Student movement in Pakistan

by Syed Ehtisham, writer and researcher

In order to get a clear idea of the student movement in Pakistan, we have to look at the religious make up of the educational institutions in the regions that became East and West Pakistan.

On the Western side, student activism sustained a grievous setback at the time of partition. An overwhelming majority of students were non-Muslim. When Dow Medical College, Karachi began in 1945, only two out of the class of fifty were Muslims. A Muslim Students Federation was formed at the N.E.D Engineering College, Karachi in 1947. Ahmad Khan Barakzai was the first President.

I interviewed an activist of the time, Mr. Nooruddin Sarki, a leading attorney in Karachi. After a brief mention of the Federation, he went on to enumerate the names of Karachi medical students of the time and pioneers of the student movement: M. Haroon, M Sarwar, Rahman Hashmi; all immigrants.

Educational institutions in all provinces of West Pakistan- Sind, Balochistan, NWFP and Punjab had roughly the same proportion of Hindu-Muslim students. All students in the region, like elsewhere in India, had participated in the Independence movement and constituted the youth wing of the Indian National Congress (INC). They left for India in 1947, leaving a vacuum among student activist ranks identical to that in all other socio-political fields.

Muslim refugees moved from East Punjab and elsewhere to the new country. Punjabis on both sides of the divide had borne the worst excesses of partition. They had been robbed of all assets, dignity and honor, and had barely escaped with their lives. Most had lost family members. They lived in refugee camps and other shelters, gradually settling down and occupying houses left by fleeing non-Muslims. The traumatic experience they had experienced was unprecedented in the annals of human history. All they wanted was to be left alone to pick up the pieces and live as normal a life as they could. They did not have the time, inclination or even the desire to indulge in movements, progressive or otherwise. It therefore took a long time for the young immigrants in Punjab and the few locals to get together and plan for the future.

In NWFP (now KPK), the student wing of Khudai Khitmatgars (Servants of God) of Ghaffar Khan, a populist ascetic movement, popularly called Red-Shirts because of the color of their clothes, had been discredited as they had sided with the losing side in the referendum held to decide if NWFP will join India or Pakistan. For many years, Khudai Khitmatgars had been openly aligned with the INC. Ghaffar Khan echoed Gandhi in preaching non-violence, and richly deserved the sobriquet Frontier Gandhi. As the date of independence drew close, pro-Pakistan sentiments took hold of people’s imagination there too.

Balochistan was the most feudal-tribal and least developed provinces in West Pakistan. Its only city, Quetta, was dominated by non-Muslims in pre-independence days. Muslims could be found in no walk of life, whether trade, business, education or government service. Except for a few Sardars who had houses in the city, Muslims lived in out of town mud houses. One such area was called Islamabad. In 1951, there was only one indigenous teacher in the whole province. He was promoted to the rank of Head Master, Inspector of Schools, Principal of the only college in the province and Director of Education, all within a few years. All the teachers were immigrants.

Since the early 20th century, Sind had had a vibrant body of student activists. The province was known for cordial relations between its ethnic groups. It did not have any communal riots till 1948. In fact, the Government is widely believed to have abetted disturbances in Karachi a year after partition to drive non-Muslims out, well after the early insanity had subsided. The conflict was between the immigrants and non-Muslims. Indigenous Sindhis did not take part in it. They in fact protected their non-Muslim compatriots when they could. A substantial percentage of Hindus actually stayed back in the interior of the province. The communist party of India, for reasons known only to them, had advised the Hindu members to leave for India. To their credit, many including the well known Sobho Ramchandrani and Pahumal Gianchandrani flouted the advice.

Compared to their Punjabi counterparts, Muslim refugees from India descending on Sindh had arrived relatively unscathed. They had walked into a land of opportunity. Clerks were promoted to managers, supervisors to high officials.

Given the relatively intact, though depleted cadre of activists into which the new arrivals easily merged, student movement in the Western Wing in early years was, for all practical purposes, confined to Karachi, where refugees from India had gravitated to in their millions. Students, mostly left wing in their leanings–because of family connections, indoctrination or chaotic conditions–launched a movement for better educational facilities such as decent classrooms, libraries, laboratories, reduction in fees, provision of textbooks for free or at subsidized rates, and above all, the right to organize.

