Sixty-eight years ago on 21 February 1952, a new phase in Bengali history was inaugurated through mayhem and murder on the streets of Dhaka.
In one of those rare moments in time when a people rise, to demand that they be allowed to speak, read and write in the language of their ancestors, that no one tamper with that right, several young Bengalis sacrificed their lives in defence of national self-esteem.
These men, and all those other men who had put up resistance against the efforts of the Pakistani state to undermine their cultural ethos, called forth the courage to defy the state because the state had lost touch with reason.
When these Bengalis died sixty eight years ago today, they sent out the clear message to the living that their heritage would live on, that the state which was putting the life out of them was shooting itself in the foot. What therefore started off as a struggle for the right of language would soon broaden out into a nationwide resistance to the growing political and economic subjugation of the Bengali nation by the entrenched neo-colonialism based in the western segment of the state of Pakistan.
There would be the gradual but clear realization that Bengalis were the victims of economic exploitation and political deprivation.
Ekushey, in that broad sense of meaning, was therefore an early warning for all of us that we needed to reclaim our roots, to journey back to our centuries-old heritage in the interest of the generations to be.
Today, as we observe the martyrdom of those defenders of the Bangla language, we recall too that Ekushey 1952 was that defining moment in our collective life when we sounded the warning that geography structured into political absurdity by misleading communal politics could certainly not override the cultural legacy of its Bangla-speaking people. That culture was greater than fanaticism, that heritage existed on a much higher plane than the politics of the effete and the snobbish, was the truth we sent out on this day in 1952. That truth was to expand, widen, fill itself with increasing doses of political and aesthetic richness and lead us on to paths of greater glory.
Ekushey led in time to a resurgence of Rabindranath's songs, in 1961. It impelled our students, in 1962, into a rejection of the education report of the Ayub Khan junta. It caused a great outpouring of popular will we called a Mass Upsurge in 1969. It was, in more ways than one, a harbinger of the Six Points, the Magna Carta that a future Bangabandhu would come forth with in 1966. In essence, Ekushey was a constant imperilling, and properly so, of the vested interests symbolising the illegitimacy of power in Rawalpindi.
Because of Ekushey, we put up barricades of resistance to those who would instigate communal riots in East Bengal in 1964. Because of the sacrifices of 1952, our leadership told the entrenched communal-civil-military establishment based in Rawalpindi that the state called for a major reconfiguring to survive or, failing that, to be ejected from our land altogether. We sent Pakistan's first dictator packing in 1969.
Nearly three years later, we humiliated the second dictator and his murderous army, along with their local henchmen in East Bengal, into a surrender that would shame them forever. It was Ekushey that was our strength, the belief which informed us that ours being a cultural, language-based nationalism, we simply had no wish to inhabit a ghetto constructed of religious hate and anti-historical falsehood.
This morning, Ekushey warns us to be on our guard against those who murdered in 1971 and whose fanatical, bloodthirsty descendants might murder again in the old fashion. On Ekushey, we link up with our brave men – our students, our illustrious leaders, our Mukti Bahini soldiers, indeed the souls of our three million murdered compatriots – to remind ourselves that those who have killed and raped must walk to their richly deserved punishment.
Ekushey 1952 was a call to every Bengali to put the denizens of mediaeval darkness to flight. Let Ekushey 2020 hold out the promise that never again will sinister forces and their equally sinister philistine followers arise to impede our march to a future of light and laughter and happiness.
Ekushey 1952 was a rebellion against the forces of authoritarianism. It remains a rebellion, a revolt against any and all attempts at foisting on the nation a political structure which militates against government by the consent of the governed.
Ekushey epitomises our secular yearnings, our goals of social justice, our nationalistic positivism, indeed our natural affinity with democracy of the unfettered and liberal kind. Ekushey is but a re-emphasising of history – that rule of law must be the foundation of the state.