Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Flash from the Past: The 1950 Kabul Students Union and its impact on the post-WWII opposition movement

Thomas Ruttig 34 min

70 years ago, on 4 April 1950, the first students’ organisation in Afghanistan’s history was launched. The Students Union of Kabul University started as an attempt by factions in the government to gain control over a small, but enthusiastic group of activists and instrumentalise it for their own interests. This attempt backfired, and the Union further fuelled a reformist, pro-democratic movement that already had a well-organised foothold in parliament. When it increasingly entered the public sphere, the resulting government crackdown forced the entire movement underground – only to re-emerge stronger a decade later. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig (*) looks back at an organisation that only existed legally for seven months, but produced political activists who would play key roles in developments that shaped today’s Afghanistan. 

Activists of the Kabul University Students Union, Babrak Karmal in the first row (1st from the left). Photo: author's archive.

This report is based mainly on a chapter in AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig’s 1985 diploma thesis at Humboldt University Berlin, titled “Zur Bedeutung der bürgerlichen Oppositionsbewegung der 50er Jahre unseres Jahrhunderts für die Formierung progressiver politischer Kräfte in Afghanistan” (On Afghanistan’s 1950s civic opposition movement and its impact on the formation of progressive political forces). It has been updated with the help of new Afghan sources that have become available in the meantime. Only those additional sources are explicitly mentioned in the text. All other details stem from the author’s earlier research which was mainly based on interviews with protagonists of the movement and Afghan researchers of that period of history.

70 years ago, in April 1950, the Students Union of Kabul University was founded. The union was not only the country’s first organised student movement, but also its first legal political organisation. The union was also part of a wider opposition movement, the first one that went beyond the small early 19th century constitutionalist groups that were largely limited to the court and used conspiratorial means to attempt to take power (more background here) and in the seminal works by Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar and Abdul Hay Habibi who had been part of the movement). (1)

The students union was inspired by a still unconsolidated pro-democratic, reformist opposition movement. It acted as a main supporter of that movement and helped galvanise it into a more structured existence. Initiated top down by a faction in government, it soon wrangled free from this attempt by vested power interests to co-opt it, and went far beyond what the government had in mind for it when it gave the green light for its legalisation.

This student movement cannot be understood without a thorough examination of the broader political context in the country in which, triggered by an economic crisis immediately after World War II, the monarchy temporarily and partly liberalised the political arena and created room for opposition forces. (For those familiar with these developments, please fast forward to part 2 of the text, “The seven months of the Students Union.”)

The context

A post-WWII economic crisis

The emergence of Afghanistan’s first broader pro-democracy movement was fed by a deep economic crisis. The crisis was the result of the government’s mishandling of hard currency reserves from exports during World War II, the loss of particular export markets and a deteriorating economic situation for large parts of the population, exacerbated by a drought in 1944. (2) During the war, Afghanistan had sold cotton and sheep wool for winter uniforms to both sides of the war, allied and axis powers. The government put this money into an ambitious infrastructure project – the Helmand-Arghandab project  – designed to settle Pashtun communities on newly claimed and irrigated land in the valleys of these two rivers in the south of the country. The government planned to produce more cotton to supply new manufacturing industries nearby. 

The political aim of the Helmand-Arghandab project was to replicate the industrial advances made in the country’s north in previous years on the ininitiative of a group of private entrepreneurs, led by Abdulmajid Zabuli (1896-1998). Zabuli, a Pashtun cotton trader from Herat, and a group around him were the first ones to not only invest in their own consumption (including the purchase of land) but into developing an industrial basis for the country. Starting under King Muhammad Nader (r. 1929-33), they set up small companies, locally called sherkats, in Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Charikar and Mazar-e Sharif. In January 1931, Zabuli brought them under the umbrella of Sherkat-e Sahami (the Joint Stock Company). In October 1931, the company morphed into the Bank-e Melli (National Bank), making Zabuli the founder of the modern Afghan banking system. Despite its name, it was a private bank and Zabuli was one of its major shareholders. (It was nationalised only in 1976.) The Bank spawned more sherkats, mainly for processing the cotton grown in Kunduz and Baghlan, among them the Spinzar (White Gold) company. This success story brought Zabuli into the cabinet as Minister of Commerce in 1938. Under his supervision, Afghanistan’s first larger factories were built, including textile mills in Jabl us-Seraj and Pul-e Khumri in the provinces of Parwan and Baghlan, in 1938 and 1941, respectively, and a sugar factory in Baghlan-e Jadid, also in the late 1930s.

The Helmand-Arghandab project was in fact a nation-building programme, aiming at strengthening the economically more disadvantaged, Pashtun-dominated south of the country. But when the project ran into difficulties with wide-ranging salinisation of the reclaimed land, the country’s hard currency reserves were spent before the project began to yield larger effects. The government was forced to take out loans from the US which led to indebtedness (for more background, read this Washington Post article).

The economic crisis triggered dissent among the educated public, but also within the widely branched ruling royal family. A faction led by an ambitious rival of prime minister Shah Mahmud, his nephew Sardar Muhammad Daud, at that point Minister of War (1946-48), (3) was aiming at taking power. An alliance of Daud and Zabuli tried to win over the new political groups that had emerged during that time and tried to instrumentalise them for their own purposes. 

Title page of the 1947 Wesh Zalmian anthology of Kabul magazine. Photo: author’s archive.

New political groups

The way for the pro-democracy movement had been opened in May 1946 when Shah Mahmud had replaced his autocratic half-brother Muhammad Hashem as prime minister. (Hashem died from illness in 1947.) Both were members of the royal family that held all key executive posts, and uncles of King Muhammad Zaher (ruled 1933-73). But Shah Mahmud was politically much more liberal. He decreased pressure on political opponents, mainly supporters of former King Amanullah. The reformer-King (r. 1919-29; see AAN backgrounds here and here) and a loose group of political supporters called Jawanan-e Afghan (Young Afghans, a reference to Kemal Atatürk’s Young Turks) had led the country to full independence in 1919. But their reforms faced a violent backlash that led to the King’s overthrow (AAN background here) and brought another faction of the royal family – the so-called Musaheban – into power, to which Hashem and Shah Mahmud belonged. (4) They reversed most reforms in order to placate the conservative Islamic clergy, and made even the former King’s name anathema. (5)

After his taking office, Shah Mahmud pardoned still imprisoned or exiled Young Afghan leaders. Some were immediately given high governmental offices, after having to declare their loyalty to the regime. Others engaged in opposition political activity. Shah Mahmud tolerated the activity of the informal political circles of roshanfekran (“enlightened thinkers”), intellectuals not linked to the royal court (AAN background here) that had emerged as the result of Amanullah’s educational reforms. In the media, and particularly in Kabul magazine published under the Pashto Tolena, then the country’s leading academic institution, (6) they started an intellectual discussion about Afghanistan’s social and economic “backwardness” (Angar, 9 Hut 1329/26 February 1951) and the role of the new, educated generation in solving them. Their political agenda focussed on the modernisation and democratisation of the Afghan state through reform, to loosen the almost exclusive grip of the Pashtun tribal aristocracy – represented by the monarchy – and turning it into a constitutional monarchy.

