Taking part in Ekushey after 40-year hiatus!
The last time I took part in Language Day celebration was in 1969. I was then a research postgraduate student at the Atomic Energy Center in Ramna, Dhaka. Seven months later in September 1969 I left Dhaka for Cincinnati, Ohio (USA) to attend graduate school. Since then I have visited Bangladesh many a time but not in the month of February; therefore, in spite of all my wishes I never participated in the grand celebration of Ekushey all these years.
Nonetheless, an opportunity landed when my eldest son, Rashad, who is a linguist specializing in Bangla and working in Washington DC for a private language research center had expressed an interest to visit Bangladesh in February 2009. At his persuasion I decided to accompany him to Dhaka and take part in this year’s International Mother Language Day. It hardly matters what we call this celebration; to me it is still Ekushey.
The tenor and mood of Ekushey has changed a great deal over the last 56 years. As a child, my schoolmates and I observed the day rather somberly. The first 10-year anniversary of the killing of protesting students and rickshawalas outside Dhaka Medical College over the national language issue in erstwhile East Pakistan was an exercise of defiance. Being a child we quite did not understand the political ramification of the demand for Bangla as the state language. In the eastern wing of Pakistan most of us spoke East Bengali version of Bangla; therefore, why not recognize the rightful status of our language?
From our elders such as parents, relatives, and school teachers we learned that there were more to the story than just recognizing Bangla as one of the state languages in Pakistan. Besides English, Urdu was given the official status. In Pakistan more than 50% of the citizens spoke Bangla, the rest was divided among various tongues such as Saraiki, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashtun, etc. Urdu was an elite language spoken only by the repatriated folks from United Province (UP, MP, etc.) and educated Punjabis in Lahore, Multan, etc. Still then, M.A. Jinnah had the gall to announce it in a meeting held in Curzon Hall in April 1948 that “Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan.” If I recall the incident correctly, some backbenchers shouted “No, No.” Jinnah seemed surprised at the protestation, there was a pin drop silence in the auditorium and the stooges of Jinnah cast their furtive glance to the protesting students. A quiet revolution was born right then and there. It took nearly 4 years for the movement to hit the main street. The Muslim League politicians of East Pakistan quite did not fathom out the level of support the Bhasha Andolon (Language Movement) had all across the nation.
The gruesome incident of February 21, 1952 spawned many villains such as Nurul Amin, the chief minister of East Bengal (the official name of East Pakistan at the time), Dr. M. Osman Ghani (SM Hall provost siding with the Pakistani Administration), Justice Hamoodur Rahman (an attorney at the time who helped to draft a white paper to show that the protesters outside the Dhaka Medical College gate on February 21, 1952 were miscreants). Justice T.H. Ellis of Dhaka High Court with the help of one budding government Advocate Hamoodur Rahman wrote a commission report justifying the police firing on protesters in the campus on that fateful day. The Ellis commission concluded that police firing was necessary and force used by police was justified on February 21, 1952. Dr. M.O. Ghani (Head of the Department of Soil Science and provost of SM Hall) and Professor I.H. Zuberi (Head of the Department of English) also attested that the protesters were outsiders and not Dhaka University students. These people were all rewarded for their “patriotic” duty to Pakistan. The lowly government Advocate Hamoodur Rahman who terrorized many eye-witnesses went on to become the Chief Justice in Pakistan in early 1970s and Dr. Ghani became the Vice Chancellor of Dhaka University in 1963. Bengal’s history is replete with sycophancies, after all!
The heroes of Language Movement were the college and high school students from allover East Bengal. It is appropriate to mention here that there was hardly any leader of the movement. The protestation was spontaneous and the movement was gathering steam for months. It comes as no surprise that Dhaka University students most definitely gave the lead because they were organizing protest march both inside and outside of the campus. As per Justice Ellis’s report there was a body by the name “All-Party Committee of Action” formed by the students sometimes in late January 1952. If indeed there was an organizing body, its leaders should be commended for a job well done.
In the early days of Ekushey anniversary we used to erect small monuments calling them Shahid Minars, which the police would desecrate and destroy, instantaneously. In our neighborhood in Farmgate the students of Tejgaon Polytechnic high school would stop all the buses plying to Kurmitola, Tongi, and Tangail via Mymensingh Road which later became Airport Road and now known as VIP Road. The tires of the buses, trucks and rickshaws were deflated routinely. As a child we used to look forward most eagerly for Ekushey celebration. To show our sympathy and sorrow to the families of the victims we used to wear black ribbons. AS years passed by, the show of defiance however turned into festivity.
