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The Language Movement : Its Political and Cultural Significance
Scrajul Islam Choudhury

What had happened on the 21st of February in 1952 is not difficult to describe. Some lives were lost when police opened fire on agitating students. What the students were agitating for is also well-known. They wanted Bengali to be recognized as one of the two state languages of what was then an undivided Pakistan.

But a description like this would be patently superfluous, for it would not describe what had really happened, let alone reflect the feelings that the movement had embodied and roused. The movement of 21st February was not sentimental, but it represented very deep-rooted sentiments.

To begin with, the movement did not lose its significance even after an official recognition of Bengali as one of the two state languages. It went ahead, gained in depth and momentum as it went, y and, ultimately, made the emergence of an independent Bangladesh inevitable. But even after we had achieved a state where Bengali is the only and not one of the two state languages the movement has not ceased to be vital. Why?

The answer is easy. Bengali has not yet been accorded the place of honour and importance that it deserves. The rate of literacy has not risen above the poor 22 per cent. Of ~th~o e who know the alphabet many do not read books. Some ddb get books, others do not need them. The vast majority of the population has been denied for ages the right to use Bengali. The illiterate person, oftener a women than a man, does not know any other language, but he does not know Bengali either in the literate sense. Those who are well-to-do do not need Bengali. Social and commercial intercourse tends to be more effective when done in English in unspoken opposition to Bengali. The cultural milieu of the sophisticated tends very often to be shorn of the use of Bengali almost to the extent it is sophisticated. International communication is, of course, done in English. Bengali, thus, is not properly used either by the very rich or the very poor, the former shies away voluntarily, the latter has no choice. The middle class uses it, but not in as extensive a manner as could have been expected.

We do not print books in large number. Nor are the titles wide­ ranging. for books are expensive to print and difficult to sell. The problem is rooted in the very socio-political and economic reality of Bangladesh. And it is this reality that invests the language movement of the 21st of February with an enormous significance and meaning.

How does one account for the rise of this movement ? Was it due to the wrong decision of any particular person or group? Most obviously not. The movement was as spontaneous as it was inevitable. Despite its later ramifications and complexities the movement was a simple expression of the irreconcilable, indeed ever-increasing, contradiction between the rulers and the ruled. The ruling classes wanted to impose Urdu on the Bengale s with a view to keeping them subjugated for generations to come ~I'he issue was far from linguistic, it was grossly political and economic. The imposition of Urdu was a part, albeit not an easily recognisable part, of the ruthless exploitation of the Begalccs by West Pakistani monopoly capital and civil-military bureaucracy. The language movement brought to the fore what had hitherto, lain undetected inside the deliberately roused sentiments of Pakistani nationalism. The oppressed people of East Bengal had joined the Pakistan movement in the hope of achieving a better standard of living consequent upon the establishment of an independent state. That the hope was unreal was cruelly exposed by the fondly proclaimed arbitrary decision of the rulers to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan. There was no escaping this fact.

Language was, undoubtedly,.the declared issue. But the movement was not for reforming the language, not even for winning recognition for Bengali as one of the state languages, although that was the manifest objective. It was aimed, really, at the emancipation of an oppressed people. The rulers were obliged to recognise the destructive potentiality of the movement. For what was constructivee for the oppressed Bengalees was destructive for the oppressors- - such was the polarity of the situation. Facing the uncompromising reality, the Pakistani rulers had offered terms of a compromise. They did accommodate Bengali as a state language when the question of framing a constitution came to a head, 21st February was declared a public holiday- eventually. A board was set up for the development of Bengali language, But the movement was not to be hoodwinked by such tactics of accommodation. Compromise was impossible. The movement grew and grew, gained in depth and momentum, leading to the establishment of Bangladesh.

M uch has been gained and yet much remains to be achieved. As indicated above, universal use of Bengali in Bangladesh remains a distant hope. It does not require much of an analysis to demonstrate that the objective of the language movement can be achieved only in a society which is free from exploition and is, therefore not poor. Poverty is the effect of exploitation, not its cause.

Therefore, the movement of the 21st of February must be called a protest against the exploitation of man by man. It raised a determined voice against injustice. For what could be more unjust than the inflicting of a foreign tongue on a population of seventy million, constituting as it did the majority of the population of Pakistan as a whole.

Our love for the Bengali language is traditional, it is based on very deep sentiments. But it is impossible to deny that it was not this love alone that had led us to join the language movement in swelling numbers. There was hatred as well. Hatred against injustice, against exploitation. The movement was essentially anti-colonial and anti­ feudal in character. It was aimed at overthrowing the none-too-hidden system of colonial exploitation sought to be perpetrated by the ruling classes. It was clearly anti-feudal in content inasmuch as it tried to win for the people their inalienable right to use their own language in state affairs. Love and hatred, they say, go together: and indeed they did in this very case, for the depth of hatred was only the obverse of the depth of love and vice versa.

The language movement went like magnet over the iron of the suppressed feelings of the people. It provided the people with an outlet to their pent-up emotions against political injustice and social exploitation. It forged a unity which was b_ oth creative and enduring. A section of the police in Dhaka had gone on strike even before 1952. They. had been fired upon. But that firing did not rouse the indignation that the firing of the. 21st of February did. The reason was that the latter firing was not aimed at any particular section of the peope, it was not designed to silence the professional demands of any specific group, its target was the entire Bengali-speaking people of Pakistan, irrespective of political belief or ideological commitment. For it hurt even those who had collaborated with the government. As long as exploitation of the many by the few remains, 21st February is unlikely to lose its significance.

