This article first appeared in our First Issue from Spring 2019.
By: Aishah Mahmud
Ekushey February, A Timeline
February 21st, 1952.
9:00 AM Dhaka University
Students begin to gather at Dhaka University. The Vice-Chancellor asks them to respect the decision not to defy Section 144– the banning of public meetings, rallies, and processions. The students, led by Abdul Matin and Gaziul Haque, are unanimously adamant in defiance.
11:15 AM Dhaka University
More students pour in, and they proceed towards the Provincial Assembly, where the East Bengal Legislative Assembly is about to hold session.
12:00 PM Dhaka University
In an attempt to warn off the students, the armed police surrounding the campus fire tear gas shells and blank bullets. Many students attempt to run into Dhaka Medical College, but are intercepted and arrested by the police for violating Section 144. Enraged, the students scream, “Rashtro bhasha- Bangla Cai!” (Our national language- We want Bangla!) Chaos erupts and they bat bricks at the police line. Police continue to fire tear gas and club students with batons in response.
12:00 PM Elsewhere in Dhaka
Rafiq Uddin Ahmed and his young nephew shop for Rafiq’s upcoming wedding to the love of his life, Rahela Khanom Panu. He joins the students.
Abdul Jabbar, a young farmer, visits his mother-in-law, whom he brought to Dhaka Medical College for cancer treatment. He’s left his wife Amina and baby boy Nurul at home in Panchua. He joins the students.
Abdul Barkat, a Masters student of Political Science, and Abdus Salam, a peon at the Secretariat, were already among the students gathered in the morning.
4:00 PM Dhaka University
A group of the students, now in the order of thousands, move to storm into the Assembly Hall. The police open fire upon the crowd.
Rafiq Uddin Ahmed is shot in the head and dies instantly.
Abdul Barkat is seriously injured. He will die at 8:00 PM that night.
Abdul Jabbar is fatally shot. He will die the following night.
Abdus Salam is shot and seriously injured. He will die one month later in Dhaka Medical College.
5:00 PM Inside the Assembly Hall
Session is about to begin when news of the massacre is received. Six opposition members press for adjournment of the meeting and inquiry into the incident. Chief Minister Nurul Amin refuses, and pushes to proceed with the planned agenda for the day. All the opposition members walk out in protest.
The Night of February 21st, Bangladesh
Disorder erupts across the city of Dhaka. Shops, offices, and public transport are shut down. All over the country, schools and colleges hold meetings, rallies, and processions.
February 22nd, 1952, Dhaka
More than 30,000 people congregate to perform gayebi janaza (funeral prayer held without the dead body). Following the prayers, they hold a mourning procession and pass through Nawabpur Road. Police open fire on the crowd.
Four people die. Among them, Shafiur Rahman, shot in the back on his way to work, and Ohi Ullah, an 8 year old, are found.
Officers and clerks from colleges, banks, and the radio stations boycott their offices and join the procession.
Protestors burn the offices of Jubilee Press and The Morning News, two leading pro-government news agencies. Police open fire on the protestors once again.
Night of February 23rd, 1952, Dhaka Medical College
Students work on constructing and erecting a Shahid Minar, Martyr’s Memorial, to commemorate those who lost their lives. Attached to it is a handwritten note with the words “Shaheed Smritistombho,” — A Monument of Martyrs. Three days later the police will destroy it.
When I was five my Nani (grandmother) said to me, “যদি তুমি আমার সাথে কথা বলতে যাও ,তা হলে বাংলা ই বলতে হবে.” (Judi tumi amar shathe khotha bolte chaow, tale bangla-ey bolte hobe, If you want to talk to me, then you have to speak in Bangla).
And to her I am forever grateful. I’m grateful to be able to speak to my family abroad, I’m grateful to be able to speak to my mother in the language she’s comfortable in. But my Bangla is still limited– basic at best– and I see the frustration in my mom, a Bangla literature major, when she’s unable to fully express herself so that I understand. She resigns herself to more surface level conversation, simplifying her language as much as she can. And I feel the frustration myself, when I want to explain something to her (socio-political issues, what I’m studying in school, the nuances of emotion) but I just don’t have the words.
To be proficient in any language is a gift. There is beauty in being able to communicate, to voice opinions, to have thoughts at all. Having mastery of a language heightens all three abilities. But when that gift is taken away, when you’re told to speak in a language completely foreign to you and given no resources to learn it, you’re left frustrated and powerless.
