Oldest trick in the book

Faced by a progressive student movement, the Jamiat fell back on the familiar "Islam in danger" trope. Beena Sarwar describes the propaganda war

Oldest trick in the book
One of the stories I found most fascinating while delving into the history of the Democratic Students’ Federation (DSF) was how my father went - instead of his college principal - to inaugurate a hostel at the Nishtar Medical College in Multan. DSF activists used this trip to connect with fellow students in other parts of the country and also to counter the propaganda against them.

My father always spoke of the Dow principal Col. Dr. Malik very fondly and with great respect, recalling his kindness towards students in general and towards Sarwar in particular. Col. Malik had readily agreed to Sarwar’s request to approve a student-initiated change in the college constitution, removing himself from his ex-officio post as President of the Dow Student Union. Invited to inaugurate the Nishtar Medical College hostel, Col. Malik instead sent Sarwar.

Wondering if this was the first - and perhaps last - time that a student, rather than a ‘VIP’ would inaugurate a college hostel in Pakistan, I imagine the early afternoon sun breaking through the spring air in southern Punjab on February 19, 1953, as the Khyber Mail from Karachi pulls into the Multan railway station. Standing in wait is a garland-bearing reception committee comprising students and faculty - including the Principals - of Nishtar Medical College and Emerson College.
Despite the perception that DSF was a 'front' for the banned Communist Party of Pakistan, not all its activists were affiliated with socialist politics

Mohammad Sarwar, a third-year student at Dow Medical College Karachi, DSF leader elected as General Secretary of the college Students Union, is a lanky six-footer seen as the “Hero of the January Movement”, to quote a magazine clipping found among my father’s papers. Black and white photos of the time show him as a firm-lipped young man with slicked back wavy hair, straight nose and large, serious-looking dark eyes.

Sarwar had exchanged the first-class train ticket to Multan for a second-class one, allowing him to take along three other elected student representatives. All four were from DSF’s recently formed Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB). And so, the passengers disembarking from the Khyber Mail at Multan before the train continued its journey up to Peshawar included besides Sarwar: Syed Iqbal Ahmed, Vice President, S. M. College; Moizuddin Farooqui, General Secretary, Urdu College; and Khwaja Adil Ahmed, General Secretary, Law College.

Moizuddin Farooqui, General Secretary of the Urdu College Student Union, was one of the four student representatives to tour West Pakistan in 1953
Moizuddin Farooqui, General Secretary of the Urdu College Student Union, was one of the four student representatives to tour West Pakistan in 1953

Formed in 1949-50 by mostly medical students at Dow, DSF had built a solid base among Karachi’s colleges, sweeping the student union elections for the past couple of years. Police firing on their peaceful demonstrations on January 7-8, 1953, had catapulted the student movement to centre stage. Police firing between January 7 and 9, 1953, had killed 27 people, mostly students, in Karachi.

The administration’s heavy-handed response to the citizens’ expression of their right to peaceful assembly and protest continues to this day, as evident in the recent firing on the PIA employees’ protest that has already claimed three lives as of Feb 3, 2016.

Mirza Mohammad Kazim - who, in 1953, was Vice President of the D.J. College Student Union
Mirza Mohammad Kazim - who, in 1953, was Vice President of the
D.J. College Student Union

Rising in protest and solidarity, students all over Pakistan - including East Bengal - had brought educational institutes to a standstill. The DSF-led ICB had become a force to be reckoned with, particularly in Pakistan’s then capital city Karachi.

The Multan trip provided a valuable opportunity to grow the movement, particularly given difficulties of communicating in those days when even rotary telephones were few and far between.

On February 18, 1953, the student leaders met with Interior Minister M.A. Gurmani, to repeat their demand that the government suspend, remove and transfer the officials responsible. If their demand was not met, they threatened to boycott the Enquiry Committee that the government had announced a couple of days earlier.

From the meeting with Gurmani, they headed to the train station. Besides Multan, they would visit Lahore, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur (later Faisalabad), and Peshawar.

