“This man is my guru,” said the revolutionary poet Habib Jalib, hugging Dr. Mohammad Sarwar at a book launch at Karachi Press Club several years ago.
Jalib was a student at Jacob Lines School in the early 1950s when my father Mohammad Sarwar, then a student at Dow Medical College in Karachi, headed the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF). DSF led Pakistan’s first nation-wide student movement that was catapulted to the limelight after the police attacked their ‘Demands Day’ processions of January 7 and 8, 1953.
Thanks to the DSF organ The Students’ Herald, edited by S. M. Naseem (later a prominent economist and writer), we have the students’ account of what happened in those days. Some Dow Medical students who visited my father, years ago, borrowed his copies of the paper – which they never returned. Thankfully Naseem still has some photocopied issues (the scanned materials may be seen online at: www.drsarwar.wordpress.com).
27 people – including school students – died between January 7 and 9, 1953
From them, we learn that 27 people – including high school students – died between January 7 and 9, 1953 (The Students Herald ‘Martyrs’ Issue’, January 19, 1953). Another report in that issue, “Three Days that Shook the Country” lists the dead, including several school students. Two were 12 years old. I’m struck by mention of the 15-year-old Boy Scout Man Sukh Lal who died trying to help the injured. Student activists in Pakistan still often commemorate January 8 as a ‘Black Day’.
Shopkeepers and residents – including the Anglican and Zoroastrian families who then populated Saddar – supported the students, providing them with wet towels, water and even shelter.
That short-lived movement had far-reaching repercussions. Many of its stalwarts went on to become top professionals in their own fields. They included journalists and newspaper editors like Saleem Asmi, Asaf Jillani and Ghazi Salahuddin (a school student like Jalib at the time); lawyers like Abid Hasan Minto, Mirza Mohammad Kazim, Sibghatullah Kadri and Mazhar Jameel; and medical specialists like Adibul Hasan Rizvi, Ayub Mirza, and Haroon Ahmed, to name but a few.
The movement also catalysed improvements at the University of Karachi and better education facilities for students. Above all, perhaps, it laid the foundation for progressive student politics in Pakistan. DSF-inspired activists like Meraj Mohammad Khan infiltrated the then right-wing National Students’ Federation (NSF) and led the 1968-69 movement that forced the then military dictator General Ayub Khan to announce that he would not take part in the next elections.
Pakistan’s history books ignore this integral part of our past – “a movement of which progressive people can still feel proud,” as former journalist Eric Rahim put it after my father died in 2009. “We look back to look forward”.
I don’t know whether Jalib was part of the spirited High School Students’ Federation (HSSF), but it was at DSF gatherings that Jalib first recited his poetry in public, I learnt while researching for a documentary on the DSF (Aur Niklenge Ushhaq ke Qafley, 2010). My aunt Shahida, active in the movement, remembers Jalib’s recitations at the colonial era Theosophical Hall and at the DSF’s historic National Convention in December 1953.
Shahida had contested student union elections at Women’s College, encouraged by her older brothers Sarwar and Akhtar, a journalist and one of the founders of the Karachi Press Club and Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. To her surprise, she won, becoming one of the few women at DSF’s policy-making meetings.
Shahida and her younger sister Rashida (later a social worker and schoolteacher respectively), also at Women’s College, joined other students in collecting ‘chanda’ (donations) from the public. This was a conscious strategy by the DSF to raise awareness. Activists would walk shop to shop and house to house, telling people about the DSF and asking for contributions. They also held meetings all over Karachi particularly at colleges, discussing why things were going wrong in the new state and why it was important to become active in politics.
“This groundwork laid the foundations for the 1953 movement,” said Abid Minto in an interview to Ammar Ali Jan in August 8, 2009. Then a student at Gordon College, Rawalpindi, Minto was part of an earlier attempt to form the DSF in Rawalpindi in 1948 – that had not endured. Its activists eventually merged with the new movement.
