A record of student struggles

January 19, 2020

There couldn’t have been a better time for Dr Riaz Shaikh to launch his book on student politics – for similarities between the 1950s and now are too stark

The Student Solidarity March of November 29 across the country has set the debate on the restoration of student unions in academic institutions buzzing. Many, analysts and student activists believe that there couldn’t have been a better time than now to release a book on the history of the Democratic Students Federation in early 1950s. They say it will help student leaders re-shape their strategies for campus politics.

The book, titled Sahar honay tak: DSF ki jiddojehad ki mukhtasir tarikh (1950-1955), is written by Dr Riaz Shaikh, a well-known political observer and dean of Faculty of Social Sciences at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi.

The book suggests that the DSF launched the first movement for students’ rights in Pakistan after Independence – before it was ruthlessly crushed. It marks January 8, 1953, as the day of resistance; when police killed 26 people, mostly students, marching towards the education minister’s home in protest.

Discussing student politics in the pre-partition subcontinent, the book states that Bhagat Singh, Ehsan Elahi and Bhagwati Charan had started the first genuine student movement in 1927. In 1934, they had organised student gatherings in many cities, including Lahore. Student unions were subsequently established in a number of academic institutions.

In August 1936, the All India Students’ Federation (AISF), a student group with left-leaning ideology, was founded at a conference in Lucknow, which was attended by more than 900 delegates from India. (It would be noteworthy to mention here that the AISF is still a major student group in India). An organisation with secular orientation, AISF aligned with the Indian National Congress, and prompted the Muslim League to encourage the form action of the Muslim Students’ Federation (MSF) for Muslim students. It also paved the way for the emergence of other faith-based student groups, such as the Hindu Vidhya Sabha and Christian Students’ Brotherhood.

However, after Independence, the MSF, like its mother party, fractured. Meanwhile, two key student groups — the Communist Party of Pakistan-affiliated Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and the Jamaat-i-Islami-affiliated Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), were founded.

In Karachi, the MSF and the IJT were already active in campus politics, before the DSF was formed in late 1950s by students involved in left-wing politics – most of them migrants from areas where the ideologically leftist groups had been strong.

The DSF was set up at the Dow Medical College in 1950. Dr Muhammad Sarwar became its first president. Student groups from the neighbouring academic institutions of old city of Karachi came together and launched a movement for better educational facilities — including decent classrooms, libraries, laboratories — and reduction in fees and provision of subsidised or free textbooks. Above all, they demanded the right to organise.

It also formed a separate body, High School Federation, to resolve issues of school students. Its key leaders were Muhammad Shafi, Ghazi Salahuddin (later journalist) and Sibghatullah Qadri (lawyer).

To fight against the IJT and other right-wing groups’ propaganda, of being ‘communists’, the DSF formed an Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB). It used the alliance to fight for student rights.

In 1954, the government imposed a ban on several leftist groups, including the DSF, and arrested its leaders — Sarwar, Adeeb Rizvi (founder of the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation), Minhaj Burna (journalist), Eric Rahim, Anis Hashmi, and Iqbal Avli among others for opposing Pakistan’s decision to join the United States-led military alliances, including the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation. The leaders were released from jail after more than a year. Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, a young lawyer who had returned to Pakistan from Britain after completing his law degree, represented the federation in courts in most of the cases.

The book mentions that the formation of the DSF in the Punjab was not linked with the DSF operating in rest of the country, particularly Sindh. The DSF in the Punjab was founded at Gordon College in Rawalpindi in 1949 by Khwaja Saood (educationist), Dr Ayub Mirza (associated with the PPP), Jalal Khattak, and others. However, after the Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1952, the DSF in the Punjab was unable to continue its activities.

Shaikh says today’s events remind him of mid-1950s. The circumstances are the same. “No martial law had been formally imposed in the country at that time but there were restrictions on the freedom of expression and association — quite similar to what is witnessed today,” says Dr Sarfaraz Khan, a Peshawar-based academic, who spoke at the book launching ceremony in Karachi on December 30.

Shaikh says that the state banned unions in 1984 because it feared opposition in the form of campus activism. “Today, when the student march has become an allaying point for a wide range of social and progressive movements in the country, my book will negate the cynics’ argument — that student unions or groups disconnect students with the academic processes,” Shaikh tells TNS. “A number of DSF leaders and members became prominent names in their professional lives. They gained from the DSF politics. They transformed organisations they were working for into pro-people institutions.”

Another similarity between the old and new protest is that most of the student leaders come from the middle-class. “Their demands, too, are similar. They too want rational fees an increase in the education budget, and hostel facilities for all students,” he said.


(The author is a staff member. Email: [email protected] and Twitter: @zalmayzia)


A record of student struggles in Pakistan