In conversation with Mohammad Sultan | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 22, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 22, 2019

In conversation with Mohammad Sultan

Note: About five years ago, I had a long talk with Sultan about several political events relating to the 1952 language movement, which I had taped. Mohammed Sultan was one of the pioneers of the movement and the founder of 'Puthipotro' which was the first progressive press in the country.This conversation was first published in 'Bichitra'.

Foyez: Can you say something about the main events that led to the movement of 1952?Also, something about the background, and who exactly violated section 44?

Sultan: The language movement actually had two phases: in 1948, Mr Jinnah declared that Urdu would be the only state language. Then students of Dhaka University strongly protested and thus the movement began. It was then I involved myself with the movement as a student of Rajshahi College. But in 1952, I was in Dhaka and got directly involved with the movement. I can recall my memories from that time.

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In 1952, I had joined the University of Dhaka. In 1947, mainly the students protested against reactionary rule and various attacks on our culture. But in reality, back then there was no strong leftist or progressive student organisation here. When I came to Dhaka, I saw that only a few members of Chhatra Federation were working. Chhatra League was then known as East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League, led by Sheikh Mujib, and Nikhil East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League led by Mr Shah Aziz. But these two institutions were not ready yet to fight for democratic rights, cultural rights, political freedom and economic freedom. So, we thought that voices should be raised against the government's anti-public activities. Suddenly in 1951 the university's fee was increased and there were other protests going on. Then in 1952 prime minister Nazimuddin declared that Urdu would be the only state language. Upon hearing this, everyone was bursting with protest, just like 1948.It should be noted in this connection that Pakistan was a state of five major languages—Bangla, Sindhi, Punjabi, Pashtu and Gujrati. But the Pakistani ruling clique chose to impose their own language (Urdu) on us all.

Foyez: Are you trying to say that they wanted to make the most commonly used language of northern India (Urdu) the state language of Pakistan?

Sultan: Yes, in no part of Pakistan did common people know or use Urdu. But Urdu was the language used only by the ruling clique and by imposing it on the rest of us, they conspired to maintain their supremacy over us. It did not take us long to fathom this. That's why we thought there should be vigorous and strong protest against it.

Foyez: You must remember the different debates about the language question happening around that time? Pakistan's own languages are ancient and have long traditions of their own. However, Urdu does not have any such tradition and that's why there is no “folk” in Urdu. Urdu came into existence much later compared to other languages in this part of the world. Be that as it may, there was no hatred against this language but when the government tried to impose it on us, we protested. Then the government launched a campaign, claiming that we the protestors hated Urdu.

Sultan: You are right. After 1947, lots of Urdu speakers came to East Pakistan from Kolkata, Bihar and northern India and we welcomed them. They were involved in business and various other services. So, at first there was no contempt or protest against Urdu. But when the rulers wanted to make Urdu the only state language, naturally the Bengali people and also the people who lived in north-western border province of Pakistan strongly protested. From that part of Pakistan, a newspaper was published in those days, named the Khyber Mail. The day after Nazimuddin's declaration, the Khyber Mail published in their editorial that Urdu cannot be the only state language of Pakistan. Next day I put the cutting of Khyber Mail's editorial on the university's notice board. A lot of things happened about which my friends were in the dark. For example, a few Urdu-speaking men actually went to jail for having supported the Bengali in the language movement. Among them, a journalist named Joynal Abedin still lives in Dhaka.

Foyez: He is working with The Times now.

Sultan: There was Sayed who was the secretary of erstwhile East Pakistan-Korea Association—he too was imprisoned. In Syedpur, we had many non-Bengali friends who supported our Youth Movement and were eventually imprisoned for their stance. They spoke in Urdu at home yet joined our movement. We also don't know that members of Karachi Student Federation expressed solidarity with our cause and protested for Bangla in Karachi. Probably, today's Chhatra League activists don't know about another significant event that happened around this time.Chhatra League and Chhatra Union held a joint conference on 17 Rankin Street; lots of friends from Karachi took part in it and they brought along placards and paper-cuttingsof the demonstrations they held, supporting our movement. So, we were not the only people who were pressing for the democratic rights of oure language. Rather, speakers of all the other major languages came forward.

Foyez: So, you want to say, the move to impose Urdu as the only state language was also a conspiracy against other languages, which was why they supported the Bangla language movement of this region.

Sultan: Here, I want to talk about the background of Pakistan National Awami League Party. The party was established in 1957 by combining eight political parties. This was the first alliance of political parties that were involved in the democratic language movement of 1952.

Foyez: Do you remember when and where NAP was founded?

Sultan: It was at Rupmahal Hall in Dhaka. Maulana Bhasani, Abdul Gaffar Khan, Abdul Samad Achakzai and Miya Iftikhar Uddin attended the meeting. Under their leadership an All Pakistan NAP was founded with the aim of ending all forms of economic exploitation and resisting all kinds of imperialist oppression. Above all, the aim was to build a democratic Pakistan based on autonomy. This organisation was formed in light of the 1952 movement. There are many people who are trying to erase the political, economic and non-communal aspects of the language movement. Now, there is no dearth of efforts to highlight the significance of February 21 of 1952 as the mourning day. It has become a formal stage through prayers at mosques and temples on this day. In fact, no ruler wants that the country's people, realising the significance of the language movement, to wage a new movement for their democratic and economic freedom. So, we should always remember the background and foundation of the language movement.

Foyez: Do you remember the events leading up to the violation of Section 44?