My aunts look back in wonder that their otherwise strict mother, my Dadi, allowed them to fundraise in public and even act in a play for DSF at D.J. Science College. Amazingly, “we got the permission! Rashida and I acted in front of all those people, and they liked it!” Shahida said, remembering the applause.
The event included other items, including a poetry recital by Himayat Ali Shair who stole the show, reducing the audience to tears with his poem ‘Ma’ (mother), dedicated to the ‘martyrs of the January movement’, she remembers.
What was it that drove these students to come together and demand their rights? One factor was the poor facilities in most higher education institutes. Karachi University comprised two houses behind Civil Hospital. Most college students in Karachi came from humble backgrounds. Many had come from India to “the new land” with few material possessions or money, but lofty dreams and aspirations.
Haroon Ahmed and his family stayed with relatives in Soldier Bazaar. More families arrived from India. “The boys would spread out their beddings by the roadside. I would wake up in the morning to find a cow sharing my bed,” he recalls, smiling at the memory. “But something kept our spirits high and the dream for a better tomorrow alive.”
It was at DSF gatherings that Jalib first recited his poetry in public
In those Cold War years, Pakistan eyed America for support. The youth and intellectuals, influenced by socialism and progressive ideas, looked to the Soviet Union. Many were critical of the late Jinnah, who despite being constitutionally minded, had allowed bureaucrats to take political office.
Students at Dow Medical College discussing these issues took the lead in forming the DSF. In 1949, Sarwar convened the first DSF meeting, attended by some 35-40 students, at a hotel in the Lines area. They began contacting friends in other colleges, launched membership drives and opened units in Karachi’s colleges. They worked democratically and openly, energising students while creating political awareness.
Many DSF activists were also Communist Party members and never hid their socialist leanings. However, they kept the DSF banner free of party politics. Sarwar believed that student unity was paramount and that encouraging separate political organisations in colleges would destroy the movement. They kept the focus on issues like more schools, better libraries, laboratories, teachers – causes that would benefit students and the public at large.
DSF candidates began contesting student union elections and winning in most colleges. However, the highest student union office they could aspire to was Vice President, as college principals were ex-officio Presidents of the student union.
Elected Secretary of the Dow Medical College students’ union, Sarwar initiated a change in the student union constitution: the college principal would no longer be President but patron. He led a delegation to their principal, Col. Dr. Malik, who asked, “Son, do you think this constitution you have made will be beneficial to the students?” Convinced, he called his steno and dictated: ‘I, Col. S.M.A. Malik, Principal of DMC, do hereby pass this constitution presented to me by the students union etc’. Other colleges followed suit.
Vice Chancellor of Karachi University Prof. A.B. A. Haleem patronised another student organisation, “World University Service”, funded apparently by Washington to counter socialist influence in Pakistan.
In 1951-52, DSF organised conventions in all the colleges. By 1952 they had formulated a unanimously approved Charter of Demands for the government. They sent a copy to the Ministry of Education and requested an appointment with the Education Minister, Fazlur Rahman. The demands included a revised fee structure (make fees payable monthly instead of six-monthly), improved laboratory, library and hostel facilities, a university in Karachi and security of employment.
The right wing students attacked the last demand as part of a “communist agenda”. The McCarthy era in America, marked by witch-hunts against communists, had spilled over into Pakistan.
Fed up of being stonewalled, the DSF-led Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB) which linked student unions, announced a ‘Demands Day’ on Jan 7, 1953, to be marked by a college-wide strike and a march from D.J. Science College to the Education Minister’s house up the road.
Newspapers that morning reported that Karachi Chief Commissioner A. T. Naqvi had imposed Section 144 over the area, banning more than four people from gathering at public places. There was also a report about Education Minister Fazlul Rahman having met with a students’ deputation a day earlier and received their list of grievances and demands. Rahman, who for months had ignored the DSF’s request to meet him, “gave a patient and sympathetic hearing to the deputation and promised to look into their grievance (sic)… Prof. A. B. A. Haleem, Vice Chancellor of the Karachi University was present during the interview” (Dawn, Jan 7, 1953).
