News of student-protest at University of California against budget-cuts and fee-hike took my mind wandering into the early 70s when passionate indulgence in student-activism defined my existence, in Karachi, Pakistan. Be it rising bus-fares, appalling work conditions for primary and secondary school teachers or police brutality, students flocked the streets in protest. Cyclostyling and distributing pamphlets, writing slogans and postering, organizing meetings, strikes and processions, I remember working 72 hours straight, without any sleep or much to eat.
The enormity of the students’ movement could be compared to one of those heavily funded and organized, once in a life-time event, by political parties such as the BeNazeer reception of 18th. October 2007. Students could muster a bigger crowd in Karachi instantaneously. Such following for student activism was the result of hard, honest and passionate work put in by my predecessors. In the paragraphs below, I will try to depict the deterioration that set-in, by sharing instances and events I experienced.
In 1972, Pakistan Peoples Party had come to power and Z.A. Bhutto was thrown the first curve ball when his cousin, Mumtaz Bhutto’s government presented a language bill in Sindh assembly making Sindhi the official language of the province. I had witnessed turmoil over such issues in East Pakistan and believed that the rights of indigenous population must be respected but the sentiments in Karachi was flared by Raees Amrohvi’s famous couplet published in “Jang” claiming this act of parliament as death for Urdu language. I was preparing for my 12th. grade exam with a friend who was affiliated with National Students Federation(Kazmi). The house where we studied was visited by Amir Hyder Kazmi and others. They knew of my opposition to their stance and took my friend out with them to brief him. During our 12th grade at college, my friend and I stood for the unity of students and got our panel elected as office bearers of the students union. This language turmoil was the first when I experienced the split between students of NSF(Rasheed), to which I was affiliated and NSF(Kazmi) , which my friend subscribed to, getting wider and deeper. However, NSF(Kazmi), that sought to garner support with their opposition to Sindhi language, lost their credibility in the eyes of progressive students and that organization withered away.
By the end of 1972, a convention of National Students Federation(Rasheed), which was called NSF(Pakistan), due to its presence in Sindh, Punjab and NWFP, was scheduled on 7th. of January 1973. The convention would inaugurate the office-bearers for Karachi chapter. A public meeting was to be held to commemorate the January 1953 student uprising the next day at Dow Medical College. Meraj Mohammad Khan had recently returned from his brief stint as Federal Minister in Bhutto’s cabinet and the induction of new office-bearers for 1973 caused a split. A patch-up was reached through negotiations and Ghafoor Kasi, a pushtun student of Dow Medical College, who hailed from Baluchistan became the President.
Couple of months later, a public meeting of NSF was in session at Karachi University when two gun bearing associates of Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba’s thunder-squad, interrupted. Wahab Siddiqui(late) had condemned the al-Shams and al-Badar volunteers for massacre in Bengal. These gun-wielding intruders approached Wahab while he was delivering his speech, pointed gun at him and demanded that he retract his condemnation. When we tried to diffuse the situation, they yelled, “Retract or disperse”. We dispersed and avoided a clash. This episode left a bitter taste of helplessness against gun-toting bullies.
Hafeez Peerzada, the minister for education and law in ZA Bhutto’s cabinet was paying a visit to Karachi University to initiate a students’ organization. NSF was embroiled in a conflict within its ranks that started before the convention of 1973. The evening before the arrival of the minister, I found myself hanging out with Abid Ali Syed, who earned repute as a journalist later. Abid and I decided to write slogans against government policies on university walls. Abid owned a Honda50 motor-cycle which was sufficient for the two of us to bring the necessary supplies (a bucket full of red color and a brush). We were apprehended in the middle of the night and presented before University Registrar who threatened to hand us over to the police if we continued writing on the walls. He ordered the university guards to wipe off the slogans and allowed us to leave. We rode Abid’s Honda50 to Nazimabad where a pamphlet was written and cyclostyled. This process took a few hours and we were back at the campus to greet the first bus bringing University students, with our pamphlet against the ministerial visit. By 9’o clock the minister arrived at a decorated stage walking on the red carpet laid for him. Some leaders of Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba threw flower-pots at the minister and charged at the stage. The minister jumped to the back of the stage and ran through the Arts corridor towards University road. Two hours later the students of Karachi University witnessed a spectacular procession of about 50 jeeps carrying weird looking characters. The minister arrived with armed loyalists and the University authorities accommodated his entourage at the arts auditorium. The president of the students union, who belonged to Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba was forced to address from the podium and he raised the “Jeay Bhutto” slogan, under pressure.
Later during that year, NSF split into two factions. The reasons for division had nothing to do with issues concerning students. There was no difference of opinion on education, literacy, gender-equality, health-care or freedom of speech. Some had objections on Russia being referred as imperialist. Some made it a point to condemn ‘Soviet imperialism’ while referring to the military operation in Baluchistan. Minuscule communist parties with negligible following wrestled to possess this student organization and divided it.
During 1974 and 1975, progressive students held their strength by winning student union elections in most of the colleges in the city. The primary and secondary school teachers went on a strike for their demands. NSF supported and organized strike and a huge procession of teachers, students and political activists marched the city. In 1975, a police officer of North Nazimabad police station entered the premise of Shipowners College and shot a member of NSF. The students of Karachi went on a strike and the protest was supported by all students. Even the Jamaatis joined in the large procession that started from Government College Nazimabad and headed to the Deputy Commissioner’s office. It was a mile long crowd of marching students. There were no stalls on the way to replenish these students with water or food. There was no personal reward in it but they stood up for their rights and opposed state-repression. During this period NSF lost election in their stronghold of Dow Medical College as the ethnic divide resurfaced in the form of Mohajir Students Organisation.
Above incidents that I narrated depict political opportunism, violence and bullying, conspiracy to divide the student-power and the determination of some free souls to stand up against repression. The years that followed saw the rise of gun-violence and murders at campus. Jamaat-e-Islami, MQM and Peoples Party, all contributed to the gun culture. Martial-law regime of Zia-ul-Haq promoted religious conservatism and Afghan war brought a flood of weapons and drugs. Subsequent short spells of democracy did nothing to purge the society of violence. Instead, the political parties fortified their own ranks with weapon-wielding volunteers and guards.
NSF used to organize medical camps in the poorest neighborhoods of Karachi where students of Dow Medical College provided vaccination and medicine. Regular publication of a student magazine was considered compulsory. Promoting reading by establishing neighborhood library which could serve as a literacy & vocation training centre could become a productive outlet for student activists in Pakistan.