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THE HISTORY OF LANGUAGE MOVEMENT IN EAST PAKISTAN (PRESENT BANGLADESH)
 
 

[To view some Historical official documents on the Language Movement please visit the Historical Documents section of this Site.]

The constitution of Pakistan since its inception in 1947 faced challenges because of its formulation and enunciations that were controversial. The vast and varied differences between East and West Pakistan were defined by a host of political, economical and ideological issues. The resulting problems that besieged the country augmented conflict situation between the two provinces of East and West Pakistan. The most critical factor was the decision of the state language that reflected one of the fundamental principles of the constitution. In December 1947, the Education Conference held in Karachi adopted a resolution in favour of making Urdu the sole state language of Pakistan. Simultaneously, it was also decided that Bangla would be abolished from all government stationeries, including money order forms, envelopes and postcards that would be printed only in Urdu and English.

The Non Bengali leaders of West Pakistan firmly declared that ‘URDU’ was to be the National language of Pakistan.

As the year 1951 wore on, the problems multiplied further. Against this background, in the new year 1952, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Khwaja Nazimuddin, again reiterated the previous declaration that “Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.”

The announcement of Urdu as the official state language triggered serious discontent amongst the Bengali population of the then East Pakistan who constituted the majority of the people of Pakistan. This ensued a new and vibrant phase of the Bangla language movement.

People in East Bengal (later named as East Pakistan, which became an independent country, Bangladesh after the Liberation war in 1971), especially the students were not ready to accept this decision. They argued that this decision did not adhere to democracy as Bengali was the mother tongue of 56% of the total population of Pakistan. As such there was demand to recognize BANGLA as the national language along with Urdu

This issue, although, focused on state language actually voiced deep rooted sentiments arising out of political and economical disparity between the two wings of the country. It was unique a formation for Pakistan a new country; whose two provinces were separated by a thousand miles of alien territory. But this distance was made more intractable by the greater differences in social, cultural and even religious attitudes. For a few brief years, Bengalis believed that they could realize their economic, social and cultural aims within the framework of a united Pakistan; but that illusion was soon shattered.

The following were some of the blatant anomalies; the capital of the country was in West Pakistan; its central bureaucracy was composed of 80% Pakistanis from other provinces mostly from Punjab; its military had less than 2% representation from East Pakistan. The national budgets showed great disparities in terms of resource allocation and sector wise expenditure between East Pakistan and other provinces of Pakistan.

Therefore, when the West Pakistanis began exploiting the Bengalis, denying them every legitimate right and disregarding not only the numerical superiority of the population of East Pakistan but also the fact that Eastern wing of the country contributed more than 60% to the national exchequer and had a greater say in the nation’s affairs; the people of East Bengal rose and challenged the military-bureaucratic elite of Pakistan.

The imposition of Urdu was a part, of the ruthless exploitation of Bengalis by West Pakistani monopoly capital and civil-military bureaucracy. The language movement brought to the fore what had hitherto remained undetected inside the deliberately roused sentiments of Pakistani nationalism. The language movement was essentially anti-colonial and anti-feudal in character. It was aimed at overthrowing the not-too-hidden system of colonial manipulation perpetrated by the ruling classes. The oppressed people of East Bengal had joined the of Pakistan movement in the hope of achieving a free and better life that is an expected and accepted realization of an independent state for its people.

   

 
  21st March 1948: Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan, addressed a meeting at the Racecourse Maidan, Dhaka. Jinnah was accorded a civic reception in that meeting, where he announced "Urdu, only Urdu shall be the state Language of Pakistan".   11th  March 1948: Shawkat Ali, who was wounded n the lathi
charge by police, is being taken to the hospital by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
.

Source: Bangabondhu Foundation

 

 

In retaliation to this statement made by the Prime Minister, politicians along with the students collaborated on 30th January 1952 at the Library of Dhaka Bar Council, whereby an "All Party State Language Committee" was formed. The chief of East Pakistan Awami Muslim League was made the chairperson of the committee. As the upcoming 21st February was scheduled day for the budget session of East Bengal, this day was chosen to be observed as the State Language Day. The day’s events included a whole day strike for accepting Bengali, conducting meetings and processions. A three week preparation was taken for the protest that took place on 21st.

But on the evening of 20th February, Muslim League Government suddenly imposed section 144, thus prohibiting all meetings, processions and a gathering of five persons at any given time. That evening, at the premises of the Awami League office, the 'All party State Language Committee' met in an emergency meeting. Mowlana A. H. K Bhasani was at Tangail that time whilst Sheikh Mujib was jailed. The action committee discussed possible action and solutions but there was a division among the 16 leaders, most of whom opposed the decision of to violate Section 144. Those who were willing to disobey Section 144, were defeated at an 11 to 4 vote. This is because the opposition parties at that time were more concerned about the upcoming General Elections and were not completely aware of public fury. This was proved from a leaflet later distributed among the Communist Party Members whereby it was written that even the party leaders were not expecting that the Language movement would take such a violent direction and therefore, the party leaders were not prepared for the situation that arose after the 21st February. However, in that meeting it was further decided that Shamsul Huq, General Secretary of Awami Muslim League would go to Dhaka University to discuss the matter with the student leaders and convince them to restrain from breaking section 144. Most of the leaders on the night of February 20th returned home with the confidence of the decision not to violate the restriction imposed section 144.