Seated (L to R) - Adeel Ahmed, Moiz Faruqi, Syed Iqbal Ahmed, M. Sarwar, Mirza Kazim, Burney; Standing (L to R) - Anwar Chaudhry (NED), Ali Akbar (DMC), M.Shafi (HSSF) and unidentified
Seated (L to R) - Adeel Ahmed, Moiz Faruqi, Syed Iqbal Ahmed, M. Sarwar, Mirza Kazim, Burney; Standing (L to R) - Anwar Chaudhry (NED), Ali Akbar (DMC), M.Shafi (HSSF) and unidentified

'Brothers in Islam, don't listen to them. They want to make you communists. Come hide behind us and save your soul'

They were gathering support for an all-Pakistan student convention originally planned for in July 1953. However, this was postponed to allow the inclusion of the East Bengal students, whom they visited in July. Dhaka and Chittagong had seen massive student demonstrations by the Students’ Federation (allied to the Awami League) and the Students’ League (allied to the Muslim League) after the police brutality of January.

Despite the widely-held perception - voiced often by the right-wing Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (known as Jamiat) of the time - that DSF was a ‘front’ for the banned Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), not all its activists were affiliated with socialist or communist politics. Farooqui, for example, was considered to be right wing. But DSF, with its slogan of student unity, aimed for a broad-based student movement for students’ rights and better educational facilities.

Barkat Alam - a leader of high school students in the student movement of the 1950s
Barkat Alam - a leader of high school students in the student movement of the 1950s

Through this enhanced awareness they planned to raise other issues like poverty alleviation and workers’ rights. They also actively promoted cultural values that contribute positively to society, by encouraging higher aesthetic standards in poetry, music, theatre and literature.

Then as now, the progressive movement was anathema to the right wing as well as the establishment. Needing to curry favour with the United States, where Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt against Communists was in full swing, they had to prove their anti-Communist credentials.

The level of violence initiated by the right wing has risen immeasurably over the decades. The fisticuffs and occasional dagger or knuckleduster of those years are downright innocent compared to the semi-automatic weapons they now brandish and use.

But the propaganda tactics have changed remarkably little from those days when they campaigned so energetically against DSF, with cyclostyled handbills peddling slander and rumours, and their disruption of student meetings.

Their relentless drive against the student movement prompted Sarwar’s amused comment, “Goebbels must be satisfied that someone has replaced him!” (“Forward To The National Students’ Convention”, Students’ Herald, Vol. 1, No. 8, March 9, 1953)

The propaganda was activated the evening they arrived in Multan. As the Emerson College meeting ended, two men distributed copies of a handbill titled ‘Students’ Voice’, supposedly issued by the ‘Students of Multan’.

The Jamiat did not have the courage to print in their own name, wrote Sarwar in his Students’ Herald report of March 9, 1953. The handbill’s contents, he said, were “amusing and interesting”, the language “filthy, abusive and slanderous”.

Then, as now, much of the progressive activists’ energies were spent countering the propaganda. The following day, at another meeting at Emerson College, the ICB delegates publicly responded to the accusations in the handbill. Heavily outnumbered, the three Jamiat students at the meeting had to render an unconditional apology and beat a retreat.

High School Students' Federation leader Saghir Ahmed
High School Students' Federation leader Saghir Ahmed

The meeting culminated in the formation of the Multan Students’ Federation with a 40-member ad hoc Committee, and the torching of 200 or so copies of the scurrilous “Students’ Voice”.

The Multan students’ responsiveness to ICB’s message of student unity and rights was replicated in other cities. So were the attempts to slander them.

The opposition, wrote Sarwar, came “first of all from the Government and its CID” (Central Information Department, the then main intelligence agency) and then “from the stooges of the authorities” including the Jamiat. Decades later, Sarwar’s words still ring true: “Whenever a movement grows, such narrow-minded people and enemies of the movement try to sabotage it. They find Islam in danger. They find the country in danger. They find the nation in danger. What actually in danger is their own dirty and selfish leadership.”

After two days in Multan, the ICB delegates took the train to Lahore, where students from various colleges unions gave them a warm welcome. The Muslim Students’ Federation, Lahore College Unions’ Organisation and DSF all responded enthusiastically to the proposed Convention.

“But again a love cry was heard in the wilderness: ‘Brothers in Islam, don’t listen to them. They want to make you communists. Come hide yourself behind us and save your soul’,” wrote Sarwar.

At Government College in Rawalpindi, some right-wing attempts to disrupt the ICB meeting ended with the arrival of the college principal. And “just as the rats flee with the appearance of a cat so did our Islamic stalwarts fly before him. What courage we thought!” commented Sarwar.

