Setting the record straight on DSF (2008 article by Dr Haroon & Saleem Asmi)

A slightly abridged version of this article was published in Dawn as Student movement revisited, April 5, 2008

Scan from front page of Student Herald 'Martyrs Number', Vol. 1, No. 5, Jan 19, 1953

Scan from front page of Student Herald 'Martyrs Number', Vol. 1, No. 5, Jan 19, 1953

Setting the record straight

Democratic Students Federation: The first all-Pakistan student body

By S. Haroon Ahmed and Saleem Asmi

The welcome move by newly elected Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gillani to revive student unions takes us back the first all-Pakistan students’ body, the Democratic Students Federation, which laid the foundations not only for the progressive outlook of the National Students Federation (NSF) but also the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). The DSF is often either ignored or misrepresented in most accounts of the history of the students’ movement in Pakistan, like the article ‘Students politics: a brief history’ (Dawn Magazine, February 10, 2008) which otherwise included excellent thumb-nail sketches of student unions. At this critical juncture of Pakistan’s history, there is a need to set the record straight regarding the DSF.

The unprecedented mass migration in the wake of Partition, Pakistan’s capital Karachi attracted a large number of immigrants, most without financial backing or social support, sustained for some time by their commitment to Pakistan. During these Cold War days, the world was divided into socialist and capitalist camps. Young minds nurturing dreams of an equitable and just society were drawn to Marxist and socialist ideologies. The youth wings of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Jamat-e-Islami were on the defensive as they had opposed Pakistan. The Muslim League Students Federation was basking in the glory of having achieved their objective. Students’ 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, they were agitated by tuition fees, cost of text books, overcrowded classrooms, lack of lab equipment and hostel facilities.

Spearheaded by Mohammad Sarwar, Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi, Asif Jaffery, Asif Hameed, Yousuf Ali and Haroon Ahmed, a group of students from Dow Medical College, feeling the need to address such issues, met in 1950 at Oudh restaurant on Mission Road. The Democratic Student Federation was launched with Mohammed Sarwar elected as convenor. We made hectic efforts to contact students at other colleges, like D. J. Science, S.M. Arts, Commerce and Islamia, drawing in Mohammad Kazim, Mazhar Saeed, Fasih Zuberi, S. M. Naseem, Saleem Asmi, Adeebul Hasan Rizvi.

In 1951 we called a general body meeting and held elections. M. Kazim was elected President and Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi secretary general. Dr. Hashmi declared his room, 29 Meetharam Hostel DSF headquarters. By 1952 the DSF had a presence not only in Karachi colleges but also Lahore, Faisalabad and other colleges of Punjab. It swept elections in all Karachi colleges. An Intercollegiate Body (ICB) was formed consisting of the vice presidents and general secretaries of all unions — the president was de facto the college principal. But after Sarwar was elected as Vice President of the Dow Medical College union, he got the principal, Col. Malik, to agree to a revised constitution, where a student was the union president and the college principal its patron. All other colleges subsequently also revised their union constitutions.

Soon afterwards, Mohammad Shafi, Barakat Alam, Sibghatullah Qadari and others organized the High School Student Federation. A new fortnightly publication, the Students Herald, was launched, edited by S. M. Naseem. Its high standards led to international acclaim.

DSF drew up a ‘Charter of Demands’ including issues like tuition fees and library facilities. We decided to hold ‘Demands Day’ on January 7, 1953, and meet the education minister, Fazlur Rehman. The administration blocked the protest, restored to lathi charge, tear gas and arrested the leaders. Meanwhile, another students’ group, the ‘World University Service’, led by Qamar-uz-Zaman and patronized by the Vice Chancellor of Karachi University A.B.A. Haleem met Fazlur Rehman and announced that all the students’ demands had been met.

