Learning from history in an age of bombs

Title of documentary ‘Aur NikleiN Ge Ushhaq ke Qafley’ (Design by K.B. Abro)

NOTE: Much of the research for this article was done for a documentary on the 1953 student movement directed by Sharjil Baloch, that I produced, for the event we held at the Arts Council Karachi on Jan 9, 2010, ‘Looking back to look forward’. The 30-min documentary title ‘Aur NikleiN Ge Usshaq ke Qafley’ (And there shall be more caravans of passion) derives from a poem by Faiz. This article was published in the website Pkonweb on Jan 8, 2010 (a revised and updated version of an earlier piece in the ‘The News on Sunday’, Dec 27 2009. A shorter version was published by the academic journal iWrite in its Jan-Feb 2010 issue).

Looking back to look forward

Commemorating Pakistan’s first nation-wide student movement that embodied student unity, cutting across political, class and ethnic divisions for a common cause: students’ rights …

Beena Sarwar

“This man is my guru,” said the poet Habib Jalib at a book launch at Karachi Press Club, affectionately putting his arm around Dr Sarwar, who towered above him. My father, pleased but embarrassed, changed the subject. It was hard to visualise him — an essentially calm, peace-loving man of few words who rarely ventured out — as a fiery leader who had spent a year in prison during his student days. But like many others, Jalib revered him for his role in Pakistan’s first nation-wide student movement, the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), which was started in 1949 at Dow Medical College.

“Sarwar was a good man and a good friend, a lovable person, a significant personality. I could go on, but these are good enough reasons to celebrate his life. But more than that, we celebrate his life because of his role in the student movement of the early 1950s, a movement of which progressive people can still feel proud. For me, Sarwar’s passing away and the reactions and responses it evoked provided a great opportunity to celebrate that movement.  But most importantly, we look back not to revel in nostalgia, WE LOOK BACK TO LOOK FORWARD,” stated Eric Rahim, a former journalist and his old friend while discussing an event planned in January to commemorate the movement. “For this, we need to consider the circumstances that led to the creation and development of that movement, the causes of its decline and, to some extent, we need to understand what has happened (good as well as bad) during the intervening period.”

A still from the documentary: Mirza M. Kazim at Katrak Hall, Dec 2010

While conducting research on the movement for a documentary to be screened on Jan 9, I learnt that Jalib was then a student at Jacob Lines High School. He may have been part of the spirited High School Students Federation (HSSF) that then existed. He would recite poems at DSF gatherings and mushairas. There was also a cultural even to accompany the students’ National Convention at Katrak Hall in December 1953.

This Convention is memorable for the attack on it by right-wing goons. However, then Law Minister A.K. Brohi attended it as promised, rather than backing out. The accompanying cultural event was also important. It was only during family reminisces after my father passed away in May 2009 that a surprising nugget of family history linked with the student movement emerged. I had known that Shahida Haroon and Rashida Iqbal, my father’s younger sisters, (both then in college and later a social worker and schoolteacher, respectively) were politicised and went out in public, going to shopkeepers to collect funds for the DSF, thereby raising awareness as well as money. Now, I learnt that they also acted in a play written by a student, that was staged at the cultural event. Performed at the DJ College auditorium, it was titled ‘Sunta Nahin HooN Baat Mukarar Kahey Baghair’, a line from a poem by Ghalib.

“Jalib was very junior then,” my aunts said. The poet who stood out in their memories was Himayat Ali Shair, with his poem ‘Ma’, dedicated to the ‘Martyrs of the January movement’. It was recited at a large gathering a few days after police opened fire on student processions on January 7 and 8, 1953, killing several students and passers-by — Sama loot liya tha, sab ko rula diya tha” (he stole the show, had everyone in tears).

For years, students commemorated January 8 as ‘Martyrs’ Day’. One group borrowed my father’s collection of the fortnightly journal of the students, Students’ Herald and never returned it. The Students’ Herald editor, S.M. Naseem (then at S.M. College) recently lent me his photocopied bound collection – incomplete, but a treasure trove of information.