Sultan: Before the speech of Nazimuddin on January 31, a language movement committee was formed at Dhaka University with Abdul Matin as the convener; Matin was a final year student of DU. He was a leftist student leader. He called a meeting for the university's students where we decided that there would an all-out strike in all schools and colleges of Dhaka on February 4. After the strike students will meet and decide the next course of action. I think it was on February 4 that Muslim girls for the first time skipped schools and joined a procession after the birth of Pakistan. Headmistress of Kamrunnesa school sealed all the gates but the girls climbed over the walls. So, protesting students from schools and colleges gathered on the university campus. But that day there were two meetings: one was in support of the language movement and the other to counter it. The latter was held in Beltola. But ultimately they did not succeed in holding the meeting.

Foyez: Can you recall some of the names that led the Beltola meeting?

Sultan: Nikhil East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League was the party's name and their leaders were Nazimuddin and Shah Aziz.

Foyez: The age-old tradition of the rulers to oppose a movement through counter-statements.

Sultan: They were trying to do so but didn't succeed. That day we had a meeting in which we reached a decision that we would observe a Flag Day on February 11. Asession at the Provincial Assembly was called on February21. So, we decided to march towards the assembly and to press for the inclusion of Bangla as a state language.

Foyez: Who presided over the meeting?

Sultan: Probably Matin.

Foyez: Do you recall any of the activists who delivered speeches during the meeting at Aamtala?

Sultan: Yes, I can. Chhatra League leaders Wadud, Kamruzzaman and Mr Awal, and Matin, Rawshan Akhter, poet Hasan Hafizur Rahman, painters Aminul Islam, Murtaza Bashir and many more. On February 4, an important decision was taken that there should be an All-Party Central Language Action Committee comprising members of every political and cultural organisation, and two students of the dorms from Dhaka University and other institutions. The Committee would have its meeting at Awami League office at 98, Nawabpur Road.

At the meeting on February 11,general students appealed to the All-Party Central Language Action Committee to carry out the action plan on February 21. Members of then Awami Muslim League thought that if the language movement turned into a massive national movement then the three MPs of the assembly, elected at the last by-election, would lose their seats. So, other parties feared that the leftist parties might benefit more from this. In fact, they were trying to influence in ways that would not allow the movement to spread all over the country. That's why university students were mentally prepared that under no circumstances would they compromise on February 21. On February 20,there was word on the street that the All-Party Committee might turn away from the decision of organising a mass procession. There was also rumour that Section 144 might be imposed, if need be, army would be deployed to contain the protests and processions.

It was almost clear that the All-Party Central Language Action Committee would not violate Section 144 and also that they would try to contain the progressive anti-imperialist forces that led the movement. Oli Ahad, Imadullah and I sat in a meeting at around 1:00pm at Jubo League's office. We discussed what we should say in the All-Party meeting.

Foyez: What did you guys decide?

Sultan: We decided that if they decided not to break Section144 then Jubo League would propose to break Section 144 and the procession would be brought out to march toward the Provincial Assembly. Oli Ahad would propose this.

Ataur Rahman Khan presided over the All-Party meeting in which nearly 14 organisations issued a proposal that Section 144 should not be broken. Oli Ahad then stood up and said that he did not agree with this proposal and that he had another proposal. Ahad's proposal was: If general students at the DU meeting decided to break Section 144 the next day, then the All-Party Committee and its proposal would be considered null and void. Kazi Golam Mahabub became a convener for one day. He became convener only for carrying out the plan for February 21. Mr Ataur Rahman was still the convener of All-Party Committee.

Coming back to the university in the evening, we found that most of the students wanted to break Section 144. It was 1:00am, and 11 of us sat in a meeting at the pond ghat between Dhaka Hall (Shahidullah Hall) and Fazlul Huq Hall. We planned about how to bring out the procession the next day and how we'd break Section 144.

Foyez: Who were present in the pond ghat meeting?

Sultan: Gaziul Haq, SA Bari Ati, Habibur Rahman Sheli, Kamaruddin Sahud and I. I don't recall the others.

Foyez: Were there Abdul Matin and Oli Ahad?

Sultan: Matin was not there and Oli Ahad was not a student of the university so we didn't call him. It was a students' meeting.

Sultan: We also decided that Gaziul Haq would be the chair at the students' meeting next morning and we would not let anyone else to be the chair. Next, Habibur Rahman Shelley would be the first person to break Section 144.  Then, I would be responsible to note down the names of the students who would be caught by police and who would be violating Section 144.

Foyez: Are you talking about today's High Court Justice Habibur Rahman?

Sultan: Yes, he was a brilliant student at the university and believed in progressive thinking.

We entered the university before 9:00amnext day and found the whole area surrounded by police carrying all types of weapons. Then the students gathered at Aamtola and the meeting started at 11:00am. Gaziul Haq chaired the meeting as we decided.

At the meeting, most students were in favour of violating Section 144. After that, one after another procession broke Section 144 and started to go out on the street. Police caught many students who were violating Section 144.

Foyez: Was Habibur Rahman Shelley in the first batch as you decided?

Sultan: He was the first student to break Section 144. After 8-10 processions rolled out to the street, female students came out with their procession.

Foyez: Who were the girls in the procession?

Sultan: I don't recall all of them. But I remember Sufia Ibrahim, Halima Khatun, Raushanara Bachchu and Shafia Khatun. Instead of arresting the girls, police charged batons on their procession and many girls were injured that day. Finally, police released teargas while trying to stop this apparently ceaseless procession. Police fired countless teargas shells.

Foyez: What time was it?

Sultan: It was 12:30-1:00pm. Unable to bear with the gas, the protesters were jumping into the university pond. At that time, many teachers of the university attended the meeting. Munier Chowdhury, Ajit Guha (Jagannath College), and Muzaffar Ahmed Chowdhury, joined hands with the students.


This is an excerpt of a longer interview printed in “Mohammad Sultan Kayekti Rekhaey” published by Kamal Lohani, 1986.

The translation has been done by

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