Story of a language soldier

Z A M Khairuzzaman

If you are in Nilphamari and you ask any civil society member, “Do you know Asir Uddin Ahmed?” the obvious answer would be, “Of course. Who doesn't know our Head Sir?” We all know Asir Uddin Ahmed as a life-long dedicated teacher, a committed social worker and an enlightened person. But how many among us know him as a language movement activist? Surely, during his lifetime, he kept the life force of his home town Nilphamari pulsating with his energetic presence and endless dreams. But Asir Uddin Ahmed, a pioneer language activist? Yes, my elders reminded me that my father Asir Uddin Ahmed was a pioneer language activist. I dug out more to find the truth.

At that time, Nilphamari was a sub-divisional town under Rangpur district. Century-old Nilphamari High English School (presently Nilphamari Government Boys' High School) was the lone boys' high school in Nilphamari town and Asir Uddin Ahmed was its first Bengali Muslim headmaster. He was highly educated, meritorious and aware enough about progressive politics.

Language movement began from this school on 4 February, 1952. Students observed strike at the school responding to a call from Dhaka-based Muslim Chhatra League. They held rallies and brought out processions in the sub-divisional town demanding Bangla as a state language of the then Pakistan. Students got inspiration for agitation for establishing Bangla as our state language from their beloved Headsir. With his strong faith in the goodness and power of his students Asir Uddin Ahmed believed that they will soon be able to make positive changes and turn the society into a better place to live in.

Asir Uddin Ahmed realized that our people should be allowed to use their mother language and that no attempt should be made to impose any alien language in the guise of a state language. He also realised that if Urdu were imposed as the state language on our people then it would provide a handle to the West Pakistanis to exploit us.

Because of his inspiration, a charged atmosphere was created in the small town of the then East Pakistan, a province of former Pakistan. This has infuriated the then Urdu speaking conservative sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Nilphamari, Monowar Hossain Chowdhury. He openly misbehaved with Asir Uddin Ahmed for what he said his failure to keep students away from agitation. Perhaps he thought that his misbehaviour with the headmaster would dispirit the students of the school. But all of his estimates and expectations were belied. The SDO's insult to their Headsir created traumatic effects on the students. Ultimately, the agitation turned into an agitation against the insult hurled at Headsir. Students called strike for three consecutive days on 8, 9 and 10 February. The strikers demanded immediate removal of the SDO as well as realization of Bangla as a state language.

The entire scenario changed on 21 February as the news of killing Rifiq, Salam, Barkat, Jabbar, Shafiq and others by Pakistani police in Dhaka reached Nilphamari. Once firing had started the movement spread-wider than a fire, faster than the bullets. It refused to be confined to the school campus and reached almost every corner of the sub-division.

An all-out strike was observed in the educational institutions of the town on 21 February. A big rally was held on the premises of the Muslim Hostel of Nilphamari High English School.

Later, hundreds of people burst into protest on 22 February defying all obstructions created by local administration headed by the non-Bengali SDO. Instantly, Nilphamari town was turned into a town of processions and meetings.

The agitation geared up when Pakistan government arrested Khairat Hossain of Nilphamari, an opposition member of the then East Pakistan Provincial Assembly in Dhaka on 22 February. Pakistan government was angered as this opposition Awami Muslim League lawmaker, elected from Nilphamari, and renowned politician Moulana Abdur Rashid Tarkobagish walked out of the Provincial Assembly in Dhaka protesting brutal killings on 21 February. From Dhaka, Khairat Hossain used to give valuable directives to the leaders of language movement in Nilphamari.

On 24, 25 and 26 February, hundreds of people from all walks of life came out of the streets of the sub-divisional town chanting fiery slogans demanding release of Khairat Hossain and other political prisoners and trial of the perpetrators of 21 February killings.

With a view to suppressing agitation, police arrested local Awami Muslim League convener Advocate Dabiruddin Ahmed and noted educationist Abu Nazam Mohammad Ali, also assistant headmaster of Nilphamari Girls' High School on 26 February night.

Agitating people besieged the local police station. As the situation deteriorated fast, the police authorities made a fervent appeal to the two aforesaid popular leaders to make agitating people calm down.

At a joint meeting of Awami Muslim League and Muslim Chhatra League, a decision was taken to observe an all-out strike in the town on 28 February.

Being nervous, police prepared a list of local language movement leaders to arrest them. Accordingly, police arrested local unit Muslim Chhatra League general secretary Shafiar Rahman, also a matriculation candidate and Jubo League convenor Shamsul Haque on 27 February. People again burst into protest.

Later, Khairat Hossain was released from Dhaka Central Jail after suffering imprisonment for about two years while Dabiruddin Ahmed and Abu Nazem Mohammad Ali were released from Rangpur jail after six months' imprisonment.

Muslim Chhatra League leader Shafiar Rahman and Jubo League leader Shamsul Haque were released from Dhaka Central Jail after suffering imprisonment for a month. Shafiar appeared at the matriculation examination taking special order of the jail authorities. Bengali was finally declared as one of the state languages of the then Pakistan.

Not too many people outside Nilphamari know the story of Asir Uddin Ahmed who retained an indomitable spirit even in old age and manifested the vigour of youth in all his activities.

Asir Uddin Ahmed passed away in Nilphamari on 22 July, 1989, and was buried here. His life and work continue to inspire us and his indomitable spirit will always guide us. On the International Mother Language Day, I pay my respect to the memory of my father.

Z A M Khairuzzaman is a senior journalist.