Language, liberation
Connecting some dots

Abdullah Shibli

On February 20, 1971, sitting on the dais at the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts' (BAFA) midnight open-air concert to commemorate Ekushey February, my brother and I, huddled together with a bunch of other young as well as more seasoned artists, were excited as we waited for the clock to strike midnight. At 12:01 AM, as was our tradition, Atiq Bhai fired up the harmonium, and we all started to hum the prelude in unison, and then with our full reserve of emotion and heart, sang, “Amar Bhai-er Roktey Rangano Ekushey February”.

I still remember, after all these years, that there was a sense of anticipation as we observed Ekushey that year. The Awami League had secured an absolute majority in the national election two months ago, but the ruling military junta and the politicians from the then West Pakistan, were dragging their feet at the negotiations that were taking place to form a central government and to transfer power to the elected people's representatives. I was only a freshman at Dhaka University, and while not very active in student politics, knew enough through my network of friends and regular “addas” in Madhur Canteen and Sharif Mia's tea stall that we were heading towards a showdown with the forces of status quo: the military, dominated by the Punjabis, and the feudal clique that had taken shelter under the umbrella of the Pakistan People's Party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. However, as we sang in chorus in those early hours of 21st February, 1971 under the open sky in BAFA's court yard on Road 7 of Dhanmandi Residential Area, most of us probably did not know with certainty that the War of Independence would start within 5 weeks, and victory achieved in less than 10 months!

From a broader historical perspective, the transition from the Language Movement in 1952 to our War of Independence in 1971 was very swift. From the existential and aspirational perspectives of the Bangalee nation, this transition was also inevitable. To understand why, let us first look at the course of government and politics during the short span of five years after Pakistan's Independence. A discerning analyst, or even a casual observer for that matter, of the cross currents in the national scene during the period of 1947-52 could see that the politicians from the West had charted out a path that cared very little for the aspirations and needs of the East, and the die was cast for the next phase in our quest for our rightful place under the sun.

How did the Language Movement shape the course of Pakistan's political history in a fashion that made the War of Independence so inevitable? The answer is on the one hand obvious, but also on closer scrutiny, somewhat deeper and organic. As soon as the battle for Bangla's rightful place as a medium of instruction and official communication was lost by them, the political power structure dominated by the Punjabis started to undermine the East at every step of our attempts at national development and socio-economic growth. The signs of growing disparities in civil service, budgetary allocations, and job opportunities, which we could ignore during the honeymoon period of 1947-52, became symptomatic of systemic efforts by the dominant political leaders of West to use the East as a hinterland and keep the Bangalees as a group of second class citizens. We could no longer look the other way when we saw how the military regime that ruled from the late 1950s and the entire decade of the 1960s, tried to pass off egregious misdeeds such as the suppression of basic human rights, limited economic development and the relentless extraction of resources of the East, to name a few, as a Decade of Development, which Muslim League and Ayub Khan tried to foist on us in 1968 after 10 years of strong arm military rule which had resulted in industrial stagnation and financial exploitation of the East, and continuous plunder of our foreign exchange for its military-industrial complex concentrated in the West.

Even after Bangla gained recognition as a national language, and Bangla literature was grudgingly acknowledged as worthy of national spotlight, hitherto reserved for Urdu, there were constant efforts to undermine or belittle its status. Tagore, who was the only litterateur from the Indian subcontinent to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, was considered a pariah, and because of his religion, an Indian. The media, both print and broadcast which was heavily influenced by the government and its henchmen, paid little attention to Bengal's rich cultural and social history. It was as if, the West, after taking a beating during the Language Movement, now wanted to “reform” or “cleanse” the population of the East, and create a new Pakistani and Muslim Bengali. Our identity was to be transformed from a Bangalee to an East Pakistani resulting in genetic mutation, so to speak, where our rich heritage would be substituted by a hybrid one, with a dosage of the “patriotic” and Islamic identity. There was no attempt to hide the image that the “integrationists” thought would be “politically correct” for the new “Pakistani Man”: they would speak Urdu, sing ghazals, quote from the Urdu writers, and feel a closer affinity with their brethren from the West than any other ethnic group in the region.

It would not be a stretch to assert that the language Movement and the War of Independence are part and parcel of the same dialectical process. The policy and methods of the military rulers who kept their grip on power through undemocratic practices and extraction of surplus resources from the East, and perpetuated a feudal creed reinforced by religious bigotry emerged to be completely in conflict with the more progressive forces that believed in universal suffrage, human rights regardless of race, religion or color, and equal opportunities. The showdown had to come sooner or later.

What is the catalytic role of the Language Movement in bringing about this rapid transformation from a cultural clash to a struggle for survival? The first is the growing level of expectations brought about by the Language Movement. Once the right to express in our own language was secured, the next step had to be the right to jobs, to earn a decent living, and to choose and empower our own leaders. Our political leaders, including Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and the people could see through the various ploys and attempts to maintain the status quo and exploit the East till eternity. The second aspect is the integration and collaborative role of student power in national politics. The energy provided by the students in the Language Movement provided legitimacy to student power in the larger political arena. Students were catapulted into the front and center of all subsequent political movements, and the dynamism provided by DUCSU and Student Action Committee.were but the latest manifestations of this symbiotic relationship between student politics and national politics. And finally, the Ekushey Movement in post-1952 era provided a key forum for the expression of our frustrations and hopes. On each occasion at 12:01 AM that we burst into “Amar Bhai-er”, we were really saying that we renew our vow to offer our blood for our rights. We had learned two important lessons from the sacrifices of Salam, Barkat and Jabbar: the willingness of the young to stand up and fight, even at the cost of their lives, is a powerful force to push back the elements of reaction; and while peaceful means and negotiations may sometimes bring about our desired goals, one needs to also consider the ultimate option, to quote Shakespeare, “to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them”.

Dr. Abdullah Shibli lives and works in Boston, USA.

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