary of those events, with which the author was also associated in a humble capacity in his student years, but also to examine the characteristics of the student movement that gave rise to it, as well as to provide a perspective on later economic and political events and its relevance to the current debates raging in the country, especially on education and human development.

To refresh the memory of those who were not yet born or were too young to have witnessed the events first hand or through contemporaneous news reports and may have learnt about them only through casual references to them in occasional reports on that fateful day, it is useful to give a brief account of the events that unfolded and led to a major confrontation between the students and the authorities of that time. Recall that the event occurred just six years after the independence and in the politically unstable environment after the death of Pakistan’s founder and the assassination of its first Prime Minister, which occurred in quick succession. The Government’s reins were in the hands of a bunch of self-righteous bureaucrats, who though not as corrupt and self-serving as their current ilk, did not have the vision of an enlightened elite, but were deeply steeped in the colonial mode inherited from their British masters. For them, as for their successors today, the main aim of the Government was the maintenance of law and order, rather than social and economic progress.

Soon after Karachi was declared the country’s Federal capital, it became host to an unending mass of people both from across the Indian border as well as from the less developed regions in Pakistan in search of newly created opportunities for jobs and investment, An unedifying aspect of the phenomenal growth of Karachi was the forced exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from Karachi and other urban centres which created a vacuum far larger than the absolute numbers of those who left. Land and house grabbing gave rise to large slums in the midst of posh localities.  The population of Karachi increased almost five-folds from 3 lacks in 1947 to 1.5 million in 1953. As a result, public services were becoming increasingly inadequate to the needs of the population. In particular, the educational infrastructure was in a shambles.

On the other hand, the demand for education and educational facilities was rising. Karachi’s new urban middle class, drawn from all parts of the subcontinent, relied on education as its main human resource and instrument for advancement in life. The frustration among the youth about their inability to get adequate education and access to proper educational facilities was growing. The Government was too busy in the power struggle among the various factions vying to hold their grip on the state apparatus and in coping with the internal political intrigues, to have much time for the growing social and economic needs of the people. Despite continuing criticism in the national press on the educational policies (or lack thereof), the Government continued its indifference and insouciance to education.

At the time of partition, Karachi’s colleges were affiliated with the Bombay University.  After the partition they were taken over by the newly-created Sindh University and in 1950 by the University of Karachi. Professor A.B.A. Haleem, formerly Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University served as the first Vice-Chancellor, partly in consideration of his services to the Muslim League. But he did not give up his political ambitions and aspirations on becoming a full-time educationist. Indeed, much of his time was devoted to building his political profile through his office-bearer ship in a number of cultural and quasi-political organisations. The Vice-Chancellor also cultivated a group of loyal supporters among students and teachers who were favoured with scholarships and trips abroad. This Godfather role earned him the title “ABA Haleem” among the students.

As a result of the Vice-Chancellor’s extracurricular activities, the plans for the development of higher education in Karachi suffered and stagnated. Many of the colleges affiliated to his University were not recognised by professional bodies. In particular, the Dow Medical College degree was recognised in 1951, after considerable efforts by the students and staff. That fact also explains why Dow Medical College students became so active in the student movement of Karachi.

It was in this social and economic ferment that the students realized the need for an organised effort to press for their demands. Students from different colleges of Karachi met together to form the Democratic Students Federation whose principal focus was to expand and improve the facilities for education and opportunities for employment after education. Among the demands made by DSF were the reduction in tuition fees, increase in the number of scholarships to poor students, the construction of new hostels and the improvement in the living conditions of the existing hostels, especially Mitharam Hostel and the Jinnah Courts. (Ironically, the latter two hostels have now been renovated and handed over to the Rangers; so much for the priority the Government attaches to education!). There were a number of specific demands, such as the provision of textbooks, the holding of supplementary examinations, the stoppage of “mass failures” as a means to reduce the pressure on the job market, recognition of degrees, concession in cinema tickets, provision of better sports and recreational facilities, as well as provision of more science and technical colleges and better amenities for teachers.

The DSF recognised the importance of College Unions and successfully contested elections in most Colleges. Its victory in Dow Medical College, DJ College, SM College and Islamia College, proved its representative character. The only other student organisation, the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (IJT),affiliated to the Jamaat-i-Islami, fared poorly in most colleges. To carry on the struggle more effectively, the DSF decided to form an Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB) consisting of the principal office-bearers of college unions in Karachi. In addition, it decided to bring out a fortnightly journal, the Students’Herald, which started publication in November 1952 and ceased publication in July 1953 after being banned as part of the repressive measures adopted by the Government in the wake of US-Pakistan Military Alliance.