We responded to the police action and to this attempt to sabotage the DSF campaign by announcing that January 8 would be observed as a Protest Day. Besides tear gas, this time the administration resorted to firing. More than six students were killed at Regal Chowk, Karachi, and several were injured and arrested. Enraged students torched a government vehicle was torched which turned out to belong to Gurmani, the interior minister. The situation spun out of control, and finally Prime Minister Khawaja Nizamuddin sent feelers out to contact the DSF leadership. He invited a delegation to meet him, and DSF appealed to students to disperse peacefully. It was very cordial meeting and firm promises were made. Although Nizamuddin was soon replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra, the negotiations continued. One of the demands was better classrooms and to shift the university from a few flats behind Dow Medical College. Mr. Bogra, fresh from the USA, showed us a plan of a university to be set up in Mexico. Everyone liked the plan. The new campus of KU was then identified and construction ordered.

It was later decided to form an All Pakistan Students Organization (APSO). Mohammed Sarwar toured both the wings of the country to mobilize students. We called a convention on December 25, 1953 at Katrak Hall. Although chief commissioner A.T. Naqvi imposed section 144 and banned the convention, the then law minister A.K. Brohi who had promised to chair the meeting kept his word. The administration sent hooligans to disrupt the convention but Adeeb ul Hasan Rizvi, Sher Afzal Malik and others chased them away.

Students from both wings of Pakistan attended the convention, including Abid Hasan Minto from Punjab and the East Pakistan delegation led by Mr. Mateen. Office bearers were elected. Deliberations were then held for two days at Model School.

Soon DSF along with Progressive Writers Association, labour unions and the Communist Party were banned and there were mass arrests. During the next year we tried to keep the organization intact and met secretly at various place including the residence of Saleem Asmi at PIB Colony. The seniors among us passed out of college including myself and Mohammad Sarwar who received his final year MBBS results while in prison.

Junior colleagues like Abdul Wudood, Sibghatullah Qadri, Ehtisham, Sher Afzal Malik and others took up the threads from there. They approached National Student Federation a low key right wing student body and a merger took place in 1955-56. A new look progressive student body NSF was born, producing leaders like Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Fatehyab Ali Khan, and Husain Naqi among others.

For nearly a decade NSF ruled the colleges. However, influenced by the international ideological debates then raging, it became ideologically centered rather than issue-based. Eventually, it split into pro-Soviet (Kazim) and pro China (Rashid) camps. Another group of students called themselves DSF, a student wing of one of the many communist parties but could not make any headaway. All this was in sharp contrast to the issue-based Democratic Student Federation that attracted progressive, non-aligned students, whatever the ideologies of the core group, whether Marxist, progressive with liberal politics, or even some conservatives.

The DSF was formed independently by progressive students, including some who had been members of the All India Students Federation before partition. Contrary to popular belief, DSF was not a student wing of the Communist Party, although it had links with all progressive organizations — Progressive Writers Association, the nascent workers organizations, journalists the Communist Party — and its ideology was definitely Marxist and progressive. 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 as compared to other progressive movements, including Communist Party.

In the same vein the Pakistan Medical Association has also been erroneously called ‘PMA Communist Party’. After leaving the college many Dow Graduates hunting for jobs or settling down in private practice were in political wilderness. In 1969 Dr Haroon Ahmed, then joint editor of Pakistan Medical Association Journal, 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 PMA. Dr. Rehman Ali Hashmi was elected Secretory General at the biennial meeting, in Dacca, by a big margin. In 1971, much before Alma Ata Declaration of 1974, PMA adopted a new, alternate health policy advocating preventive strategy and rural health. The progressive stamp is still the distinguishing mark of the Association.

Much later when Zia ul Haq banned student unions in 1984, students organized themselves on ethnic and linguistic basis, losing the secular, democratic framework of the earlier student bodies. The Jamat-e-Islami flourished in this milieu, as did the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organization (APMSO) which suddenly became visible under Altaf Hussain, although it had started in 1978. The APMSO particularly drew Karachi students, including from Jamiat for economic reasons, when the quota system was imposed. Among other ethnic groups only BSO could make an impact on the politics of Balochistan.

Dr S. Haroon Ahmed is a psychiatrist; Saleem Asmi is a journalist and former editor of Dawn.

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One Response

  1. Excellent piece. Really enjoyed the in-depth history lesson. I’m going to print it out and read it more slowly.

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