The Bengalis’ pioneering struggle for language rights

The eight-year struggle for recognition of Bengali as an official language of Pakistan led to the declaration of February 21 as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO

By P. K. Balachandran

COLOMBO – UNESCO has set February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to stress the importance of the mother tongue and and multilingualism for achieving Sustainable Development Goals without leaving any section behind.

The Mother Language Day commemorates the struggle of the Bengalis of East Pakistan (earlier known as East Bengal and now Bangladesh) for the recognition of their mother tongue, Bengali, as an official language of Pakistan. In the late forties up to the middle of the fifties, the rulers of the new State of Pakistan including M. A. Jinnah were hell bent on making Urdu the sole official language. This was based on the specious plea that Urdu is the quintessential ‘Islamic’ language and therefore eminently suited to be the official language of a country portrayed as the Homeland of the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent.

The Bengalis not only challenged the identification of Urdu with Islam but also pointed out that Bengali was the language of 56% of the population of Pakistan and therefore it deserved parity with Urdu.

When these arguments were met with contempt by the ruling Muslim League, Bengalis, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Maulana Bashani and Dhaka University students, launched a sustained agitation from 1948 onwards. The highpoint of the massive and non-stop agitation was the firing on student demonstrators in Dhaka on February 21, 1952, which resulted in many deaths. That day is observed as Language Movement Day or Martyrs Day and also as the International Mother Language Day.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman writes in his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ that the incident on February 21, 1952 was the first in the world in which a people had sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.

With Urdu as the sole official language, the Bengalis in Pakistan feared loss of status and opportunities to the dominant non-Bengali communities living in West Pakistan, especially the Punjabis. Sure enough, immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, political and economic power was grabbed by the more pushy West Pakistanis. It was East Pakistan’s jute and other products which were earning foreign exchange for the country, but the money earned was being used mostly for the development of West Pakistan. The bureaucracy and the armed forces were also dominated by West Pakistanis. It appeared that the erasure of Bengali language was part of the strategy to enslave the Bengalis.

Muslim Leaguers who opposed Bengali, had conveniently ignored the stellar role played by Bengali Muslims in the Pakistan movement. It was forgotten that the Muslim League was founded in Dhaka and Bengali Muslims formed the bulk of the party’s supporters through the decades of struggle for the rights of Muslims in Hindu-majority India.

The first person to demand that Bengali should be an official language of Pakistan was a Hindu member of the Constituent Assembly, Babu Dhirendra Nath Dutt in February 1948. His demand was denounced by Muslim Leaguers from both the West and East wings of Pakistan. But Dutt was backed by two non-mainstream organizations, the East Pakistan Muslim Students’ League and the Tamuddun Majlish. These organizations declared March 11 as ‘Bengali Language Demand Day’. Dissident East Pakistani Muslim Leaguers like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman began to address their meetings.

The students were particularly incensed when the Governor General of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared twice in Dhaka on March 21, 1948 that Urdu would be the sole official language of Pakistan. On April 8, 1948 Khawaja Nazimuddin, Chief Minister of East Bengal, moved a resolution in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly stating that Bengali should become the official language of East Pakistan. The resolution quelled protests in East Pakistan, but Bengali continued to be relegated.

Although the students were fired by enthusiasm, the general Bengali population was nonchalant. The euphoria over the creation of Pakistan and liberation from Hindu domination was still there. And then there was the Muslim League’s propaganda about India’s hidden hand in the language movement. It was even said that the agitators were students from Calcutta dressed up as Muslims.  But no proof could be produced. All those arrested or killed were Bengali Muslims. Furthermore, many of those in the vanguard of the Pakistan movement and the Muslim League like H.S. Suhrawardy, Maulana Bashani and host of others, were in the forefront of the language movement.

One of the most important factors contributing to the eventual success of the language movement was the alienation of the masses from the Muslim League. Muslim League rule both at the Centre in Karachi (the then capital of Pakistan) and in East Pakistan was oppressive, corrupt and intolerant after founder M.A. Jinnah died. His successor Liaquat Ali Khan was intolerant, as were Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Amin who headed the government in East Pakistan. Nazimuddin and others those who succeeded Liaquat Ali Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan were dominated by bureaucrats who had little or no consideration for the people.

The isolated Muslim League began to persecute the opposition Awami League and other parties. Their leaders and cadres were thrown into prison, and the basic needs of the population, including food, were neglected. Mujibur Rahman writes in his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’ that people were wondering if this was the Pakistan they had so ardently sought and fought for.

Earlier, a ginger group led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had drawn up a manifesto which, apart from seeking parity for Bengali, demanded provincial autonomy with the Centre retaining only Defence, Foreign Affairs, Communications and Currency. It was argued that autonomy was the only way to safeguard the Bengali language and Bengal’s resources from being looted by outsiders.

While autonomy was never granted by Pakistan, Bengali was recognized as a State language along with Urdu by the Constituent Assembly in 1954 and the National Assembly made it law in 1956.

However, the growing inequality between the East and West wings of Pakistan and the West’s refusal to recognize election results and allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s  Awami League to form a government at the Centre, led to a war which ended with the creation of a sovereign and independent Bangladesh in December 1971.




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