Bangla evolved as an Eastern Indo-Aryan language around 1000 – 1200 CE from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit, and is rooted in the indigenous languages of of Kol-Austric and Dravidian. From the third century and on, the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Palas, the Senas, and the Muslims came one after another to rule the region. Then the Portuguese, French, and English each brought their ships to the harbors of Bengal. They left their merchandise as well as their customs. Every foreign power that came to Bengal left a cultural mark, but more importantly, contributed to the language of the region.
The region of Bengal has a deep tradition of oral literature and folklore, passed down generations from village to village. History, politics, and religion were condensed into songs and poems and through puthi-path, a traditional form of recitation, stories were spread.
Bangla was a language of the people. Bengal was a region of agriculture and Bangla was a language that articulated the ecology of the area, described patterns of the land, the weather, and the rivers.
During the Bengali Renaissance, under the British colonial era, Bengalis continued to use their language to create a diverse collection of literature, including the essays, songs, and poems of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
The Creation of East Pakistan
When the British Raj ended in 1947, the subcontinent was left wracked with tensions between the minority population of Muslims and the majority population of Hindus. This was largely because of the British tactic of “divide and conquer,” where they had spent centuries pitting the two populations against each other in an effort to keep each group in check. This had allowed for hostility to manifest and grow.
Muslims were heavily concentrated in the western regions of Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan, as well as in the eastern region of Bengal. Without regard to any ethnic differences, and on the basis of religion alone, these two regions, separated by 1,370 miles of India, were to compose the Dominion of Pakistan.
The Bengal region had a plantation economy. They were home to the world’s largest tea plantations and jute industries. West Pakistan was dry and arid, with rugged mountainous terrain while Bengal had the world’s largest delta, 700 rivers, and a tropical climate conducive to agricultural growth. East Pakistan generated a major share of Pakistan’s exports, but most of these earnings were diverted back to West Pakistan to fund its industrialization, while East Pakistan remained economically underdeveloped. Not only was Bengal exploited for raw materials, but Bengalis were tragically underrepresented in government as well. They were denied equal economic and political rights as their Western counterparts. Furthermore, the Bengali people were culturally looked down upon, evident most in the attempted suppression of their language.
Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan made up the majority 44 million of Pakistan’s total 69 million people. However, the official government, civil services, and military were all centralized within West Pakistan, and dominated by Urdu literature and legislation.
Urdu and Only Urdu
A key resolution in 1947 in Karachi, West Pakistan put Urdu as the official state language of Pakistan, and advocated for its exclusive use in media and in schools. All newly issued money, postal stamps, coins, and office forms of the government were to be in Urdu.
Naturally the Bengali population opposed such moves. Over 70% of the population were agricultural farmers, who had no means of learning how to read or speak Urdu. They would be rendered completely voiceless, at the mercy of a third-party translator at all times. Even the upper class and educated society of Bengal would be made illiterate and powerless in the time it would take for them to learn Urdu and gain enough cultural capital to participate in government and society.
Bengalis pushed for Bangla to be a medium of instruction, court, and office communication in East Pakistan. They asked for the languages of central government to be both Urdu and Bengali. Their opposition was dismissed.
Dr. M Shahidullah, a Bengali linguist, was quoted saying,
“If Urdu or Hindi, instead of Bengali, is used in our law courts and universities, that would be tantamount to political slavery.”
In 1948, in the second session of the Constitutional Assembly of Pakistan, Dhirendra Nath Dutta moved an amendment to give Bengali equal status to Urdu and English as the state language. Liaqat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan opposed the proposal.
“Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this sub-continent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu… Pakistan is a Muslim state and it must have its lingua franca the language of the Muslim nation”
The Prime Minister’s argument was emotional and fallacious. The one hundred million Muslims of the subcontinent had historically always been a multilingual community. The Bengali speaking Muslims had always outnumbered the Muslims of other language groups.
Disappointed by the lack of response to Dutta, students of Dhaka University formed the “All Party State Language Committee of Action,” and under the committee, they held a general strike throughout East Pakistan on March 11, 1948.
The political party in power, the Muslim League, responded with force. Hundreds of people were injured as police used lathis (batons) and tear gas. About a thousand people were arrested. Students bore the brunt of the action.
