No room for union

Student unions in Pakistan have had to struggle to legitimise their role

No room for union


tudent movements in Pakistan produced luminaries like Dr Mohammad Sarwar, Dr Syed Haroon Ahmed, Dr Adib-ul-Hasan Rizvi, Dr Jaffar Naqvi, Mohammad Kazim, Abid Hasan Minto, Sher Afzal Malik, Husain Naqi, Johar Husain, Fatehyab Ali Khan and Meiraj Mohammad Khan, to name a few. They have a glorious history. The student activists faced extreme hardship. In 1953, a student movement resulted in the setting up of a university and better educational facilities. In 1968-69, a student movement forced the then president Ayub Khan to announce that he would not take part in future elections.

In 1941, the population of Karachi was merely 386,655, according to Rustomji and Katrak, authors of Karachi During The British Raj. Amongst them, 180,199 were Hindus; and 162,447 Muslims. The influx of immigrants from India diluted the Hindu majority after the creation of Pakistan in August 1947. The migration of Hindus in the other direction drastically changed the demography of Karachi. Eminent architect and town planner Arif Hasan notes in his book The Unplanned Revolution that major changes took place in Karachi between 1947 and 1951 with the addition of over six hundred thousand inhabitants to the city’s population. “The share of Hindu population decreased from fifty-one percent to two percent, while the Muslim population increased to ninety-six percent. Similarly, the Sindhi-speaking population decreased from 61.2 percent to 8.6 percent, while the Urdu/ Hindi-speaking population increased from 6.3 percent to fifty percent.“

It was in this context that the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) was established in 1950. Mohammad Sarwar was elected its convener.

“The DSF drew up a charter of demands including issues like tuition fees and library facilities. We decided to hold a Demands Day on January 7, 1953, and meet the education minister, Fazlur Rehman. The administration blocked the protest, resorted to lathi charge, tear gas shelling and arrested the leaders. Meanwhile, another students’ group, the World University Service, led by Qamar-uz Zaman and patronised by the vice chancellor of Karachi University, ABA Haleem, met Fazl-ur Rehman and announced that all the students’ demands had been met,” says an article written jointly by S Haroon Ahmed and Saleem Asmi and published in daily Dawn on April 5, 2008.

Police barricaded the area around DJ Science College where 5,000-6,000 students had convened for Demands Day. The students charged out of the college compound despite the tear gas and lathi charge. Hundreds of them managed to reach the education minister’s residence only to find him unavailable. Police arrested some of their leaders but had to release them under pressure as hundreds of students refused to move from the spot. The released leaders announced another rally the next day. This protest attracted twice the number of participants. Police firing near Paradise cinema in Saddar resulted in the death of at least six students and a passerby. The incident brought a sharp reaction from the student community and infuriated the common man. (According to Students’ Herald, 27 people were killed over three days, January 7-9, 1953).

“Student movements in Pakistan played a key role in ousting dictators. They mobilised large numbers of people to protest against authoritarian regimes and used their voices to advocate for democracy,” said Hasanain.

Following the Baghdad Pact of 1954, the government banned the DSF, the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The bans were followed by mass arrests. Dr Mohammad Sarwar received his final year MBBS results while in prison.

The ban did not deter all the students. They now converged under the umbrella of the National Students Federation (NSF).

Under the NSF leadership, student activists observed January 8 as the Martyrs Day for nearly 25 years.

The example of 1953 movement under Dr Sarwar inspired student upsurges in 1962, 1964 and 1968-69. The NSF played a vital role in mobilising the masses is support of Fatima Jinnah who ran for president against Gen Ayub Khan.

In 1968, the NSF observed a Demands Week. Many industrial workers, teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals joined its protests. Karachi was shut down when teachers staged a hunger strike in front of Sir Syed Girls College. The cricket match between Pakistan and Commonwealth teams at the National Stadium was also affected.

The NSF was not only demanding better education facilities, it also had political demands. The 1968-69 protests forced the then president Ayub Khan to announce that he would not take part in the next elections.

There was euphoria when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took the reins of power in a New Pakistan. It soon evaporated when his government acted against student activists and industrial workers. The erosion of trade union movement too begun during the Bhutto era. It culminated during the Zia era. The progressive student movement withered away and was replaced mostly by organisations emphasising ethnic identities.

Student unions in Pakistan have been the nursery for political and cultural developments. The revival of student unions has been a matter of concern since the ban imposed on them in 1984. The ban on unions paved the way for violence on campuses. Ironically, the unions have been condemned as instigators of violence on campuses by those opposed to their revival.

According to Prof Khurshid Hasanain, there are several reasons for the delay in the restoration of student unions in Pakistan. These include differences between the government and the opposition, lack of consensus on the role of student unions and lack of resources. “The student movement in Pakistan has played a key role in ousting dictators. They have mobilised large numbers of people to protest against authoritarian regimes and have used their voices to advocate for democracy,” says Hasanain

The professor adds, “Our students and other youth have an important role to play in strengthening ties with neighbouring countries, including India, by promoting peaceful co-existence and working against jingoism and war hysteria. They can use their education and resources to create awareness about the importance of peaceful relations and create a dialogue that bring people together.”

The author is a journalist and peace activist. He writes on health, heritage and environmental issues. He can be reached at shahidhusain01@gmail. com

No room for union