This movement became more formal over spring and summer of 1947. But the impulse came from outside, in the form of attempts by Klup-e Melli (National Club) – a political circle set up by Daud and Zabuli in the month of Jaddi 1325 (December 1946/January 1947) and allegedly financed by the latter – to persuade the opposition intellectuals to join. Government officials and members of parliament were encouraged to join this group. Zabuli also approached a number of the activists. Some, such as Shamsuddin Majruh (1915-2002), a well-respected writer and a former Bank- Melli employee, (7) joined, while others procrastinated or were active in both groups. Most of the activists, however, rejected invitations to join. Among those were the poet Gul Pacha Ulfat (1909-77), a Pashtun from Laghman, and Mowlawi Qiamuddin Khadem (1901-79), another eastern Pashtun writer. Both worked as journalists at the government-run newspaper Ettehad-e Mashreqi in Jalalabad and were practically government officials. As Marvin Weinbaum wrote in 1972, it “found embarrassingly few recruits.” Zabuli reacted by dismissing a number of opposition figures from their jobs in the Bank-e Melli empire, as Ghobar described in a 5 November 1951 article for Watan.

Majruh and Ulfat, together with Abdul Rauf Benawa (1913-87), director of the Pashto Tolena, and Muhammad Karim Nazihi (1904 or 1906-1983), an Uzbek writer from Andkhoi, decided to set up an organisation of their own instead. A group of around 40 core activists, mostly Pashtuns, met on 24 Assad (15 August 1947) and founded the “Wesh Zalmian/Jawanan-e Bedar” (the Awakened Youth). The movement called itself a “social tendency with political character” but not (yet officially) a party, as the constitution did not provide for political parties. Its title apparently stemmed from a poem by Nek Muhammad Fedayi Melani which had been published in Kabul magazine early that year, proclaiming 

The time of sleep has passed…

The awakened youth will gather

And sort out the country’s muddled affairs.

The time is over when we

Existed as individuals.

The founders, in an attempt to make the movement ethnically diverse, also tried to draw in more non-Pashtun intellectuals, such as the historian Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar (1897-1978), a Dari-speaking Kabuli Sayed and official under Amanullah; (8) the medical doctor Abdulrahman Mahmudi (1909-63), a Kabuli Tajik; Mir Muhammad Seddiq Farhang (1925-89), another Kabuli Sayed and the city’s deputy mayor since 1949 (he had worked at Zabuli’s Bank-e Melli before); (9) Mir Ali Asghar Shua, a Hazara member of the elected Kabul city council and publisher of the Afghan Encyclopaedia (dairat al-maaref), and Abul Hassan, a Qizilbash, both from Kabul. In the same year, Benawa published an anthology of 40 articles authored by Wesh Zalmian members – particularly those intellectuals they tried to bring into their movement, such as Ghobar and Mahmudi, but also some government figures – discussing the aims of that movement. The spectrum of opinions varied from a mixture of support and criticism of the government to full-scale demands for social and economic reform.

One author, Abdul Rashid Latifi, just recently appointed head of the government-run Bakhtar news agency, meted out strong self-criticism, writing:

A large part of the youth is occupying state official’s posts (chowki, armchairs, in original) and tramples the majority’s rights under their feet.

Mahmudi touched upon the issue of equal rights for all ethnic groups in his contribution, writing that “true national unity of the people” must be based on the principle

… that everyone who lives in the geographical area called Afghanistan is also called an Afghan and must have equal rights.

One of the activists taking part in the movement, Mir Muhammad Seddiq Farhang, however, wrote in his memoirs (Khaterat, published posthumously in Kabul, in 2015) that the talks between the Wesh Zalmian and most non-Pashtun intellectuals to join the Wesh Zalmian failed. According to him, they found the Pashtun intellectuals insensitive about the other ethnic groups’ grievance vis-à-vis the Pashtun domination of the state. Farhang also wrote that an attempt of the non-Pashtuns (Ghobar, Mahmudi, him and two others), immediately after these events, to set up their own united party, parallel to the Wesh Zalmian, failed as it was reported to the court and they decided to lie low for a while. (More background on the movement in this AAN paper.)

The 1949-52 ‘liberal’ parliament

In 1949, Shah Mahmud held the first-ever Afghan parliamentary election by secret ballot. It was the seventh legislative period since the introduction of a  (not elected) parliament under Amanullah in 1923. The election was preceded by a relatively free campaign without open government interference. According to a paper by Afghan researcher Faridullah Bezhan, this was true only for some areas “in Kabul and a few other provinces, while the rest were elected via the old method of balloting in which government officials such as a governor nominated a person, and people agreed with their election.” (10) It is not clear what the age requirements for voters and candidates were; in 1965, according to Dupree, “any national over 25, male or female, who had not been deprived of political rights … was eligible to register and vote” and “[i]n practice, few women outside of Kabul participated in the elections.” Afghan author Hafizullah Emadi wrote that women were not allowed to compete in parliamentary elections up until the 1960s. So, it can be assumed that in the 1949 elections, the age limit was not, at that time, lower and very likely there were no women candidates and few, if any, women voters.

Some of the new opposition’s proponents were able to run – as individuals – and gain seats in the 1949 elections for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament. Weinbaum called this result “largely unanticipated” and said this turned parliament into “a forum for airing grievances against an overbearing bureaucracy and a clearinghouse for previously stifled political ideas.” 

Five elected Wesh Zalmian MPs gathered in a parliamentary faction that dubbed itself Jabha-ye Melli (National Front), copying the name of an umbrella group founded by nationalist Iranian politician Muhammad Mosadeq in the same year that demanded the establishment of a democracy and the nationalisation of foreign oil companies in its country. (Mosadeq became Prime Minister in 1951 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1953.) The new Afghan parliamentary faction included Ghobar and Mahmudi (both elected from Kabul), Ulfat (Jalalabad), Nazihi (Andkhoi) and another historian, Abdulhai Habibi (1910-84), a Pashtun and former head of the Pashto Tolena (elected from Kandahar centre). According to Niamatullah Ibrahimi (see his AAN paper here), Mahmudi won 14,000 votes. His popularity was based on him “living a simple life and offering free medical services to the poor (he was one of the first graduates of Kabul medical faculty).” Russian Afghanistan specialist Korgun wrote that the opposition movement, and particularly Mahmudi, supported strikes by textile and coal mine workers as well as by employees of Zabuli’s trade sherkats in Kandahar and Qataghan. (11) On 1 Jul 1951, he survived an attempt on his life.

