Abid Hasan Minto on Dr Sarwar and the DSF

A lifelong struggle for the downtrodden, an untiring commitment towards humanity

At Dr Sarwar's Reference, Aug 8, 2009: Abid Hasan Minto gives a lively account of the DSF struggle

At Dr Sarwar's Reference, Aug 8, 2009: Abid Hasan Minto gives a lively account of the DSF struggle

Leading political activist and senior advocate Abid Hasan Minto talks to Ammar Ali Jan about the formation of the Democratic Students Federation, Dr Sarwar’s role in the student movement, and his hopes for the future

You and Dr Sarwar were together in the formation of the first left-wing student organization in Pakistan. Tell us how was the DSF created and what its aims and objectives were?

At the time of partition of India, there was no major left-wing student organization in the region that became Pakistan – the Communist Party of India (CPI) did not have many roots here. In 1948, the CPI asked some of its leading comrades to set up  the Communist Party of Pakistan (CCP). Syed Sajjad Zaheer was appointed its Sectary General with the task of building mass organizations in the country. The Communist Party set up trade unions, peasant committees, women organisations and the much celebrated Progressive Writer’s Association. It was with this intent of building a mass base for the party that the Democratic Students Federation was set up in 1949.

Dr Sarwar and I were in the DSF when we were asked to join the Communist Party in 1949. I was studying in Rawalpindi at that time while Dr Sarwar was in Karachi. We had started organising the DSF throughout the country in order to build a progressive and militant student organization and to use that platform to induct new cadres into the Communist Party.  During this entire process, Dr Sarwar emerged as a key figure in the DSF due to his tremendous energy and excellent organizational skills.

What role did Dr. Sarwar play in the “January student movement” in 1953?

We should first analyze the context in which this student movement occurred. Right after independence, people got disappointed by the anti-people policies of the ruling elite and their decadent political parties. The youth had hopes for a better future with the creation of Pakistan but the post-47 scenario only brought disappointment. In such a situation, it was natural that a movement challenging the status quo would definitely emerge. The important task was to build an organisation to lead that movement. It is the pre-1953 work of the likes of Dr Sarwar that has to be given a lot of importance whenever we study this movement.

Dr Sarwar would walk through the bazaars of Karachi asking people to give donations for the DSF. They would hold meetings all over Karachi and in different universities, explaining to students why things had gone wrong in the newly created state of Pakistan and why it was important to become active in politics. This groundwork laid the foundations for the 1953 movement.

When the movement broke out in January 1953 it immediately struck a chord with students all over the country and became the first nation-wide progressive movement. Seven students were killed during the demonstration of Jan. 9, 1953 and it became evident that this state would do anything crush dissent. It was alleged that the movement was being led by Communists. Given the cold war hysteria and the Pakistani State’s new-found love for the US, it was no surprise that the State acted in the way it did.

After the brutal crackdown on student activists, how did the nascent student movement react?

After the January movement, we realized that we needed to increase our strength. The DSF leadership decided to form the All Pakistan Student Organization (APSO). It was also decided that we will hold an All Pakistan students’ convention on the 25th of December 1954 in Karachi which would be organized by Dr Sarwar. We had sent an invitation to A.K. Brohi, who was the law minister at that time, to be the chief guest at the opening ceremony of the function which he had accepted. According to our information, his colleagues in the cabinet were not happy with his decision of accepting the invitation and there was a clear split in the government on whether to allow this function to go ahead, considering the violence of the January movement. Such was the power of the progressive student’s movement that the government was too scared to allow us to hold a peaceful convention despite the fact that we had invited their own law minister as the Chief Guest.

A few minutes before the start of the function, Jamiat activists, backed by the police, attacked the Katrack Hall where the event was taking place. Bricks were flying all over the venue as many students got injured by this aggression of the State machinery and the goons of the Jamiat. Mr Brohi contacted Dr Sarwar who described the police highhandedness to the law minister. Mr Brohi immediately rushed towards the spot and in the midst of Jamiat’s hooliganism, opened our convention. On this day, Dr Sarwar gave a memorable speech in which he spoke about the importance of 25th of December as the birthday of Jesus Christ and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, both of whom were born on this date. He shed light on their commitment for social change and in a masterful way, depicted the progressive movement as heirs to their legacy.

The next day, the police enforced Section 144 (forbidding public gatherings) throughout the city of Karachi and stopped us from holding any event. We were also adamant about holding the next session which was supposed to be a cultural night. We realized that Section 144 can only be imposed in the city. Hence, we rented a couple of ships and had our cultural event on the sea where the police could not interfere.

Why did the student movement in the1950s fail to change the basic structure of our State?

The biggest reason was that the movement was brutally crushed by the State and progressive trade unions and peasant committees were not large enough to come to its aid. The communist Party was banned in 1954 which was another blow as it not only deprived us of the support of a mother party, it also led to witch-hunt against all those organizations that were remotely linked with the CP. However, it would be wrong to suggest that this movement did not have an impact on the future generation of students as the powerful National Students Federation followed the legacy of the DSF. It also led to many other student struggles in the ‘50s and the ‘60s, particularly in East Pakistan. The fact that youngsters like you are trying to re-organize progressive students is a direct result of the struggles fought in the past by people like Dr. Sarwar.

Dr. Sarwar opted to leave politics after becoming a doctor. Do you think that was a loss to the left?

Absolutely. Dr. Sarwar was an excellent organizer and agitator and considering the difficulties the left was facing at that time, it was imperative to have a man of his stature with us. It is unfortunate that he decided to quit politics when his brother died and I have never agreed with this decision of his. However, he was always in touch with the masses with his clinic where he would treat many working class patients for free. This is a direct result of the philosophical training while we were engaged in the struggle. We were always supposed to keep the interest of the downtrodden above our personal interests. One can leave the Communist Party, but one can never leave the ideological commitment to the cause. I have always taken up trade union cases for free when my opposing lawyers would take hundreds of thousands of rupees defending the industrialists. The same way, Dr. Sarwar’s contemporaries went abroad and made millions but he stayed in Karachi and kept running his modest clinic for the benefit of ordinary people. This untiring commitment towards humanity was the hallmark of Dr. Sarwar’s life.

This interview was originally published in the booklet ‘Celebrating Dr Sarwar: Students Movement Re-visited’, published by the Labour Party Pakistan on the occasion of the Reference for Dr Sarwar in Lahore, Aug 8, 2009

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