“1953,” says veteran journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, “was the year that changed my life.”
That year, the salt-and-pepper haired pipe-smoking former newspaper editor was a “shy and quiet” shy matriculation student at Bahadur Yar Jang High School in Karachi.
He credits his transformation to his involvement with the High School Students Federation (HSF) that exposed him to the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF), Pakistan’s first nationwide student movement. I grew up hearing bits and pieces about DSF from my father Dr M. Sarwar, who led the movement.
Another HSF activist was the prominent barrister and Queen’s Counsel in London Sibghatullah Kadri, still sprightly at nearly 80. He came to Karachi in 1950, “aged 12 or 13 years old” from Badayun in Uttar Pradesh, India.
Activists emerging from the 1953 movement later led opposition to military dictator Ayub Khan
Like others, he too had chanted slogans for Pakistan and arrived in the ‘new country’ expecting some kind of utopia with equal opportunities for all. Instead he found poverty, pitiable living conditions, and difficulty getting admission to a school before the mid-term exams.
In 1952, Kadri met Mohammad Shafi, President of the High School Students’ Federation, a brilliant student and an eloquent speaker. The younger students’ primary connection to the higher leadership of the DSF and the Action Committee formed after the police brutality of January 1953, Shafi would later be a successful lawyer and political activist.
Shafi told Kadri about the “senior people” fighting to reduce fees, make books more easily available to students and improve hostels, labs and libraries. Kadri joined HSF and began distributing pamphlets.
“We had a dream about Pakistan, a country for Muslims where everyone would have equal opportunities and education,” he said, speaking at ‘Looking back to look forward’, an event organised to commemorate the 1953 movement at the Karachi Arts Council in January 2009 (video clips online at http://bit.ly/DSFJan2009).
Kadri and Salahuddin were among the high school students who participated the DSF-led January 1953 movement. Sartaj Alam, a student at D.J. College captured many moments of their struggle with his camera. The drama is evident even in the grainy and unclear black and white photos in a few photocopied issues of the Students Herald.
Prominent in this movement besides Sarwar were stalwarts like Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi with his formidable organizational capabilities, Mirza Mohammad Kazim, a brilliant strategist, and S.M. Naseem who, as editor of the fortnightly Students’ Herald, became the movement’s archivist. Comrades like Ayub Mirza and Abid Hasan Minto held the fort in Rawalpindi.
Noteworthy about the 1953 movement is not just how it transformed the lives of youngsters like Ghazi Salahuddin and Sibghatullah Kadri, but also the excellence that its activists achieved in their respective fields.
They went on to become top economists (S. M. Naseem), journalists and newspaper editors (Ghazi Salahuddin, Saleem Asmi), medical professionals (Khawaja Muin Ahmad,M.R.A. Hashmi, Haroon Ahmed, Ayub Mirza, Adib Hasan Rizvi, Asif Ali Hameedi, Yusuf Ali, Ghalib Lodhi), businessmen and corporate leaders (Mazhar Saeed, Zain Alavi), lawyers and judges (Mirza Mohammad Kazim, Abid Hasan Minto, Syed Iqbal Ahmed, Sibghatullah Kadri, Haziqul Khairi, Mazhar Jameel), teachers (Jamal Naqvi) and diplomats (Abul Fazl) – the names mentioned here are an indication rather than an exhaustive list.
Another noteworthy point about the 1953 movement is its contribution to progressive politics going forward, as it gave birth to a demand in Pakistan for human rights and an egalitarian society. Later, activists who had cut their teeth on the 1953 movement were at the forefront of the opposition to Pakistan’s first military dictator Ayub Khan and the movement that forced him out of power.
On an immediate level, the brutal police crackdown on DSF’s Demands Day procession of 7 January 1953 and on their mile-long protest demonstration the following day catalysed many more students into joining the movement, including high school students.
High school students bore the brunt and suffered the highest casualties
The presence of an active and strong High School Students Federation helped channel the aspirations of the younger students and connect them to their college-level comrades or “elder brothers” as HSF General Secretary Saghir Ahmed termed them. M. Shan represented the HSF in the Action Committee that met with the Education Minister after the demonstration. (I have no other information about M. Shan but after graduation, Saghir Ahmed joined PIA and rose to become General Manager of its Finance Department; he was actively involved in the PIA Employees’ Union).
Also prominent in HSF was the reclusive and serious Barkat Alam who contributed news about school students and the Federation to the Students’ Herald. He obtained an M. A. in Economics, went to UK for his Ph.D. and worked as a researcher and lecturer at Strathclyde and Caledonian Universities in Glasgow.