The disruption didn’t work. Students of the city’s two colleges, Gordon (where their comrade Abid Hasan Minto studied, who went on to become one of Pakistan’s top constitutional lawyers) and Government College, at a joint meeting that evening, formed the Rawalpindi Students’ Federation.

Sarwar then went on to Lyallpur (later Fasialabad) and the other three to Peshawar.  At Islamia College Peshawar, “some misguided mullas” who tried to create a disruption were literally thrown out.

At a student meeting in the City Muslim League Hall in Lyallpur the Jamiat again produced handbills questioning DSF’s patriotism and religious leanings. They wanted Sarwar’s opinion about Islam and “Qadianis” – a pejorative term for Ahmadis. Looking back, this appears to be part of the build-up to the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953 that broke out soon afterwards.

Sarwar doesn’t record his response but knowing him, I’d guess he would have dismissed the questions saying that religion is a personal matter best left out of politics.

The establishment and Jamiat’s attempts to prevent the rising tempo of the student movement on the pretext of religion failed. The students were too strong, committed and organised on a single platform.

“Unity is the only weapon which we have and we must use it to the best of our interests”, wrote Sarwar.

They returned to Karachi having catalysed the formation of Students Federations at all the major colleges in the cities they visited - Multan, Lahore, Lyllalpur and Rawalpindi. In Peshawar it was named Sarhad (Frontier) Students’ Federation.

The Jamiat continued its campaign in Karachi. At D.J. College, Jamiat activists - “mostly outsiders” according to the Students’ Herald - objected to the students’ demand for “security of employment”. The discussion degenerated into attacks and slander about the Union and its Vice President, the soft-spoken but fiery Mirza Mohammad Kazim (later a labour lawyer).

When lack of quorum prevented a meeting from being held one afternoon, the Jamiat leaders took it as a massive victory “and got over-excited”. The next morning they distributed a handbill falsely reporting that Kazim had lost the confidence of the general body - the daily Dawn also reported this. Kazim should resign, said the handbill, tag-lined ‘Long live the glorious struggle against Communism’ - a slogan copied from Panorama, the American Embassy bulletin.

Students turned out in full force the following day - “attendance in the College was exceptional”. They tore up the offending handbill and insisted that Kazim call another meeting. Some 400 students attended to reaffirm their faith in the Union and Kazim - refusing to listen to Anwar, the Jamiat Nazim in D.J. College when he took the floor (Students’ Herald, April 3, 1953).

The Herald also reports on the Jamiat’s attempted disruption of a meeting at Dow Medical College and Sarwar’s response - a “most statesmanlike and courageous challenge”.

“Bring the signatures of 30% students of my college against me and I shall resign”, he said, to thunderous applause (Students’ Herald, April 3, 1953).

He “spoke energetically for about three hours”, giving detailed responses to the slander. “His speech was marked with the confidence and fluency which could match with that of any seasoned statesman”. For another hour after that, he answered questions - including the usual ones about Communism and Islam. Some things never change.

Perhaps the Jamiat’s greatest defeat, reported the Students’ Herald, was at Urdu College, a Jamiat stronghold “where a number of professors openly take part in and assist the activities of the Jamiat”. The union’s Vice-President Shahid Hussain, who had initially contested elections with DSF’s support but changed sides, was trounced at a vote of no-confidence.

The right wing also tried to create divisions between the high school students through a “Schools Body” claiming to represent various school unions. In a statement published in the Students’ Herald (April 3, 1953), elected representatives of Karachi’s 15 school unions rejected this “pseudo” organisation and others working “in the name of Islam”.

The high school student leaders organised the Karachi’s school schools in joining hands with DSF to demand better educational facilities. They included Saghir Ahmad (later actively involved in the PIA Employees’ Union), Mohammad Shafi (later a successful lawyer and political activist) and Barkat Alam (later a researcher and lecturer at Strathclyde and Caledonian Universities in Glasgow), among others. Journalist Ghazi Salahuddin and poet Habib Jalib were among the many high school students galvanized by this movement.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist and documentary filmmaker - www.beenasarwar.com. She tweets at @beenasarwar. This essay is an extract from her forthcoming memoir on the struggle for democratic spaces in Pakistan. TFT published earlier parts of this series on Jan 8, and Jan 22, 2016

The author is a journalist and journalism teacher in Boston. She is founder editor Sapan News Network.