Students who set the tone

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

ON Jan 9, Karachiites will take a trip down memory lane to honour the legacy of those who launched the student movement of the 1950s. A meeting at the Karachi Arts Council will “reclaim this forgotten part of our past” to quote the organisers.

Many well-known personalities today are the student activists of yesterday who shot into the limelight when they mobilised and inspired their colleagues to struggle collectively for a change in the social order that they perceived as being oppressive.

Mohammad Sarwar, a medical student and one of the founders of the Democratic Student Federation (DSF), figured prominently in the student movement spearheaded by the DSF. All his contemporaries credit him with using his “tremendous energy and excellent leadership skills” for mass mobilisation with a progressive outlook.

Through the Inter-Collegiate Body — an alliance of the elected unions of colleges — and a fortnightly publication, Students` Herald, (edited by S.M. Naseem) Sarwar expanded the reach of the DSF to students all over the country.

The federation certainly filled the vacuum that existed in the early years of Pakistan when the political leadership and the academia were staunchly pro status quo. This was not really surprising if one recalls that the Muslim League which had led the struggle for Pakistan was feudal-dominated and protective of the interests of the elites.

In the pre-Independence period student activism was closely linked to the political parties of the day, with student parties being an extension of their parent organisations. Post partition the reactionary politics of the country cast a dark shadow on student thinking.

In this environment, the left`s endeavour to organise itself among the workers and intellectuals was an uphill task. Historically, the challenge to the status quo in any society has come from the campuses which have proved to be a catalyst for change. The DSF that was formed in 1951 had started to play this role in Pakistan in the 1950s when it was brutally crushed.

In retrospect, the DSF deserves credit for giving a progressive direction to the younger generation of students that persisted till the 1980s. Feeling threatened, the establishment attacked the DSF alleging it was the student wing of the Communist Party of Pakistan. The DSF denied it vigorously (see `Student movement re-visited` by two enterprising members, S. Haroon Ahmed and Saleem Asmi, in the Dawn edition of April 5, 2008).

However, the powers-that-be proceeded to ban the DSF along with the CPP in 1954. Intriguingly, this debate has surfaced once again in the changed context of today in a treatise written by a socio-economic consultant, Iqbal Haider Butt. Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan published by Bargad, a Gujranwala-based youth forum, in 2009, is the only publication of its kind on the subject I have come across.

Describing the DSF as the student wing of the CPP, Butt`s treatise observes that most student groups faced resource constraints and spatial limitations that forced them to rely on funds and office space rendered by “mother groups”, many of them actually operating from the “party” premises. But it fails to add that the DSF operated out of the Mitharam Hostel`s room # 29 occupied by another committed founder-member, Mir Rahman Ali Hashmi.

True the leftist leanings of the DSF upset the establishment. The DSF raised issues such as the cost of education, the high tuition fees, poor hostel conditions and the paucity of financial support for indigent students.

In view of this perspective, one can understand the discomfiture of a government that was not interested in promoting mass education. The students persisted and drew up a charter of demand which led to a confrontation with the police and the death of seven processionists and a number of arrests on Jan 8, 1953.

When asked about the crime of an arrested leader, the commissioner of Karachi reportedly said, “We found Marxist literature in his house.”

The retrogressive, exploitative and pro-American environment of the 1950s in Pakistan was not quite conducive to progressivism of any kind. But the DSF did not lose heart and went on to set up the All Pakistan Students Organisation that brought students of East and West Pakistan on the same platform at a time when the country was a house divided, thanks to the politicians` inability to work out a power-sharing arrangement.

Today the student movement is virtually dead. The student unions that were banned in 1984 and which this government had promised to revive last year have yet to see the light of day. A break of over two decades means that the tradition of student activism of the kind Dr Sarwar espoused is no more.

Is it possible in the present-day academic environment? The decay in education in Pakistan, the proliferation of universities in the private sector, the privatisation of social services, the rat race in job placements, the elitism in higher education and the Islamisation of society and sections of the academia have robbed students of interest in social justice.

It was another age and another time when student politics was a training ground for life for the stalwarts of the DSF. Most of the founders gave up their activism — as daughter Beena confirms for Dr Sarwar.

Political activist and advocate Abid Hasan Minto, however, observes that this movement did shape the thinking of the organisation that took up its mantle – the National Students Federation – which later split before losing its way in the wilderness.

What were the lessons learnt? Adibul Hasan Rizvi, one of the activists of the 1950s, gives a long list, with empathy for the problems of the disadvantaged and negotiating skills as the most important.

These lessons stayed with some members for life. Dr Hashmi carried its spirit into the Pakistan Medical Association when he was elected its secretary general. Dr Rizvi injected the essence of the student movement into his work at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation where he provides free of cost service to his patients.

1 thought on “Students who set the tone

  1. Most interesting to read your take on the past and the present status of the students' activism. And would want to press further a bit on your words "the powers-that-be proceeded to ban the DSF along with the CPP in 1954"—- just wondering: was it a suicidal act or a selfish act by the powers that be. Had it been allowed to foster, wouldn't that student activism have created Jinnah's Pakistan (a dream that remained a dream even after partition) long ago…….

    Stifling the student movements is perhaps the main force behind the disgusting failure of our nation. May be we are just a crowd, a far cry from being a nation….I am astonished just how quickly the civil movment fuelled by the lawyer's movement became dormant…..which forced me to ask another question: the success of the movement was due to the will of the people who went out in protest but how many of those people really knew what they're upto? My guess is not many….it was just a product of riff-raff rabble-rousing, a balloon filled with hot air. We're still far away from the moral, cutlural and national awakening that, well, created the country in the first place…..

    And you mention about the Government's intention to revive it. I ask: do we really need to wait for Government's, or for that matter "Establishment's" initiative? Shouldn't we just roar ahead just like Iranians have demonstarted of late? But do we have the leadership to guide us through?

    And yeah I must thank you for your article. It brought me back to mundane realm after I had taken-off in ecstatic jubiliation to celebrate the fate meted out to the "black" law….Thank you very much!

    Zahid Khan

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