On March 11, 1948, the city of Dhaka came to a standstill because of a general strike. It was called by the State Language Movement Council, a loose group of intelligentsia and left-leaning young politicians, formed a few months before. The authorities were stunned by such a show of dissidence in a country that emerged only eight months back after centuries of British Colonial rule.
The strike was called to push the demand for making Bangla one of the state languages of Pakistan. This was something the senior leaders of Pakistan did not expect.
The picketers were trying to lay siege to the secretariat building. Police beat them up mercilessly, sending a few of them to hospital. They arrested a number of picketers as well. Among them was a tall and very agile law student of Dhaka University. The name of the 28-year-old student was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It was long before this man would become the centre of political turmoil of the land and become the founder of a nation.
Sheikh Mujib, just back from Calcutta, was then leader of a student organisation named Muslim Students' League, which pressed for the political rights of the Bangali population.
The state language debate began even before the emergence of Pakistan, which did not have a lingua franca, because it was a territory sewn together out of diverse linguistic traditions. The top leaders of the west wing of the country took it for granted that Urdu would be the state language. But the intelligentsia and the youth of the east wing of the country argued that the Bangla language held a bigger claim as Bangalis formed the better part of the whole population.
The movement originated as a pedantic debate among learned linguists and public intellectuals. But it soon spilled over into the political arena as students of large educational institutions, like Dhaka University, began to form active groups that started agitation programmes. One of such programs was the general strike called on March 11, 1948.
Ahmed Rafique, a researcher of the Language Movement, said, "This general strike of March 11 is the second largest agitation before 21 February, 1952. It shook the city deeply because it garnered support from all walks of life. Sheikh Mujib was very active at this stage."
Later, remembering the day, Sheikh Mujib in his memoir titled "The Unfinished Memoirs" wrote: "The city Superintendent of Police (SP) tried to chase me in his jeep, but failed to catch hold of me. I realised that I was going to be cornered. I gave my cycle to a friend and then decided I would sit down in front of the Eden Building gate with four or five other students. I told the friend to whom I had given my cycle that he should send us some more students as soon as possible to help us in our resistance. There were only a few of us and by ourselves we wouldn't be able to hold out for long."
"Some students saw what we were doing and decided to join us in the sit-down strike. Some of us got beaten up and some were arrested and hauled into jeeps. Mr Huq (Shamsul Huq) had already been forcibly taken to one of the jeeps. Many students were hurt and arrested. A few students were driven to a jungle 30 to 40 miles away from the city and dumped there. A few girl students too were beaten up. Oli Ahad had also been arrested. Tajuddin, Toaha and a few others had managed to elude the police. Seventy to seventy-five of us were tied up and sent to jail in the evening. The movement, however, had picked up momentum by then. We had managed to get the support of the people of Dhaka in the end."
This was a period when the language movement shifted gear and began to take the form of an all-out street agitation.
Sheikh Mujib had to spend five days in jail. That was his first proper taste of incarceration, which later would become a regular phenomenon when he began a greater movement towards national freedom.
Once out of jail, Mujib and his youth organisation went to a campaign around the country to garner support for the language movement. Mazharul Islam, a noted educationist and biographer of Sheikh Mujib in his book titled "Language Movement and Sheikh Mujib" wrote, "The movement in favour of Bangla language flared throughout the whole East Bengal thanks to the arduous dedication of young leaders like Sheikh Mujib, Tajuddin Ahmad, Mohammad Toaha, Naimuddin Ahmad, Shawkat Ali, Abdul Matin, Shamsul Huq etc. Bangladesh began vibrating with rallies, processions and relentless slogans."
Four years later when the second and climactic phase of the movement began, Mujib was behind bars in Faridpur jail. It was a period when Mujib was getting arrested and was moving in and out of jails repeatedly. On February 14, 1952, just a week before the final moment of the movement unfolded, Mujib got arrested. Despite being in jail, he was secretly passing orders to his fellow students and youth leaders to organise rallies and processions. From February 16 he went on a hunger strike to push forward the demands of the movement. He got very ill due to a prolonged hunger strike.
In his memoirs Mujib wrote, "My heart began to act up. I began to have severe palpitations. I was having trouble breathing. I began to think that my time was up and that I would not last much longer…"
"We spent all of 21st(February 21) full of anxiety, worrying about what was happening. At night the guards on duty told us that there had been trouble in Dhaka. According to the radio, a few people had been shot to death. A general strike had been called in Faridpur, and students had come up to the jail gate in a procession raising slogans such as "We want Bangla as the state language."
Mujib was released on February 27 and a few days later was elected the general secretary of the east wing of Awami Muslim League. His later political career was significantly shaped by the spirit of the language movement.