After pressing the University authorities for a dialogue on the students’ demands which led no where, the ICB decided to approach the Education Minister for talks with him, failing which it was decided to hold a protest day. The Education Minister, who had promised to meet the students towards the end of December, left for a Commonwealth meeting in London. In the meantime, the Vice-Chancellor met a phoney student delegation in order to pre-empt the meeting arranged between the ICB delegation and the Education Minister, who was told by the Vice-Chancellor that he had met the student delegation and there was no need for him to see them. This naturally infuriated the ICB leadership who decided to give a call for staging a “Demands Day” on 7 January 1953 and taking out a procession to the Education Minister’s House on Kutcherry Road. The students’ response was overwhelmingly positive and strikes were observed in almost educational institutions, including the schools. The students, estimated at about 5,000 in number assembled in the DJ Science College and listened to the speeches of their leaders, Mohammad Sarwar, President of the ICB and Mirza Kazim, Vice-President of the DJ College Union, among others. They appealed to the students to remain calm and disciplined during the procession and not to give the authorities any ground for provocation. The students were asked to disperse after the ICB delegation had met the Education Minister and presented their demands.

However, the police was bent on disrupting the procession from the start and wanted it to disperse much before reaching the Education Minister’s residence. The first lathi-charge by the police was made on Frere Road in which many students were injured, but it miserably failed to stop the procession. When the procession reached Elephantine Street, the police panicked and resorted to teargas bombing on Karachi’s fashionable street. The students had to run helter-skelter to seek shelter in shops and bungalows. They regrouped again and continued their march towards the Education Minister’s House. They were tear-gassed again near the Karachi Club, near the Minister’s House. In the meanwhile, the police arrested the leadership of students in the hope that the rest of the students will then disperse. But despite the lathi-charge a large number of students refused to budge and continued to shout slogans and demanded the release of their leaders, who were ultimately released and granted an interview with Education Minister. The Minister, in the presence of the V-C and Director of Education, agreed to most of the demands presented to him.

The events of 7 January shocked the entire nation and messages of sympathy and solidarity poured in from all sides. On 8th January the students assembled again in DJ College to celebrate their victory. They decided to take out another procession through the streets of Karachi to protest against the police brutalities and to thank the general public for their support and solidarity. However, it seemed that the police was intent on taking its revenge for its inability to stop the student procession from reaching the Minister’ house the day before. They became even more provocative and intense in their brutalities. They trapped a small group of students who had strayed from the main procession, which had changed its route. The public tried to help the students and became engaged in pitched battle with the police. The police resorted to lathi-charge, tear-gas and ultimately police firing resulting in loss of precious lives, including a ten-year-old boy shot near Paradise Cinema and an old man, a bystander.

On the 9th of January, the public outraged by the police brutalities of the last two days, decided to observe a hartal . However, the hartal was disrupted by the police with the help of goondas and agent provocateurs who resorted to looting liquor and arms and ammunition shops. A Mercedes car of the Interior Minister was also burnt down by miscreants. The students themselves remained peaceful, although a large posse of police force was posted at Pakistan Chowk to prevent the students of DJ College and Dow Medical College from taking out a procession. The whole episode ended with the intervention of Prime Miinister Khwaja Nazimuddin who assured the students of a much fairer deal in the future. Unfortunately, he did not stay much longer in office to fulfil his promise.

The student  protests of 1953 were blamed by their detractors as the work of the communists. While many of the students were no doubt inspired and influence by the socialist ideology, none of the active participants were politically disposed. Many of the leading figures and active participants distinguished themselves in the professions they chose for themselves. To name a few Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi, Dr Rahman Hashmi, who passed away recently, Dr M. Haroon, Dr Ayub Mirza and Dr M. Sarwar, distinguished themselves in the medical profession. Others became prominent journalists (Salim Asmi), diplomats (Abul Fazl) and members of the bar and bench (Haziqul Khairi) and education (Prof. Jamal Naqvi). They were drawn from wide strata of society and with different ethnic and social backgrounds. Moreover, the student movement of 1953 was widely supported by civil society, including the political parties and private businessmen who contributed liberally to its activities.

The events of 7, 8 and 9 January 1953 reverberated throughout the country and was taken notice of both by the national and international press. They also helped to create national unity among the students and soon after these events an all-Pakistan student organisation (APSO) was born with wide participation from all parts of the country, in particular East Pakistan. It raised the level of consciousness about education and social issues in the country and the leading role that students can play in the transformation of the country.  One can legitimately characterise the events a wake-up call to the nation for paying greater attention to education, the students and the educators. Unfortunately, that call was missed by succeeding generations and has been partly responsible for the social and educational morass the country finds itself in.


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