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.

Syed Sibte Hasan: An esteemed teacher and leader – by Dr M. Sarwar (1985)

S. Sibte Hasan, Dr M. Sarwar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Photo by Dr S. Haroon Ahmed

This is a link to the scanned article ‘An esteemed teacher and leader’ by Dr M. Sarwar on Sibte Hasan, 1985: tribute to his friend Syed Sibte Hasan, published in the Pakistan Medical Gazette, June 1, 1985. The article contains a lot of history, and was written about a year before Sibte Hasan passed away. Thanks Aisha Gazdar for the scan.

PWA 75th Anniversary: 5th Progressive Writers Conference, Birmingham

5th Progressive Writers Conference – Birmingham

Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Progressive Writers Association (PWA)

Progressive Writers Association UK in collaboration with South Asian Peoples Forum and Indian Workers Association cordially invites you to a public meeting to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Progressive Writers Association (PWA).

Saturday, 18 September 2010
2.30-7.00 p.m.,
Edward Street Youth Center,
21 Victoria Street,
West Bromwich, B70 8ET

The PWA, established in 1935 in London, heralded a major literary movement against imperialism, colonial rule and for the democratic rights of South Asian people. The PWA played a critical role in mobilising the masses through literature. Most of the prominent writers in the sub-continent, such as Sajjad Zaheer, Sahir Ludhanvi, Munshi Premchand, Minto, Faiz, Bedi, Amrita Preetam, Josh, Jalib, Faraz, to name a few, were in the forefront of our struggle. Continue reading

‘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.

‘The universal struggle for a just human order’ – Salima Hashmi

Sarwar & Salima, 1970s. Photo by Rashida Reza

Sarwar & Salima, 1970s. Photo by Rashida Reza

Celebration of Dr Mohd Sarwar’s Life

Salima Hashmi

Karachi, 31 May 2009, PMA House

I put my stamp of approval on Doc Sarwar as prospective bridegroom for my friend when she sheepishly introduced him to me in June 1962.  Abba and I were on our way to Moscow on the Llyod Triestano Shipliner – he to receive the Lenin Peace Prize and I to go on to art school in England. It was a rushed meeting but my friend was anxious – the tall good-looker seemed an OK bet as far as I could see, so I gave him a nod.  I suspect he knew he was being appraised  … the approval stood the test of time.

So how does one encapsulate a lifetime of intrepid friendship, the good humour, the intense partying and talking, and the occasional gleeful ‘gheebat’ about the world in general.

Of course there was always this locking of horns with Shoaib Hashmi – as to who was better at getting out of doing the darndest thing around the house.  How one could get the air-conditioner serviced whilst sitting in the armchair and reading the newspaper!  How to get the water tap running whilst sipping afternoon tea, and watching cricket on T V.  How to shop for the best mangoes in town long distance and, most importantly, how to sort out the country’s problems in each other’s company late into the night.  Never passing up the chance to be caustic about those bolshies who thought they were actually doing it: they came in for some extra flack.  In the words of dear Billum Apa “Saari saari raat revolution karte hain aur saaraa saara din sote hain“.

One could never accuse Doc of being lax about the real things – work – motivation and more work.

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 – Faiz wrote something for his other pal and comrade, Major Ishaq.  He would have said the same for Doc.

Major Ishaq ki yaad mein

Major Ishaq ki yaad mein

‘Time to create a left-oriented think tank’, News, Jun 1, 2009


‘Time to create a left-oriented think tank’

Monday, June 01, 2009
By Shahid Husain


Eminent jurist and former governor of Sindh, Justice (Retired) Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim said on Sunday it was high time a “left-oriented” think tank was established in Pakistan.

Speaking at a memorial meeting for the late Dr Mohammad Sarwar at the PMA House Sunday evening, he said people said that Pakistan was a failed state but one should remember that it was the establishment and not the people of Pakistan who had failed. “Things are changing for the better,” he said.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with us. Religion has become a cause of killing,” he remarked. He said people were ready to listen today and this was evident from the fact that there were few people around when the Judges’ movement kicked off but it culminated in a huge success.

He said it was time to live up to the ideals of Dr Sarwar since “it’s our time to say.” He said the people of Pakistan needed a new leadership since the old leadership had failed totally. He said Dr Sarwar fought for a just society, a society free from exploitation and it was time to create a just society.

Dr Badar Siddiqi, former General Secretary of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) said death was more universal than life because every body dies but there are people who live on even after they’re gone through their noble deeds and universal love. Dr Sarwar, he said, was one such person who strove for the establishment of a just society.

He said Dr Sarwar established the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) that happened to be the first students’ organisation in Pakistan. Thereafter, he also established the All- Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO) and the Inter-Collegiate Body that comprised students unions from across the country.

Dr Siddiqi pointed out that Dr Sarwar led the historic 1953 student movement that forced the authorities to accept many demands of the students, including the establishment of the University of Karachi.

