Exit of a ‘Darwaish’: tribute to Manzar Hasan

Dr Sarwar’s letter to the Editor – an obituary for Manzarul Hasan, Editor of The Leader eveninger, his older brother Akhtar’s friend. I remember typing it out for him, and it being printed in Dawn, but can’t find the date. It was some time in 2002 I think. beena.

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Karachi communists in the early 1950s: a contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ by Eric Rahim

Eric Rahim: A journalist and activist remembers

Eric Rahim:A journalist and activist remembers

In celebrating the life of Dr Mohammad Sarwar, many of his friends and student and political activists have recorded their memories and experiences from the period of the early 1950s. As far as I can tell this is the first time that so many people from the Left have come together (physically or in their thoughts) to pool together their memories from that period – a period of hope and optimism – about the future of democratic politics in Pakistan. What could be a better tribute to Sarwar’s outstanding contribution to the student movement and democratic politics?

The random and disconnected notes that follow, drawn from a hazy and failing memory of events that took place almost sixty years ago, are a contribution to the Sarwar Reference. Very broadly speaking, they deal with two related issues that have received only marginal attention in the contributions made so far – the presence of the Communist Party in Karachi, and the causes of the inability of the student movement to sustain itself beyond the early 50s.

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Sarwar, DSF and the ‘Students’ Herald’ – S.M. Naseem

S.M. Naseem

SMNaseemThoughts shared at the Reference ‘Celebrating Sarwar: Student Movement Re-Visited’, Dorab Patel Auditorium, HRCP Lahore, Aug 8, 2009

Students Herald, April 3, 1953

Students Herald, April 3, 1953

Looking back at the events of more than fifty years ago, which brought Sarwar into lime light, from the vantage point of today, is neither easy nor entirely relevant, but it does provide a useful perspective on the life and times of a person who helped transform Pakistan’s political discourse and left a legacy worthy of celebration – a  legacy much more valuable than the millions others bequeath to their families. It is significant that we are gathered here today not to pay a tribute to some one who had held a high public office or achieved a monumental task that has received public attention, but to some one who challenged the status quo and the patronage system in our educational institutions in the formative stage of our politics and forced the ruling coterie of the time to pay attention– if only transiently – to the real problems of the people, especially in education.

At a time when the bogey of lack of  patriotism and anti-communism could easily be invoked at the slightest expression of criticism of government policies, Sarwar was able to galvanize a mass movement of students in Karachi and later extend its reach to other parts of the country – an effort which was unfortunately aborted by the authorities through their joining the crusade against communism and signing a defence treaty with the US in 1954 and carrying out mass arrests of activists and alleged communists between May and July 1954.

S.M. Naseem reading out his paper at the Reference at HRCP Lahore

S.M. Naseem reading out his paper at the Reference at HRCP Lahore

After serving a period of almost a year, on  a habeas corpus petition in Sind High Court, Sarwar, along with other students and activists, was released in 1955 and faced severe restrictions in resuming normal life, including finding employment. While there was some let-up in the wave of repression that followed immediately after the US-Pakistan Military Pact of 1954, life continued to be hard for those released. Sarwar’s elder brother, Akhtar, who was also arrested, lost his job in Dawn and had to move to other lesser-known papers. A more serious calamity fell on Sarwar in the shape of Akhtar’s death soon after Ayub Khan’s coup and martial law. All this ruled out Sarwar’s involvement in active politics or picking up the threads where he left off before going to prison. But neither did it mean his giving up the ideals that he lived for and that were inherent in the student movement he led. Lord Robbins, a famous British economist, used to tell his graduate students at LSE that a person would be a fool if he was not a revolutionary in his twenties but did not become a worldly-wise conservative by the time he was forty. Sarwar, steadfastly defied that received wisdom and remained consistently loyal to the ideals he embraced in his youth.