Students gathering at D. J. Science College included medical, high school, engineering and law students. Students from New Town Girls High School, including my cousin Naseem, reached Burns Road and “watched the students marching to D.J. College. Some girls joined them,” recalls Naseem. “It was very inspiring.”
Shahida and students from Women’s College also joined. Expecting trouble, Rehman Ali Hashmi, whose room at 29 Mitharam Hostel across from D.J. Science College was the unofficial DSF headquarters, told them to stay behind the main procession.
Karachi University comprised two houses behind Civil Hospital
A grainy black and white photograph from Students Herald shows the D. J. compound packed with students carrying banners. “We were unarmed, completely peaceful. No one carried even a stick, let alone a gun. No one wanted to fight,” said Mazhar Saeed, Secretary General of the DSF unit at D.J. College, interviewed for my documentary.
The police cordoned off the premises, but students broke through the blockade, braving tear gas and batons, and began heading towards the Education Minister’s residence. Near Paradise Cinema (now a cloth market) in Saddar, police fired more tear gas.
“Students were injured and would fall back but we kept marching,” recalls former editor of Dawn Saleem Asmi, then an Intermediate student. “One student picked up a tear gas shell and flung it back.” The next day’s papers carried a photo of his burnt hand.
Down the road, someone set on fire Interior Minister Gurmani’s car, a dark green Packard. The police bundled up some students into a van to haul them off to the police station. Sarwar and other leaders rushed there and demanded their release, arguing that there was no proof they were responsible for the arson. Some of the detained students in fact belonged to the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba that had constantly opposed the progressive outlook of the DSF. “But that day, all students were DSF,” says Asmi.
Confronted by this show of unity, the police released the students. Sarwar re-joined the marchers. Further ahead, there was a barrage of tear gas shells.
Shahida saw the white handkerchief Sarwar was waving, trying to get the police to stop shooting. Blocked by the police, students took alternative routes to reach the Education Minister’s house. They asked to see him but were told he wasn’t in.
Police arrested DSF leaders including Sarwar and Mirza Mohammad Kazim (later a prominent labour lawyer). About a thousand students sat down right there in a ‘dharna’ (a very different connotation then), refusing to budge until their arrested comrades were freed. A district magistrate ordered that the detained students be released within a couple of hours. They joined their comrades at the Education Minister’s house. There, they decided to hold another demonstration the following day against the police brutality.
Word spread to other cities. On the night of January 7, two ninth-graders took the Karachi to Sukkur train and contacted fellow ninth-grader Mazhar Jameel. They met up with other Sukkur students overnight. The next morning on January 8, Sukkur’s educational institutes were closed – a significant victory, given that Sukkur was a bastion of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
In Karachi, on January 8, the government imposed a curfew. But twice as many students as the previous day gathered at D.J. College, and again began to march to the Education Minister’s house.
At ‘Elphy’ (Elphinstone, now Zebunnisa Street), police blocked the road, warning that they would open fire if the students continued. Some students started walking on, defying them to do that.
Sarwar went forward holding up his hand and asked the District Magistrate to remove the police. “We assured them that we students would be responsible for law and order and there would be no trouble or violence or breakages. We assured them that there was no danger, and asked them to move back because their presence was making the students angrier” (interview by Anwer Sen Roy, January 7, 2007; my translation).
The police refused. Sarwar told the students that it would be better to disperse. “Why are they trying to stop us, we are going peacefully, we are not trying to create any disturbance,” asked the students. As the DSF leadership was trying to convince the demonstrators to disperse, some rushed forward and the police opened fire.
The government’s ham-handed response to the students’ peaceful demonstrations catalysed the DSF’s cause into a nationwide movement.