He said Dr Sarwar was injured when police resorted to firing on a student’s procession on January 8, 1953 in which seven students and a child were killed, and he also was arrested.

He said after he was released from jail, he along with his colleagues, including Dr Adib-ul-Hasan Rizvi, Dr Syed Haroon Ahmed, Dr Moinuddin Ahmed, and Dr Jaffer Naqvi played a vital role in the affairs of the Pakistan Medical Association and transformed it into a strong and dynamic force.

He said Dr Sarwar struggled for provision of health cover to the people and was never overwhelmed even by ferocious dictators such as Gen. Ziaul Haq while negotiating on behalf of PMA.

“I will not classify him as an individual; he was an institution,” he said. He said the number of people who visited Dr Sarwar’s residence was unbelievable and they included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Syed Sibte Hasan, Habib Jalib, Zohra Nigah, Ali Imam, and Bashir Mirza, just to name a few.

Former student leader Mairaj Mohammad Khan said Dr Sarwar was an institution whose roots were very deep in society. He said 1953 movement led by Dr Sarwar was not confined to the students but impacted the entire society. “It was movement to change Pakistani society,” he said.

He said the DSF was banned in 1954 because it was against imperialist military pacts and was against a dependent economy. Prof. Dr Jaffer Naqvi said Dr Sarwar was a phenomenon and a staunch enemy of dictatorship. Prominent singer Tina Sani sang a poem of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Messages of Asif Hameedi, Eric Rahim, and Dr Mangi who are abroad were also read at the ceremony. A six-minute documentary on Dr Sarwar was also shown in the programme.

“An institution in himself” – Dr Badar Siddiqi

Sarwar & Badar, Karachi, 2008. Photo: B. Sarwar

Sarwar & Badar, Karachi, 2008. Photo: B. Sarwar

Dr Badar Siddiqi

Citation for Dr Sarwar at PMA House

May 31, 2009

“Death is more universal than life;

everyone dies but not everyone lives.”

–   A. Sachs

We have met today to remember Dr. Sarwar. This man lived –  and lived an amazing life.

I think everyone who knew him very well would agree with me that above all he was a very kind person with a great sense of humor who would make people laugh.

We should all be thankful that we were given the chance to have known a man named Sarwer. So let us celebrate the amazing life he led. He will greatly missed.

When someone passes away one thinks if

“Did he/she live with passion

Did he/she contribute something to the world that was previously missing?”

Did He/She  touch other people’s lives in a positive way?

I for one have no doubt that his life was full of all three areas and more.

Sarwar was a leader and a extraordinary person. He was an institution in himself.

He added a new dimension to whatever he touched.

Most of us know this. It is all history now.

He formed Pakistan’s first student union DSF –  Democratic Student Federation – and was chosen its first President. He also developed the unique organization Inter-Collegiate Body bringing everyone under one banner…..ICB  1953

He was among the leaders of the historic student movement of 1953. He was injured and arrested and it was in jail that in 1954 he cleared his final medical examination. When they though he will now be OK for them they released him.

Going through all this would have been enough for any ordinary human being anyone but not Sarwar who was no ordinary man.

When a member of the medical profession he joined  the new leadership team of PMA where Sarwar, Hashmi, Khawja Moin, Haroon, Jaffer Naqvi – they traveled all over Pakistan organizing the medical profession and made PMA a strong and respected organization.

The new PMA launched a movement for just rights of the profession  and provision of healthcare for the population of our country.

In the early 1980s in the background of strikes an all Pakistan PMA delegation met the government. Sarwar then the General Secretary led the delegation. I remember both of us sitting in an Islamabad hotel the night before discussing the strategy to present the demands to the five Generals led by Gen. Ziaul Haq. That night he taught me so much about how to keep calm  and keep focused on the objectives and never to lose temper. He told me in the early hours of the morning that I will present the case for PMA as his personal background might weaken our case. This says a lot about the personality of this man.

He lived an amazing life. Sarwar  was one of those persons whom everybody liked immediately because of his simplicity, because of his naturalness, because of his comradeship, because of his personality, because of his originality, even before his other singular virtues were revealed.

These qualities which acted as magnet  to attract a galaxy of personalities to his house which was always a open and welcoming with his lovely wife Zakia at his side who we subjected to unfair demands. It is at Sarwar’s house that I had the rare privilege of meeting people from all walks of life in intimate and memorable gatherings which included all shades and of people. Poets, artists, writers, journalists. The atmosphere and the wealth which flowed from these meetings is impossible to put in words.

I will never forget evenings with great personalities like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz, Zehra Nigah,Syed Sibte Hassan, Ali Imam, Bashir Mirza{B.M}, Saleem Asmi – one could go on with an unending list

I will forever be grateful for the privilege more then 30 years  friendship  with a friend like him. All the memories I have shared with him will forever be cherished and remembered I will forever be grateful to have known Sarwar.

Doston Ke Dermian Wajeh Dosti Hai Tu

(Loosely translated: “You are the reason for our friendship”)

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