Dr Sarwar, the importance of civil discourse, and the art of listening

Ali Jafari-Jaspal

S. Ali Jafari reading his essay; Jaspal Singh in background. Video screen grab.

At a small gathering last year, S. Ali Jafari read his essay in Urdu about Dr M. Sarwar, whom he called “Doc”. His son Salman videotaped the reading, which forms the basis of this 14-minute video edited for 26 May 2019, ten years after Dr M. Sarwar passed away peacefully at home in Karachi, at age 79.

Son of the famous satirical poet S. M. Jafari, Ali Jafari’s essay in chaste Urdu humorously captures the spirit and idealism of progressive politics. It also contains critical observations about the art of listening, and conversing with civility, respect and humour without making personal attacks, regardless of differences in opinion.


The importance of civil discourse and the art of listening: An enduring lesson from Dr M. Sarwar. Photo: 1995, Nathiagali, by Beena Sarwar.

As a student at Dow Medical College, Sarwar led Pakistan’s first nation-wide student movement spearheaded by the Democratic Students Federation. The movement carries enduring lessons about the importance of unity and forging a one-point agenda for larger goals.

For more on Dr Sarwar, DSF and the student movement see the Dr Sarwar website.

There’s also this 30 minute documentary made after Dr Sarwar passed away, Aur Niklen.ge Ushhaq ke Qafle (There will be more caravans of passion), below, with interviews of people like Zehra Nigah, Saleem Asmi and Dr Haroon Ahmed. Here’s the link to a piece about it by Agha Iqrar Haroon: Ushhaq ke Qafley— A Documentary about the Power of Student Unions and Forgotten Chapter of Political Activism in Pakistan.

Remembering those who have passed on

Minal and Maha with Dr Sarwar (Zakia in background), Jan 2009

Minal and Maha with Dr Sarwar (Zakia in background), Jan 2009

On special occasions like Eid or Navratri, we especially remember those who have passed on. Here is a note from Sehba in Houston relating a conversation with her daughter Minal who turns five years old on Sept 21 (happy birthday Minal, and thanks for your words of wisdom and love):

Right now, we’re in the car doing errands. Minal had a busy morning playing with one of my friend’s kids. Suddenly, she says: “Every one dies no matter what.”

Reně and I nod.

She adds: “I miss Nana. Sometimes I stay up at night and cry for him.”

“You do?” I ask.

“I wish I’d talked to him before he died.”

This just came out of the blue. We hadn’t talked about Babba for sometime. But maybe she was thinking about him because we skyped with Beena this morning.

Doc 101: Intro to Life and How to Live It – Sehba Sarwar

Doc 101: Intro to Life and How to Live It

Dr. Mohammad Sarwar 1930-2009

1.  Friendship: Find
partners, friends.
Create relationships.
Share passion-politics
not geography age
religion. Once connected, stay

2. History: Explore
beneath it, around it
over it, and read between lines.
Once you think you
understand, ask questions.
Don’t stop

3. Work: Reach out
to your neighborhood,
your street,
your city of the past
present future.
And organize with the world
around you.

4. Life: Live
especially when reminded
of your journey as a speck
in the arc of time.
Eat drink (smoke)
breathe. Keep
speaking out.

—Sehba Sarwar,
31 July 2009

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.

‘Hasan Nasir’s case should be re-opened’ Shafqat Tanvir Mirza, Dawn, July 30, 2009

Article in Lahore edition of Dawn today by Shafqat Tanvir Mirza

Hasan nisar case

Remembrances – by Hilda Saeed, July 27, 2009

Hilda SaeedHilda Saeed works in the area of population and development, reproductive health and gender. She is a long-time women’s rights activist, among the founder members of Women Action Forum (WAF), and was among the 1000 global nominees for the “1000 Nobel Peacewomen Award” 2005

Father and sonIt’s taken me a long time, just to sit and write these thoughts… Memories can be difficult things to deal with at times, nor are tears enough to express the grief you feel.

As we sat together at the PMA hall in Karachi on May 31 this year, remembering Sarwar, and friends recalled their particular memories, I felt Sarwar is still with us, large as life. So many recollections…. incidents, shared laughter, political discussions, recalling the years of student activism, happy times together.