Students in undivided Bengal were also at the forefront of the struggle for independence. If anything, they were even more militant than their counterparts in the rest of the country. They were intellectually influenced by Tagore, Nazrul Islam and other progressive writers. In contrast to West Pakistan, a sizable number of Muslim students also participated in the campaigns and were to play a large role in the 1971 war of secession. Also in contrast to the Western side, Hindus did not leave en-masse at the time of partition.

Due to historical circumstances, Hindus in Bengal were by and large more educated and politically conscious. They controlled business, commerce and industry as their Western provinces counterparts did. While Hindus constituted 15% of the population in East Pakistan, they occupied over 60% of positions in the fields of education, health, law, business and other professions. They played a significant role in keeping progressive thought alive in Muslim Bengal. If the province had been 98% Muslim, it might have fallen in the clutches of obscurantism as the Western Wing was destined to do.

After partition, Pakistani Bengalis had, in the spirit of nascent nationalism, accepted the lordship of non-Bengalis in the government at the center, and domination of their business, commerce and administration in the province. They were not prepared however, to accept a subsidiary status for their language. Jinnah, no doubt, from motives of using one language to cement national solidarity, had declared Urdu the only official language of Pakistan, as had Nehru and Patel for Hindi in India. Urdu, though spoken at home only by the immigrants from India who constituted less than five percent of the total population, was understood in all provinces, East and West. Bengali was a rich and highly developed language, with millennia old historical heritage and internationally acclaimed writers, poets and philosophers. It was spoken by 55% of the country’s population, but was confined to East Pakistan. Bengalis demanded that their language be accorded the same status as Urdu.

Jinnah made his first and last post independence visit to Dhaka in March 1948, and declared at a huge public meeting in Paltan Maidan that Urdu and only Urdu would be the official and national language of Pakistan. Nobody dared to challenge him as he was revered. People resented the declaration but heard him in silence, clapping and shouting ‘Quaid e- Azam Zindabad’ on a cue from the organizers. He spoke only English; few understood him anyway.

Sheikh Mujib, a student leader at the time, and the future leader of the independence movement and founder president of Bangladesh, later claimed that he had led a black flag waving group of students and had actually been able to disturb Jinnah’s speech; that is hardly credible, as the crowd would have lynched him. He did take out a small procession after Jinnah had flown back to Karachi.

The overall lead for the national student movement was, however, given by Karachi. Here the students had organized themselves into a party called Democratic Students Federation (DSF), a left leaning group, which was founded in 1950 in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Faisalabad (then Lyallpur). Not to be outdone, Barkat, Shafi, Sibghat and other school students formed a High School Student Federation (HSSF). Sarwar, then a medical student, was the first president of DSF. Kazim followed him. Its headquarters was in room 29, Mitha Ram Hostel.

Curiously enough, core of the leadership came from Dow Medical college, Karachi, which had more than its fair share of leftist students and continued to do so for a long time. Medical students have such a load of textbooks, lectures, and laboratory and hospital work, that in the West they hardly find time to have regular sleep or even meals. But a tranquil island cannot survive in a chaotic sea. The mindset of students assured of a successful and affluent future was remarkable. Dow Medical College produced such leaders as Sarwar, Haroon and Hashmi. The college was also to produce arguably the most prominent of student leaders–Sher Afzal who figured prominently in student politics in the late fifties to mid-sixties. Other colleges were not lagging far behind though, bringing forth such stalwarts as Kazim, Adib Rizvi, Iqbal Naqvi, Wilayat, Rizwan Wasti, and Mazhar Saeed. They all spent time in jail, but went on to remarkable professional successes as well.

By late 1952, the movement had gathered sufficient strength to take on the government. Students took out processions, and led marches in Karachi on 6,7,8 January 1953. National and international press gave them sympathetic coverage. Prime Minister Nazimuddin called the leaders to his official residence for a meeting on 7 January 1953 to discuss their demands. Education Minister Fazlur Rahman and senior officials of the ministry attended the moot. Students left the meeting with the impression that their demands had been accepted. In the official press release however, agreement was denied.

