For the unassuming, Cumilla Victoria Govt College's Shaheed Minar may seem like a customary tribute to the Language Movement. That the monument itself has been a battleground between the region's people and the then East Pakistan administration is thus a history worth retelling.
It's a history that ran for quite a long time too -- from February 21, 1953 all the way up to 1962, and then again during the Liberation War. In this time, the site has seen quite a few iterations.
According to college records, the monument was demolished at least thrice from 1953 to 1962, all in the dark of the night. Finally in 1963, the present form of the black pillar of the Shaheed Minar was built, before it was taken down again in 1971 and re-erected the following year.
Local historians inform that the first temporary Shaheed Minar was built at the college premises at Ranirdighirpar on February 21, 1953. On the day, students and residents of the city offered floral tributes at the Shaheed Minar and sang protest songs against the continuing oppression of the Pakistani administration.
Ahsanul Kabir, a historian of the district, said, "According to Language Movement veteran Mohammod Ullah, locals and eminent personalities gathered at the Victoria College programme in '53. Renowned anthem singer Sukhendu Chakraborty; Farida Mirza, sister-in-law of Shaheed Munier Choudhury; Saleha Khatun, wife of Bangla film director Salahuddin; and Fatema Khayer, wife of Prof Abul Khayer, were there to sing the protest songs."
As the programme was going on, members of the student wing of Muslim League tried to foil it with the help of police. Then college principal Dr Akter Hamid Khan took a bold stance to fend them off.
The college saw its first permanent Shaheed Minar on 1954, but an Ekushey February programme still had to wait for a couple more years. On February 20, police imposed section 144 to prevent any such event from taking place, Kabir said.
The next day, activists did break the curfew and gathered at Cumilla Town hall, but their rally towards the monument was intercepted by a barricade at Liberty Mor (then "Picture Palace").
The programme could not be observed for the next two years too, as in both 1954 and 1956, most of the language activists were in jail, historian Ahsanul Kabir said. Following this, a few years of relative peace ensued.
"On February 21, 1971, Chhatra League members painted alponas and Bangla alphabets at the Shaheed Minar premises for the first time," he added.
But as the war broke out, the iconic structure again became a site of contention. In an urgency to crush the locals' spirit, the Pakistan army in 1971 ordered to demolish the Shaheed Minar. In an attempt to save the monument, the then principal of the college, Dr Sirajul Islam, proceeded to drown the black pillar in the pond in front of the science department's building, said the historian.
After independence, it was recovered and reinstalled near the college's main gate in February 1972, much to the joy of the district's residents.
From this point, the monument stood proud all the way up to 1988 as the only Shaheed Minar in the district, said reciter Kazi Mahtab Sumon, organiser and joint secretary of Bangladesh Abrity Somonnoy Parishad.
"In 1988, a new Shaheed Minar was built at Cumilla Town Hall premises," he informed.
Khairul Azim Shimul, former secretary of Sammilito Sangskritik Jote Cumilla, said, "It is unfortunate that this historically significant structure of our district remains unknown to the newer generations. All cultural movements and protests should begin from this Shaheed Minar."
In 2016, the Victoria College Shaheed Minar was renovated, in line with its classic design.
Prof Ruhul Amin Bhuiyan, current principal of the college, said, "This Shaheed Minar is a historic symbol of our Language Movement and Liberation War. As such, it deserves a tribute worth remembering. For some years, we have been trying to put together a grand event in memory of at least thirty language veterans who were students and teachers of our college."