Then about eight years old, Nauzer Messman clearly remembers those events. I met him while seeking permission to film at Katrak Hall – a Zoroastrian community centre – where the DSF National Convention of 1953 took place. Messman and his wife lived in an old block of flats that witnessed much of the action. “I can never forget the firing, the screaming and shouting, the loss of lives,” he said. His Navjot (coming of age) ceremony had to be postponed due to the curfew imposed by the government after the January 8 firing incident.
Also profoundly moved by those events – despite not participating directly – was prominent poet Zehra Nigah, then a high school student. She heard about it from cousins talking about the student protests, the police brutality, the interior minister’s car being burnt and the students killed and injured.
“We (young people) felt as if all this had happened before our eyes, to us, and we have to do something,” she said. Her contribution was a poem lamenting the loss of lives. She remembered a few lines and recited them for me, her eyes alight with the fire of an excitement lit over fifty years ago.
As news about the police brutality, arrests, deaths and injuries spread, students around the country held massive demonstrations. The biggest were in Lahore and Dacca, each drawing some 20,000 students, followed by other cities like Rawalpindi, Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Montgomery (Sahiwal), Hyderabad and Peshawar. Professional organisations like the All Pakistan Postmen and Lower Grade Staff Union and cultural bodies like the Sindhi Adabi Sangat joined the protests. Telegraphic messages of support came in from all over Pakistan and around the world, including India.
Government officials began to adopt a conciliatory attitude. They arranged for the DSF leadership to meet with Karachi Commissioner A. T. Naqvi.
A.T. Naqvi “ka darbar lagta tha,” says Mazhar Saeed, referring to the Commissioner’s reputation for virtually holding court. “He began acting high and mighty. Sarwar got angry. ‘Mr Commissioner, if you can’t speak to us politely, we are walking out,’ he said. ‘But I must tell you that if you come to Dow Medical College, you will be lynched’. A. T. Naqvi was stunned. No one talked to him like that. He was like a shahenshah, a king. And we walked out.”
Qamaruz Zaman, one of the students patronised by A. B. A. Haleem (the Karachi University Vice Chancellor), was heading in – perhaps to discuss his group’s upcoming government-sponsored tour to East Bengal.
Saleem Asmi recalls that as their paths crossed, Zaman told Sarwar, “It’s your fault that all those students died.”
The normally calm Sarwar responded by slapping Zaman. “That’s the only time ever in my life that I saw Sarwar be violent,” says Asmi.
Shouting for help, Zaman fled in a cycle rickshaw, recalls Mazhar Saeed with some glee.
Many activists were angry at the few college student union office bearers who had not supported the DSF. Some wanted to beat up such ‘traitors’ to the students’ cause, others demanded their resignations. The DSF leadership prevailed upon them to remain calm. A couple of the opponents “were so ashamed they came and touched our feet and asked for forgiveness, and pledged to support us,” says Sarwar (Anwer Sen Roy, 2007 interview).
A few days after the failed meeting with the Karachi Commissioner, Muslim Leaguers told the DSF leadership that Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin wanted to meet them. The next day, they escorted about half a dozen ICB leaders to the PM House. Nazimuddin “was a decent (sharif) man… He seated us and apologised profusely for what had happened. He said students are my ‘lakht-e-jigar’ [very dear to me],” said Sarwar.
During the period that the Muslim League was courting the DSF, chauffeur-driven cars parked outside the DSF leaders’ homes offered to take them wherever they wanted. “We always refused and took public transport,” said Sarwar.
Nazimuddin told the ICB representatives that his doors were open to them. He promised to study their demands. But shortly afterwards, he was dismissed from office. ICB representatives then met the next prime minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Pakistan’s former ambassador to Mexico. He, too, met them warmly and promised to study their demands. Then he spread out a huge map on the table – Mexico University. If the students approved it, work would begin.
The foundations of the University of Karachi thus began to be laid. And the government began planning to build a new capital far away from such trouble spots, in the hills near Rawalpindi.
Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker – www.beenasarwar.com. She tweets at @beenasarwar. This essay is an extract from her forthcoming memoir on the struggle for democratic spaces in Pakistan