Every year, we take a step back to commemorate our gallant heroes who sacrificed their lives on the fateful day of February 21, 1952 in a bid to defend and uphold our mother tongue and secure it as state language.
Taking on the powerful state machinery of Pakistan, these young men defended the right of every Bengali citizen to speak their own language. In many respects, the language movement was more than a movement to defend the Bengali language; it was an endeavour to defend all that we hold dear in terms of national cultural identity. And now, for more than a decade, the whole world celebrates ‘Amor Ekushey’ with us in the name of International Mother Language Day. That alone should give us a lot of sense of pride to have the recognition of our identity.
And Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was one of the few student leaders who played the major role in shaping the movement into a mass movement in order to make it broad- based for establishing Bangla as one of the state languages of the then Pakistan and later that very movement propelled the nation, under Bangabandhu’s prudent leadership, in its struggle to liberate itself from the deadly clutch of the oppressive Pakistani force.
Let’s revisit our fight for our language
The history was dated back to the creation of Pakistan, in 1947, having two parts, East Bengal (later East Pakistan and now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated by more than 1000 miles with India in between. Cultural and linguistic differences were sharp among the people of the two parts. Within months after its creation, the government of Pakistan, controlled by the West Pakistanis, wanted to impose Urdu as the only state language of the country. The Bengalis, to whom Urdu was a foreign language, realized that it was a ploy by the West Pakistanis to colonize East Bengal.
As part of the plan to establish Urdu as state language, the Pakistan government excluded Bengali from all postal stamps, coins and official forms. In October 1947, a “State Language Action Committee” was formed in Dhaka as a platform to promote the cause of Bengali. On December 5, 1947, the students of the University of Dhaka organized a demonstration in support of Bengali.
On February 25, 1948, a proposal by Dhirendra Nath Datta, a member from East Bengal, to use Bengali along with Urdu and English in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly was arbitrarily rejected.
A day after, the students of Dhaka University and other educational institutions paraded the main streets of Dhaka city in observance of a blockade enforced to protest the rejection. Later, a meeting was held, in the afternoon which was followed by a grand procession. Prof Abul Kashem presided over the meeting while Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the grand rally.
Bangabandhu along with some prominent student leaders attended the meeting at a dormitory on Dhaka University where a decision was taken to wage greater movement against the anti-language activities of the government and in view of this an “All Party Action Committee” was formed.
The next major programme was the observance of another strike on March 11, 1948 under the auspices of the students of Dhaka University and other educational institutions. Police rounded up several student leaders including Shamsul Huq, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Oli Ahad while they were voicing their protest on the streets of Dhaka over the outrageous decision to impose Urdu as state language.
The arrests of the student leaders further intensified the movement. A number of protest meetings were held at different educational institutions, giving a clear signal to the government that the arrest of the student leaders would in no way dampen the movement.
On impact, the government was compelled to release all the student leaders. With Bangabandhu in the chair, a meeting of students was held on March 16, 1948. According to the diary of Tajuddin Ahmed, one of the active participants of the language movement, “After the meeting a student procession went to Khawaja Nazimuddin with a representation containing their demands and the procession was led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”.
On March 21, 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, then governor general of Pakistan, unilaterally made an inane announcement in Dhaka that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.”
Outraged by the declaration, people from all strata of life waged protest.
In another inane announcement, on January 26, 1952, Khawaja Nazimuddin, then prime minister of Pakistan, said in Dhaka that Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan. This announcement provoked a fresh wave of protests in Dhaka resulted in formation of “All Party State Language Action Committee”. And February 21 was declared to be observed as the State Language Day.
Beginning at dawn on February 21, 1952, the Dhaka university campus turned into a human sea, specially young students driven by the call to assert themselves. A day before, section 144 was announced, imposing a ban on public gatherings in the city, despite the fact that there had been no provocation, no hint of violence from the students.
On that morning, the crowd increased, both in numbers and in intensity, sending out the clear feeling that a showdown was on the way. At 11:00 am, a students’ gathering at Amtala, presided over by Gaziul Haq, went into the pros and cons of the emergent situation.
Later, the students, restrained by Section 144 from marching to the legislative assembly premises in a body (to present lawmakers with a memorandum demanding a recognition of Bangla), decided on the stratagem of trying to break through the police cordon in groups of 10. And just as they put their plan into implementation, the police swooped on them. Truncheons were liberally applied on the students. Confusion and chaos set in. Even so, slogans rent the air – “Rashtra bhasha Bangla chai, cholo cholo assembly cholo”. The battles between the students and the police spilled out on to the streets.
The shootings began sometime around 3:00pm. Four young men fell before the fury of the state — Abul Barkat, a student of MA at Dhaka University; Abdul Jabbar, a tailor who had come to Dhaka all the way from Gaffargaon to care for a relative in hospital; Rafiquddin Ahmed, a college student from Manikganj; and Abdus Salam, employed as a peon in an office. Salam was to die of injuries a few days after February 21. There were others who died. The state made swift work of concealing their bodies.
The bodies of those killed were not given to their families. The security forces had them buried in the eerie silence of night descending on the province after a day of tragedy.
And Because of Ekushey, we sent Pakistan’s first dictator packing in 1969 and liberated the country in 1971.
More than a decade ago, the 30th session of the Unesco General Conference unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Bangladesh and cosponsored by 28 countries, proclaiming February 21 as International Mother Language day.