Enraged students went on a rampage. They surrounded a car with an official flag on it parked in the posh commercial area of Saddar. Its occupant turned out to be none other than the police minister Gurmani. The police panicked and attacked the students with tear gas. The minister succumbed to gas fumes and had to be carried away. By this time a mob had gathered. It torched the car and looted some liquor shops and ammunition stores, brandishing captured guns to frighten the police. The police retaliated by opening fire on a group of students in front of Paradise Cinema in Saddar. Twenty-six students were killed. Nainsuk Lal, a boy scout helping an injured striker, was the first fatal casualty. Several flags got soaked in blood. The public joined the protest, shopkeepers pulled their shutters down, buses were taken off the roads, offices unattended. The city was paralyzed and life came to a halt.

The situation was beyond the control of the security agencies. The government appealed to the students to help regain peace and calm. Kazim, the overall leader of the movement, generously and in national spirit, announced that the Government had accepted their demands. All leaders of the opposition, trade unions, and even those of Jamaat e Islami condemned the police brutality.

Rather than responding gratefully to Kazim’s gesture of good will and considering the students’ demands sympathetically, the government banned the DSF and put student leaders in jail.

For many years, January 8 was commemorated as Martyr’s Day, with meetings and a procession. One blood soaked flag was carried in the forefront.

The government’s repressive measures could not succeed in suppressing the movement. Student leaders from East and West Pakistan got together and announced an All Pakistan Students Convention in December 1953. M. Sarwar was elected the Chairman of the convening committee. Delegates from colleges all over the country participated. Mateen and Khaliquzzaman came from East Pakistan. The Punjab delegation was led by Abid Manto of Rawalpindi. Alia Imam represented Indian students, but she paid a heavy price for this; she was deported from the country. Sind had the largest representation, reflective not just of contiguity, but of its politically conscious cadres. It was led by Syed Mazhar Jamil, now a leading literary critic, art historian and attorney of Karachi. There was even a delegation from Government College Quetta, a veritable backwater.

To coincide with Martyr’s Day, the convention dates were fixed for January 1954 and the venue was Katrak Hall in Saddar (a relic of pre-partition days, now in sad disrepair). Messages of solidarity came from student bodies all over the world. Law minister AK Brohi agreed to be the Chief Guest. He came from a small Baluchi tribe and was enlightened and progressive compared to other ministers. He was an intellectual, and a bright star of the cabinet. M. Sarwar, at the minister’s request, escorted him from his official residence to the meeting.

The Chief Commissioner of Karachi had, in the meanwhile, imposed section 144, which proscribed gatherings of more than four persons in public places. Sarwar and Brohi arrived at the hall only to find the place in pandemonium. Gurmani, the police minister, (a big feudal lord, who was widely suspected of being involved in the assassination of the first PM Liaquat, along with Ghulam Muhammad and some of the top brass of the Army), was still smarting at the public humiliation of his burnt car and the ignominy of being carried away from the scene in less than edifying circumstances. His cabinet colleague Brohi not withstanding, he had orchestrated the disruption of the convention.

The administration had sent gangsters to subvert the proceedings. Police followed to quell the disorder. Both beat up the students, the latter more brutally. School students were special targets, probably because they were smaller in size and could be punched and kicked with impunity. Prominent among the latter were Sibghat Kadri (now a Queens Counsel in Britain), Wadood (Deputy Attorney General of Pakistan under Benazir in her first term of office), Saghir, Shafi and Barkat. Hamza Khatoon and Zarina were outstanding among the girls. They were all to distinguish themselves in their chosen walk of life.

Student leaders, wise in the ways of the police, had taken the precaution of organizing a defense squad led by no other than Adeeb Rizvi, later to distinguish himself for his work in kidney diseases and founding the Sind Institute of Urology and Transplant (SIUT). Sher Afzal Malik, a medical student of Punjabi origin, but brought up in Peshawar, was a sort of Red Guard Lieutenant Commander of the security detail. He turned out to be, as we shall see later, the most notable new find of the convention. The guards saved many a life and limb. One gangster, who was later to become a respectable small traders union leader, was blocked in the nick of time from throwing a girl from an upper floor balcony.

