Arson and coin tosses - the riotous ’60s

The late Mairaj Muhammad Khan recalls taking on the Ayub regime: in his own words, interviewed and transcribed by Faisal Sayani

Arson and coin tosses - the riotous ’60s
While I along with others was banished from Karachi and other major cities, the female students of DJ College Karachi went on a hunger strike. A procession was held by the students and general public in their support which was then attacked by police on horseback. That ill-advised action by the government did not just enrage the students but it also enabled people from all walks of life to take sides. Teachers, workers, trade unions and even the business community of Karachi began to support us. There were protests everywhere and it looked as if the whole city was set to revolt against the Establishment. The major demands of the 1963 movement included: reduction in the duration of three-year degree and law courses, abolition of the wicked University Ordinance and annulment of the externment orders of the students.

When the 1963 movement was at its peak and country-wide strikes were being observed by the students, forcing closure of colleges and universities, it was Nur Khan (then PIA chairman) with his liberal mindset, who helped by arranging a meeting between the students, trade unionists and the Governor of West Pakistan, Amir Mohammad Khan of Kalabagh. The meeting was held in Lahore and the delegates from Karachi were flown in on a PIA chartered plane. The Nawab of Kalabagh accepted all of the demands (including withdrawal of my exile) except the demand for doing away with the university ordinance. He said it was beyond his jurisdiction and only the ‘centre’ (Ayub Khan) could reverse it.

Nawab Amir Khan of Kalabagh
Nawab Amir Khan of Kalabagh

We were breathing in the century of revolutions

Differences with CPP and the ideological training

The Communist Party of Pakistan, after being banned in 1954 (on charges of conspiring to overthrow Liaquat Ali Khan), went underground and remained there for a very long time. They grew very circumspect after losing Hassan Nasir and feared a crackdown more often than not. I was believed to be a rebel and far too adventurous to controlled. Hence, they were quite upset with me.

When I was little, I would lie down under a neem tree and enjoy the breeze while listened to my mother’s advice. She’d say, “Stand by the weak and stand up to the oppressor.” I couldn’t stand repression and tyranny since I was a child. Later, when I was given Karl Marx’ books to read, I felt ill at ease at first but as I read on, it occurred to me that this man is, pretty much, giving me the same advice as my mother with a copy of Quran in her hands did. He speaks for the downtrodden and the exploited, tells them to unite against their tormentors and says, “you have nothing to lose but your chains.” That clicked with me and thus it became my ideological tutoring. I found myself drawn towards Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong because they fought imperialists for freedom and wanted to evolve a social system where every person gets work according to his ability and is rewarded according to his services. Such ideas would attract any young person, and they did excite me. We were breathing in the century of revolutions. Russia, China, Vietnam, Korea and Algeria went through revolutions in that very century. I began to romanticise a revolution in Pakistan too.

In the early NSF years, Sher Afzal was a leader I would put on a very high pedestal. So much so that had he asked me to jump off a building, I would do that right away. I’d even kill my own brother if he would demand so in the name of the revolution. Such was my love and respect for him - which later turned into a dispute. He started to poison me against certain party members. I learnt only later that it was due to the split within the CPP between Karachi and the rest of the Sindh membership of the party.

Syed Mohammad Taqi
Syed Mohammad Taqi

The ‘Pro-Peking’ and ‘Pro-Moscow’ Divide

It made sense that Russia and China as different nations had a dispute over the different versions of the same ideology but for us to jump into that conflict was not justified. CPP activists tried to pull NSF into this clash and that’s when the cracks began to appear. I tried very hard to prevent it, but you know when the communists fight amongst themselves they tend to become ferocious, deprived of any reason.

The Peking-Moscow conflict began in 1964 (in NSF), it blossomed in 1965, and in 1966 when I was about to assume the responsibility of leading NSF, the split took place. I went through polemic studies on the Sino-Soviet split and deduced that China’s side carried much more weight for me than that of the Soviet Union. I found Mao’s tireless determination and passion to be very inspiring. Then, China’s supportive attitude towards Pakistan at the time of 1965 war was cherished by a common man here, but resented by the pro-Moscow faction. There must have been about a hundred thousand people in the procession we organized after the 1965 war. Bunder Road (now M.A.Jinnah Road, Karachi) was swarmed with people from one end to another, with men holding life-sized portraits of international leaders like Sukarno, Yasser Arafat, Ahmed Ben Bella and Zhou Enlai.