Dr Abdul Rahman Mahmudi (left) and Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar (r.).
Muhammad Karim Nazihi.
Gul Pacha Ulfat.
Abdul Hai Habibi

The Front faction soon attracted 11 fellow MPs as members (12) and up to four dozen others as sympathisers, from across the country’s ethnic groups. According to Bezhan’s paper, this included two brothers, the Faryab MP Muhammad Nazar Nawa (elected in Maimana centre) and Abu-l-Khair Khairi (Shirin Tagab, Maimana province) and possibly other MPs from Balkh and Badakhshan who belonged to a pan-Turkist group in Northern Afghanistan, Ettehad wa Taraqi (Unity and Progress) that mainly worked undergroundAlso, the Hazara MPs united behind joint political demands. According to a paper by Norwegian scholar Christian Berg Harpviken, this included “the establishment of a distinct Hazara province with Panjao as summer capital and Bamiyan as winter capital, the closure of pastures to Pashtun nomads and restrictions on the powers of local administrators. Lastly, an end to discrimination of the Hazara was demanded, with emphasis on equal access to education.”Together they were more than one third of the house of 172. One of them, Ulfat, was elected second deputy speaker. 

The election year 1949 saw another failed – and last – attempt by Daud and Zabuli to win over the roshanfekran opposition to their side and set up a joint party. Farhang described it as the “United National-Democratic Party.” After that failure, he wrote, Daud concentrated on strengthening his power in the military while the NF members of parliament pushed for reforms. They tried to hold the government accountable, favoured (but did not achieve) the opening up of the parliamentary debates for the public and pushed for a new press law that would allow independent newspapers. (This would come in January 1951.) 

In June 1951, the NF tried to interpellate minister Zabuli and the ambassador to Washington, Muhammad Kabir Ludin, and brought about the first-ever vote of no-confidence against an Afghan government. It accused the government of mishandling the Helmand-Arghandab valley and spoke out against “neo-colonialism” as its failure forced the country to obtain additional US loans; the project management had been given to the US company Morrison-Knudsen without a public tender, according to Abdul Hamid Mobarez who was a member of the Students Union. Previously, the government had declined to make public the costs of the project and to publish the text of the agreement with the US Export Import Bank that had given additional loans for the project. Because of these efforts, this legislative period became known as the “liberal” 7th parliament. (13)

When Zabuli, as the responsible minister for the project, was removed a year later, in October 1951, it is not clear whether this was a result of the (finally defeated) vote of no-confidence. Afghanistan Encyclopedian Ludwig Adamec, in the 2012 edition of his Historical Dictionary of Afghanistan, refers to a “disagreement” with Shah Mahmud over Zabuli’s political ambitions. Zabuli seems to have fallen victim to the Shah Mahmud-Daud rivalry. German economist Oesterdiekhoff even assumes that Shah Mahmud used the opposition in parliament as a “spearhead” against Zabuli’s Bank-e Melli which had “turned into a state-within-the state.” (14) Finally, however, Shah Mahmud lost out to Daud who, in 1953, would become the new Prime Minister, a position he held until 1963. Daud ruled in authoritarian style, suppressed any opposition and kept many of its proponents in jail.

Even if reformist MPs had not been, in their own assessment, “completely successful,” Ghobar wrote at the end of the legislative period in 1952 that “the National Front (…) has honestly and courageously fulfilled its mandate until the last minute (…) in a spirit of reformism and reconciliation between the nation and the state (…). The ability of the nation to achieve a democratic government (…) has become obvious.”

Kabul Nendari before its reconstruction. Photo: Sciendo.

The seven months of the Students Union

Failed co-optation

The activity of the parliamentary opposition triggered great interest among parts of the young generation, mainly the students of Kabul University (15) and of the city’s high schools (lisa, from the French lycée) that had been founded during the 1930s and 1940s. 

As with the new opposition circles in general, the Daud-Zabuli faction also tried to establish its influence among the students. This was initiated through Muhammad Ishaq Usman, a son of former Interior Minister (1939-42) Ghulam Faruq Usman (also a member of the royal family and member of Klup-e Melli) and Ezzatullah Mujaddedi, from the famous religious family of the same name (AAN background here). Both were students at the law faculty. On 20 February 1950, both convened a first gathering of approximately 20 student friends, mostly from their faculty, but also from the literature faculty and French-run Esteqlal High School. With the support of Akbar Pamir, a lecturer at the law faculty (and future leadership member of the opposition Hezb-e Watan [Homeland Party] founded in 1951) the group wrote statutes for the Ettehadia-ye Muhasselin-e Pohantun-e Kabul (Students’ Union of Kabul University). This document seems to have been lost, but it is known that the union’s aims were oriented at those of the parliamentary opposition. (16) 

The participants decided to submit an application on the licensure of their organisation through university president Dr Muhammad Anas to the minister of Education, Faiz Muhammad Khan. The minister rejected the draft, but the students decided to go directly to the prime minister, using acquaintances working under him.

While this was underway, it became visible already during the second gathering a week later that some students were not ready to accept becoming supporters of the government. Their opinion was expressed by Muhammad Yunos Surkhabi who, according to participants and Mobarez’ book, referred to Daud’s participation in the military crushing of the Safi uprising in Eastern Afghanistan in 1946 and said: “The most important goal of us young people is to be aware of those dictators like Sardar Muhammad Daud who now is the leader of the National Club, and not to allow them to deceive us.” 

Surkhabi, as one of various high school students, participated in the union’s activities even though high school students were not covered by the students union’s statutes and therefore not legally allowed to be members. According to Afghan historian Sayed Askar Musawi, the high school students were among its most active and radical activists. As a result of the resistance of a group around Surkhabi, the union more and more escaped the attempted control of Klup-e Melli.

On 16 March 1950, Prime Minister Shah Mahmud officially allowed the establishment of the students’ union. But the government had, without consultation with the union, redacted its statutes strongly limiting the organisation’s scope. (Some sources interviewed believed Usman was instrumental in this manoeuvre.)

The statutes ruled that the students’ union should not have a “political character,” nor be allowed “to involve itself in politics.” Instead, it would organise mutual help among the students; contribute to “the recreation of their minds, the strengthening of their physique, the forming of their morale and the expansion of their knowledge.” It would also support the students in preparing for their exams, communicate their complaints to the university leadership, support the government in popularising education in the country, organise scientific conferences and hold sports events and theatre performances at the university’s dormitory (the latter after approval by the university’s authorities). 

Initially, the students had decided to work strictly “democratically,” without any chairman or other functionaries. This idea had to be dropped. A rotating chairmanship was introduced and four commissions established (for finance, culture, sport and disciplinary) in which two representatives of each class of each of the university’s faculties would be present. Students who had not or only conditionally been admitted to the exams could not be elected into the union’s leading body. This gave the government an instrument to keep potential unruly activists at bay.

Kabul’s mayor gave the union an apartment at Maiwand Wat/Jada-ye Maiwand as its office. It was also allowed to use De Pohene Nendara (the Educational Showroom, often simply called Kabul Theatre, established in 1941 and now long in ruins), for its meetings and conferences which, initially, had been held at Esteqlal high school. There, on 4 April of the same year and with the attendance of some teachers of high schools of the capital, the Union was officially inaugurated. Although its statutes said otherwise, it would become the first officially recognised and politically active social organisation in Afghanistan’s history.

Kabul Nendari (Kabul Theatre), where the 1950 Kabul University Students Union gathered and reached out to Kabul’s population. Here after it was rebuilt after 2001. Photo: Masoud Akbari (2006) under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Drama in the Kabul Theatre

Despite the statutes’ limitations, the students’ union attempted to become effective in accordance with its original aims which, in their reformist impetus, overlapped to a large degree with those of the opposition. After a debate at a members’ meeting on 10 June 1950 that was titled “How can the Students’ Union turned into an organisation that is useful for the people?” it was decided to, in accordance with article 3 of its statutes (which provided for “supporting the government in the promotion and popularization of education in the country by presentations, conferences and articles”), organise presentations “to the people” once a week in the Kabul Theatre. 

These meetings, that were called “conferences,” became the most effective form of spreading the opposition’s ideas. Public interest was boosted when the union invited members of the emerging political groups to take part in them, among them from the Wesh Zalmian but also from the National Club and progressive clergymen. Particularly active was Abdul Rahman Mahmudi who would regularly report about the opposition members’ work in parliament. Students presented on historical and social subjects. In addition to its office, a library and theatre performances, the union had powerful instruments for public outreach at its disposal. According to Mobarez, Kabul University’s sports teams used the union’s logo; its football team was particularly popular and became Kabul champion that year. Only a planned magazine never came into being.

The conferences were met with broad interest among the Kabul population. Mobarez wrote that government officials and even officers of the armed forced, “in civilian clothes”, attended. Other eyewitnesses told the author that also members of the non-educated social classes were among the audience so that the theatre’s auditorium with some hundred seats would always be completely full; participants stood even in the isles and sat on the windowsills. That was supported by the fact that no entry fees were taken. Mobarez reported that after the conferences, the participants would perform evening prayer on nearby Chaman-e Huzuri, Kabul’s festival field, near today’s stadium. It is fair to say that the opposition-oriented pro-democratic movement, through the Students Union, had spread its ideas beyond the intelligentsia and achieved a certain resonance.

The students’ union soon looked for further ways to popularise its activities and aims. From 25 April to 9 May 1950, some of its members undertook a journey through several provinces of the country. The trip was financed by Zabuli, indicating that Klup-e Melli had not given up on influencing the students. Some students travelled to Ghazni, Qalat, Kandahar and Gereshk, visited factories, power stations and construction sites and held a meeting in Kandahar with local school students and tribal leaders. There, they presented the students’ union and staged a play called “Wahdat-e Melli” (National Unity) that showed different ethnic groups of the country peacefully living together. Its author was Kabul University professor Fazl Rabi Pazhwak.

This play was also staged in Kabul, by popular demand of the city’s population, on 14 July that year, the anniversary of the French revolution, as Mobarez recalled. This was allowed, but radio and TV declined to advertise it. The government also prevented the printing of posters. Mobarez further related that there was some criticism in the play of former prime minister Hashem Khan. This was reported by government officials in the audience to Shah Mahmud who got upset and ordered the arrest of some students that participated, among them Surkhabi. (According to another source, Sayed Muhammad Maiwand, the union’s chairman who came from a famous Kandahari family, had declined to open the meeting with the usual formula “in the name of the King.”)

On the next day, Mobarez and Babrak Karmal (the later leader of the Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan/People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA – find an AAN dossier here) mobilised the students for a silent march to the education ministry to demand their release. Deputy minister Abdul Qayum promised to relay the demand to the prime minister, but when he did not return the students marched on to Kabul’s police headquarters where they were stopped by troops. The next day, 400 university and high school students again took to the streets and marched to the prime minister’s seat. Mobarez described the scene there as “like a military camp” with armed soldiers and weapons everywhere. The students cheered Shah Mahmud as the “father of democracy”, upon which he agreed to receive their representatives and finally released those arrested. There were two exceptions, though, as Surkhabi and Maiwand were banished to their places of origin.

Nevertheless, two days after these events, another conference was held in the theatre by decision of the union’s cultural commission. Mobarez described the scene of the next regular Students Union conference:

That Wednesday which was the regular day for the union’s general assembly, it was held again and the [former] arrested students appeared on stage. They were welcomed by the students’ applause while on two empty chairs, one for Maiwand and one for Surkhabi, there were bouquets of flowers.

Muhammad Taher Burgay – one of the founders of the union – presented, and there was more criticism of the government. After that, a group of students was expelled from university. The statutes already imposed on the union were edited once again by the government. The conferences were no longer allowed to be open to the public and the union was banned from using the theatre. When another conference was scheduled a week later, the students found the theatre surrounded by soldiers who violently prevented students from entering. 

Maiwand finally fled to Pakistan, together with two comrades, where he joined a republican exile group based in Quetta where it published a newspaper, called Neda-ye Jamhuriat (Voice of the Republic). On his escape, Maiwand shot dead an Afghan border policeman – an incident that led to even stronger repression against the opposition. On 13 November 1950, the government declared the students’ union dissolved.

Male and female voices for women’s right

Despite the fact that separate classes for women were established at Kabul University’s medical, natural and political sciences faculties in 1950/51, according to Micheline Centlivres-Demont (“Afghan Women in Peace, War, and Exile”, in: Myron Weiner/Ali Banuazizi (eds), The Politics of Social Transformation in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, 1994: Syracuse University Press, p338), women did not seem to have played a role in the students union. This was different, though, from the wider opposition movement.

Starting in the second half of the 1940s, in Herat, women’s rights became a topic of the discussion among the roshanfekran in the media. Vartan Gregorian (The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan, p349) quoted various articles from the city’s leading literary journal, Majala-ye Herat, a leading literary and social magazine, where authors – men and women – 

… lamented the fact that Afghan women were unschooled and ignorant (…), admonished fathers to pay due attention to the upbringing and education of their daughters (…), that educated women were essential (…) in the socioeconomic and cultural renovation of Afghan society. (…) In some cases, these writers endorsed monogamy; a few went so far as to advocate equal rights for men and women.

Some writers criticised the courts for not sufficiently protecting even just the rights of women granted to them by Islam.

Apart from some media, De Mermano Tolena (Women’s Society; in Dari, mostly referred to as Anjoman-e Khairia-ye Neswan; Women’s Welfare Society) provided a framework in which women’s rights were discussed. The organisation was a private re-foundation in 1946 of a similar institution set up under Amanullah’s government, “in the mid-1920s” (Poullada). According to Sayed Qasem Reshtia (Khaterat-e Siasi [Political Memoires], Kabul 1997) it was also an initiative of economy minister Zabuli, supported by Daud’s brother Muhammad Naim. Very soon it was financed by the government.

The 1947 Wesh Zalmian anthology also features four women, among them a wife (Rabea Hairat) and a daughter (Maga Rahmani) of Wesh Zalmian members. (In contrast to the male contributors, their photos were not shown.) Rabea Hairat wrote that she had heard about the Wesh Zalmian discussion through her husband and then “found the courage” to also contribute to the discussion. A third female author, only identified as Humaira, wrote that she also considered herself a member of the Awakened Youth and that this term should also “refer to women.” She appealed to her compatriots not to aim at broader society before starting to ensure that “man and women in the smallest unit of society, the family,” are “awakened and educated.” 

Maga Rahmani defined women’s exclusion from education as “the real cause for our backwardness.” She wrote that women were “deprived of all social rights” and called for their “liberation from absurd traditions. (…) This land is like a person who has one hand in the pocket and [only] works with the other.” All female authors put the role of women as mothers and “patriotic” educators of their children in the centre of their argument.

It is not clear how many women were active beyond their role as writers. Korgun mentioned that Maga Rahmani and Shafiqa Rashidi, a teacher at Kabul’s Zarghuna high school joined Mahmudi’s Hezb-e Khalq party in 1951.

The aftermath: more opposition and a crackdown

The ban galvanised the rest of the opposition. They started setting up political parties – although this was still contrary to the law – and, after parliament passed a new press law on the initiative of the National Front faction in January 1951 allowing independent newspapers, their own publications.

Less than a month earlier, on 27 Mizan 1329 (18 October 1950), the Wesh Zalmian had already decided to turn themselves into a party. They were the first one to officially use this term. At this point, some 100 people were active in it, with subgroups in Kabul, Jalalabad, Kandahar and Farah, a number that grew to 816 in nine cities by 1951.

Its establishment also heralded the final split of the originally ethnically diverse opposition movement. At that time, groups around Ghobar and Farhang as well as around Mahmudi, both mainly urban Tajiks or Dari speakers, had left the Wesh Zalmian, criticising its growing Pashtun ethno-nationalist and more pro-government tone. 

The Wesh Zalmian launched Angar (Ember) as their newspapers in Kabul. Watan (Homeland) and Neda-ye Khalq (People’s Voice) followed for Ghobar’s Homeland Party (Hezb-e Watan, founded in Jaddi 1329, December 1950/January 1951) and Mahmudi’s People’e Party (Hezb-e Khalq). The less radical and, by then, more pro-government faction of the former Wesh Zalmian movement published Ulus (The Nation), run by Ulfat. (17) The opposition’s media activity were not limited to the capital. There were Wesh Zalmian newspapers in Kandahar (Alifba), Herat (Payyam-e Afghan and Seda-ye Mellat), Mazar-e Sharif (name unknown) and Baghlan (Neda-ye Mellat); in Maimana, opposition sympathisers ran the municipality’s newspaper Atom.

Many activists of the students’ union joined the rump parties and the editorial staff of the independent newspapers. In Hezb-e Watan, the students were given a dedicated seat in its Central Committee, which was taken by Mir Ahmad Ali Shamel.

With a view to the forthcoming 1952 parliamentary elections, these groups started pushing for being officially recognised. But they did not hold strong cards after the ban of the students union. Hezb-e Watan went the legal way, by trying to obtain official recognition directly from the King through one of its sympathisers who had connections to the court. According to Bezhan, it was Ghobar personally who send an application to the prime minister and the king already in 1948. (According to a former party member interviewed in 1983, it was Ali Ahmad Kohzad, the head of the Historical Society.) Bezhan wrote “The prime minister indicated his agreement in principle, but asked for a detailed written document about the goals and scope of the party, which was soon done and directly presented to the king. However, the government neither formally permitted nor rejected the application.” Mahmudi did not go for the consent of the rulers. He put the programme of his Hezb-e Khalq (People’s Party) on the front page of his newspaper Neda-ye Khalq on 31 March 1951. The government confiscated the entire edition, banned the newspaper and party immediately, even though it was never legalised. (18) Atom in Maimana was closed in January 1952.

Facsimile of Watan newspaper, edited by Ghobar. Source:

Simultaneously, the Wesh Zalmian, through Angar, advocated for the re-admission of a students’ organisation. In its 21 Hamal 1330 (9 April 1951) issue, editor-in-chief Nur Muhammad Tarakay, later the PDPA leader and first head of state after it took power in April 1978, urged the students’ union to re-start its conferences. He wrote that the gatherings of the students’ union were “fully in the interest of the public” because they contributed to the “awakening of the people” that “attended them” and stated “We are sure that your patriotic activities will be banned by no one [again].” When Angar repeated this demand and reported the exact circumstances of the union’s ban in its 16th issue dated 23 April 1951, the government prevented its distribution. This triggered a number of new student demonstrations joined by parts of the sympathetic population of Kabul. The largest one took place on 21 June 1951. It began with a meeting at Esteqlal high school and led to the royal palace where, among others, Babrak Karmal (actual name Sultan Hussain, 1929-96), a member of the banned students union and writer for Watan, held a speech. The police broke up the demonstration and arrested numerous people, including Karmal. 

Hezb-e Khalq’s going public and the Wesh Zalmian’s demand for the revival of the Students Union, through Angar, followed by the demonstrations, gave the government a justification to crack down on all opposition groups. (18) Many of its leading activists lost their positions in the administration (except those who took the side of the government), and were either imprisoned or exiled. The government also ended its liberal approach to the upcoming parliamentary election on 24 March 1952. 40 opposition members of the old house were prevented from running for re-election on 24 March 1952; the few who were allowed to run (mainly in Kabul) faced government candidates in whose favour the election was manipulated again. None of the opposition members were re-elected (an exception being Ulfat, now in the pro-government ‘faction’ of the Wesh Zalmian. (He became head of the Pashto Tolena in 1956.)

The opposition, including the illegal Students Union, organised a protest demonstration in Kabul against the vote rigging and demanded the annulation of the results in two of the capital’s constituencies where Mahmudi and Ghobar were defeated this time, and the government reacted with more arrests. The Wesh Zalmian party had practically ceased to exist, with its opposition faction in jail or in exile, and the more conservative faction co-opted into government. Hezb-e Watan and Hezb-e Khalq continued to work clandestinely. Hezb-e Watan only dissolved itself in 1956 when its leader Ghobar was released from prison, perhaps as a precondition for his release. 

The long effects of the Students Union and the 1940/50s opposition

Although it only existed legally for seven months, the students union – through a number of its leaders and members – had a long-term effect. After its ban, many of its activists directly joined new, legally still banned but openly active opposition parties. 

Already during its legal existence, the students union, as well as the wider opposition movement, started to develop differences of opinion over some political issues, the reasons of which were related to their social and ethnic background. Many of those closer to the court and the government ­– the Afghan monarchy dominated by the Pashtun tribal elites, with the Muhammadzai royal family at the top – were hesitant to confront it head on. Most of the non-Pashtuns were more radical and demanded a democratic form of government. As a result, both the Students Union and the wider opposition movement split along ethnic lines – a fault-line that would continue to haunt the Afghan reformist movement. It should not be overlooked, however, that some leading non-Pashtun activists also compromised with the government and allowed themselves to be co-opted, while some Pashtuns actually advocated for a republic. (These were not those who later established the PDPA.) 

Neither the ideas nor the protagonists driving the events between the emergence of the still multi-ethnic Wesh Zalmian/Jawanan-e Bedar movement in 1947, the first relatively free parliamentary election in 1949, the establishment of the Students Union and the crackdown on the movement in 1952 went away as the result of Daud’s post-1953 crackdown who had earlier failed to co-opt this movement. After the ten years of his repressive regime, they would re-emerge in what is called the ‘decade of democracy’. They used the new political freedom provided by the 1964 constitution, a result of the King decreeing, top-down again, that the Afghan monarchy would be based on a freely elected parliament and top positions of power opened to those beyond the royal family. (Much of this was driven by intra-family conflict, between the King and Daud.) As the 1964 constitution provided for the establishment of political parties, many leaders of the 1947-52 movement emerged again as leaders of the various political groups of the emerging four strands: pro-Soviet communists, anti-Soviet Maoists, Islamists and a diverse pro-government centre. 

In those years, political party activity was accompanied, again, by students’ mobilisation. A major arena of political composition was Kabul University. (Until 1973, when Nangrahar University was established in Jalalabad, it was the only university in the country.) There a new Students Union emerged, for the leadership of which the communists, the Maoists and the Islamists competed in elections. Each of them mobilised around 30 per cent of the votes. Early on, the Maoists were slightly ahead, then later the Islamists. Among those involved in this era of students’ politics were later key political leaders, such as Najibullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and, as professors, Borhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf.) 

Mir Ali Ahmad Shamel.

Many of the 1950 student activists would play key roles in developments that shaped today’s Afghanistan, many of them in the leftist spectrum. For example, Babrak Karmal, would become the head of state under Soviet occupation from 1980 to 1986. In contrast, his erstwhile comrade, Mir Ahmad Ali Shamel was killed by the PDPA regime. Abdul Wahed Sarabi (b. 1926) would serve as minister under the King and minister and Vice President (1988-92) under Najibullah. Hassan Sharq would be deputy prime minister under Daud’s presidency and prime minister under Najibullah in 1988-89. Abdul Hamid Mobarez would become head of the state-run Bakhtar News Agency and a provincial governor under the monarchy, Deputy Minister of Information and Culture under Najibullah and Karzai (2002-05), head of the Afghan National Journalists’ Union (since 2007) and member of the now defunct High Peace Council. Muhammad Taher Burgay taught law at Kabul University and was appointed member of the Preparatory Commission for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga.

Edited by Christian Bleuer

(1) Ghobar, Afghanistan dar Masir-e Tarikh [Afghanistan in the Course of History], Kabul, 1967 and 1978 (its first edition was immediately banned); Habibi, Jombesh-e Mashrutiat dar Afghanistan (The Constitutional Movement in Afghanistan), Kabul: Kamita-ye Daulati-ye Tab wa Nashr, 1984.

(2) As a result, living expenses grew six-fold between 1937/38 and 1955 (P.G. Franck, “Economic progress in an Encircled Land”, The Middle East Journal, Washington, 1/1956.) The 1944 drought drastically reduced agricultural production and livestock figures and forced many farmers into the cities. For the first time, Afghanistan needed to import grain. Afghanistan’s trade and budget deficits grew.

(3) After a short intermezzo, in 1948/49, during which Daud would briefly serve as Ambassador to France, he was Minister of the Interior from 1949 to 1951 and Commander of the Afghan forces Central Corps in Kabul from 1951 to 1953. In that year, he finally reached his goal and became Prime Minister, a position he held for a decade, until 1963. He ran an authoritarian regime and pushed for economic modernisation through five-year development plans (often attributed to Soviet influence but actually developed by West German advisors) and a “guided economy.” This was based on the inflow of aid money from east and west, capitalising on the Cold War competition of winning over so-called Third World countries to either side. Daud’s confrontational course vis-à-vis Pakistan on the Pashtunistan issue (ie the Afghan claim on the areas inhabited by the Pashtuns that had become part of British-India in the late 19th century, since 1947 part of Pakistan), however, backfired economically for the land-locked country. The King sacked Daud in 1963 and embarked on turning the country into a constitutional monarchy with parliamentarian-democratic elements.

(4) The Musaheban-e Khas (special attendants or aides de camp) is the title of the Pashtun Yahyakhel clan. They descended from Sultan Muhammad Khan known as “Telayi” (the Golden; 1792-1863), Chief Minister of his younger brother Dost Muhammad Khan, Afghan Amir 1826-39 and 1843-63. Sultan Muhammad Khan was the first one who was given this title. In the early 20th century, it referred to his five great grandsons: Sardar Muhammad Nader Khan (King 1929-33); Sardar Muhammad Hashem Khan (prime minister 1929-46), Sardar Shah Mahmud Khan (prime minister 1946-53), Sardar Shah Wali Khan (defence minister 1935-36 and acting prime minister 1936-37, then abroad as ambassador until after 1964); and Sardar Muhammad Aziz Khan (assassinated by an Amanullah supporter when Afghan Ambassador to Berlin in 1933).

