Husain Naqi: Students’ struggle in historical perspective

It would be to the abiding credit of the student leadership that General Ayub’s military dictatorship was challenged on educational campuses and the streets of Karachi. Students led by Fatehyab, Meraj and others led a procession against the killings, in violation of the ban under martial law.

The last few weeks of the just concluded 2010 saw the revival of student protests focused on issues related to their educational affairs. It was also the year when the country lost Fatehyab Ali Khan, a national level former student leader of the turbulent 1960s.

Fatehyab Ali Khan, an immigrant from the then princely state Hyderabad, died in his adopted home city, Karachi. This city was also home to outstanding political leaders including the founder of the nation, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and martyred prime ministers Liaquat Ali Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto.

Fatehyab Ali Khan was the leaders’ leader of the student community in the decade preceding the notorious Zia dictatorship when the student community of the leftover Pakistan was deprived of its moorings, as the country’s second military dictator Ziaul Haq banned student unions and handed over educational campuses to the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) and similar fractions of fundamentalist and sectarian parties who pursued their political agenda under the garb of the majority’s religion. Before this authoritarian diktat, the student community’s activities were rooted in a democratic pluralist tradition. Student leaders did have political views and subscribed to different viewpoints but their primary concern was for the student community’s problems.

When Pakistan was established, Karachi was designated as the country’s capital. Families of most government employees who had opted to serve in Pakistan arrived there. Karachi’s population multiplied in a couple of years and so did its problems. Migration did not have as massive an impact on other cities. Lahore did receive a large number of migrants but around 40 percent of its non-Muslim population also had to migrate to India.

Karachi, the capital, was also the port city so it received Muslim migrants in very large numbers from different parts of India. Many of them were victims of communal riots and many others of the attending discrimination due to partition.

There were also those who were attracted by new job, business and other opportunities created due to the migration of Hindus and Sikhs to India. The immigrants needed schooling facilities for their children. These were acutely short at all levels. Till the early 1950s Karachi had only one of each science/ commerce/ medical/ law college, girls’ convent and a school of engineering. There were a couple of institutions that had degree courses in arts subjects. Higher secondary schools were also few in number as were middle and primary level schools. When Karachi University was established, it had to be housed in what used to be a private Hindu Trust-run middle school for girls.

Many young immigrants who had arrived in Karachi were to complete their education. Some of them had been participating in students’ activities in different parts of British India. In order to agitate their demands, they decided to form organisations both at the college and school level. By the early 1950s, three student organisations had been formed. These were the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), Girl Students Congress and a school student’s organisation body comprising elected office bearers of students unions of colleges and the university was also formed. It was named Intern Collegiate Body (ICB). By then a couple of colleges had also been launched at the private level. These were Islamia College, housed in a bungalow, and Urdu College, adjacent to the Karachi University premises.

The first organised effort on the part of Karachi’s students community for the redress of their problems was made in the very first week of January 1953. A list of demands was prepared and submitted to the then education minister of Pakistan. These included the demand for establishment of more educational institutions, provision of various facilities like laboratories, hostels, playgrounds, and seeking concessions in fees, public transport, entertainment, etc. As a satisfactory response was not forthcoming, a strike call was given and students came out on the streets. The administration panicked and instead of dealing with it peacefully, resorted to violence followed by gunfire. It resulted in several deaths. The day was January 8, 1953. Later the government announced acceptance of the students’ demands

Since then January 8 was observed as Martyrs’ Day in Karachi and elsewhere by the student community. Student organisations and the students unions in all colleges and the university got public recognition in 1954. The DSF sponsored the formation of a countrywide student organisation by holding a conference in Karachi. Some of the leading figures amongst them who are alive and have distinguished themselves in their profession include Abid Hasan Manto, Adibul Hasan Rizvi and Haroon Ahmed. The DSF and other participating organisations from various parts of the country merged themselves into the All Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO) but the government, charging it to be a subversive body, banned the group. The National Students Federation (NSF) took its place. In the years that followed, elections of the student unions and their joint body, the ICB, acquired significant importance.

Before the 1958 military coup d’état, the new generation of student leadership had entered the field and amongst them the leading figure was Fatehyab Ali Khan. He wore the mantle of student leadership along with his companions, notably Meraj Muhammad Khan, (late) Syed Saeed Hasan, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, (late) Saghir Ahmad, Iqbal Memon, Johar Hussain, and others. The military regime placed a ban on student organisations and trade unions along with political parties.

It would be to the abiding credit of the student leadership that General Ayub’s military dictatorship was challenged on educational campuses and the streets of Karachi. Students led by Fatehyab, Meraj and others led a procession against the killings in neighbouring India and distant Congo in violation of the ban under martial law.

They were arrested along with their followers and subjected to severe torture while in custody. Fatehyab Ali Khan was the first student leader to taste torture under the fascist military dictatorship on the first night of detention. He along with more than half a dozen colleagues was tried under martial law regulations and sentenced to hard labour by a specially constituted kangaroo court. The student community at home and at international level demanded the withdrawal of the sentences and release of the student leaders.

The action of the military dictatorship against the student leaders resulted in their popularity amongst the student community and the democratic forces. Their role in the democratic struggle against General Ayub’s dictatorship was also recognised. On their return from prisons, they found that the regime had formulated an education policy that would deprive hundreds of students from completing their education as a three-year graduation course was enforced along with many other impediments, including reduction in the number of seats for graduation and post-graduation studies and a raise in fees.

In the meantime, the regime promulgated an arbitrary ‘constitution’ envisaging a presidential form of government with indirect election of the president through an electoral college comprising elected members of local governments named ‘basic democracy’. With the new constitution, a ban on political and other public activities was lifted.

The change provided the space for the student community to raise its demands and agitate under the leadership of Fatehyab Ali Khan, who was the elected president of Karachi University Students Union (KUSU) as well as Chairman of the ICB. Top on the students’ agenda was abolition of the three-year degree course — a demand that had support in the then two wings. The second year of the degree course had begun and students had to continue for another two years instead of one to complete their graduation. So it was the common understanding that if the students succeeded in their struggle for the abolition of the three-year degree course, they would get their graduation degrees the very same year. The NSF had already prepared the ground during the summer vacations by holding meetings, demonstrations and rallies to highlight the students’ problems, including the imposition of the three-year degree course When the educational institutions opened, meetings in Karachi’s colleges and university were organised and contacts established with student leaders throughout the country to join the movement.

A self-defeating action was taken by the administration, externing from Karachi 12 student leaders including Fatehyab Ali Khan, Meraj Muhammad Khan, Johar Hussain, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Syed Saeed Hasan, Nafees Siddiqui, Amir Haider Kazmi, Wahid Bashir and Khurram Mirza. It served as a catalyst for spreading the students’ agitation to far-flung corners of the country. Attempts to suppress the student community through police violence, including firing that resulted in the killing of students and common citizens were witnessed in Karachi. It enraged and redoubled the resolve of the community to get their demands accepted.

After about a couple of months, the Ayub regime’s negotiators agreed to the demands put forward by the leadership of the agitating students; one of withdrawing the three-year degree course as well as the externment orders of the 12 student leaders. With their return, there were countrywide victory celebrations, especially in Karachi.

After completing their education, most of them participated in the democratic movement, joined and led political parties, with a couple of them holding cabinet portfolios. Fatehyab Ali Khan, besides leading a peasant and workers’ party and playing a very active role in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the mid-80s, also held the chair of the reputed Pakistan Institute of International Affairs.

The writer is a veteran journalist and Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

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