However, the students and student leaders of Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College and Engineering College could not agree with that decision. Hundreds of students and workers put toiled immensely towards the preparation of meetings, processions and the final strike of February 21st and therefore were not ready to give up due to the fear of its consequences. Some of the student leaders were notified at night that a meeting will be held on the steps of Fazlul Haq Hall of Dhaka University. Amongst the student leaders that were present at that meeting were;

1. Comrade Md Sultan.
2. S. A. Bari A.T (Late, Vice Prime Minister, BNP government later)
3. Anowarul Haq Khan (Late, Press Secretary, MuzibNagar {Liberation war} Govt)
4. Monjur Hossain (Late, Doctor at Nawjaon)
5. Habibur Rahman Shelley (Retd. Cheif Justice later)
6. Zillur Rahman (Leader of Awami League Minister of Awami League Govt)
7. Gaziul Haq (Renouned Lawyer, Dhaka High Court)
8. Abdul Monin (Leader of Awami League and Food Minister of former A.L govt.)
9. M. R . Akhtar Mukul (Known as CHOROM POTRO of Sadhin Bengal Betar: Host of Bangladesh Radio during 1971Liberation war)
10. Sayed Kamruddin Hossain Shohud (Professor, Dhaka University)
11. Anawar Hossain (Present identity unknown)

They took a firm decision to violate section 144 even if it meant at the cost of their lives. It was decided that after the rally at Amtala, Muhammad Habibur Rahman would lead the first batch of procession. As a means to keep this rally confidential initially, Gaziul Huq and MD. Sultan wrote slips on cigarette packets requesting all students of Dhaka University to come to the university between 9.30 to 10.30 a.m. On the noon of February 21st, where students from different institutions of Dhaka city gathered and protested with slogans such as “We want Bangla as National language”... “We will disobey Section 144.” The leaders were also surprised by the mood of the students and at that moment, one of the student leaders, Abdus Samad Azad (later Foreign Minister, Awami League govt.) proposed that instead of going through a huge procession, a rally of "10 persons" should be on the streets in groups. By taking this strategic measure, Article 144 will be disobeyed without creating mass violence. The requests of student leaders were permitted and the gates of the Arts Faculty were opened to this and "10 Persons" procession. Students were immediately arrested wilfully. The first group that came out for wilful arrest was lead by Habibur Rahman Shelley (later Justice of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh). The second group to be arrested was led by Abdus Samad Azad, the third group was led by Anowarul Haq Khan, and the fourth group was led by Zafar Obaidullah Khan (Minister, Ershad govt. and Ambassador). Finally, a procession of women came out that were also wilfully arrested. The streets were flooded with hundreds of students protesting for their civil rights for the establishment of their mother language.

 
 

 

M21st February. Historic Rally of the students of Dhaka University at 
Amtola just before Section 144 was violated.
Source: Prof. Rafiqul Islam.

  The students march towards the secretariat demanding Bangali to be 
State Language. Sheikh Mujib was arrested from the procession along 
with other student leaders: 11 March 1948

At the very same moment, the students remembered that the budget session of East Bengal was scheduled to start ataround 3.00 pm and decided to prevent the Ministers from reaching that building. For better communication and collaborative action, the students broke the wall between the Arts faculty and the Medical College Hospital so that there would be a larger area in which they can protest against the police. Thousands of students gathered at this moment and more armed police were brought to protect and make way for the Ministers but the situation only worsened. At this moment, a group of police hiding at one end of the street came out and without any prior notice under the command of Zilla Magistrate Koreyshi and opened fire. The police and parliamentary forces resorted to wide-spread tear gas shelling, clubbing and finally shooting. Consequently, several students were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested. A reign of terror was let loose by the government but the language movement did not stop. By noon, the number of arrested students increased so rapidly that Dhaka Central Jail’s capacity was filled fully and the remaining prisoners were taken by bus to a Jungle (Bhawal Jungle) and left there.

The news of student killings spread rapidly all over the country and a full strike started at 3 PM. In the evening, a curfew was announced and the military started patrolling. To give this Language Movement more efficient leadership the leadership of "All Party State Language Action Committee" was reformed and a whole day strike, Gayebana Zanaza (Prayer for the deportees) and procession was announced for February 22nd. On this day at Nababpur a High Court Staff and Shafiur rahman, Law student, Dhaka University were shot dead by the military. After this event and until February 27th, Dhaka’s government administration was ruled according to the decisions announced from Shahidullah Hall, D.U.

The language movement was initially led by the students. After the killings the political parties and the intellectual joined the movement. The Bengali language movement ultimately led to the fights for self rule and later resulted in the Liberation War in 1971. And Bangladesh was born, at the price of 3 millions lives in only 9 months.

 

# The above details are based on the reminiscence of Language Movement participants M. R. Akhtar Mukul and Gaziul Huq based on their articles in Weekly Bichitra and the daily the Bangladesh Observer.