Let me recall now the observance of Bhasha Dibash (Language Day) in 1969. The erstwhile East Pakistan had weathered a turbulent years in 1967-1968. Ayub Khan Administration and its chief stooge Governor Monem Khan, the vilest of Bangalee from Mymensingh town, framed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a bogus case by the name Agartola Shorojontro or Conspiracy case. Sheikh Mujib was cleared from the case along with few dozens collaborators. My memory is still fresh on what happened in the aftermath of Mujib’s release from a jail in Kurmitola cantonment. He received a heroic welcome as people thronged to greet him on the old Airport Road; however, authorities bypassed Farmgate area and took him to Dhanmandi via a small road, which was constructed recently in the Tejgaon Industrial Area.
The talk of an independent homeland for Bangalees was very much in the air. Maulana Bhashani, an elderly politician from British era, became active to promote a movement to establish “Sonar Bangladesh.” Under this backdrop Bangalees greeted the Bhasha Dibas as it was known in those days.
Being a child all throughout 1950s I was never allowed to venture out on February 21 beyond Tejgaon’s Farmgate area. In 1969, I was a young man who would not need permission to visit Azimpur graveyard, which became the epicenter of the protest movement as the citizens of Dhaka observed the Bhasha Dibash with gusto. I saw tens and thousands of students, elderly person, men and women of all ages converging to the graveyard where the martyrs of February 21, 1952 were interned.
A section of the crowd, mostly from Dhaka University, carried political posters depicting Ayub Khan, Monem Khan, Sabur Khan, Foka Chowdhury, and the whole shebang belonging to Muslim League in a derogatory way. The cacophonous nature of the observance near Azimpur graveyard left in me an indelible memory, which will be difficult to erase. We were all barefooted on that day and the return trip to Tejgaon from Azimpur via Shahid Minar was a long and torturous, to put it mildly.
The news of the Bhasha Dibas observance with full enthusiasm was flashed in all newspapers published from Dhaka a day later, which may have shaken the authorities thousand miles away in Rawalpindi. Within days came the news that Ayub Khan was exiting from the catbird seat of power. A military coup d’état led by General Yahia Khan had facilitated Ayub’s departure from politics. Bengalis were happy to see the untimely departure of Governor Monem Khan and his lieutenants belonging to Muslim League. In my view, a whole lot of political developments that took place in 1969, which I mentioned in this write-up, may have paved the way for the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971.
Fast forwarding my life forty years — during which time I lived in America — I will be visiting Dhaka in mid February 2009. What do I expect to see this time around on February 21? For one thing the mood would be celebratory. The Bhasha Dibas observance, which was a very low-keyed local event, had been transformed into an International one and thanks to United Nations for this metamorphosis. In this age of globalization the Language Movement Day is being observed allover the globe. The dark February day of 1952 when four students and an unknown rickshawala was gunned down by police because they protested the unilateral decision taken by MA Jinnah and Liaquat Ali five years ago to make Urdu the only official language of Pakistan. Their supreme sacrifice had changed the course of this nation. The liberation movement of 1971 now could be traced to this isolated incident that took place on the northern gate of Dhaka Medical College some 19 years before the emergence of Bangladesh as a free nation.
I am very much looking forward to visit not only the Shahid Minar but also various parts of Ramna that bear testament to Bangalees protest against the wrong decision taken by Pakistani high command in Karachi in 1947. These leaders were shortsighted and their heart filled with malevolence. They wanted to take away the mother tongue Bangalees, which our people have had from time immemorial.
From a personal perspective, would I be able to walk barefootedly 6-7 miles? In 1969, which seems only few years ago to me, the physical endurance and fitness was hardly an issue then. Time flies by quickly as we age – gracefully or not. On the flip side, the Bangla Bhasha Dibash has a long and enduring life. The day’s significance had changed for the better and more people throughout the world are observing the day with celebratory mood. I never thought would be the case on February 21, 1952 when I was located only two miles from the epicenter when panic gripped the nation. It seems as if Ekushey will have long life! As long as Bangalees live in this mortal world, Ekushey will be observed with full regalia.
A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA
A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA