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The late Mairaj Muhammad Khan on his years as a firebrand student leader, in his own words – interviewed, translated and researched by Faisal Sayani
After the Democratic Students Federation’s victorious 1953 movement against (mainly) the fee hike in colleges and universities, the government found a way to persecute and punish DSF members. They started to use the label of ‘communism’ in order to crush such protests. As (Indian ex-communist M.N. Roy) said, “Communism in Asia is nothing but nationalism painted red”. Anyone who spoke of any rights – be it of students or workers, anyone who talked about land reforms or criticised capitalism and emphasised the welfare of the people would be marked dangerous, godless, an enemy of God and hence worthy of jail and persecution. Eventually, in 1954, the DSF was banned on the grounds of its connections with the Communist Party of Pakistan, which was also banned around the same time.
A new student organisation called ‘All Pakistan Students Federation’ was formed and banned in a very short time. Subsequently, all attempts made by the former DSF activists to establish an independent organisation met a similar fate. Finally, in 1956, these unsettled activists managed to infiltrate an organisation called ‘National Students Federation’, which was originally formed with the support of the government. NSF used to be a social welfare organisation which would organise events for students, invite ministers as chief guests, distribute books, receive grants (embezzling some of them). Many of the less prominent former senior DSF members like Dr. Abdul Wadood were sent to join NSF. He, along with others, changed the whole direction of the organisation. That was particularly revealed to the government in 1956 when at the time of the Suez Canal crisis, thousands of students and NSF activists rallied on the streets and chanted slogans against imperialist regimes (‘Down with England, Israel, France…’).
“In jail, we were kept near the gallows on death row”
The first time I was sent to jail was in 1959. I was campaigning in colleges to organise a demo against US president Eisenhower’s visit to Pakistan, so that the people of the world could see that there is a significant presence of anti-imperialists throughout this country. But before it could materialise, the intelligence agencies got the information and they arrested me and put me in jail for three months. They also picked up several trade union leaders. Prominent Communist Party activist Hassan Nasir was also detained at that time.
Ayub Khan imposed martial law in 1958 after convincing the USA of the sheer incompetence of the civilians and of their incapability to run a parliamentary system of government. It was not just about political parties: the NSF – which was just a student organization – was also banned. Ayub knew that NSF had become stronger than the political parties of the time, just as the DSF used to be much more powerful than the mainstream political entities. The students’ rage was increased two-fold when in 1959 (most newspapers and websites claim the year to be 1960) Hassan Nasir was murdered in police custody.
All ministers ran off except for Z.A. Bhutto. He refused to leave the stage and kept fighting us. I liked his determination
To add to the misery of the students, in 1959, the National Education Commission (commonly referred to as the Sharif Commission) was established. The most damaging thing it did was to scrap the University Act which enabled universities to be free and autonomous. The commission, through a newly drafted University Ordinance, gave absolute control over universities to the provincial Governors i.e. martial law. Governors and vice chancellors were given the powers of confiscating a degree, denying admission and even expelling a student. Because of such laws, I was illegally and unconstitutionally denied admission to the University of Karachi in 1963. As a result, I could never finish my M.A. The University Ordinance also extended the duration of degree courses from two years to three years. Many of the NSF activists were of the opinion that it was already hard for a poor man to send his kids to a university for two years – how could he afford to do so for three or more years? NSF wanted to oppose the ban and avenge Hassan Nasir’s death. We wanted to raise a voice against such laws.
In 1961, the first legally elected prime minister of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated. First, we organised a huge rally to protest Lumumba’s murder. Around the same time, the Jabalpur Riots took place in India and many Muslims were slain. Some people accused of us being Red (communist) and not Pink (a subscriber of more moderate communist and socialist ideas), alleging that we care about Lumumba (whose leanings were towards Soviet Union) while completely ignoring helpless Muslims of Jabalpur. So I decided to call a huge gathering and we rallied to protest the riots. Though I was told by Communist Party members to call off the protest as they feared the crackdown on the party, I flatly refused. Thousands came out, formed a procession and marched on the streets of Karachi rendering the martial law practically ineffective.
While sweets were being distributed at Burns Road (Karachi) and a common man was rejoicing the end of martial law, many of the NSF leaders including myself, Fatehyab Ali Khan, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Johar Hussain, Sher Afzal Malik, Ameer Haider Kazmi, Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui, Dr. Mehboob and Agha Jaffar were picked up, jailed and tortured dreadfully. Among us, Iqbal Memon was the one who was tortured most brutally. They probably thought that since his name contained ‘Memon’ in it, he’d be easier to break. They were clearly mistaken. They tried to force us into writing false confessions like ‘(NSF) received Rs.500,000 from Soviet Union’ or ‘…200,000 from India.’ For a month, they kept us in various police stations. They would drag us from one station to another. On February 27, 1961, a court (under martial law) sentenced me, Fatehyab, Johar Hussain and Sher Afzal Malik to one year of penal servitude. Ameer Haider Kazmi was given nine months, whereas Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui, Iqbal Memon and Ali Mukhtar were given six months in prison. In order to prevent contact from the outside world, some of us, including myself, were sent to Bahawalpur and the rest to Multan jail. In Bahawalpur jail, the four of us (myself, Fatehyab, Johar and Sher) were kept near the gallows on death row. Constables wearing red caps would ask us “What have you done that they are hanging you?” We could tell that these were the tactics employed by our oppressors to scare us, which certainly didn’t work.