How did the movement begin? It began as a students' movement.- Its centre was the university of Dhaka which was the only university in East Bengal at the time. The potentiality of the movement was unknown to the rulers, it was not known even to many of those who were at its forefront. Perhaps it-would die a natural death- the rulers, it is easy to imagine, had fondly hoped. But all estimates and expectations were belied. Once firing had started the movement spread-wider than a fire, faster than the bullets. It refused to be confined to the university campus; percolating through the railway, steamer and bus stations it reached almost every comer of the province. The public joined in it. The working class struck work, it became a movement against an insult hurled at the existence of a people. The Pakistani pretence became much too big for the mask. A new feeling of nationalism began to grow very rapidly indeed. And ultimately it was this new linguistic and, therefore, essentially secular, democratic and creative nationalism which prevailed over the makeshift nationalism of Pakistan. Pakistanism pretended to be spiritual which spiritualism was, so far as East Bengal was concerned, a cover for material exploitation of the classically crude type. The new awareness made people conscious about their material existence, tearing the veils of false hopes and comforts. Its creativeness was immeasurable. For it had touched and released the youth of the nation.

The youth of the country had begun this movement. But it was not a youth movement. It was the youthfulness of a people that it had stirred. The movement's creative power displayed itself in many, almost all aspects of life. New organisations - social.as- well as political - came into being. A new leadership--uncompromising and courageous-grew up to replace the established one. Politics topkk on a new character, it no longer remained a pastime of the privifegetl few.. In its changed character, politics became a threat to the existing s oc i a l system. Poets wrote busily; composers composed energetically. Flays, novels and short stories have been written on the theme. And it would be impossible to count the souvenirs_ that have been published to celebrate the spirit of the day. But the most precious creation Or the movement did not lie in any of these in isolation. It lay in something that united these diverse areas and manifestations and inspired them from behind. his was nothing more, or less, than a new consciousness.

This consciousness is characterised, among other things, Ity an irreconcilable patriotism. True patroitism does not isolate; it unlles, it brings the individual to the community, and identifies collective; well being as the unfailing source of individual welfare. And it i.y this patriotism that the language movement carries with itself, and nourishes as it goes.

N c language movement was essentially creative. It not only produced new works of literature, music, painting and drama but also, and more importantly, gave these creations a new content, which was unmistakably secular and democratic in character. The movement was anti-imperialist and anti-feudal; and it was therefore only natural that the cultural works it produced should have a militancy and a sew;e of direction they had not known before. Bengal, let us recall, was divided in 1947 on the basis of the so-called two-nation theory. Communalism was endemic in the very foundation of that partition. The democratic upsurge of February, 1962 stood firmly, atatiinst communalism. Communalism did not die, such monsters die hard, but it became weaker than it was in 1947. What was more significant was that a new path of development was laid open. People came tog`ther; forgetting their communal identity. They fought for a common cause.

Then there was the important question of tradition. Pakistani nationalism had expected to survive and gain in strength by Whippin g up emotions around a false sense of tradition which sought to make

the Bengalees of East Pakistan feel as if they belonged to the Middle East and not to the land where they, as well as their ancestors, were born and had their being. /Ws, in fact, amounted to a ruthless attempt to disinherit them of their tradition. Not only in literature, but in all aspects of life and creativity what was natural and real was sought to be replaced by the unnatural and the unreal. The language movement came as an open challenge to this. Instead of encouraging deracination, it gave-the thinking section of the public a new sense of belonging. The homecoming had begun. It had no parallel in our past history. For the issue of tradition had never before been as clearly defined as it was during that fateful month of February, 1952. Bengalecs of East Pakistan began to take a new pride in their language which, they realized, constituted the very basis of their cultural identity.

The creative artists working in all genres looked at life with a realism which gave their creations a nearness to life. They acquired a new awareness of the economic and political reality of the country. As a result, what they produced was significantly different - both in content and form-from what their predecessors had offered. The arts came closer to politics. The fact of economic exploitation of the poor by the rich also found its way into the creative imagination of the artists. For it had become clear that the Bengalecs were an exploited nation, and that their survival ultimately depended on their economic emancipation.

A new taste was created, and a new standard of cultural judgement was set up. The movement had not only released the suppressed creative energies of a nation, it had also produced a hunger for more realistic works of art. The language movement represented for the Bengali speaking Pakistanis an entrance into a new area of creativity.

The movement of 21st February has done for us another important work. It has drawn, clearly and unmistakably, a line of demarcation between the forces of light and darkness, of progress and reaction.

To speak of light first. The light that matters most is the light of economic emancipation of the masses. Needless to say that the light of knowledge remains invaluable. Yet since hunger is the greatest extinguisher of 'all other lights, no progress in the collective sense can be made without meeting the basic economic needs. And it is this light-the light of economic freedom-that the language movement had promised to the people of Bangladesh. The movement did something more. It distinguished the forces capable of giving life­ giving light from those which persist in keeping the people submerged in the darkness of poverty and deprivation.

The movement was successful in marking out progress from reaction. Progress, it showed, did not mean more material growth; it also meant, and not less importantly, the proper distribution of wealth. Proper distribution is equitable distribution. It does not need much imagination to see that what ails our economic life is inequality. Inequality has maimed the productive power of labour which is our greatest national asset. It has not allowed national creative powers to grow properly. That we are poor is due primarily to this inequality. The language movement identified progress as removal of the factors responsible for the existence of the social gulf. It also showed that progress and reaction cannot achieve a relationship of peaceful co­ existence, that the antagonism between the two is irreconcilable and would not cease to be operative unless one of the two is completely liquidated.

Perhaps it is unnecessary to say on which side the movement of 21st February stood, for its commitment to light against darkness and progress against reaction is total.

All these make 21st February significant to us. The nation was not the same after that day, for it had gained a new sensibility, baptised in fire. True, the old order did not change immediately, it normally does not. But it was threatened to its very foundation. And the hope that a new world was not very far continued to grow.