The Yahyakhel belong to the Muhammadzai subtribe of the Barakzai tribe of the Durrani Pashtun tribal confederacy that stood at the top of the Afghan monarchy from 1826 to 1973, with the exception of 1929, under ‘rebel’ King Habibullah II Kalakani. Also, the president of the Republic of Afghanistan (1973-79), Muhammad Daud, was a Muhammadzai. He was the son of Sardar Muhammad Aziz Khan.

(5) Amanullah had been living in Italy and Switzerland ever since. He died in 1960. In Afghanistan, he was only officially rehabilitated after Muhammad Zaher Shah took over real power in 1964, with the first articles praising his reforms in that year (see: Jan-Heeren Grevemeyer, Afghanistan: Sozialer Wandel und Staat im 20. Jahrhundert, Berlin: VWB 1990, p188).

(6) The Pashto Tolena (Pashto Society) was founded in 1937 through the merger of the Kabul Academic Association and the Kandahar Academic Association in order to promote the Pashto language. Particularly after World War II, it went beyond its original aim and became one of the country’s leading academic institutions. In 1978, it was re-organised as the country’s Academy of Sciences when merged with the Afghanistan History Association, the Aryana Encyclopedia office and the International Center for Pashto Researchers.

(7) In his memoires (Sarguzasht-e Man, Kabul: Matbua-ye Afghanistan, 2012, p95-6), Majruh confirmed that he headed Klup-e Melli’s secretariat and that it was Daud’s plan to bring all opposition groups under one roof, in order to “prevent the establishment of various parties”, and turn it into “the government’s majority party.” (Bezhan, quoting the second volume of Ghobar’s Afghanistan dar Masir-e Tarikh (Virginia, 1999), erroneously called him “the president of the party.”

Majruh seems to have been dependent on Zabuli, as he then worked at the government’s Riasat-e Enhesarat (Department of [Trade] Monopolies). He was then quickly promoted in government, first being appointed as the head of the Independent Press Directorate (later the Ministry of Information and Culture). In the 1960s, he became Zaher Shah’s minister of justice and, in this position, chaired the commission that drafted the 1964 constitution.

(8) Ghobar was editor-in-chief of Amanullah’s official Setara-ye Afghan newspaper (1919-20) and Kabul chief of police (1920-21), then sent as a diplomat to Paris and later Berlin. After his return, he was jailed from 1933 to 1935 and banished to Farah from 1935 to 1942, before being amnestied by Shah Mahmud.

(9) The 1949 Wolesi Jirga election was preceded by the election of mayors in all urban centres with more than 10,000 inhabitants in 1948, also for the first time held with multiple candidates. It was a two-stage election (see Farhang, Khaterat, p218): In Kabul, the 50 members of the city council were elected directly. Then, the members of the council would elect the mayor from their midst. In Kabul, Ghulam Muhammad Farhad (1901-84), who had studied electrical engineering in the 1920s Germany, won and became the head of the state-owned electricity company, De Breshna Loy Sherkat, afterwards. In the 1960s, he would founded a Pashtun nationalist party, Afghan Mellat (AAN background here). Farhang became one of Farhad’s two deputies. In Kandahar, Abdul Shukur Reshad, a Wesh Zalmian sympathiser, was elected deputy mayor.

Mahmudi had also been a candidate in this election. He campaigned in mosques and even held a speech in a cinema, in a break between movies. That made him very popular – too popular for the government that then arrested him before the vote.

(10) According to Dieter Nohlen, Florian Grotz, Christof Hartmann (eds): Elections in Asia and the Pacific: A Data Handbook: Volume I: Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia (Oxford University Press, New York 2001, p507), the electoral law of 1930/31 was still in place in the 1940s (see Dari original here). The National Front MPs struggled for a reform of it, but the government dragged its feet and it never came to a vote. 

According to that law, only men older than 20 were eligible to vote. The law also provided that, on election day, all those eligible to vote should gather in the provincial capital. (The provinces were the constituency, but seats were allocated regardless of the size of their population, according to Dupree.) They wrote: “Under the supervision of government officials and religious scholars, the candidate or candidates were discussed. The candidate on which the assembly finally agreed was sent as representative to Kabul. Only when there was no agreement, there was a vote. This meant practically that [in most cases] the assembly sent the candidate proposed by the local authorities to parliament by acclamation.”

Bezhan described a similar scenario: 

According to the Lahya [sic]-i Intekhabat Shora-i Melli (Regulation of National Assembly Balloting) ratified in 1931, the Election Laws provide for the election of members of parliament as follows: the Ministry of Interior directs the local governors to notify which groups of villages must jointly provide a member of parliament. Notice must be given to the villages from 10 to 30 days before the selection. The various village councils meet on a specified day and several government officials, including the members of the sharia court, must witness the procedures. Lahya-i Intekhabat Shora-i Melli (Kabul: Matbae Omomi, 1931), pp. 3 – 5. In practice, however, ‘the village council usually notifies the governor of its selection beforehand, so that the Ministry of Interior can approve or reject the choice’. 

Bezhan quoted a British embassy document dated 6 April 1948:

The tribes are represented in Central Government by “Vakils” [members of parliament] who are either elected by the tribe or more frequently selected by the Government for the influence they have in a particular area. These “Vakils” are often tribal or religious leaders and allowance holders of the Government’.

German diplomat Reinhard Schlagintweit, in In Afghanistan. 1958-61, reported that 

Each hakim (district governor) drafted a list of reliable persons, naturally men only, and discussed it with the [provincial] governor. He selected one or two of them he considers suitable. On election day, all (male) inhabitants of the district are convened, and the candidates are introduced. The election than is held in a way that Wahl name and ID card number of them are entered into a candidates’ list.

This procedure is confirmed by a contemporary Afghan source. MH Dzadzai wrote for Angar (13 April 1951) that the MP of his constituency in what is today Paktia had been determined by the power of the local tribes “for many years”, and that the tribes “took turns” in sending someone into parliament and that there “never has been a real vote.”

Mobarez (p118) wrote that the candidates list were “prepared by Riasat-e Zabt-e Ahwalat [the intelligence service] and sent to the governors.”

Schlagintweit also describes how provincial councils are elected, “six to eight men per province”, and that that election is “more important” than that for parliament. He wrote: 

A member of the provincial council has influence with the governor and a say in court decisions. The procedure is basically the same [as for parliament] but the population is more involved. [This also seems to indicate that both elections were not held at the same time.] Village assemblies in which no representative of the government takes part discuss candidates that seem appropriate to them. 