My association with Sarwar mainly relates to the core period of his activism in the early 1950s, although I kept in touch with him for the rest of his life and was aware of his social and political activities on a regular basis. Others more conversant with his post-1950s life are better placed to bring them out, I will, therefore,  talk more about how I see the Karachi movement developed and the pivotal role Sarwar played in it. Historically, perhaps, it is true, as some have argued, that DSF was born in Lahore and that the nascent Pakistan Communist Party played a leading role in its formation and in  directing its activities. However, its operational dynamics in Karachi in the 1950s student movement was largely spontaneous – as most student movements inevitably are—and a product of the rather unusual circumstances of Karachi in those days which were much more propitious for making it successful than in Lahore. (I do not wish to drive an invidious wedge not only because the event is being hosted in Lahore, but also because many who played a prominent role in the Karachi movement were from Lahore or Punjab, such as Ayub Mirza and Ghalib Lodhi and some of the leading DSF lights of Lahore – such as Raza Kazim and Zuhair Naqvi – were not originally from Lahore).

Karachi was a truly cosmopolitan city in those days and there was hardly a trace of the ethnic tensions that emerged in 1960s and beyond. Karachi, in contrast to Lahore, had hardly an educational infrastructure commensurate to the needs of a rapidly growing urban city which was also the capital of the country. Its colleges were affiliated for a considerable time with Bombay University. The class composition of the capital was far less heterogeneous than Lahore’s, which was the bastion of the feudal elite. The co-mingling of such a diverse population in Karachi’s educational institutions – a high proportion of which were public funded and catered to the middle and lower middle-class population produced a synergy which propelled the demand for democratic reforms in the educational system which was at the core of the DSF’s agenda.

The Dow Medical College, which was still struggling to get its degree recognized was seriously deficient in staff and equipment, became the nerve centre of DSF’s activities and with Sarwar’s election as the Vice-President of the College Union (the ex-officio President was the College head, with veto power which Sarwar wanted to be abolished). But Sarwar knew that one swallow does not make a summer and realized the need for similar pro-active role of Students’ Unions in Karachi’s other dozen or so colleges. Most such unions until then were either defunct or  in the pockets of College Principals and the Vice-Chancellor (Prof. A. B. A. Haleem who was busy politicking), and who resisted change.

The DSF fought elections in most colleges and won a majority of them. Sarwar then devised the master-stroke of forming  an Inter-Collegiate Body of all the College Unions and decided to get elected the non-DSF Vice-President of a College Union, instead of himself,  as its Chairman in the interest of the broad-based unity of the student community. The ICB after prolonged deliberations and the failure of negotiations with authorities on its demands  decided to observe a Demands Day on 7 January 1953. The rest, as they say, became history, demonstrating Sarwar’s skills as a consummate strategist.

Students’ Herald

I would also like to talk a little about Students’ Herald of which I became, largely by accident and default, its editor, printer and publisher. The DSF felt the need for having a journal to mobilize students in favour of its objectives. A more immediate need was to counter the propaganda against the DSF by the Government in the national press and through the Jama’at–i-Islami’s student organ, Students’ Voice, edited by Khurshid Ahmad, who is now a Senator.

It was relatively easy to get a declaration for the paper as I applied for it in my individual  capacity and the CID official who cleared my application was unsuspecting about my intentions. But publishing it regularly and uninterruptedly from January 1953 to July 1954, was no easy task. It required a core group of dedicated and competent writers, proof-readers, advertisement seekers and donation collectors. Producing a paper was a much more labour-intensive and cumbersome job than in the electronic world of today. Fortunately, the movement generated enough talent to prove us equal to the task of producing a quality paper, with which I still feel proud to have  been  associated and from which I have derived far greater fulfillment than from the newspaper columns I have penned during the last 15 years.

Our resources were extremely limited – the paper sold for two annas per copy slightly more than the cost of a cup of tea in those days. Our editorial office moved from one Irani tea shop to another between Burns Road and Bunder Road where most of the colleges were clustered and we were constantly shadowed by the CID inspector who was assigned to find out what we were bringing out in the next issue. He would often sit in the printing press and pressurize the owner to give him the proofs. But the owner, who was very helpful and allowed us to print the paper on credit and treated us to tea, refused to oblige. But our most valuable support came from our seniors in the journalistic community, who helped in editing (often ghost writing) some of the manuscripts and in teaching us about the lay-out and presentation of the reports. Among these were M. A. Shakoor, Eric Rahim, Ahmad Hasan and Sarwar’s elder brother, Mohammad Akhtar, all of whom worked for the Dawn and were later arrested and dismissed from that newspaper. Among the members of the teaching community who helped and inspired us were Prof. Samsamul Hai, Dr. A. H. Hamdani and Prof. M. Kareem. Sadly, most of them are no more among us.