The student volunteers somehow managed to control the situation until Brohi concluded his address to the convention, but the rest of the proceedings had to be moved to the Model School premises in Pakistan Chowk. The convention passed a resolution to form the ‘All Pakistan Students Organization’ (APSO) and elected M. Sarwar as the Secretary General and Iqbal as the President. Numerous student organizations in small and large towns of all the provinces of West Pakistan decided to merge with it. Bengali delegates pledged that they would seek the approval of their groups to do the same.

The police and gangster brutality enraged students all over the city, who were supported by the press and public. The police dared not take overt action, so bloodshed was avoided, but many students were arrested and spent months in jail. The student movement was coerced into animated suspension. Pakistan joined the Western Security Organizations in 1954 and by a queer coincidence (or design), APSO was also banned at the same time.

Karachi was a city of several million. Close to a million people slept on footpaths. About two million lived in jhuggis, straw and mud huts that had sprouted all over the city. Luckier ones shared a tiny apartment with 10 or more persons. Most of the college and university students had full time jobs. The city gave an overall impression of a huge transient refugee camp, on a march to an uncertain destination. There was surprisingly little bitterness or depression, though people lacked all amenities. Water was scarce, and food limited. Even toilets were communal. But it had a vibrant intellectual life. Students, journalists, leftists, rightists, political activists and aspiring political leaders all congregated in numerous coffee houses and indulged in endless discussions on every topic under the sun, over a cup of tea which would last hours. Waiters, many of whom were students themselves, would ignore the owners’ orders to ask the customers to order more tea. Socio-political issues dominated. The city was peaceful. If one could not get a bus due to the late hour, walking was no hazard.

The National Students Federation (NSF) had been a parallel moderate/right wing student body. It had been totally eclipsed by the DSF. Second-generation student leaders Wadood, Sibghat, Barkat Shafi, Saghir, Husain Naqi and others negotiated with NSF. Sher Afzal was still only a strong-arm man and a merger meeting was convened in early 1955 in an apartment in a building in Moulvi Musafar Khana off Bunder road. Some 50-60 students attended, almost equally divided between left-wingers and moderates. A coalition was worked out. To my utter surprise, I was offered joint Secretary-ship. I was not quite ready for the commitment and declined the honor on the rather lame excuse that I could not possibly cope with the office, as I was quite busy with the Chemical Society of which I was a joint secretary.

The one activity of particular note I recall from those days was the procession we took out to protest the 1956 attack of Britain, France and Israel on Suez Canal. We went around to various colleges and schools and appealed to the students to come with us. In schools we would first approach the Headmasters to let the students go. They would generally comply. One, however, did not and I hit upon the idea of ringing the school bell. All students left their classes immediately!

We made our way to the Egyptian Consulate. The consul thanked us. One of the audience asked him about his country’s stand on the Kashmir dispute. All the man would say was that he prayed that all the problems of Muslims would be resolved (few Arab countries ever supported Pakistan on any issue against India). We went on to the PM’s residence. Suhrawardy came out and told us that the Government was cognizant of the issue and was doing whatever it could. Someone asked him why all the Muslim countries could not get together and defeat the aggressors. I cannot forget his response: “zero plus zero plus zero was zero”!

One of the notable leaders this period threw up was Fatehyab Ali Khan, Vice-President of Islamia College Student Union at the time. He was later elected President of Karachi University Union and Chairman of the Inter Collegiate Body (ICB) as well. A thorough gentleman, cultured and articulate, a good public speaker, he later joined Mazdoor Kisan party and rose to be its president. Another student leader to make his mark at the time was Mairaj Muhammad Khan, an emotional orator, and younger brother of a leftist luminary who was a well-known journalist.

Mairaj was befriended by ZA Bhutto, and was once introduced by him to the public as one of his successors (the other was Mustafa Khar); Mairaj was never able to live down the association. He was a minister of state in Bhutto’s government. His power base was the industrial labor unions of Karachi. When Bhutto moved against organized labor, he implored Mairaj to resign. He did not, stating that he could serve his constituency better from inside the cabinet. He pleaded for the workers with Bhutto, to no avail. As a token of solidarity, he once joined a union procession and set some kind of record for being beaten up by the police in public, while a sitting minister. (In later days the Mayor of Karachi was hit on the head with a police baton. A photograph of him covered in blood was splashed all over the newspapers and foreign electronic media). Once Bhutto had crushed the unions, he sacked Mairaj and put him in jail. Later Mairaj was to launch his own party and join other parties too. His last fling was joining hands with Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician. It must have been an unpleasant experience, and a come down as well.

