By S. Haroon Ahm Saleem Asmi
PRIME Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s welcome move to revive student unions takes us back to the first all-Pakistan students’ body, the Democratic Students Federation.
This paved the way for the progressive outlook of the National Students Federation (NSF) and also the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA). The DSF is either ignored or misrepresented in most accounts of the students’ movement in Pakistan. At this critical juncture of Pakistan’s history, there is a need to set the record straight vis-à-vis the DSF.
In the unprecedented mass migration that followed Partition in 1947, Karachi attracted a large number of immigrants, most without financial backing or social support. They were sustained only by a commitment to Pakistan. That was also the period that saw the beginning of the Cold War that divided the world into socialist and capitalist camps. Young minds nurturing dreams of an equitable and just society were drawn to Marxist and socialist ideologies. The Jamaat-i-Islami’s youth wing was on the defensive as the party had opposed Pakistan.
The Muslim League Students Federation was basking in the glory of its success in having achieved its objective. Student activities, limited to college unions, could not address the grave social and economic issues a large, uprooted student population faced. With no place to stay and very little money in their pockets, their main concerns were the high cost of education.
The DSF was launched in 1950 by Mohammad Sarwar, Mir Rehman Ali Hashmi, Asif Jaffery, Asif Hameedi, Yousuf Ali and S. Haroon Ahmed — all of whom were studying in Dow Medical College. Feeling the need to address such issues, these youngsters met in Oudh Restaurant on Mission Road. Mohammed Sarwar was elected convenor. Then followed hectic efforts to contact students in other colleges.
In 1951 a general body meeting was called and elections held. M. Kazim was elected president while Mohammed Sarwar was voted the general secretary. The DSF headquarters were Rehman Ali Hashmi’s room, 29 Meetharam Hostel. By 1952 the DSF had a presence not only in Karachi colleges but also in Lahore, Faisalabad and other cities of Punjab. The DSF swept elections in all Karachi colleges. Thereafter the High School Student Federation was also organised and a new fortnightly publication edited by S.M. Naseem, the Students Herald, was launched. Its high standards won it international acclaim.
The DSF’s first challenge came in 1953. We drew up a ‘Charter of Demands’ that addressed issues like tuition fees, library facilities, better classrooms and the need for a proper university campus (at that time the university was housed in a few flats behind Dow Medical College). It was decided to hold a ‘Demands Day’ on Jan 7, when we would meet the education minister, Fazlur Rehman. The administration blocked the protest and resorted to lathi-charge and tear gas. Some students managed to reach the minister’s residence, where some of them were arrested by the police.
Meanwhile, as has been the wont in the history of the Left in Pakistan, another students’ group, the World University Service, which enjoyed the patronage of the vice chancellor of Karachi University, met the minister and announced that all the students’ demands had been met.
We responded to the police action and in a bid to pre-empt the sabotage of the DSF campaign announced that Jan 8 would be observed as a protest day. As students marched through Saddar their procession was attacked by the police who tear-gassed them and then opened fire, killing six protestors at Regal Chowk. Several were injured and arrested. Enraged, the students torched a government vehicle which turned out to be the interior minister’s.
The situation spun out of control and finally Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin sent feelers to the DSF leadership. He invited a delegation to meet him and the DSF appealed to the students to disperse peacefully. It was a cordial meeting and firm promises were made. Although Nazimuddin was soon replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra, the negotiations continued. Mr Bogra, fresh from the US, showed us a plan of a university to be built in Mexico. Everyone liked it. The new campus of KU was then identified and construction ordered.
In 1954 the DSF, along with the Progressive Writers Association, labour unions and the Communist Party, was banned and sweeping arrests were carried out. We tried to keep the organisation intact clandestinely, meeting secretly at various places including the residence of Saleem Asmi at PIB Colony. The seniors among us passed out of college in 1955-56. Our junior colleagues picked up the threads and revived the student organisation under a new name, the National Students Federation.
For nearly a decade the NSF ruled the colleges. Influenced by the ideological debates then raging in international forums, the federation became ideologically focused and lost touch with the issues affecting the students of Pakistan. Eventually, it split into pro-Soviet (Kazmi) and pro-China (Rashid) camps. Another group also calling itself the DSF emerged from one of the many communist parties but made no headway. These were a far cry from the issue-based Democratic Students Federation that had attracted progressive, liberal, non-aligned and even conservative students so long as they adhered to the ideology of the core group — that is Marxist-progressive.
Contrary to popular belief, the DSF was not a student’s wing of the Communist Party, although it had links with all the progressive organisations — Progressive Writers Association, the nascent workers unions and journalist bodies. DSF’s ideology was Marxist and progressive and it was formed independently by progressive students, including some who had been members of the All India Students Federation before Partition.
In fact, in Dow Medical College, DSF members nominated Abdul Rauf, a liberal Sindhi student, over a Communist Party member Ayub Mirza for union elections. The student movement at that time stood very tall compared to other progressive movements. DSF’s goal was improving education and literacy standards as a way towards national progress.