In passing, I may mention that Saleem Asmi, who culminated his journalistic career as Editor of the Dawn, began his career as a proof-reader in Students’ Herald. Among my other colleagues and collaborators were Wasi Ahmad Hai, who left for Burma after his release from jail in 1954 and has never been heard from since; he shared most of the editorial burden with me. I must also mention our very talented photographer, the late Sartaj Alam, who took some of the most telling pictures of the demonstrations, firing and other events that appeared in its pages. A leading cartoonist of that time, Aziz, contributed original cartoons to the paper. Among others who helped the publication in its struggle for survival, were Mazhar Saeed, Zain Alavi and Ghalib Lodhi. Sarwar himself often  contributed articles to the paper and provided guidance on major issues.

S. M. Naseem established the DSF Unit in S. M. College and was editor of Student’s Herald launched in 1952, published fortnightly until he was arrested along with others in July 1954 (released in March 1955)

‘This wonderful Doc’ (2) – by Beena Sarwar

Published in ‘The News on Sunday’, Pakistan, July 5 2009. An abridged version, first published in HardNews. The title is borrowed from Ali Jafari’s tribute posted earlier at this blog.

Newly weds at Karachi beach circa 1960s - Zakia & Sarwar

Newly weds at Karachi beach circa 1960s – Zakia & Sarwar. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

by Beena Sarwar

She is not the grave-visiting sort. A white-haired dynamo with luminous eyes, she pioneered teacher training and teaching English in Pakistan (as a second language in large classrooms with limited resources). The activism inculcated in her native Pratapgarh in UP, India, remained with her after the migration to Pakistan in the late 1950s, later nurtured and encouraged by the life partner she found.

Zakia met Sarwar after moving from Lahore to Karachi in 1961. The unconventional, long-limbed Allahabad-born doctor was known as the ‘hero of the January movement’. Visiting Karachi for a holiday after Partition he had stayed on after being admitted to Dow Medical College. There, he started Pakistan’s first student union in 1949 (corrected from 1951), catalysing the first nationwide inter-collegiate students’ body. When the government ignored the students’ demands (including lower fees, better lab and hostel facilities and a full-fledged university campus) the students held a ‘Demands Day’ procession on January 7, 1953. Police brutally baton-charged and tear-gassed them, and arrested their leaders. They were set free hours later under pressure from students staging a sit-down in front of the education minister’s house, refusing to budge until their release.

Sarwar addressing a students' meeting

Sarwar addressing a students’ meeting, Karachi early 1950s

The momentum continued with another procession on Jan 8. This time, they were confronted by armed police. Trying to negotiate with the police to let them pass Sarwar realised that their threat of opening fire was deadly earnest, he tried to stop the students from going forward. Charged up, many surged ahead anyway. The police opened fire. Seven students and a child were killed on that ‘Black Day’. Over 150, including Sarwar, were injured.

The college principal Col. Malik visited the family to get them to persuade Sarwar to give up his activism. The support of Akhtar, his even taller older brother, a well known journalist, gave him the courage to resist. Both were jailed during the crackdown on progressive forces coinciding with America’s McCarthy years, after Pakistan and America signed a military pact (Sarwar received his final MBBS results in 1954 while in prison for a year).

The January Movement’s impact can be gauged by the Khawaja Nazimuddin government’s eventual acceptance of most of the students’ demands. The students were even asked to approve the blueprints of Karachi University (based on Mexico University). In the 1954 provincial elections it was a student leader defeated the seasoned politician Noor-ul-Amin in former East Pakistan.

After graduating from medical college, Sarwar declined invitations from various politicians to join their parties. “I didn’t have the means,” he said simply. He was the sole breadwinner of the family after Akhtar’s sudden death due to pneumonia in 1958 at the peak of his career – he was chief reporter of the newly launched eveninger The Leader. Their circle of progressive writers, poets, activists and journalists was devastated. The well known poet Ibne Insha compiled a book of essays on Akhtar (including by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Hameed Akhtar and others) and his letters from prison. Sarwar, who had been particularly close to Akhtar, insisted that everyone get on with their work and not sit around mourning.

