Home Memoirs A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-III

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-III

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-III
A view of Karachi in 1950s

The student movement flourished in the period 1949-54. During 1953. The DSF had presented certain demands to the educational authorities. The authorities mishandled the situation. The students’ protest rally was lathi-charged.

Eric Rahim

(Excerpts from an article which shares brief glimpses of the political landscape of the subcontinent, with emphasis on Pakistan, from the viewpoint of the author – as a student, a journalist and an active member of the communist party from the late 1930s to the 1950s)

During this period (1949/50), the party also promoted the formation of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association (I was its secretary and the link with the Soviet embassy), and a little later, the Pakistan-China Friendship Society. Also established was a Film Society whose aim was to show films from socialist countries. The aim of all these activities – lectures, exhibitions and film shows – was to bring to the attention of the Karachi public the economic and cultural progress that was being made in socialist countries. Party members were also active in the Progressive Writers Association. And party members and sympathizers gave what support they could in the formation of the Karachi Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. These were established on the initiative of independent-minded journalists: MA Shakoor, an assistant editor of Dawn, and Asrar Ahmed, correspondent of the American news agency Associated Press. I was elected assistant general secretary of the Federal Union. The editor of Dawn considered the setting up of these unions a subversive act. Shakoor, and Mohammed Akhtar, the sports editor, were among those arrested in the swoop of 1954. By this time I had left Dawn.

The party’s main shortcoming lay in its ability to establish roots in the working class. Before Partition, Karachi had very little modern industry, though being a port city it had a significant degree of commercial activity. There was a flourishing Karachi Port workers union, there was a significant amount of work among the railway and tram workers, and so on. Some of the contacts with these workers were lost with the departure of Hindu party members and workers. The party was able to establish a strong union among the employees of the newly formed Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which was led by party members Tufail Abbas and Iqbal Alavi. Party members were also active in the textile mills that were being established during the 1950s. Many of the workers in these mills were coming from the tribal areas of the North West of Pakistan. I remember Hasan Nasir once telling me with some amusement that these tribal workers took the view that a union should be established to deal with a specific problem, and once the problem was solved it should be disbanded. At least initially, they did not like the notion of a permanent organization.

A number of army officers discussed the possibility of a coup and the overthrow of the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. Sometime in 1950 or early 1951, some of these officers approached the Communist Party and suggested that the party support the coup.

The student movement flourished in the period 1949-54. During 1953, the DSF presented certain demands to the educational authorities. Some of these demands could have been met easily while others would have required longer term solutions. The authorities mishandled the situation completely. They refused to meet a DSF delegation, and treated the demands with contempt. (The Karachi University vice-Chancellor, in fact, tried to set up a parallel, stooge student body.) The students took out a procession. Even though the demonstration was completely peaceful, the police lathi-charged the students. The following day there were further demonstrations. Members of the public joined in. And then the goonda (hooligan) elements joined the fray. Shops were looted, liquor stores being the first victims. The federal minister of the interior, Gurmani, who happened to be driving in the area (Saddar) had his car stopped and torched by the goonda elements. (As a bystander, I witnessed the scene.) The police fired and several people were killed. Things got completely out of the control of the students, and any further demonstrations had to be cancelled. Naturally, this was big news in the country. Questions were asked in the constituent assembly (which was also the parliament). After these events a delegation of DSF toured the country and the All Pakistan Student Organization (APSO) was formed. This was the high point of the student movement, and also of the Karachi district party.

The first major assault on the party came in 1951. This was related to the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Led by Major General Akbar Khan, a number of army officers discussed the possibility of a coup and the overthrow of the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. Sometime in 1950 or early 1951, some of these officers approached the Communist Party and suggested that the party support the coup. I think the consensus among the party leaders was to advise against the coup, but Sajjad Zaheer, the general secretary, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the chief editor of The Pakistan Times and Imroze (who was formally never a party member) and Mohammed Husain Ata, a member of the central committee, attended a meeting of the army officers in Rawalpindi (the army HQ) towards the end of February or early March (1951). News of the meeting was leaked to the intelligence services. All those who attended the meeting were arrested, as were a number of party leaders and activists. The structure of the party was seriously damaged. A special tribunal was set up to try the conspirators and the verdict was delivered in January 1953. All except Naseem Akbar, the wife of General Akbar (described by The Times of India as the Lady Macbeth of the conspiracy case) who was present at the crucial meeting, were sentenced to various prison terms. Sajjad Zaheer was released in 1955 and went back to India by an arrangement between the governments of Pakistan and India. The Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru personally intervened to give Sajjad Zaheer Indian citizenship. (This is confirmed by Noor Zaheer, Sajjad Zaheer’s daughter, an Indian national, with whom I am in contact.) Firozuddin Mansoor became the party’s general secretary.

