The genesis of the Democratic Students’ Federation in 1950 at Dow Medical College was not heated discussions over coffee, but over cadavers in the dissection hall.
“You really bond when you have to share cadavers,” said Sarwar.
My father had done his first year of college in Allahabad and come to Karachi in 1948, a year after Independence during the summer holidays. He was curious to see what the “new country” was like, for which he had raised slogans of ‘Pakistan Zindabad’. And his eldest sister Sadiqa and her Lucknow-educated husband Dr. Waheed-ud-din, a reputed physician, had already moved to Karachi where Dr. Waeed had found a house to live in and set up a clinic. Sarwar was close to them both.
Dr Waheed, whom we children called ‘Aboo’, was a large, gentle man with progressive ideas, a mentor to both my father and his older brother Mohammad Akhtar, a student activist at Allahabad University. Akhtar would come to Pakistan in 1949 and start working as a journalist (he was one of the founders of the Karachi Press Club and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists).
In those days, there was a regular ferry service between Bombay and Karachi. There were no passports. Indian and Pakistani currency was interchangeable. For Sarwar, then barely 18 years old, it was an exciting adventure. While in Karachi, Sarwar chanced upon an advertisement in the newspaper: medical colleges were accepting applications for admissions. He applied. Somewhat surprised when he got in, he decided to stay on. He was unlikely to get such an opportunity in India.
In those days, there was a regular ferry service between Bombay and Karachi. Indian and Pakistani currency was interchangeable
Despite the bloody Partition and millions of lives lost or ruined, despite the limited resources and hardships, there was a great sense of adventure, idealism and expectations in the air. Charged with the spirit of revolution, imbued with socialist ideals of equality and fraternity, students – and indeed many others – had great expectations.
“We thought that after Pakistan was made, there would be a society with universal education, people would have the opportunity to study and the youth would have the chance to participate fully in the progress of the country. These were our ideals and our views, our demands,” said Sarwar. “We had thought that in Pakistan the people would be looked after, there would be many facilities for the people.”
The reality was rather different, even “depressing”. Tribal and feudal chiefs controlled most of Pakistan. “We never thought there would be this kind of jagirdari, zamindari (feudalism), illiteracy, unemployment, so many problems for the people instead of their lives being easier.”
The atmosphere of “a free country, of thinking people” should be different, thought Sarwar and his friends. The mind-set that they encountered compromised the political awareness that they wanted to raise.
Students convinced Sarwar not to sit the exams needed to graduate from his final year of medical college
“Emotions ran high,” recalls Haroon Ahmed, then also a medical student, later one of the country’s top psychiatrists. “A sense of victory and an aura of independence overshadowed the lurking insecurity, a crippling sense of belonging, not belonging, no passport, no visa… But something kept our spirits high and the dreams for a better tomorrow alive.”
Young people had a particularly rough time of it. A room allotted to someone in one of the few hostels would soon become a sort of commune. Even the original inhabitant would not know who else was living there, who was just there for a visit or had dropped by for a weekly bath, as Dr. Haroon puts it.
Haroon Ahmed’s own family of five found shelter with relatives at an apartment in “Sojer” (Soldier) Bazaar. Three more families arrived, with five to six members each. The boys would spread out their beddings by the roadside. Haroon recalls “waking up in the morning to find a cow sort of sharing my bed. Looking back, it now seems in a way ‘usual’.” He still intensely feels the loss of his bicycle stolen from a marketplace, even after having two cars snatched at gunpoint.
As for educational facilities, two houses in a road behind Civil Hospital – probably rented by the government – comprised what passed as Karachi University. The government seemed least interested in furthering education. College hostels, laboratories and libraries were in a bad state. Many poor people – boys and girls – were enrolled in Karachi’s half dozen or colleges. Many like my father had left behind homes, families and belongings in India. They could not afford to pay the fees in a lump sum every three months as required.
This is where the cadavers came in.
“You make many friendships in the dissection hall”, said my father.
In the first and second year at medical college, the ten to twelve students working together on one dead body for hours at a time formed intimate friendships. Those friendships endured into the third year. Taking forward the discussions, Sarwar found many other like-minded students who also saw the need for a representative student body. Deciding to form such a body, the first word in the name they decided on, Democratic Students’ Federation, reflected their aspirations.
“And it was really a democratic party” my father would say with pride. “We would call meetings, decisions would be put before others, and only then implemented.”
Very different from the political parties built around families…
DSF had no direct political agenda. “We focused on students’ problems,” says Mirza Mohammad Kazim who set up the DSF unit at DJ Science College. Later a labour lawyer and advocate of the Sindh High Court, he said the hope was that having gathered students on a platform for their rights, there could be discussions helping to raise awareness about other issues, like poverty alleviation and workers’ rights.