Zakia’s older brother Zawwar Hasan had been one of Akhtar’s closest friends. They had played field hockey for rival college teams in Allahabad, re-connecting as sports journalists in Karachi. After moving to Karachi, Zakia, who began teaching at Sir Syed Girls College there, would take Zawwar’s young children to Sarwar’s clinic nearby for checkups. The romance included outings like seeing off the Faiz sahib when he left for Moscow to receive the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.

“As a comrade, his relationship with Abba was an unspoken clear bond based on a shared understanding of the universal struggle for a just human order,” says Salima Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter and an old friend of Zakia’s from her Lahore days.

Sarwar and Zakia got married in September 1962, overcoming parental apprehensions about religious differences (Shi’a, Sunni). Neither was religious. Akhtar would have approved, as Zawwar did.

As their eldest child, one of my earliest memories is Zakia and other college teachers on hunger strike, demanding an end to the exploitation of teachers. Sarwar supported her against the muttered disapproval (‘women from good families out on the streets’), as always, giving her the space to develop her potential. No wonder that he has a special place in the hearts of her colleagues at Spelt, the Society of English Language Teachers that she founded, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

Sarwar practiced as a general physician for nearly fifty years from his modest clinic in a low-income area, consciously charging low fees and treating struggling workers, journalists, artists and writers for free. He was contemptuous of doctors who charged high fees, prescribing costly tests and medicines where less expensive ones would do. He helped launch the Pakistan Medical Association and its affiliated Medical Gazette – both of which have been vital platforms for progressive politics in Pakistan, particularly during the Zia years.

Diagnosed with cancer in August 2007 (‘stage four’, pancreas, metastasis to the lungs), he took it in stride. “Look,” he reasoned in his remained characteristically calm and good humoured way, “everyone has to die. If this is how I have to go, so be it.”

He refused to give up drinking or smoking, reminding us of friends who died early despite giving up such habits. When a cousin’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer, he asked wryly, “And does she also smoke?”

“To look into the eyes of  a killer disease, and yet not roll over is something that the bravest could envy,” wrote Zawwar last October from the Bay Area.

Sarwar defied doctors’ predictions of ‘maybe six months…’, humouring us by trying the nasty herbal concoctions we inflicted on him, and later stoically withstanding six months of chemotherapy at SIUT, the pioneering philanthropic institution set up by his old friend Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi. Perhaps this bought him some more time. Perhaps it was simply the sheer willpower of a fighting spirit refusing to give up hope even while realistically facing the worst.
Friends flocked to ‘Doc’, as many affectionately called him, hosting parties at his home when he was too weak to go out.

Emerging from anaesthesia after a blocked bile duct was cleared this April, one of his first questions was about the Indian elections. He’d ask for the daily newspapers – even when weakness made difficult to concentrate – and that cigarette which one of us would light. He’d chat hospitably with visitors, cigarette dangling habitually between the fingers of one hand even as a drip punctured the veins of the other arm.

At home later, it was only during the last two days of his life, his breathing dangerously obstructed, that he did not smoke. Doctors suggested suctioning out excess fluid in intensive care – entailing drips (no space for more needle pricks in either arm by now) and the risk of life support if the procedure failed. When I explained this to him, he waved his hand and pronounced, ‘No point, no point’. They sent over technicians with an inhaler and suction pipe, which gave him some relief. But then the rattling in his throat recurred.

Late that night, when he seemed to be more comfortable and settled, I finally said goodnight, kissing him on the forehead. “Sleep well Babba.”

“Goodnight,” he replied, clasping my hand back. “Go to sleep.”

He died quietly in his sleep about half an hour later.

Zakia now takes time out from her work to sit by his last resting place. It gives her peace.

‘Greatness, humanity, inspiration’ – S.M. Naseem

From: S.M. Naseem
Date: Tue, Jun 2, 2009 at 2:28 AM
Subject: Memorial meeting
To: Beena Sarwar

Dear Beena,

Thanks for sending the reports and other attachments relating to the memorial meeting for Sarwar held yesterday in Karachi. I had been eagerly awaiting it. I know it is trite to say it, but I really wish I were there too. But even the reports and attachments helped me relive one of my most precious friendships. Surely, the impact of being in the meeting and seeing and listening to others close to him, including those I have never met again since 1950s – even those I may have never known –  would have been immensely more profound. I will probably never get a similar opportunity again.

