The heady days of history | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 19, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:21 AM, February 19, 2021

The heady days of history

Eminent educationist Rafiqul Islam, Professor Emeritus at ULAB and Ekushey Padak awardee, was a witness to the Bengali Language Movement, during his youth. Ahead of International Mother Language Day (February 21), he spoke about his involvement in the movement in a chat with Shah Tazrian Ashrafi. Below is a small part of the interview.

I still remember how there was so much commotion around the language issue in East Pakistan right after the 1947 Partition. In 1948, Liaquat Ali Khan brought amendments that sought to make English and Urdu the lingua franca of Pakistan, even though a majority of Pakistan's population spoke in Bangla. Once the news reached the Eastern wing, rumblings of a movement arose. In that climate, Dhirendranath Dutta proposed to include Bangla as the lingua franca. Many Muslim league supporters were in favour of Urdu. I cannot forget the time when I saw students welcoming Dhirendranath Dutta with a flower garland, while they hung a garland of shoes on certain Muslim league members.

On 11 March of that year, students surrounded Khwaja Nazimuddin's house, owing to their demands of making Bangla one of the official state languages. They lay down on the streets so that no one could cross over without meeting their demands. I saw Sheikh Mujibur Rahman there, alongside Oli Ahad and other prominent student leaders. At this time, the police began lathi charging and arresting hordes of students. I saw how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took a gravely wounded demonstrator to the hospital and immediately returned to the protest site. That was one of my first brushes with political turbulence in a newly created country. My presence in activist assemblies held by prominent leaders was common.

On March 21, I witnessed Jinnah giving his speech about Urdu being Pakistan's lingua franca. His speech was met with a feverish bout of disapproval. "No!" the hecklers shouted. At another assembly a few days later, he replied to the dissenters by asking them to move to India. His notion was that Bangla is a Hindu's language. The underlying hint of communalism in his logic reminds me of an ironic anecdote: I was a part of the student delegation that met Jinnah sometime in late March about their language-related demands. One of us was a Hindu. Jinnah didn't want to speak with him on that account. However, when it was time for Asr prayers, as the students urged him to lead the prayer, he refused to do so. He said he did not pray.

Fast forward to 1952, sometime in late January, Khwaja Nazimuddin again declared that Urdu would be the state language. I was a first-year university student then. My friends and I were sipping tea at Madhur Canteen in Dhaka University. Hearing Nazimuddin's declaration, a small rally disapproving the decision erupted in the campus and we were swept in its tide.

On February 19 that year, men on horse carts were blaring announcements throughout Dhaka: Section 144 was imposed, banning any kind of protest, rally, or disturbance. Then came the fateful day of February 21. Protesters were adamant on violating Section 144 because otherwise there was no option of being heard. I watched as scores of people kept getting arrested and weathering lathi charges. I watched as the police violently cracked down on students inside the Dhaka University campus. We resorted to a nearby pond to neutralise the tear gas' burning sensation. A few hours later, a round of gunshots could be heard. Amidst all the din and panic, I saw a bunch of ward boys carrying a wounded body on a stretcher to an ambulance. Thin threads of bullet-smoke leapt out of the man's wobbly, shattered skull. I had a camera, but I still couldn't click photos—they disappeared so fast. Later, we discovered the body in a dark room. The police had planned to hide the body.

We heard another round of gunshots. This time, Abul Barkat was wounded severely. In his last moments, he was urging us to inform his family of his condition. So, I furtively snuck out with my bicycle avoiding the police and informed his family. They couldn't hide his body because he died at a hospital. I remember there were a rickshaw puller and a young farmer who also succumbed to bullet injuries. But the state hid their bodies.

After the tragic episode, a Shaheed Minar was erected quickly by gathering cement and bricks from a nearby construction site at the spot, where gunshots felled protesters. It was formally inaugurated by Abdul Kalam Shamsuddin. But unofficially, the deceased rickshaw puller's daughter inaugurated it. Later, the army razed it to the ground. In response, we erected another Shaheed Minar, using black cloth in 1953.

As someone who has witnessed such a pivotal episode like the Language Movement of Bangladeshi history, I believe that one should not fall into the trap of historical amnesia. To know one's country, one must objectively learn its history. After all, the essence of a country is lost on a citizen otherwise. We cannot just memorise figures and statistics regarding the casualties of our history. We have to learn how they became casualties.


The author is an undergraduate student of International Relations at Bangladesh University of Professionals. Write to him at  

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