At the time of the 1965 election, there was a divide in NSF over the action plan. I was the Secretary-General and Baqar Askary was the President. I was of the opinion that we ought to initiate a movement against Ayub and that movement will eventually transform into an election campaign for Ms. Jinnah because the regime will come down hard on us - and then public sentiment will turn hostile towards Ayub. However, this suggestion was opposed by some (including Sher Afzal and Baqar Askary) in the meeting, who proposed campaigning for Ms. Jinnah only. Speeches were given on both points of view. I sensed what the majority of the members were leaning towards and couldn’t help playing a little mind game there. I asked Baqar to not to get a vote on this as there was going to be a split. Baqar, being from the opposite group, at once demanded a vote (something I desired) and about 90 percent supported my proposal. Although the divide in the NSF was noticeable by then, nevertheless the 1964 movement began with a bang.

Pakistan's Ayub Khan with President Kennedy - the former soon found his pro-Western military regime challenged by a mass movement
Pakistan's Ayub Khan with President Kennedy - the former soon found his pro-Western military regime challenged by a mass movement

Seeing that they were on the losing side, Jamaat-e-Islami eagerly agreed. A coin was tossed

The 1964 Movement - Crackdown at Islamia College

The 1964 movement had a 12-point agenda which included fee reduction, a policy of college admissions for all, the establishment of more educational, technical, and engineering institutions, etc. in addition to the demand for termination of the University Ordinance. Students managed to shut down almost every educational institution in the city. Islamia College (Karachi) became the NSF’s power base of sorts. The institution was comprised of various types of colleges - it was an arts college in morning, science in afternoon and commerce in evening. Thousands of students were enrolled there. When we went on general strike, the college founder and owner Abdul Rehman Mohammad Qureshi (who had also served as Jinnah’s driver) called in the Rangers and the Frontier Constabulary to crack down on us. Islamia College campus looked like a battlefield as the result. The paramilitary personnel, not being able to distinguish one from another, started beating students and teachers alike. We refused to give up and vowed that the strike will not be called off, unless the demands are met and after that brutal act by the administration, the education minister of West Pakistan, Mohammad Yasin Khan Wattoo, will have to meet the students in person.

While that onslaught was proceeding at Islamia College, I along with a few other boys went to the nearby busy square, Guru Mandir, and set a few double-decker buses on fire. Consequently, as expected, the paramilitary force had to be moved from the college to Guru Mandir, hence saving the protesting students from further thrashing.

We set off to Syed Mohammad Taqi’s house, which was located in the vicinity (somewhere in the Garden area) to take refuge. He treated us warmheartedly. After listening to our story, he shared his concern with his brother, Rais Amrohvi, “Do you see this. Where they are headed to? What’s going to come out of all this?” Then he made us wash, got us changed into clean clothes and fed us generously. He knew about my arrest warrant and was aware of the consequences of us getting arrested at his place but that did not bother him at all.

[The talks between the All-Parties Students’ Action Committee (led by Mairaj Muhammad Khan) and Yasin Wattoo generally failed as most of the demands were not met]

Basic Democracies election, 1965

In 1965 I was asked (by CPP and NSF) to contest the Basic Democracies election. Knowing Ayub Khan had engineered the system to provide legitimacy to his rule, I resisted. But they insisted that it was necessary to take part in the election. I agreed finally and ran for it. My opponent in the constituency (of Karachi) belonged to Jamat-e-Islami. A very senior JI member asked me to refrain from the election, upon which I confronted him as how could he ask me for such a thing while they themselves were going for it! After some discussion it was agreed that we would do it in a fair manner, and only the listed voters will cast their vote, and that the result will be acceptable for both the parties. The polling began and by looking at the kind of turnout it was obvious that I was going to bag more votes. That’s when they called in Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) activists - who came in hordes and began to cast votes illegally. We objected and warned them that they couldn’t beat us in this (student power) game. They told us off. At that point I sent for NSF boys at Islamia College. Our activists got hold of a public transport bus, filled it with our supporters, dropped them off at polling booths, and sped away to fetch more. Within a few such rounds the place was thronged with my supporters, who like IJT workers, began to fill the boxes. Now it was JI’s turn to accuse us of rigging. I said, “When you yourselves were doing it, you sanctified the act as Islamic.” Just then, Fatehyab Ali Khan arrived at the scene. The senior JI man asked him for justice. To my surprise, Fatehyab said, “Let’s flip a coin. Heads is a winner and tails a loser.” Seeing that they were on the losing side, JI eagerly agreed. A coin was tossed and it was tails, i.e. I lost. But clearly, Fatehyab was up to something different. He picked up the coin and announced to JI bunch, “I am sorry, you have lost. Mairaj has won.” Obviously, they protested. Even I whispered in his ear, “What are you doing? It was tails. What do we even achieve by winning this election?” He was adamant, “No, no, you have won. That’s how the coin was.”

That was the manner in which my friend Fatehyab took care of the Basic Democracies election.

Faisal Sayani is a freelance journalist, teacher and filmmaker with experience in current affairs television production. All translation, research and fact-checking for this article is the work of the author. He may be reached via email at