Hassan Nasir (secretary of the Karachi district committee) was arrested in 1952. This is the year he mentions in his letter dated 14 October 1960 to his mother from the Lahore Fort, a prison where dangerous prisoners were kept for ‘intensive’ interrogation. According to my recollection he was arrested sometime in 1953; I think he was a free man at the time of the student’s movement of 1953. Until then he had been able to evade the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) for they had no idea what he looked like. He had been underground since his arrival in Karachi. Nasir’s arrest was a big blow to the Karachi unit.

Hassan Nasir (secretary of the Karachi district committee) was arrested in 1952. Nasir’s arrest was a big blow to the Karachi unit.

In early June 1954, most of the members of the Karachi unit were arrested, myself included. Some of the arrested were quite innocent of any party or even political affiliation. The arrests were made under the ‘safety laws’ which gave government powers to keep anyone in indefinite ‘preventive’ detention. Those arrested included students (most of the leading figures in the 1953 student movement), writers, journalists, and trade unionists. They were given charge sheets with ridiculous charges, such as espionage for India and the Soviet Union. One was accused of being a ‘Fabian communist’. I was accused of spying for India and the Soviet Union.

Life in Karachi jail was not unduly unpleasant. We were treated as ‘political prisoners’ and kept together in barrack-like accommodation, separate from the ‘ordinary criminals’. Food rations were adequate, though it was widely believed that the prison officials were taking their cut. We were allowed to cook our own food, with the help of an ‘ordinary criminal’ who was assigned to us as an assistant. Newspapers, including one from India (The Times of India) were allowed in. Friends and relatives outside kept up a regular supply of books – books that were available to them. A particular mention should be made of Sarwar and Akhtar’s father who was indefatigable in this respect. There was of course a degree of censorship on the material that was allowed in. Books with names of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc., and with references to Marxism, communism, or published in Moscow were disallowed.

Two major events formed the background to the 1954 arrests in Karachi and elsewhere and a formal ban on the Communist Party throughout Pakistan.

Books with titles such as ‘introduction to dialectical materialism’ and published in London were considered harmless. Naturally, we read what was available to us. Among other works I read were all the volumes of Winston Churchill’s war memoirs and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

In due course, friendly lawyers started making habeas corpus petitions on behalf of individuals, and individuals started to be released on the orders of the Sind High Court. The release process took time. I was released after eleven months of incarceration.

Two major events formed the background to the 1954 arrests in Karachi and elsewhere and a formal ban on the Communist Party throughout Pakistan.

The central government had decided to hold elections in East Pakistan which were held in March 1954. Contrary to their expectations, the Muslim League, the ruling party (at least in name) was annihilated. The United Front, led by the staunchly nationalist Awami League, swept the polls. The United Front which demanded greater provincial autonomy, recognition of the Bengali language with Urdu as a national language and a greater share in the running of the country formed the government. Within a period of two months the provincial government that enjoyed almost universal support was dismissed by the central government on the pretext of threat to law and order. Iskandar Mirza, who had long been secretary of the Ministry of Defence and who had maneuvered himself into the ruling junta, was sent as governor with complete power to rule the province. The widespread arrests (and ban on the party) immediately followed this event.

The second event that formed the background to the arrests was the formal decision by the government of Pakistan to enter into a military alliance with the United States. Right from the day that Pakistan came into existence its leadership had decided that given the hostility with India it needed an alliance with a powerful country to provide it with security against its more powerful neighbor. In May 1954, Pakistan and the United States signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement. By widespread arrests of communists and the ban on the Communist Party, the government established its anti-communist credentials with the United States.


Eric Rahim, Glasgow, 14 October 2018.

Courtesy: Criterion Quarterly (Published on March 31, 2019)

Click here for Part-I , Part-II