Ghazi Salahuddin: The High School Students’ Association and my rite of passage

Essay written for the booklet published to commemorate the 1953 movement, Jan, 2010

THE HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS’ FEDERATION

My rite of passage

Ghazi Salahuddin

1953, and I have often thought about it, was the year that changed my life. It was my rite of passage. I say this not with any specific reference to its New Year stirrings. But my rather peripheral and juvenile involvement with the students’ movement had a lot to do with the transformation that I feel I had then experienced.

Old memories, we know, are not always reliable. We also change them in the process of our selective recollections. That is what makes the past another country in which they do things differently. We are talking about times that have slid to the very edge of living memory. Indeed, this article is written for an occasion that is meant to be a tribute to a man who passed away in the summer of 2009. The rest of us who were participants or observers of the students’ movement of 1953 – and I was among the youngest members of that caravan – are, in a sense, waiting for our departures. Fifty-seven years, after all, is a very long time.

This thought also lends some urgency to protecting the memories of a landmark event in the social and political history of Pakistan. I wonder if it is really relevant here but I like this Milan Kundera quotation: “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

Jan 9, 2010: Ghazi Salahuddin (left), with Mazhar Jameel, Sibghat Kadri and Saleem Asmi also visible. Photo by Sakhawat Ali

Now, why do I believe that 1953 was the year that changed my life? I was a student of the matric class in Bahadur Yar Jung High School and was already contributing to the children’s page in Jang. My interest in reading stories and poetry had drawn me towards the literary gatherings of the progressive writers at that young age.

I do not exactly remember when I first met Mohammad Shafi, the leader of the High School Students’ Federation. I came in contact with other students active in that organization, including Saghir Ahmed, who was the Federation’s General Secretary. Some months before the movement was launched, I was made office secretary of the Federation and was expected to take notes of our meetings. It was Shafi who, for me at least, personified the struggle and he was our connection to the higher leadership of the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and the Action Committee of which, of course, Mohammad Sarwar was a prominent figure. I must confess that I was a very shy and quiet boy at that time.

I have vague memories of the processions that were taken out on January 7 and 8 and the violence that ensued. By the way, I was not very pleased when January 8 was earmarked as the ‘Martyrs’ Day’ to be commemorated every year, because of the day’s fatalities. The movement was launched on the seventh which happens to be my birthday.

Full house: Ghazi Salahuddin addressing the gathering on Jan 9, 2010, to commemorate the 1953 student movement. Photo: Sakhawat Ali

The point I have to stress here is that my participation in students’ political activities introduced me to ideas and individuals that led to what I can describe as a bohemian and rebellious state of mind. I passed my matric in the summer of 1953 and was persuaded, by my not so well-off family, to take admission in D.J. Science College. I distinctly remember that thrill of becoming a college student, of suddenly growing up. But that was almost the end of my formal schooling. I became a sort of dropout, though my interest in and involvement with students’ politics and socialistic thoughts continued to deepen. Later, it became my inverted snobbery to proclaim that I have never studied in a college or a university. But that is another story.

Fortunately, I retained close friendships with some of my fellow travelers of that time. Shafi, though, was an early casualty and my expectations that he would rise and shine were never realized. At this old age, others have started to depart. Let me conclude with a brief excerpt from my column published on May 31, 2009, on the death of a 1953 friend we knew as Shamman: “Coincidentally, Dr Mohammad Sarwar, a dear family friend, also died on Tuesday. The two funerals were taken out at the same time and they were buried in the same section of the vast Defence graveyard, partly sharing their mourners. Now, Dr Sarwar was the leader of the 1953 students’ movement in Karachi, a watershed event in some respects. His contribution to the initial stirrings of the democratic left is substantial.

“My memories of Shamman and of Dr Sarwar converge in that somewhat inspirational period when so many young people were infused with social and political commitment and were willing to organize themselves and come out to agitate in defence of their socialistic ideas”.

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