He added that in some areas representatives “rotate”, but it is not clear whether that is within one legislative period or over various ones. Schlagintweit added:

There is a kind of lottery among candidates and pressure on the governor to accept the person elected [by the assembly]. (…) Arbitrary measures by the government officials are being curbed by the fact the position of the hakim, and also of the governor, are under threat if he acts to independently [from the assembly], for example by not accepting their candidates.

(11) The textile workers strike in the town of Jabal us-Seraj in 1949 for pay raises and a better supplies for workers and their families lasted for four days and ended without success; the government was apparently able to utilise ‘disunity’ among the protesters. Striking coal miners who, according to contemporary Afghan media reports, wanted to establish an “association to protect their interests” were sacked, as were striking sherkat employees in 1950. Another strike of textile workers in Pul-e Khumri in 1951 was answered with pay cuts and the instruction “not to get involved in political affairs”, according to a report by Mahmudi in Watan.

(12) According to Ali Muhammad Shinwarai, “Wesh Zalmian,” unpublished manuscript, Kabul 1352 (1973) their names were: Seyyed Muhammad Dehqan (Faizabad, Badakhshan province), Abdul Awal Qureishi (Taloqan, Qataghan), Muhammad Anwar Barakai (Bagrami, Kabul), Nur Alam (Maidan, Kabul), Khal Muhammad Khasta (Mazar-e Sharif), Nazer Muhammad Nawa (Maimana), Abdullah Beg Mazlum (Darwaz, Badakhshan), Sakhi Amin (Doshi, Qataghan), Muhammad Yunus (nomads, Katawaz), Muhammad Taher (Jaghatu, Ghazni), Mir Hatem (Dzadran, Southern province). 

According to Bezhan, Hezb-e Watan leader Ahang claimed that the party sent seven members, or sympathisers, to parliament. Five of them (Ghobar, Dehqan, Quraishi, Barakai and Amin) are also mentioned by Shinwarai. Bezhan/Ahang further mention Muhammad Kabir Azizi Ghorbandi (elected from Ghorband) and Mir Alam Mazlumyar (not mentioned in the lists published by the official De Afghanistan Kalanay [Afghanistan Yearbook] of both years which are the source on MPs in this text.

According to Abdul Hamid Mobarez (Mashruta-ye Sewum wa Aghaz-e Dimukrasi dar Afghanistan [The Third Constitutional Movement and the Beginning of Democracy in Afghanistan], Kabul, Maiwand Press, 1393 [2014/15], p115), there were three factions in parliament: the supporters of Prime Minister Shah Mahmud; Daud’s supporters, who pushed for him replacing Shah Mahmud; and the opposition. Mobarez wrote that the opposition’s “minority group preferred Shah Mahmud staying and establishing democracy to Daud coming to power.”

(13) The seventh Wolesi Jirga also cancelled all treaties which former Afghan governments have signed with the British, including the Durand Line Agreement following a 1949 Loya Jirga (of which MPs were members) speaking out for this measure. The nationalistic-minded NF members also voted in favour. Farhang wrote in his memoires that it was the intellectuals’ support – also the non-Pashtun ones – of the government on the Pashtunistan issue (see footnote 2) in the first place that opened up the space for their political activity.

(14) Peter Oesterdiekhoff, Hemmnisse und Widersprüche in der Entwicklung armer Länder – Darstellung am Beispiel Afghanistans, Munich 1978, p459.

(15) The university had been established only in 1946, bringing several independent higher education institutions under one roof: the oldest one, the Kabul Medical Institute (founded in 1932); a combined Agricultural and Engineering School (which were now separated); a Law and Political Sciences Faculty, probably also covering what later became the Faculty of Languages and Literature (1938) and one for Natural Sciences (1941). 

(16) With Sayed Ehsan Ghobar and Ghani Mahmudi, there were two young relatives of National Front MPs in the founding circle of the union. Other (later) prominent members were Wesh Zalmian member Azizullah Wasefi (later a minister in Daud’s republic and prominent supported of the former king during the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga); Muhammad Hassan Sharq (Mobarez calls him the head of the pro-Daud group in the students union); Abdul Wahid Sarabi; and Mir Ahmad Ali Shamel.

(17) The newspapers were: Angar (Ember), with Faiz Muhammad Angar as publisher and editor-in-chief; Watan (Homeland), with Ghobar as publisher and Farhang as editor-in-chief; Neda-ye Khalq (People’s Voice), with Mahmudi as publisher and Wali Ahmad Attayi as editor-in-chief; and Ulus(Nation), with Ulfat as publisher and Ali Muhammad Shinwari as editor-in-chief. Angar (appeared 26 February-23 April 1951) and Neda-ye Khalq (31 March 1951-July 1951) appeared twice weekly, Watan (20 March 1951-February 1952) and Ulus (which replaced Angar in mid-1951) once weekly, in not more then 1,500 copies each, according to Dupree (Afghanistan, 1978). 

(18) To give an ides of their size, Hezb-e Watan was said to have had between 170 and 270 members. Those parties were not identical with the 1960-90s PDPA, renamed Hezb-e Watan in 1986), known as Hezb-e Khalq in short, although the PDPA put itself in their tradition. Actually, Ghobar and Farhang, who were involved in preparations to establish the PDPA in the early 1960s, abstained from joining when it was founded on 1 January 1965. 

In 1951, Hezb-e Khalq tried to continue to work clandestinely. According to Olivier Roy (“The Origins of the Afghan Communist Party”, Central Asian Survey Vol 7, 2/3, 1988, pp41-57), Mahmudi had recommended this. But it seemed to have stopped, however, after five months when its leader Mahmudi was arrested. Hezb-e Watan continued a few years more underground, led by Muhammad Asef Ahang. After its leader Ghobar was released in 1956, it dissolved, however  – perhaps a precondition for his liberation.

(19) Also, the affair around an article by Wesh Zalmian member Ghulam Hassan Safay published in Neda-ye Khalq on 5 April 1951 helped the government in its crackdown. Safi wrote about a shrine built “a few years” ago for a hair of the Prophet Muhammad in Surkhrod (Nangrahar province), doubting the authenticity of the relict and argued that Islam “abhorred such kind of superstition.” He also disclosed that the land for the shrine had originally been designed for a new school. He provoked a sharp reaction from parts of the clergy but also was supported by other ulema. Watan published a letter of 60 of them defending him, and finally he was condemned to a relatively mild two years’ imprisonment for “anti-religious statements”.


7th Wolesi Jirga Abdul Majid Zabuli Babrak Karmal Kabul University opposition movement Students Union the liberal parliament Wesh Zalmian