The Bangla Language Movement – which led to the historic events of 21 February 69 years ago – was a socio-politico-cultural effort in then-East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to have the Bangla language recognised as the official language of Pakistan. Such recognition allowed Bangla to be used in government affairs. The 21st is popularly described as the supreme sacrifice of Ekushey.
Both the wings (East Pakistan, also called East Bengal and West Pakistan) of the state of Pakistan – after its formation in 1947 – were two regions wide apart, split along cultural, geographical and linguistic lines. In 1948, the government of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bangla-speaking majority of East Pakistan.
Facing rising sectarian tensions and mass discontent with the new law, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on 21 February 1952. The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators on that day.
The deaths provoked widespread civil unrest. After years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bangla language in 1956. In 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day for the whole world to celebrate, in tribute to the Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.
The Language Movement catalysed the assertion of Bangali national identity in the then-Pakistan, and became a forerunner to Bangali nationalist movements, including: the emergence of self-rule consciousness in the 1954 general elections, the student movement of 1962, the six-point movement of 1966, the uprising of 1969 and finally the Liberation War of 1971.
The supreme sacrifice of the martyrs of the language movement became an epitome of inspiration of sustaining self-consciousness and self-dignity as a nation. It brought the brilliant benefit of establishing the only nation state in the globe which is named after its language Bangla.
What occurred on 21 February was such an epoch-making incident that it was immortalised through global recognition as International Mother Language Day. We, as a nation, feel proud today that Bangladesh, Bangla and the supreme sacrifice of our language movement are being pronounced, much-admired, gratefully remembered, and honored worldwide.
Bangla-speaking people in East Pakistan made up 44 million of the newly-formed Pakistan's 69 million people in 1947. The Pakistani administration, its government, civil services, and military, however, were dominated by West Pakistanis. In October 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools.
Opposition and protests immediately arose. Students from Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Abul Kashem (1920-1991), the secretary of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bangali Islamic cultural organisation. The meeting stipulated Bangla as an official language of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Pakistan.
However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bangla from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. The central education minister of Pakistan made extensive preparations to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan. Public outrage spread, and a large number of Bangali students met around the campus of the University of Dhaka on 8 December, 1947 to formally demand that Bangla be made an official language.
To promote their cause, Bangali students organised processions and rallies in Dhaka. It was not an instantly initiated or motivated movement. The protest had a long history.
On the prestige and position of Bangla in day-to-day life, the mother tongue of the people of Bengal – particularly of the Muslims – can be traced back to the seventeenth century, as documented in the poems of Abdul Hakim (1620-1690) of Swandwip Noakhali. The seventeenth century bard was hesitant to classify if not condemn those who were inborn in Bengal but hate Bangla.
From the mid-19th century, the Urdu language had been promoted as the lingua franca of Indian Muslims by political and religious leaders. Khanbahadur Ahsanullah (1873-1965), an educationist and social reformer, pronounced strongly in 1918 – in his oration "Bangabhasha o Musalman Shahitya" – that one must respect Bangla and recognise its incomparability over other languages like Urdu, etc.
Ahsanullah made these observations in case there would be some inventiveness of contemporary intelligentsias to establish Urdu as the lingua franca of Muslims in Bengal. As early as the late 19th century, social activists, such as the Muslim feminist Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain ( 1880-1932), were choosing to write in Bangla to reach out to the people and develop it as a modern literary language.
Exactly 25 years earlier in February 1952, two papers were presented on the second day of the two-day First Annual Literary Conference (27-28 February, 1927) of the Muslim Shahittya Shamaj, the Muslim Literary Society, on the appropriateness of the use of Bangla in Muslim society in general and education in particular.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) inaugurated the conference. Abul Hussain (1896-1938), the Secretary and one of the founders of the Shaittya Shamaj – which led the Shikha Movement – in his paper put forward that the mother language barrier has been the major obstacle on the way of social development of the Muslim community in Bengal.
The Language Movement laid not only the foundations for ethnic nationalism in many of the Bangalis of East Pakistan, it also heightened the cultural animosity between the authorities of the two wings of Pakistan. In fact, the Ekushey played an important role in making Bangalis aware of their cultural and national heritage and ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
After 1971, even today, the Ekushey has been a guiding philosophy for any movement against oppression, injustice, disparity and denying of civic rights and in the comprehension of the socio-economic emancipation for the people of Bangladesh.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid, former secretary to the government and chairman NBR. Mail: [email protected]
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