Somehow I can’t but recall the death of Akhtar, his older brother, who died 50 years earlier. At that time I was in London and Eric Rahim, who was a close friend and colleague of Akhtar and the two were in some ways mentors of those of us who were engaged in student activism under Sarwar’s leadership, had just arrived to study economics at University College, after having resigned his job at the Pakistan Times. I recall spending a whole week-end at Eric’s digs in Hampstead to try to overcome the grief that we both felt at Akhtar’s sudden and premature death, soon after getting the news. Eric and I reminisced together not only the charming personality of Akhtar, but also the brief period of about five years in which the Left movement, especially in Karachi, was at its height and on which, as Eric rightly points out, Sarwar has left an indelible mark.. I also recall that Sarwar, who rarely wrote personal letters, sent me a long aerogram detailing the circumstances of Akhtar’s illness and emotionally telling me  how bad he felt that, despite being a doctor, he could do little to save someone who was not only his brother, but also his inspiration.

Sarwar lived a much longer and fuller  life and although family circumstances – especially Akhtar’s early death – did not allow him to lead a more active political life than he probably would have wished to and was certainly capable of, his intellectual influence on and inspiration to his friends and colleagues was enormous. His magnetic personality not only brought large crowds to the student meetings, but also attracted a large number of friends to his house in Karachi – from PIB Colony to Jamshed Road and finally to Clifton, where he and Zakia brought up you and your siblings. I knew Sarwar and his family intimately and was a frequent visitor to his home before you were born. His three younger sisters, Shahida, Rashida and Saeeda, as well as Sarwar’s parents, treated me as a member of the family and I still remember with great fondness the time I spent with them in their modest house in PIB Colony.

Saeeda Gazdar & Sibte Hasan in Stockholm, 20 Aug 1985 or 1986.

Saeeda Gazdar & Sibte Hasan in Stockholm, 20 Aug 1985 or 1986.

After leaving Karachi for studies abroad and later after settling down in Islamabad and, later still, working abroad, my contacts with Sarwar’s family became more tenuous, but I continued to remain in touch with him whenever I went to Karachi. Somehow meeting Sarwar made me feel reconnected to not only him and his family and friends, but also with the whole world. I always found him reading books and intellectually alive and having a sense of direction about where the world was going. His laid back style and taking things in a stride put one at ease and made on forget one’s own troubles. He encouraged me to write, both in my student days and later when I started writing for the newspapers and occasionally took me to task for writing what he did not agree with. I don’t know whom can I turn to for that kind of support and frank advice now.

Zakia & Sarwar, Karachi, early 1980s

Zakia & Sarwar, Karachi, early 1980s

Sarwar was fortunate in marrying Zakia, who provided him a home and a family which made him happy and proud. In later years, Zakia was the sole earner in the family as both Sarwar’s health and the law and order situation in the area where he practiced had deteriorated considerably. Even before that she had established herself as a distinguished educator and had established a reputable NGO for teaching English – a subject which my wife Zarina also taught, which allowed her to have her own preoccupation and friends, even as she entertained and enjoyed the company and interests of her husband and his friends. I was often amazed at her ability to do so. I suspect the failure of her initial efforts to “reform” Sarwar, proved a blessing in disguise.

Sarwar’s friends, I in particular, must be thankful to you for making us realize and others aware of his greatness and humanity and the inspiration he provided to our own and succeeding generations of youth. You and your work as a journalist and human rights activist are a living testimony to the legacy he has left behind.

Please give the best wishes and love from Zarina and myself to Zakia and to all the members of Sarwar’s family who have always enjoyed the deepest respect and love in my heart. I feel especially sad for Saeeda and wonder if she at all realizes what has happened. The piece she wrote after Akhtar’s death still reverberates in my mind. A second loss after 50 years would have reopened her wounds. Please give my love and commiseration to Haris, who was also a great admirer of his Mamu. Love also to Maha, who was great as her Nana’s keeper and did not let him exceed his quota of cigarettes.

Best.
Naseem

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