DSF opposed the commercialisation of education that had already begun. Their demands included a reduction in the fee structure, the building of hostels, better libraries, laboratories, faculty and a proper university that provided good educational opportunities – and the right to employment.
Sarwar always stressed that DSF was not political and he worked assiduously to keep it independent of Communist Party politics, even though DSF’s demands, particularly the right to employment were in line with the communist agenda. But what can be more political than raising students’ awareness and consciousness through a realisation of basic rights?
1953 was a charged year for the student movement. It began with DSF’s ‘Demands Day’ procession in Karachi on January 7 and ended with the splendid all-Pakistan students’ convention at Katrak Hall. The Convention too had its moment of drama when Jamiat goons attacked it, surging into the premises as the gates opened to let in the Chief Guest, law minister A. K. Brohi.
It is these dramatic moments that capture public imagination and the headlines. Sidelined and forgotten is the years-long process of painstaking, step-by-step organisation. The students who started the movement took their discussions beyond the Dow Medical College premises. They expanded their meetings to coffee shops and the now defunct Awadh Hotel, where students from other colleges could join. They painstakingly built their constituency — and that too at a time when even regular rotary-dial telephones were few and far between. They connected with students who formed DSF units in other colleges. They expanded their membership, and held discussions raised awareness among the student community. When 1953 began, DSF dominated all the educational institutes of Karachi.
This network of DSF units in Karachi’s colleges came together in what they called the Inter-Collegiate Body.
After all the hard work that DSF activists put in, it was the police brutality against DSF’s Demands Day procession of January 7, 1953 and over the next couple of days that catapulted the student movement to the national level. However, this did not happen without the organisational power, passion and commitment of the movement’s leadership, as Saleem Asmi, then President of DSF at S.M. College, points out. Later a journalist who retired as Editor of daily Dawn, Asmi was a couple of years junior to Sarwar.
Another major player was Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi, a medical student from Hyderabad, Deccan, whose room at 29 Mitha Ram Hostel opposite D.J. Science College served as the buzzing unofficial headquarters of DSF. Hashmi was a great organiser, getting students from other colleges involved with his “distinctive quality of identifying the right person for the right job” as Dr Haroon Ahmed puts it.
Besides the initial stalwarts of DSF mentioned above, others included, but are not limited to, Zain Alavi, whose older brother was the Marxist economist Hamza Alavi, Mazhar Saeed and Adib Rizvi (later one of Pakistan’s most distinguished and respected surgeons) at DJ Science College, Iqbal Alavi, not a student but working with Orient Airways, the predecessor to PIA, S.M. Naseem, who edited the Students’ Herald and become one Pakistan’s top economists. Outside Karachi, others like Abid Hasan Minto and Ayub Mirza also played a major role in consolidating the movement.
I grew up in a large old house in Karachi’s Fatima Jinnah Colony near the Quaid’s mausoleum where many of these activists were frequent visitors. They would gather, often with their wives, in the smoke-filled living room for dinners, poetry and music sessions that lasted late into the night long after the children were sent to their rooms for a strict 8 pm bedtime. It was only later, after getting into journalism and becoming interested in politics, that I got to know them better.
In 1953, his fellow students prevailed upon Sarwar not to sit the exams needed to graduate from his final year of medical college. They wanted him to stay on as Convenor of the All-Pakistan National Students’ Convention coming up. Was the Communist Party of Pakistan involved in this decision? He always denied it, stressing that DSF was an independent student body, despite the affiliation of many of its members to the CPP.
Hearing that Sarwar had decided to defer his final exams, Col. Dr. Malik, the avuncular principal of Dow Medical College, drove over to the little house in PIB Colony where Sarwar then lived with his parents, brother and four younger sisters.
“He’s a bright student, he will pass,” Col. Malik assured them.
His efforts to enlist the family’s support didn’t work. Supported by Akhtar, then a sports reporter at Dawn, Sarwar told the Principal that he would sit the exams the following year.
Beena Sarwar 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 instalments in this series – Part I: Jan 8; Part II: Feb 12; Part III: Feb 19,
This series of memoir-based articles on the DSF is a work in progress. Since Dr M. Sarwar’s death in 2009, encouraged by various friends and family members, I have been piecing together the story of DSF, starting with the research that went into my documentary film ‘Aur Niklenge Ushhaq ke Qafley’, 2010 (https://vimeo.com/beenasarwar/ushhaq).
This neglected part of Pakistan’s history finds no mention in any of Pakistan’s textbooks or official narratives. My main sources are primarily my late father, 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 welcome other inputs and am happy to incorporate more information in the book I am working on.2016