We were rigourously interrogated, too. The superintendent of the jail (I wouldd rather not put his name on record) was a very nice man and he opposed Ayub’s tyrannical ways. Therefore, he secretly helped us with those interrogations. He told us to stick to one – and just one – story.
During one of these interrogatory sessions I was brought to a smaller jail in Rahimyar Khan. They gave me filthy and tattered clothes which I refused to put on despite their threats. When they were taking me back to Bahawalpur jail from Rahimyar Khan, the cops were given money to hire a horse-drawn carriage for transport. They stole the money and we went on foot instead. On the way, a posse of children coming out of a school spotted me in handcuffs and being taken away by cops and started to yell ‘Chor! Chor!’ (Thief! Thief!). That was so soul- crushing that my eyes welled up and I wept. Moments later, a shopkeeper from around came running to us and hushed the boys, “He’s not a thief. He’s your leader.” I was reminded of Faiz’s poem, the one he wrote after his captors made him walk on the streets of Sialkot in shackles to humiliate him, “Aaj bazaar main pa ba-joulan chalo, Dast afhsaan chalo, Mast-o-raqsaan chalo, Khaak bar sar chalo, Khoon badamaan chalo, Raah taktaa hai sab shehr-e-jaanaan chalo”
(Today, you must walk the marketplace in chains
Walk, with palms open before you
Walk, with your head caked in dust
Walk, with shirtsleeves seeped in blood
Whirl, in frenzied throes of ecstasy
Walk on, the beloved city yearns for you)
(Translated by Mustansir Dalvi)
Although we were imprisoned, we were successful in achieving the goal of putting an end to the terrifying period when a common man was too scared of even saying anything against Ayub’s regime.
In 1962, we were quietly released after nine months of incarceration once they brought us back to a jail in Karachi. However, only 10-15 days later came the orders of our externment. That was the first externment (of activist students), and Fatehyab, Johar Hussain, Iqbal Memon, Ameer Haider Kazmi, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Anwar Ahsan and I were forced to leave the city.
Ayub versus the students – rise of the NSF
Although a noticeable industrial growth was witnessed in Ayub’s period, at the same time, the exploitation of workers was at its peak. Labourers were hired for a month and then were re-hired, hence benefits like pension or gratuity were totally denied. Trade union activities and strikes were dealt with using brute force. For that reason, the working class of the country took an active part in the struggle against Ayub’s rule.
Army dictators of the Third World were given this tool called ‘guided’ or ‘controlled’ or (in Pakistan’s case) ‘basic’ democracies by the imperialist powers of the world. After demolishing parliamentary democracy, Ayub Khan in late 1959 introduced Basic Democracies. Local government elections were held and an electoral college was manufactured, which in 1960, elected him President.
Ayub went on and enforced his expedient constitution in 1962, which we (NSF) rejected as vehemently as Habib Jalib did through his poem ‘Dastoor’ (Constitution). Soon enough he felt the need for a political party to endorse his reign. The convention of Muslim Leaguers who supported him resulted in Convention Muslim League and Ayub Khan became its chairman. The first grand public meeting of the party was organised at Polo Ground, Karachi, in 1963. Delegates from East and West Pakistan came to attend it. Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman was presiding and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was conducting the convention. That was the political party a military dictatorship was giving birth to, and it was being imposed on the public in the name of democracy. Poor workers and students were already battling against the dictator. The ban on the NSF was recently lifted owing to 1963’s Party Act and the students were all charged and angry enough for a new adventure.
Jinnah Courts, currently the home of Rangers personnel, used to house hundreds of students. It was at these hostels where the plan to disrupt the Convention League gathering was chalked out. A group of NSF activist girls went to Lyari to meet the well-known gangsters Sheru and Dadal who were hired by the government to ensure things go as planned. After much pleading and convincing – which included holding their feet – the duo agreed to give them a couple of hundred passes of the convention and warned them not to cause any commotion. The (NSF) boys, making use of those passes along with Ayub’s photographs and badges carrying pictures of rose (Ayub’s election symbol), were able to penetrate the convention. Just when the meeting began, we took out the banners with ‘Ayub Khan Murdabad’ (Down with Ayub) written on them and took over the convention. Flowerpots were thrown on the ministers. Chairs went flying off in the air. Considering his old age, we carefully placed Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman’s chair off the stage. Syed Saeed Hassan, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Fatehyab and I took over the stage and delivered speeches and presented a resolution. All ministers ran off from the stage except for Z.A. Bhutto. He refused to leave the stage and kept fighting us throughout the 15-minute siege, despite being physically bashed up by our activists. I liked his determination. We left the scene after getting the signal from Sheru and Dadal.
Obviously, that incident infuriated Ayub so much that before the next morning all of us were arrested. Among the twelve whose externment orders were issued immediately were: Fatehyab Khan, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Johar Hussain, Ameer Haider Kazmi, Agha Jaffar, Saeed Hassan, Wahid Bashir, Hussain Naqi, Nafees Siddiqui and I.
Unlike the last externment, we were quite prepared this time around. We had alerted our friends and comrades in every university and college about the likely exile and were assured that if that happened, they would have to support us. We were banished from metropolitan cities, so we went to smaller cities like Sukkur, Bahawalpur, Rahimyar Khan and Multan. It was there that we started campaigning for a bigger struggle against the regime which transformed into the famous 1963 movement.
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 email@example.com