Shafi, a brilliant debater, was a spent force by the time I met him in 1955-56. Barkat, a party ideologue par excellence, had also been sidelined. He migrated to Britain and settled in Glasgow. Saghir joined Pakistan International Airlines and was the main force behind the Airline’s officers union. Husain Naqi, a new arrival from Lucknow in 1955, was an outstanding comrade. He was later elected president of the Karachi University Students Union.

All these undoubtedly talented young men played second fiddle to Sher Afzal, the man who dominated student politics in Karachi from 1955 to 1965. In the late 50s and early 60s he was unarguably the most influential and best known student leader of the country, East and West. Sher Afzal was the protegy of a dynamic and larger than life political figure Hasan Nasir, scion of an aristocratic family of Hyderabad Deccan, who had been recruited into the communist party while a student at Cambridge, England. He was ostensibly office secretary of the National Awami Party, a left wing political organization, but in actual fact was the top man of the communist party of Pakistan. He had been implicated in the 1951 Pindi conspiracy. He was briefly jailed and then exiled.

Hasan Nasir went underground when Ayub Khan took over and suppressed all political activity and freedom of expression. He spent a part of his underground time at the home of the Foreign Secretary, whose daughters were said to be in love with him. When Wadood, in a rather mysterious fashion, asked me to accompany him to an out of the way locality in the town, we met Hasan Nasir, who had spent the previous night sleeping on the footpath. I must say he did not look any worse for it.

He was eventually arrested. It was widely believed at the time that he was betrayed to the police by a close and trusted associate, a journalist in the higher ranks of the party. A judicial luminary and erstwhile votary of Benazir’s PPP told me recently that security agencies had their men in the highest councils of the party and were fully briefed on all discussions. Hasan Nasir had managed to exclude the agents at two or three meetings. Interrogators insistently asked him about them. His only response was, ‘Bako Mat’, ‘don’t talk rot’. He was tortured to death in Lahore fort, at the age of 32. Faiz, arguably the most renowned Urdu poet, and unarguably the leading progressive muse in the language in the 20th century, wrote a beautiful elegy for him:

Kaun Hota Hai hareef-e-mai mard afghane ishq

Hai mukarrar ye sila labe saqi pe meray baad

(Roughly translated it means that who will carry the emblem of defiance after me).

As noted earlier, Sher Afzal had made his initial appearance in student politics as a strong-arm man. He was something of a hooligan in his early years of medical school, and acted the buffoon in public and private. He was molded by Hasan Nasir, who indoctrinated him in communist theology and imposed him on leaders senior to him in hierarchy. Wadood, Sibghat, Barkat, Saghir, Shafi and even more senior ones like Hashmi resented him, but couldn’t defy Hasan Nasir.

Sher Afzal underwent a complete transformation. He adapted a serious demeanor, gave up pranks, and studied political science and international relations. A man of great innate qualities he could converse at all levels with intellectuals, students and industrial workers. Punjabi was his mother tongue, but he had gone to school in Peshawar, and spoke Pushto like a native. In Karachi he had learnt Gujarati and Sindhi as well. He was fluent in Urdu, though it was hardly chaste, and managed English well enough, though it was deficient in grammar and diction. He had reat organizational skills and had a devoted circle of admirers from all linguistic groups, but was weak in political theory.

In a sense he was a true believer in providence. When he got his monthly money order from his father, he would spend it all on taking all of us in a Victoria (a ceremonial horse carriage named after the English Queen) to a restaurant and treat us to a lavish dinner and keep on going at it till he had run through the funds, and subsequently subsisted on meals ungrudgingly bought for him by all his friends till his stipend came again.

He was elected president of Dow Medical students union in 1956. The union made some radical demands. The administration would not agree. A dozen or so activists, Sher Afzal among them and including a few girls, went on hunger strike. It lasted many days and gathered sufficient public support to make no less a person than H.S. Suharwardy, the PM at the time, visit the college and give Sher Afzal a drink to break his fast. A natural populist, Suharwardy accepted all student demands. BBC, Tass and other international agencies flashed the news. Sher Afzal was lionized by the students, the public and party bosses and never looked back.

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