On Jan 7, 1953, the DSF and the Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB), which linked student unions called for a massive ‘Demands Day’ demonstration. They planned to march to Education Minister Fazlur Rehman’s house near Karachi Club and submit a petition demanding a revised fee structure (make fees payable monthly instead of six-monthly), improved laboratory, library and hostel facilities, a university in Karachi (where none existed) and security of employment.

“We didn’t just get up and start protesting,” says Saleem Asmi, former editor of Dawn, then at SM College. “We put in two to three months of preparation and kept trying to meet the Education Minister, but he wouldn’t meet us.”

The demand for security of employment was seen as part of the “communist agenda”. The Pakistan government, trying to please Washington (some things never change), shunned these ‘leftists’ – this was the ‘McCarthy era,’ marked by witch-hunts against the ‘reds’, as brilliantly depicted in the Hollywood film ‘Good Night and Good Luck’. The DSF was seen as the ‘student wing’ or a ‘front’ of the nebulous Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). Many DSF members were indeed leftists or even members of the CPP, but the DSF was not aligned with any party and studiously kept party politics out of campuses.

Jan 8, 1953 – students rally for Martyrs’ Day at DJ Science College (Photo from Students’ Herald)

Some 6,000 students gathered at DJ College on Demands Day. My cousin Naseem Saad (nee Waheed), then barely a couple of years older than my own 13-year old daughter now, was a student of New Town Girls High School. She recalls reaching Burns Road. The organisers told them to remain there. “They were probably expecting trouble,” she says. “We watched the students marching to DJ College. Some girls did join them. It was very inspiring.”

The police cordoned off DJ College. They lathi-charged and tear-gassed the unarmed, peaceful students. Shopkeepers and residents in Saddar supported the students, providing wet towels, water and even shelter. Activists particularly remember the Parsi ladies who helped them. “They supported us overwhelmingly,” my father would recall, “It was quite amazing, really”.

Paradise Cinema, Karachi

Paradise Cinema (now a cloth market) in Saddar became famous as the spot where the police opened fire, killing students and passers-by. Zain Alavi says the spot where the police opened fired was at the corner of Elphinstone (Zebunissa) Street and Frere Street (Shahra-e-Iraq).

Nearby, some “miscreants” burnt Interior Minister Gurmani’s car, reportedly a dark green Packard. Mazhar Saeed of DJ College remembers reaching the spot where the police were bundling some students into a van to arrest them. “Sarwar rushed towards them and told them to release the students, and they started to push him into the van also,” he recalls.

Were they DSF students? “Everyone was DSF that day. I don’t know who they were but they were students and that was enough for us. When police tried to arrest Sarwar, we all rushed forward and surrounded them, and they let everyone go.”

Hundreds of students reached the Education Minister’s house. The Police arrested the leaders and took them to the Clifton Police Station. The remaining students sat on the road in ‘dharna’, refusing to budge. The magistrate had to order their release. The released students returned to their comrades and announced another demonstration for the following day, Jan 8.

On January 8th, twice as many students gathered at DJ College, despite the announcement of curfew. The police again opened fire at their peaceful procession. In an article headlined “Three Days that Shook the Country” the Students’ Herald reported that twenty-seven people, including high school students, died between Jan 7th and 9th, 1953.

The government’s ham-handed response to the peaceful demonstration catalysed a nation-wide students’ agitation.

A Sukkur student studying in Karachi, Marghoob Bokhari along with another one whose last name Mazhar Jameel, then a pre-Matric student of Islamia High School, Sukkur, remembers only as Pohu, took the Khyber Mail to Sukkur on Jan 7th after the police firing and told the students there about the events in Karachi. Mazhar Jameel and his friends organised a students’ strike and were joined by workers. They got the city to shut down. “This was the first major political demonstration of progressive forces in Sukkur,” he says. “It was a particularly big deal because Sukkur was a ‘rightist’ town dominated by the Muslim League.” Jameel (now a prominent attorney in Karachi) was among those arrested that evening and later dismissed from school. Undeterred, the dismissed students went off to Panno Aqil, where they organized students, and then to Khairpur.