Khawaja Nazimuddin, the chief minister of East Pakistan, agreed to sign an eight-point agreement created by the leaders of the “Committee of Action.” Bengali was to be the official language of the province of East Bengal, and it would have the same status as Urdu throughout Pakistan.
Mohamed Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, founder of Pakistan, and popularly known as the “Father of the Nation,” came to visit Dhaka. On March 21, 1948, he addressed the Bengalis of East Pakistan.
“Let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries. Therefore, so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s shall be Urdu” (Jinnah 1948).
Thus, Khawaja Nazimuddin, in contrast to his earlier agreement, moved a much more watered-down version of the eight-point plan. Bengali would only be recognized as an official language within East Bengal. And even this small win would be tarnished.
De-Sanskritization of Bengali
In December 1948, the Education Minister of Pakistan, Fazlur Rahman, proposed the idea of changing the Bengali script to Arabic for the sake of Islamic Ideology. Urdu, as well as other West Pakistani native languages, were already using Arabic script, or Nastaliq.
The Pakistan government opened twenty adult education centers throughout East Pakistan to teach primary Bengali in an Arabic script. Essentially, the government sought to completely reject all “Hindu and Sanskrit” aspects of Bengali language. Bengali, like every Indo-Aryan language including Urdu, had assimilated vast numbers of Sanskrit words over the course of a thousand years of linguistic evolution.
Since Pakistan had emerged in 1947, the two wings underwent problems of political, ideological, constitutional, and economic natures. As 1951 wore on, these problems became progressively worse. Against this background, the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin (yes, the same man who had been the Chief Minister of East Bengal), announced on January 26th, 1952, that
“Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.”
Ekushey February and its Legacy
This announcement would prove to be the catalyst in a new phase of the Bengali Language Movement. A new all-party state language committee was formed, and February 21st, 1952 was declared State Language Day.
The government moved quickly to impose a ban of all meetings, processions, and demonstrations under the new Section 144. The committee, afraid of government backlash, agreed to cancel any demonstrations that were planned for the 21st.
The students of Dhaka University, however, unanimously agreed to defy the order instead. They wanted to continue with the protests. This brought them into direct clash with police and paramilitary forces.
February 21st and the subsequent days resulted in six people killed, hundreds injured, and thousands arrested. Those who had lost their lives were declared shohid, martyrs. It would be the first time ever that lives had been lost for the sake of a language. The 21st of February, or Ekushey February, became a red-letter day to Bengalis, from which they would then continue to draw inspiration from, until they received their own national independence.
“It is true that there are Hindus and Muslims. But what is transcending is that they are in essence Bengali. This is a reality. Nature with her own hand has stamped the indelible mark of Bengali in such a manner on our appearance and language that is it no longer possible to conceal it” (Shahidullah 1949).
Bangla is a language of emotion
Bangla is a language of respect. There’s a title for every family member, with distinctions between your maternal and paternal families. There is a formal conjugation for every verb used to refer to someone older than you.
It is a language of affection. Between adults and children, family members, friends– love is emphasized everywhere.
But Bangla is no more special than any other language. There are many languages that have these same traits, and are, perhaps, even more unique. The difference is that Bangla is my language. It’s the language of my parents and of my family. My ability to speak Bangla, more than anything else, is what makes me feel Bengali.
For the people of Bengal, Bangla was a key aspect of their identity. It united them across class and religion. With the loss of someone’s language and identity comes the loss of their agency and power. Until they are proficient in their colonizer’s language, they are at the mercy of decisions made by others on their behalf.
Today there are 200 to 350 million Bengali speakers around the world. It is the 6th most spoken native language. Every year, the 21st of February is celebrated as Ekushey February throughout Bangladesh. It is a day of mourning, but it’s also a day of gratitude. Bhasha Andolon, the Bengali Language Movement, united Bengalis through their shared language and culture. It was the catalyst for the independence movement of the people of East Pakistan. Ekushey February showed to the world the resilience of Bengalis.
যদি ওরা আমার মায়ের ভাষা কেড়ে নেয়, তবে আমার মা কি করে তার মিষ্টি মধুর ভাষায় আমায় ঘুমপাড়ানী গান শুনাবে?
Jodi ora amar maer bhasha kere ney, tawbe amar ma ki kore tar mishti madhur bhasha amay ghoomparanee gan shoonabe?
If they take my mother’s language away, then how will my mother sing me to sleep with her sweet, honey lullaby?
The way in which you love your mother, you love your mother language.