POST TIME: 10 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 10 March, 2018 02:29:10 AM
Fight for a language and a nation’s birth
The writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Bengal would become ‘illiterate’ and ‘ineligible’ for government positions
Subhrendu Shekhar Bhattacharjee

Fight for a language and a nation’s birth

Immediately after the partition in 1947, the intention of the Pakistan ruling class became crystal clear about the language issue of the country. The new dominion was composed of various ethnic and linguistic groups, with geographically noncontiguous East Bengal (renamed East Pakistan) having 44 million Bengali speaking people out of the total 69 million population of Pakistan. The government, as Civil Services and Military being dominated by the personnel from western wing, was virtually run by the power structure of West Pakistan. To bring the matter in legal shape a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan in 1947. The process of introducing Urdu came into force in all areas such as removal of Bengali from the list of approved subjects of Public Service Commission as well as from currency and stamps and its exclusive use in the media and schools.

As the all-out efforts were underway to establish Urdu in all sectors, the other side was found not unresponsive. Public outrage spread everywhere and Bengali students from Dhaka University formally demanded on 8 December, 1947 that Bengali be made an official language of Pakistan. Dr. M Shahidullah put forward the argument as, if “Urdu or Hindi instead of Bengali is used in our law courts and universities that would tantamount to political slavery”. This comment marks the beginning of the language controversy of Pakistan and Bengali language movement. The writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Bengal would become ‘illiterate’ and ‘ineligible’ for government positions. Besides academic discussion to highlight the subject assembly member Dhirendra Nath Datta proposed legislation to allow members to speak Bengali and authorize its use for official purpose. But all the attempts, legal and scholarly to establish Bengali ended in smoke when then Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan along with Muslim League denounced the proposal. Subsequently in 1948, the government ordained Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan sparking extensive protests among Bengali speaking majority of East Bengal. The students of Dhaka University and other political activists defied the law. In protest, ‘Rastro Bhasha Sangram Parishad’ was formed jointly by Tamuddin Majlis and East Pakistan Muslim Students League and 11 March,1948 was announced as ‘Bangla bhasha dabi dibas’ under the leadership of Professor Abul Kashem, Shamsul Huq, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other leaders. The Parishad very reasonably placed their demand that instead of only Urdu, both Urdu and Bengali shall be the state languages of Pakistan. While observing the dabi dibas, Sheikh Mujib, Shamsul Huq and other leaders were arrested during picketing and demonstration near Eden building. After release from jail on 15 March, a general meeting of the students was held on 16 March at Amtala, Dhaka University which was presided over by Sheikh Mujib to prolong the movement. The situation infuriated when Mr. Jinnah finally gave his sermon that only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan both in Race Course and Curzon Hall; he was interrupted by large segment of the audience for the first time by shouting “মানিনা, মানিনা and না না (We’ll not accept, and no, no) vehemently. Sheikh Mujib, a young leader took a leading role in raising the repugnant voice among the protesters.

This declaration of Mr. Jinnah is the catastrophe of the melodrama ignoring the Bengali nationalism composed of its culture, language and other ingredients ushered in the mid-19th century when Urdu language had been promoted as the lingua franca of the Indian Muslims by political and religious leaders such as Sir Salimullah, Sir Syed Ahmed and others. But the Muslims of Bengal used the Bengali language and even before the partition the delegates from Bengal rejected the idea of making Urdu as the lingua franca of Indian Muslims in the Lucnow session of Muslim League in 1937. In the late 19th century the social activists like Begum Rokeya were choosing to write in Bengali to reach out to the people and develop it as a modern literary language,

However, Urdu-Bengali controversy was reignited when Jinnah’s successor, Governor-General Khawja Nazimuddin staunchly defended the ‘Urdu only’ policy in a speech on 27 January, 1952. In continuation of the movement all party central Language Committee was formed in a meeting chaired by Moulana Bhasani on 31 January. The central government’s proposal of writing Bengali in Arabian script was vehemently opposed at the meeting. The action committee called for an all-out protest on 21st February. On the day, the students violating the section 144 Crpc. broke out procession to repudiate the proposal. At one stage the demonstrators became violent hearing the news of arrest of some students. Soon a group of students sought to storm the Legislative building. Police opened fire and killed a number of students including Salam, Barkat, Rafiq and Jabbar.

It is a very rare example in the world history that the people embraced martyrdom for establishing the dignity of language. After the years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956 and in 1999 UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day as a tribute for establishing Bengali language. Analyzing the genesis of the language movement, it can be concluded with certitude that it was not merely an attempt to extirpate language only, this was a cryptic design of Pakistan to mar Bengali national identity. 21 February catalyzed the assertion of Bengali national identity in East Bengal, and became a forerunner to Bengali national movement, including 6 point-movement and subsequently the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971 which gave birth to a new nation emerging a new country in the world.

 The writer is former Director, Bangladesh Muktijoddha Kalyan Trust, Muktijoddha Bishoyok, Mantralaya, Dhaka.