I come form a generation who had witnessed Language Movement as a child residing in Dhaka metropolis. At home our elders talked incessantly about the struggle concerning establishing Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan and in a small gathering in early fifties, our teachers in schools also talked about it, and so did our senior high school students in schoolyard and playground in those turbulent years. As a preschooler, I did not understand the complete breadth of the issue, but somehow I could make out that an evil force is hell-bent on not giving our mother tongue its due place on national polity.
Very recently, I was reading in the Net an account of the early history of Ekushey Movement, which we used to call Rashtro-Vasha Andolon (The National Language Movement). One researcher by the name M.A. Barnik wrote an account on the very early days of the movement in which he gave all the credit to Professor Abul Kasem, a physics teacher of Dhaka University who used to be the chief of a literary and cultural organization by the name Tamuddun Majlish (TM). Be mindful that the very name of the organization was not in Bengali but in Perso-Arabic.
Mr. Barnik, a language movement scholar, gave the account of events that took place in Dhaka University campus and nearby from September 1947 through April 1949. Unquestionably, the organization (TM) played a very significant role in the early days of the language movement to give the voice of dissension, however, they were not the only group of people who were at the forefront of this movement to establish Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan.
As soon as India was divided into two nations at midnight of August 14, 1947, the epicenter of politics for Pakistan moved to Karachi. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan had moved to Karachi days before Lord Mountbatten announced the creation of the two new countries from Bombay. In the constituent assembly held in Karachi in early August 1947, Jinnah had strong word against the Muslim clergies about secular nature of the future nation of Pakistan. The country was named Republic of Pakistan and it was decided in the assembly that alongside with English Urdu will be considered as the state language of the new nation. This news was not greeted with enthusiasm in all corners of East Bengal, which was the official name of our new province of Pakistan. However, we had many Fifth Columnists such as Khawaja Nazimuddin, Maulana Akram Khan of Daily Azad, a few Muslim League leaders who did not protest to Jinnah about Bengali not being considered as one of the state languages of Pakistan.
Under this backdrop, Jinnah decided to visit the then province of East Bengal for the very first time in his life. His visit was set for March 19, 1948. As per the narrative of Mr. Barnik, the provincial chief minister, Khawaja Nazimuddin, a scion of Dhaka’s Nawab family, made a deal with the leaders of Tammudun Majlis by virtue of which all the jailed protesters will be released from the prison, and in the forthcoming meeting of the provincial assembly in Dhaka the question of including Bengali as the state language of East Bengal will be discussed. Before August 1947, newspapers from Kolkata used to come to East Bengal regularly. However, they were banned in the aftermath of the independence. The Majlis asked for removing the ban and the chief minister, Nazimuddin, agreed to lift the sanction. Nazimuddin also accepted the view that the language movement was not the work of enemy state (read India), which the government had maintained all along.
The following question arise: why would Nazimuddin make a deal with the leaders of Tamuddun Majlish? The Majlish was not a political party, nor did they organize any street march. In the early days of Pakistan many political leaders from East Bengal had realized that the ruling Muslim League party’s interest lies not in East Bengal but in Sind, Punjab, Baluchistan, and NWFP. These Bengali leaders were upset and were very active to form a separate political party, which they formed in 1949 by calling it the Awami Muslim League. The government of Khawaja Nazimuddin did not show his olive branch to the dissenting politicians of East Bengal but was eager to make a deal with the leaders of Majlish whose sphere of influence was restricted to Dhaka University campus.
The days after making a deal with Tammudun Majlish Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the supreme Leader of Pakistan Muslim League and the most powerful governor general of Pakistan arrived by a super constellation plane to the tiny airport at Tejgaon. Later in the 1950s, I heard from senior students of our neighborhood of Tejgaon how crowded the narrow Mymensingh Road became that connected Tejgaon Airport to the government house near Gulistan cinema hall. Jinnah never knew about the deal making of Nazimuddin with the Majlish and its leadership or else he would not have uttered the phrase “it is Urdu and Urdu that would be the state language of Pakistan.” It was not the leaderships of the Majlish that protested inside the Curzon Hall where Jinnah spoke but spontaneously a few students shouted “No” to Jinnah on that inauspicious day. Those brave students indeed had given the clarion call for independent Bangladesh. I heard from our elders that Jinnah was visibly disturbed hearing a resounding “no” from the rear of Curzon Hall. Later Jinnah spoke one more time at the Ramna Garden in a civic reception but he was smart enough not to mention again the status of Urdu being the only state language of Pakistan.
