The indomitable spirit of Ekushey
Sixty years ago, in 1952 , the Language Movement catalysed the assertion of Bengali national identity in the then Pakistan, and became a forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements -- emergence of self-rule consciousness in 1954 general election, student movement in 1962, 6-point movement, uprising in 1969, and finally the Liberation War in 1971.
The supreme sacrifice of the martyrs of the language movement on February 21, 1952, became an epitome for the inspiration of sustaining self-consciousness and self-dignity as a nation. It made us the only nation in the world which is named after its language, Bangla. February 21 was such an epoch making incident that it has been immortalised by global recognition as International Mother Language Day. We as a nation feel proud today that Bangladesh, Bangla and the supreme sacrifice of our language movement are being much-admired, remembered and honoured worldwide.
After the partition of India in 1947, Bangla-speaking people in East Pakistan (also known as East Bengal) made up 44 million of the newly formed Pakistan's 69 million people. The Pakistani administration, its government, civil services, and military, however, were dominated by West Pakistanis. In 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools. Opposition and protests immediately arose.
Students in Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Abul Kashem, the secretary of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bengali Islamic cultural organisation. The meeting stipulated Bengali as an official language of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Pakistan. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. The central education minister of Pakistan made extensive preparations to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan.
Public outrage spread, and a large number of Bengali students met in the campus of the University of Dhaka on December 8, 1947, to formally demand that Bangla be made an official language. To promote their cause, Bengali students organised processions and rallies in Dhaka. It was not an instantly initiated or motivated movement. The demand and the protest had a long historical background.
The debate over the position and use of Bangla, the mother tongue of the people of Bengal, particularly of the Muslims, traces back to the seventeenth century, as documented in the poems of Abdul Hakim ( 1620-1690) of Swandwip, Noakhali. The seventeenth century bard was hesitant to classify if not condemn those who were born in Bengal but hate Bangla.
From the mid-19th century, the Urdu language had been promoted as the lingua franca of Indian Muslims by political and religious leaders. Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah (1873-1965), an educationist and social reformer, pronounced strongly in 1918 in one of his writings (Bangabhasha o Musalman Shahitya -- Bangla language and the literature of the Muslims) that one must respect Bangla and recognise it over other languages like Urdu etc.
As early as the late 19th century, social activists such as the Muslim feminist Roqeya Sakhawat Hussain chose to write in Bangla to reach out to the people and develop it as a modern literary language. Twenty five years before February 1952, two papers were presented on the second day of the two-day First Annual Literary Conference (February 27-28, 1927) of the Muslim Shahittya Shamaj -- Muslim Literary Society -- on the appropriateness of use of Bangla in Muslim society in general in and education in particular. Kazi Nazrul Islam inaugurated the Conference. Abul Hussain, the secretary and one of the founders of the Shaittya Shamaj, which led the Shikha Movement, wrote that the mother language barrier had been the major obstacle in the way of social development of the Muslim community in Bengal.
Since then, leading Bengali scholars argued that only Urdu should not be the state language. The linguist Muhammad Shahidullah pointed out that Urdu was not the native language of any province of Pakistan, and said: "If we have to choose a second state language, we should consider Urdu." The prolific writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language the educated society of East Pakistan would become "illiterate" and "ineligible" for government positions.
The first Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee), an organisation in favour of Bangla as a state language, was formed towards the end of December 1947. Professor Nurul Huq Bhuiyan of the Tamaddun Majlish convened the committee. Later, parliament member Shamsul Huq convened a new committee to push for Bangla as a state language. Dhirendranath Datta, a member of the East Bengal General Assembly, proposed legislation in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to allow members to speak in Bangla and authorise its use for official purposes. Datta's proposal was supported by several legislators of East Bengal, as well as the people from the region. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and the Muslim League denounced the proposal as an attempt to divide the Pakistani people, thus the legislation was defeated.
Students of the University of Dhaka and colleges of the city organised a general strike on March 11, 1948, to protest the omission of Bangla language from official use, including coins, stamps and recruitment tests for the navy. The movement restated the demand that Bangla be declared an official language of Pakistan. At the height of civic unrest, Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah arrived in Dhaka on March 19. On March 21, at a civic reception at Race Course Ground, he claimed that the language issue was designed by a "fifth column" to divide Pakistani Muslims. Jinnah further declared that "Urdu, and only Urdu" embodied the spirit of the Muslim nation and would remain as the state language.
The Urdu-Bangla controversy was reignited when Jinnah's successor, Governor-General Khawaja Nazimuddin, staunchly defended the "Urdu-only" policy in a speech on January 27, 1952. On January 31, the Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod (All-Party Central Language Action Committee) was formed in a meeting at the Bar Library Hall of the University of Dhaka. It was chaired by Maulana Bhashani. The central government's proposal of writing the Bangla language in Arabic script was vehemently opposed at the meeting. The action committee called for an all-out protest, including strikes and rallies, on February 21.
Students of the University of Dhaka and other institutions gathered in the university premises on February 4 and warned the government to withdraw its proposal to write Bangla in Arabic script, and insisted on the recognition of Bangla. As the preparation for demonstrations was going on, the government imposed Section 144 in the city of Dhaka, thereby banning any gatherings of more than four people.
Although the Language Movement is considered to have laid the foundation for ethnic nationalism in many of the Bengalis of East Pakistan, it also heightened the cultural animosity between the authorities of the two wings of Pakistan.
In fact, Ekushey February played an important role in making Bengalis aware of their cultural and national heritage and ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. After 1971, even today, Ekushey has been a guiding philosophy for any movement against oppression, injustice, disparity and denial of civic rights, and in the comprehension of the socio-economic emancipation for the people of Bangladesh. Since 2000, February 21 is also being observed as International Mother Language Day in tribute to those who sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.