The Forgotten Museum of Language Movement
It was around 4pm on February 14. The lawns and courtyards of the historic Burdwan House, the home of Bangla Academy, were crammed with visitors, a predominantly young crowd. A couple of journalists from a television channel were having a hard time finding any young person willing to visit the Language Movement Museum (Bhasha Andolon Jadughor)—located on the 1st floor of Burdwan House—and give interviews. Most of the youth were busy either taking selfies or panoramic Instagram-worthy shots. One of the journalists told me, "We have been waiting at this museum since 2:30pm. We could not find a single visitor in the last two hours. We want to do a positive documentary on this museum. This is why we are trying to find someone who would visit this museum or share his/her experience with us."
Every year, thousands of people gather at the Bangla Academy premises to visit the Ekushey Book fair. However, very few know that in a secluded part of Bangla Academy, the relics of Bangladesh's language movement are preserved, mostly unguarded. On February 1, 2010, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated this museum to preserve the history of Bangladesh's language movement. Bengalis, if not the only, are among the very few people in the world who sacrificed their lives to earn due recognition for their mother tongue. In this regard, the Language Movement Museum preserves artifacts of a very unique and significant historical event.
Unfortunately, on the entire premises of Bangla Academy, there is not a single signboard indicating the location of this museum. A visitor will not know about its existence on visiting Bangla Academy premises unless they have researched prior hand. Nevertheless, the museum boasts a rich collection of artefacts of the language movement that can't be found anywhere else in Bangladesh.
In four spacious galleries, the museum displays rare photographs, newspapers and magazines covering news and articles on the language movement, belongings of the language martyrs and valuable historic records and documents. There are scores of photos of processions from all over the country demanding Bengali as the state language of Pakistan and of police brutally subduing the procession by firing at unarmed protesters. There is a rare photo in the museum which shows Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rescuing student leader Shaokat Ali and taking him to the hospital after sustaining severe injuries during a police attack. There is a photo of Muhammad Ali Jinnah speaking at the conference at the Ramna Racecourse (now Suhrawardy Udyan) where he stated that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu.
The original press release issued by the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) protesting Jinnah's proclamation, rare photos of Dhaka University students preparing to break Section 144 on Februrary 21, 1952, photos of the first Shaheed Minar and the mourning processions remembering the sacrifice of the language martyrs, all reflect the fiery spirit of the language movement. A movement that shook the entire country and forced the Pakistani rulers to ultimately recognise Bengali as the state language.
The museum also has a rich archive which contains some precious historical documents that give day to day descriptions of the language movement.
Among these, some of the notable documents are—a diary of Tajuddin Ahmed in which events related to the language movement were vividly described; cartoons drawn by Murtaza Bashir depicting the language movement and the police brutality; weekly magazine 'Sainik' and 'Naobelal' which elaborately covered the events of the language movement, pages of the first published Bengali book, a standard Bengali calendar devised by Dr Muhammad Shahidullah; manuscripts of poems written by renowned poets such as Mahbub Ul Alam Chowdhury and Alauddin Al Azad; the first bulletin published in a clandestine press on the evening of February 21, 1952 protesting the police action against the language activists which contains articles written by Hasan Hafizur Rahman, Fazle Lohani, Alauddin Al Azad etc. These documents have been stored chronologically—from 1948 to 1952—which give a complete picture of the language movement.
The museum remains open from 10am to 4:30pm on all working days. However, in the last 10 years very few people have actually seen the rich collection. When we entered the museum, we found nobody except those journalists who were desperately trying to find and interview a visitor. The galleries of the museum were occupied by several children of the Bangla Academy staff who were playing hide and seek using the curtains and display tables. Thanks to glass protected tables and perhaps due to its isolated nature, the artefacts are still intact, although they remain unguarded throughout the day with its only occupants being children.
Saera Habib, assistant director, department of museum, folklore and archive, Bangla Academy says, "We have been planning to expand the museum. Families of the language martyrs want to give us more artefacts but we cannot accept those because of space shortage. We also have manpower shortage in this department. Since it's a very busy month, due to Ekushey Book Fair, our new director will sit with us regarding the expansion of this museum in the next month."
Habibullah Siraji, director general of Bangla Academy also agreed that this museum is neglected and promised better maintenance in the future. "I have joined Bangla Academy less than a month ago. After the Ekushey Book Fair, I shall definitely look into this matter and take every step to expand, publicise and protect this museum."
We never forget to take pride in the fact that we staged one of the first movements to establish our nation's ethno-cultural rights, but it is truly unfortunate that we have forgotten to preserve and share the artefacts of that historic movement.
Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan can be contacted at email@example.com.