Sketch for the documentary based on a photo in Students’ Herald

There were student protests all over the country, including Rawalpindi, Sialkot, Dacca, Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Montgomery (Sialkot), Hyderabad and Peshawar. Workers’ and cultural bodies such as the All Pakistan Postmen and Lower Grade Staff Union, the Mazdoor Tehrik, and the Sindhi Adabi Sangat joined the protests. The biggest demonstrations — with 20,000 students each — took place in Dacca and Lahore.

As news about the police action, arrests, deaths and injuries spread in those pre-television days, the DSF received telegraphic messages of support from all over the world, including the International Preparatory Commission of the International Conference in Defence of the Rights of Youth, Vienna, the Bengal Provincial Students Federation, Calcutta, the PEPSU Students’ Federation, Patiala, the East Pakistan Students’ Union, Dacca, the Dacca Medical College Students’ Union, Larkana students, the High School Students’ Federation Pir Jo Goth, the Government High School, Sukkur, the UP Students’ Federation, the Aligarh Students’ Federation and the Government High School Tando Bago.

Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin sought a meeting with the ICB representatives and agreed to their demands, including a plan for Karachi University based on a blueprint of Mexico University that the students approved.

“I wish the Prime Minister could have taken personal interest in the matter before January 8th. If he had done so, many precious lives would have been saved,” commented DSF President M. Sarwar (‘Unity is our weapon’, Students’ Herald, Feb 6th, 1953).

Sarwar was supposed to graduate that year, but his fellow students pressed him into not sitting for the exams in order to stay on in college and take the movement forward. In view of the support they received from all over the country, the students decided to hold a National Convention that year. Sarwar was appointed Convenor. He and other ICB representatives then toured the country, including East Bengal (as it was known till 1955). They started with Multan, where Col. Malik, the Dow Medical College principal had received an invitation to inaugurate the hostel. He nominated the Student Union President (Sarwar) instead, who used the ticket money to take along his comrades, travelling by second class.

In a report for the Students’ Herald, Sarwar wrote about the students’ enthusiasm, the formation of units in other cities and the Jamat-i-Islami’s attempts to vilify the ICB as “communist agents” which failed due to the massive support DSF enjoyed. (‘FORWARD TO THE NATIONAL STUDENTS’ CONVENTION’, Students’ Herald, March 9, 1953)

Some 140 delegates — student representatives from around the country including East Bengal — converged upon Karachi in December 1953 for the National Convention at Katrak Hall. Mazhar Jameel, who had been at the forefront of the Sukkur demonstrations, led the 8-member Sindh delegation. He recalls the excitement, the charged atmosphere and the shock when the Convention was attacked. Portraits of long gone Zoroastrian dignitaries in this magnificent yellow-stone building with its pillars and cloth-covered benches witnessed the gathering – and the attempts to disrupt it that the DSF activists repelled. The meetings continued at Model School for the next two days. On the last day, the formation of the All Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO) was formally announced.

Unfortunately, the momentum built up by the national Convention and the formation of APSO was short-lived. After Pakistan signed the Baghdad military pact with America in Feb 1954, the DSF was virtually banned and its leadership arrested. Sarwar obtained his degree during his imprisonment. Adib Rizvi gave his intermediate exams in prison. (When Faiz Ahmed Faiz was released from prison in 1955, it was these former students who honoured and supported him.)

The well-known poet Zehra Nigah, then a student at New Town Girls’ High School along with my cousin Naseem, remembers being fired up with the excitement of those times. She wrote a poem after the January movement (a few verses of which she inscribed for me recently). “I felt as if it had all happened before my eyes and we must all do something to support the students’ struggle,” she said, her eyes alive with a fire lit over fifty years ago.

During its short life, the DSF and the ICB remained broad-based and non-aligned with any political party. They focused on specific education-related issues, hard work and organisation. Today, when students across the country face so many problems, not least direct attacks by right-wing militants on educational institutions, many realise the need to unite and form a common front. With student unions revived, in principle, at least, for the first time since 1984, are there lessons to be learnt from Pakistan’s first broad-based, student movement that embodied nationwide student unity across political, ethnic and class divides?

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One Response

  1. sir ma ya puchna chahta hu ka dr sarwar kon thay or ya nsf kis kism ki tanzem thi iam wating for repay

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