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‘Ekushe’ February: When East Pakistan fought & died for victory of mother language Bangla

The Language Movement of then East Pakistan sowed the seeds of a long-drawn struggle that culminated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

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Amar bhaiyer rokte rangano Ekushe February
Ami ki bhulte pari…

(Can I ever forget the 21st of February, stained by the blood shed by my brothers?)

Ekushe February, or the 21st of February, isn’t just any other date for someone whose mother tongue is Bangla, or Bengali — whether in Bangladesh or in West Bengal. It is a date that was inked in history by bloodshed and sacrifice for the love of the language in a one-of-a-kind movement in then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

It is a date that in 1952 sowed the seeds of a long-drawn struggle that culminated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

Ekushe is the root of the identity of Bengalis. If it weren’t Ekushe we wouldn’t be independent. If it wasn’t for Ekushe, in poetry, song or literature, the progress we’ve made, that wouldn’t have been possible,” says Sadhan Kumar Das, district children affairs officer at the Bangladesh Shishu Academy in Dhaka.

The Language Movement in then East Pakistan, from 1948 to 1956, saw many a sacrifice. In 2000, after an initiative by Bangladesh, it was recognised by the United Nations that declared 21 February as the International Mother Language Day

ThePrint draws a timeline of the history that spurred the events of Ekushe February, which marks the Language Movement Day, and how it led to the birth of Bangladesh.

Also read: BJP leaders stuck in the past. Bangladesh isn’t a wretched country its people want to flee

History behind the struggle

The story begins soon after the Partition in 1947. As India attained Independence and its founders buried themselves in building the scaffolding for a secular republic, Pakistan was faced with an impossible puzzle — to integrate a socially, culturally and linguistically distinctive East Pakistan. 

The question that arose was — what would the official state language be?

Leaders and scholars of the Muslim League were adamant to make Urdu the lingua franca of East Pakistan. Then came a crucial moment in November 1947, during the Pakistan Educational Conference organised by the then education minister Fazlur Rehman. At the event, it was decided that Bengali would be dropped from the list of approved subjects. 

Researchers Mussarat Jabeen, Amir Ali Chandio and Zarina Qasim in their paper Language Controversy: Impacts on National Politics and Secession of East Pakistan note that it was a decision taken by non-Bengali leaders of West Pakistan. “This decision was opposed by the members of Tamaddun Majlish as well as others belonging to East Pakistan as they were attending the conference,” the paper highlights

The Tamaddun Majlish was an Islamic cultural organisation established by teachers of Dhaka University. It was the founder of the group, physics professor Abul Kashem, who became the “first person to convene a literary meeting to discuss the issue of national language”.

More meetings followed and forcible expulsion of Bangla from every currency sparked furore. The stirring even reached the higher echelons of administration — the first ever meeting of the Constitution Assembly in Pakistan, in which it was proposed that members be allowed to speak only Urdu or English.

Dhirendranath Datta, a member of the East Pakistan Congress Party, tabled a motion for the inclusion of Bengali. This met with severe opposition from everyone including the first Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan who said, “…Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in the subcontinent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu.” 

The motion failed and Bengali was not allowed at the Constituent Assembly. The protests intensified, forcing the government in East Pakistan under chief minister Khawaja Nazimuddin to strike a few compromises. 

Then came the final nail in the proverbial coffin — Governor-General Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s visit to Bangladesh on 21 March 1948.

“But let me make it 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 merely 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. There[fore] so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s language should be Urdu; but, as I have said, it will come in time,” he told the five lakh people who had gathered at the public meeting at Dhaka’s Race Course Maidan. 

The statement punctured the hearts of many who had doggedly supported the formation of Pakistan.

“The Muslims here (Bangladesh) had staunchly supported and played a massive role in the formation of Pakistan. When they understood that those ruling from Punjab in Pakistan won’t give Bengalis any right… The root of this antagonism became the Language Movement in 1952,” Sadhan Das tells ThePrint. “There was no longer an illusion.”

Also read: Bangladesh is booming and here’s why — PM Sheikh Hasina explains

Shaheed Minar — a march to remember

From Islam and the idea of Pakistan, the people of East Pakistan began turned to rally around their language — Bengali. This movement took a serious turn in 1952. Jinnah and Ali had died by then, and the Awami Muslim League had come into being.

“On January 1952, the Basic Principles Committee of the Constitution Assembly of Pakistan submitted its recommendation for making Urdu as the only state language…” Jabeen, Chandio and Qasim note in their paper. The All-Party Central Language Action Committee that had been formed called for strikes, demonstrations and processions on 21 February. 

Thousands of students of several schools and colleges came out in Dhaka despite the imposition of Section 144 to ban assemblies and processions. They were lathi-charged and tear-gassed by the police. The students responded, throwing bricks, and prompting the police to make arrests. The students then formed a blockade around the legislative assembly. 

The police opened fire, killing several students and injuring many others.

“The attack on students on 21 February fueled protests across the country. On 22 and 23 February the workers, writers, intelligentsia, teachers and civilians observed a complete strike and through processions defied the section 144 order,” highlights a report in The Statesman

A martyr’s memorial or Shaheed Minar was erected where the students had been killed. It became a sacred monument in Dhaka and remained so even after the Language Movement successfully compelled the Pakistan government to recognise Bangla as an official state language in 1956.

Birth of Bangladesh

The Language Movement had a lasting effect on the people of East Pakistan — birthing Bangla nationalism that went on to fire the secessionist movement.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was a student leader from Dhaka University, played a crucial role in organising the protests. He was in jail at the time the events of 21 February unfolded. Rahman went on to lead the Awami League that dropped Muslim from its name, and become the founding father of Bangladesh. 

The date 21 February grew in cultural significance as stories, poems and plays were written about it. Every year on this day the leaders of Bangladesh pay tributes to the “martyrs” of the language at Shaheed Minar.

This year too, Rahman’s daughter and the current Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina placed wreaths at the monument in a ceremony that took place at one minute past 12, as the melancholic tune of Bangladeshi poet Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s ‘Amar Bhaiyer Rakte Rangano Ekushe February’ filled the air. 

People from all walks of life march to Shaheed Minar Friday to remember the “bloodshed” and sacrifice of their “brothers”. 

“The procession happens everywhere because there is a Shaheed Minar everywhere — in every village, district, school and college,” says Sadhan Das.

Also read: Bangladeshis will be richer than Indians by 2030, StanChart Bank says


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