The HSF leaders who have passed on remain icons of an inspiring period when “so many young people were infused with social and political commitment and were willing to organise themselves and come out to agitate in defence of their socialistic ideas,” as Ghazi Salahuddin put it.
The high school students supported the overall demands put forward by DSF – better accommodation for schools, reduction in fees, building of more hostels and colleges, playgrounds, free medical aid.
However, HSF had its own set of demands particular to high school students. They presented these demands to the Education Ministry and to the Directorate of Education in the form of the memorandum below.
The Executive Committee of the High School Students’ Federation places the following demands to be accepted before the commencement of the Matric Examination:
The date of the Preliminary Examination should be extended because of the recent tragedy.
No student should be detained in the Preliminary Examination.
One paper should be given in a day.
Grace marks should also be included.
The Examination fee should be reduced by 50 per cent.
Five months fee should not be taken at a time but in installments.
Supplementary Examinations should be held every year.
The students had been calling for these “legitimate and just demands through the HSF for the last five years,” wrote Saghir Ahmed, urging that they “should be accepted before the commencement of the Matric Examination” (Students’ Herald, Vol 1, No 6, Feb 6, 1953).
The Directorate of Education agreed to the first, second and sixth demands, and told the students’ deputation to present the rest to the Board of Secondary Education.
Accounts like Saghir Ahmed’s in the Students’ Herald give an idea of the involvement of the high school students in the 1953 movement and also underline the importance of archiving and documenting movements.
Both elements – the high school students’ and the college students’ movements – are completely absent from Pakistan’s history books.
High school students actively participated in the 7 January 1953 Demands Day demonstration and in the protest demonstrations the following day. Ahmed writes about their “unity with their elder brothers”.
High school students “bore the brunt and suffered (the) greatest number of casualties in dead and wounded. A majority of those arrested were also drawn from their ranks. Immediately after this blood bath authorities stepped up their attempts to split and divide the student movement on the basis of senior and junior students by fixing different dates for the reopening of the schools and college but miserably failed”.
Schools remained closed over the next six days, and “the high school students even boycotted preliminary and terminal examinations which were in progress or about to start in most of the institutions. They thus displayed an unparalleled maturity and consciousness and underlined the unity of students”.
Their activism resulted in the principals imposing fines for participating in the strikes and threatening expulsions.
Saghir Ahmed documents some of these punitive measures, taken apparently under orders of the Director of Board of Education. At the Sheldon High School the principal victimised four students participating in the January demonstrations, suspending “Saleem, Basharat, Aziz and Abid of Class 9A… for an indefinite period”.
As the establishment had done with their “elder brothers”, a whispering campaign began against these teenagers, along with “fake bodies… to confuse them and break them away from the mainstream of students’ movement and thus disrupt the students’ unity,” writes Saghir Ahmed.
In 1953, all these attempts at disruption failed in the face of the prevailing slogan of “student unity” that was much in evidence on the ground. Rare now is the kind of organisation and unity visible then, with high school and college students standing together for a common cause. The High School Students Federation also played a key role in organising and participating in DSF”s all-Pakistan National Convention held on December 25-26, 1953.
After DSF was banned in 1954, the same forces responsible for the whispering campaigns and fake bodies formed the National Students’ Federation to counter DSF’s “communist” ideology. Former HSF and DSF activists like Barkat Alam, Syed Abdul Wudood, Sibghatullah Kadri and Saghir Ahmed infiltrated NSF as ordinary members, took it over and revived the NSF as a reincarnation of DSF.
Divisions in the socialist world and changes in the geo-political scene would soon create splinters among leftists in Pakistan too, shattering the students’ unity that Sarwar and his comrades had been so proud of.
But in 1953-54, this unity was well intact.
The writer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker – www.beenasarwar.com. She tweets @beenasarwar. This essay is an extract from her forthcoming ‘Personal Political’ memoir on the struggle for democratic spaces in Pakistan. Earlier installments in this series – Part I: 8 Jan; Part II: 12 Feb; Part III: 19 Feb; Part IV: 26 Feb, 2016.
Note: This series pieces together the story of DSF, incorporating research from my documentary film ‘Aur Niklenge Ushhaq ke Qafley’, 2010 (https://vimeo.com/beenasarwar/ushhaq). My main sources are primarily my late father Dr M. Sarwar, interviews of him (particularly an audio interview by Anwer Sen Roy in 2007) and his friends, as well as archives like the Students’ Herald and Dawn. I am happy to incorporate further information in the memoir-based personal political history of the struggle for democratic spaces in Pakistan that I am working on.