I entered this group of friends, doctors, political and human rights activists, poets and artists after meeting Mazhar Saeed in the early ‘60s,  much later than their time of student activism: by that time,  we were all already involved in our different careers: I hadn’t been with them in my student days.

Coming from the cloistered surroundings of a women’s college into the stimulating activity of the DJ (Science College), and its student union, was an elating experience, even though, as I learnt subsequently, college student unions in those days, in 1957-1958, were on their last legs.

That was when we learnt of the earlier activism of the DSF (Democratic Student’s Federation), their media link with the public, the “Students Herald”, a fortnightly magazine published by the DSF and edited by S.M. Naseem, which noticeably impacted the student movement, and in that brief period, also gained international repute. We learnt of the struggles of this student group with the politicians of that time, the formation of the Inter Collegiate Body, and the involvement of Sarwar, Adib Rizvi, Haroon Ahmed, Zain Alavi and his brother Hamza Alavi, Mazhar Saeed, Salieem Asmi, S.M. Naseem  and other student activists.

Those were wonderful learning years, when we gained so much awareness about rights, democracy, the fast changing political scenario – yet, paradoxically, as we entered university in 1958, and Ayub Khan became the first military dictator, they were also the years when we realized how much our rights as students and as human beings were being eroded.

Mazhar Saeed, Dr Sarwar, Dr Badar, Karachi 2008

Mazhar Saeed, Dr Sarwar, Dr Badar, Karachi 2008

Later  after Mazhar and I were married in 1962, Sarwar and Zakia (she’ll always be Zakko to me) became close friends. For a long time, we were neighbours, with our children growing up together….I’d often walk across at tea time, with my own special mug of tea, for a chat…. He loved some of my cooking, especially the rice and chops. Many were the impromptu evenings when we’d get together with friends at each other’s homes (Come on over, Zakko or I would say, I’ve made paya, or khichri, or besan ki roti, or whatever)… In the 70s, and early 80s, Sibte Bhai, Suroor Bhai (scholar, writer Sibte Hassan, poet Suroor Barabankvi), with Anis and Haroon, Dr Badar and Shaheena Siddiqi, Mazhar, and so many more were often part of this lively, enriching group of friends. Sarwar, in his own quiet way, contributed so much, to such a variety of issues.

He was, for me, also the sympathetic doctor who saw us worried young mothers, and our children, through childhood illnesses, laughed and joked to make us feel better — I really valued his diagnostic skills.

But he was for me, above all, friend and confidante, someone to turn to. I can never forget the time when Mazhar was seriously ill. Sarwar sat up, virtually all night, and only retired when he was repeatedly assured that his patient and friend was fine.

A rare trip abroad: Mazhar and Sarwar, Paris 1978

A rare trip abroad: Mazhar and Sarwar, Paris 1978

How much he valued his friends—and how often he recalled their memorable trip together to London and Paris in 1978 —Haroon, Sarwar and Mazhar, one of the few times Sarwar ever traveled abroad (on a subsequent trip that the friends had planned he actually returned home along with his packed suitcase before even reaching the airport, already nostalgic for his own bed and armchair).

Sleep well, my friend…I can’t help recalling these words from a Christina Rossetti poem “Better by far that you should forget and smile, rather than remember and be sad”.

Yes, Sarwar, we’ll try to smile, and look forward, and continue the struggle for rights in our own separate ways. Maybe someday our future generations will succeed in making Pakistan what we want it to be — a world where religion doesn’t hold sway in this bigoted fashion, as it does now, a country that is secular, that values each human life, where each individual has human rights, equality, healthcare and education, and a chance to grow to her or his full human potential……yes, we’ll smile, but we cannot forget you, or the joy and learning and wonderful friendship that you brought to so many of us

Karachi, July 27, 2009

‘Ah, Dr Sarwar’ – Badalti Dunya editorial (Urdu)

'Badalti Duniya', June 2009
"Ah, Dr Mohammad Sarwar' - monthly 'Badalti Duniya' editorial, June 2009

"Ah, Dr Mohammad Sarwar' - monthly 'Badalti Duniya' editorial, June 2009

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