Next to Khawaja Nazimuddin, Maulana Akram Khan, the editor of Daily Azad and the chief of East Bengal Muslim League played the role of one of the villains in our language movement. Earlier, he was a champion of Urdu as the state language of Pakistan. He also had a vested interested in blocking newspapers coming from Kolkata because he wanted to see his paper ‘Daily Azad’ flourish allover East Bengal. This paper was the mouthpiece of Muslim League and our elders used to loath the news daily. Fortunate for us, Daily Ettefaq and Sangram were established to promote a differing view about the new polity of East Bengal. Incidentally, the Daily Azad tried its best to infuse many Perso-Arabic words through its newspaper but the readership soundly rejected Akram Khan’s villainous plot.
There were people like Maulana Akram Khan who thought our folks could do without Devnagri script, which had its root to ancient India. They propounded this crazy idea that Bengali could be written in Perso-Arabic script just like Urdu. This idea was pooh-poohed by many scholars included among them was Dr. Shahidullah. Many scholars had denounced the language engineering scheme of Karachi-based politicians.
By early 1950s it was axiomatic that East Bengal’s Muslim League had betrayed the aspirations of our people in post independence days. It’s a small wonder that Awami Muslim League was created to voice our concern for inclusion of Bengali as the state language of East Bengal. Mr. Jinnah passed away in September 1948 but the leadership in Karachi turned a deaf ear to our demand for establishing Bengali as the official state language. Khawaja Nazimuddin was the prime minister of Pakistan when the language movement gathered steam during 1951 through 1953. Sadly, he did not support the movement. It took few more years before Bengali was recognized as one of the official state languages of Pakistan. In the year 1956 Pakistan instituted a new constitution, changed its name from “Republic of Pakistan” to “Islamic Republic of Pakistan, included Bengali as one of the official languages, and change the name of “East Bengal’ to East Pakistan.
The supreme sacrifice of our language martyrs on February 21, 1952 had catapulted our language movement to such a height that Pakistan’s ruling politicians in Karachi had no choice but to give into our demand. Even as school students we knew it won’t be long before we could say Bengali is the official language of Pakistan. Since 1956 the bank notes and postal stamps of Pakistan started using Bengali scripts side-by-side with Urdu and English. Therefore, the Muslim League politicians had made a complete fool out themselves who thought they could ignore the genuine demand of the majority population of Pakistan.
In my book there is no one hero for the success of our language movement. Yes, as an intellectual body, the Tammudun Majlish had raised the issue by writing a booklet authored by Professor Abul Kasem but the movement was not conceived by him alone. The students, intellectuals, and tens and thousands of activists throughout East Bengal should get the credit for staging this successful movement. There were however many villains spawned by the Ekushey movement. Khawaja Nazimuddin being a Bengali ignored the demand of his people. M.A. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan was very insensitive to the legitimate demand of Bengalis. Nurul Amin was a stooge of Nazimuddin who was the chief minister of East Bengal and who ordered the firing on that fateful day. Justice Ellis of High Court authored a white paper blaming the protesters as “miscreants” who made the police fire at them. Justice Hamoodur Rahman helped Justice Ellis to write the document in which the students were referred to as “miscreants.” Dr. M. Osman Ghani, the provost of S.M. Hall, gave testimony to Ellis Commission calling the students agitators. Maulana Akram Khan, an immigrant from Kolkata who founded Daily Azad kowtowed Jinnah-Nazimuddin gang while supporting Urdu as the state language of Pakistan. There were many more Muslim League politicians who did not support our language movement during the trying times in early 1950s.
In summary, through this short article I am offering a dissenting view to Mr. Barnik’s findings in which he concluded that Professor Abul Kasem gave leadership to our language movement. In my view, it was a spontaneous movement in which tens and thousands of students from high schools, colleges, and university participated in the showdown against the Muslim League politicians. However, there were many villains; I mentioned only a handful of names who I thought did harm to our movement. History should bear testament to the supreme sacrifice of a few slain protestors. Through their blood an incubator by the name “Bangladesh Independence Movement” was established. It took 19 more years after the fateful day that Bengalis again came out victorious to defeat our archenemy who thought they could take our mother tongue once and for all in the early days of Pakistan. We proved them wrong on February 21, 1952 and again on December 16, 1971.
Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA