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Bangla Language Movement : Right to Self Determination

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Professor Anwarul Karim, Ph.D
The Language Movement in the then Pakistan was a landmark in the history of the creation of Bangladesh. It was not only a political movement but also a socio-economic and cultural movement against Pakistan. Although it started as a kind of protest but it soon turned  into a full-fledged political movement in 1948  and culminated in 1952 when a number of Bengali speaking  were killed by Pakistani police in East Pakistan. The movement took the positive approach of secularism on the one hand and common linguistic spirit on the other. .People from all walks of life joined the Language Movement and in the face of all sorts of threat, arrest and torture, never they stayed back to fight against the Pakistani ruling clique to uphold Bangla as one of the official languages of Pakistan.
It should be mentioned here that the students of Dhaka University and the Tamaddun Majlish played a great role in the fight for securing Bangla as one of the state languages in Pakistan. Political parties such as Awami League and left wing parties joined the movement.
The movement was the life and death question for the people of East Pakistan as it involved socio-economic and cultural aspects of the people. The language movement was important because it involved the means of production.  If Urdu was allowed to be the State Language of Pakistan, it would have served the purpose of Urdu speaking only as it happened with the Hindus during the British. The Hindus learnt English and got jobs and other activities. Muslims did not get jobs because they did not learn English.
Urdu also created a kind of caste system among the people-Ashraf and Atraf. Ashrafs by using Urdu formed a class by themselves. They became a sort of aristocrats or elites in the society. In those, the Ex-Nawabs and the members of their family used to speak Urdu instead of Bangla and thereby created a distinction in the society.
Language is not only a medium of exchange of emotions but it has also its importance for economic exchange also. The medium of communication went to the people who were Urdu speaking instead of Bangla and thereby it created a kind of isolation for the people of East Pakistan from the production process.
Urdu as state Language thus threatened the people of East Pakistan of their rights to live and their livelihood security.
Language reflects unity in diversity.   The Language movement in East Pakistan made different religious and ethnic groups united as Bangalee. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and many other groups have diverse faith in religion they belong to, but they speak Bangla as common language and consider Bangla as the Mother Language. They have common culture other than religious performances. These people have a singular identity.  The Two Nation Theory did not work here. Rather the unity of the people centering Bangla as a Mother Language paved the way for freedom and a separate nation as of Bangladesh.
The language movement finally led the emergence of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the savior of people of East Pakistan and an undisputed leader of Bangladesh for centuries.   
Background : Origin of Bangla language
Prakirit was the oldest Bengali language. In ancient times the country 'Bang' or 'Bango' was inhabited by different tribes and races. They were known today as Bangal, Harikel, Summha, Rarh, and Pundra among others. 'Prakrit' was the common language of the people other than the Aryans. These people were black in color and scholars termed them as non-Aryans. Sanskrit was a court language since the country was conquered by Aryans during the first millennium BCE. But, the local people used Prakrit as their mother language in those periods and at a time when the Turkish Muslims conquered the land from the hands of the Sena dynasty.
Bangla did not originate or evolve from the Sanskrit.  According to Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, it was a kind of 'Magdhi Prakrita'.  Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah however argued that the languages spoken by the then people of 'Bango' presently Bangladesh were distinct from Magdhi Prakrit. He named it 'Purbo Magdhi Prakrita' and explained that it had more non-Indo Aryan words. In fact, recent researches suggest that these had substantial Dravidian and Austro-Asiatic words.  Pali was used as a language by Gautama Buddha for preaching Buddhism.
The Buddhist Mystic songs or the Charyapadas had in them a kind of influence of Pali and Opobhrongsho and traces of the then Indian  languages when these were discovered.    
Hostility of the Aryan kings on Bangla language
The spread of Aryan languages in Bengal region started in the third century BC with the conquest of Bengal by the Aryans known as Mauryas and Guptas. In ancient period, the Bengali literature is survived through forty-eight spiritual hymns known as Charyapada composed by the local or non-Aryan  Buddhist monks or 'Siddhacharya". They were known as   Luipa, Bhusukupa, Kahnapa and Shavarpa." These are the mystic songs written by Buddhist seer-poets who were Bangalee by birth and they accepted Buddhism as their religion. Haraprasad Shastri, a Bengali, who hailed from Satkhira district of the present Bangladesh discovered these Charyapadas from the royal museum of Nepal in1907.   Till now, no other old literature of the type has been discovered. The Buddhist mystics who composed these Charyas along with other Buddhist natives during Pala dynasty were subject to torture when the Sena kings conquered the land from the Pala dynasty. The Palas were the Buddhists. The Sena King Lakshna Sen of the then Bengal inflicted punishment to the Bengali non-Aryans for practicing the old Bengali language. Sanskrit was then the State Language of the country and threatened with the words that they would be thrown to the hell known as ' rourava'.   
Patronization of Bangla by the Muslim sultans
Muslim sultans patronized Bengali language immediately after they founded the Sultanate in Bango or Bengal. Bangla was made the official court language of the Muslim Sultanate in Bengal. It became the most spoken vernacular language in the Sultanate. In fact, Bengali language flourished during the Muslim periods. Many Bengali books were also translated into Persian and Arabic languages also. Under government patronization religious scriptures were translated into Bengali. During this period, Bengali language was also greatly influenced by the Persian or Iranian language.
Hostility to Bangla : Arabic and Persian dominance condemned
During the Medieval period there appeared a group of elite Muslims who were taken as Ashraf, preferred to use Persian instead of Bangla in their way of life. These people maintained their social position over others because of their contact with the Sultanate following marriage or otherwise. The common or native people were taken as Atraf or of lower class. There is no caste system in Islam but caste system was developed in India among some Muslims in coordination with Hinduism. Persian or Farsi was a court language during the Turkish and the Mughols.   
In those days there had been dependence of Arabic and Persian languages on the culture and also on Bengali contemporary poetry of the time.
Abdul Hakim, mediaeval poet condemned those who did not like Bangla language and preferred Persian and Arabic instead. Hakim gave a full-throated defense of writing in Bangla, The famous extract, Bangobani from his theological poem Noornama speaks as follows :
Je shobe Bangeyte jonmi hingse Bangobani
Se sobe kahar jonmo nirnoy na jani
--Those who are born in Bengal and yet denounce the language of Bengal,
I cannot ascertain the legitimacy of their birth.
In fact, Hakim was among very few who became a major voice defending Bangla language in the wilderness of 'medieval' Bengal. He further added strongly in his poems:
-Those who are not satisfied with their native language and learning,
Why don't they move to foreign lands?
This brings us back to the battle lines on our language issue: the hostility to Bangla as a language.  Hakim's love for his mother language was highly appreciated and he became a source of inspiration to all Bengali people.
Muslim league Leaders betrayed the cause of East Pakistan
Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman, a Muslim Leaguer, declared at an Urdu Conference held in Hyderabad on 17 May 1947 that the national language of Pakistan would be Urdu as India had decided that Hindi would be the state language of India after independence. This was corroborated by Dr.Ziauddin Ahmed, a former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University, India and was also acknowledged by Nawab Khawaja Sir Salimullah and Khawaja Nazimuddin and many Muslim League leaders on the plea for national integration.  
Educational Summit proposed Urdu as medium of instruction and also State Language
The first Pakistan Educational Summit unilaterally declared Urdu as the medium of instruction in all educational institutions and also proposed Urdu as the State Language of Pakistan.
Bangla speaking people in East Pakistan strongly protested against the decision of making Urdu as the sole State Language and also as the medium of instruction in Pakistan when it was taken as a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi in 1947. The Educational summit   was held in Karachi from 27 Nov to 1 Dec 1947 and it was however attended among others by the Education Minister, Mr. Fazlur Rahman.
 Muhammad Ali Jinnah did not, however, attend the conference; instead, he sent his message to the conference giving an outline of educational policy which should be followed in both East and West Pakistan. The Education Minister in his speech justified the importance of the two nation theory and   the creation of Pakistan.  The summit passed resolution to the use of Urdu language as mandatory in all educational institutions and formation of an Inter University Board. The Government also made Urdu   the official language of Pakistan disregarding the opinion of East Pakistani leaders.    
Protests, rally and processions by Bengali speaking people in East Pakistan
It sparked strong protests throughout East Pakistan by Bengali speaking people irrespective of  caste, color and race.
As soon as it came to public, students in Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Professor Abul Kashem of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bengali Islamic cultural organization. The meeting stipulated Bengali as an official language of the Dominion of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Bengal. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. The central education minister Fazlur Rahman made extensive arrangement  to implement  Urdu  as the only State Language of  Pakistan and a medium of instruction in all educational institutions.. Public outrage spread, and many Bengali students met on the University of Dhaka campus on 8 December 1947 to formally demand that Bengali be made an official language. To promote their cause, Tamuddun Majlish organized processions and rallies in Dhaka.
 Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, a renowned Muslim linguistic researcher and a respected Bengali scholar from Dhaka University, rejected the proposition of Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman.   
Bengal Muslim League Leaders like Abul Hashim, Maulana Akram Khan, Abul Mansur Ahmad and many others strongly protested it. Abul Hashim, the then General Secretary of Bengal Provincial Muslim League had then an election manifesto to make Bangla as the State Language of Pakistan.
Comrade Abdul Haque  opposed the proposal of Choudhury Khaliquzzaman and wrote an  article on 'Bangla Bhasha Bishoyok Prostab', the first article in which Haque argued for Bangla as Pakistan's State Language, and  this  appeared in two installments  in the Calcutta daily of  Ittehad on June 22 and 29, 1947.
After the birth of Pakistan Professor Abul Kashem edited and published a book 'Pakistaner' Rashtrobhasha Bangla Na Urdu' on September '47. It contained articles of Abul Mansur Ahmad, Dr. Kazi Motahar Hussain and Prof. Abul Kashem. Mean while, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan which was then in session in Karachi from February 23, 1948 proposed that the members would have to speak either in Urdu or in English at the Assembly and it was strongly protested by Dhirendra Nath Dutta, a member from East Pakistan. He moved an amended motion to include Bangla as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly. But it was rejected. The first movement on language issue was initiated and mobilized by the Tamuddun Majlish headed by Abul Kashem, the founder of Tamaddun Majlish. He was ably supported by Dewan Mohammad Azraf, Shahed Ali and Abdul Ghafur. Later others, particularly the non-communal and progressive organizations joined this movement which turned into a mass movement comprising Hindu-Muslim and other communities. Shamsul Haque, Muhammad Nurul Haque,  Gaziul Haque, Abdul Matin, Kazi Ghulam Mahbub and  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman organized a mass movement against Pakistan. They held meetings in Dhaka University on December 6, 1947 and agitation started demanding Bangla as the State Language of Pakistan. The first Rastrabhasa Sangram Parisad (State Language Action Committee) was also formed then.
The writer Abul Mansur Ahmad was of the opinion - if Urdu was made the  State Language, the educated society of East Bengal who had no knowledge about Urdu, would be considered  'illiterate' and 'ineligible' for government positions. The first Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee), an organization in favour of Bengali as a State Language was formed towards the end of December 1947. Professor Nurul Huq Bhuiyan of the Tamaddun Majlish convened the committee. Later, Parliament member Shamsul Huq convened a new committee to push for Bengali as a State Language. Assembly member Dhirendranath Datta proposed legislation in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to allow members to speak in Bengali and authorize its use for official purposes. Datta's proposal was supported by legislators Prem Hari Burman, Bhupendra Kumar Datta and Srish Chandra Chattaopadhyaya of East Bengal, as well as the people from the region. Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and the Muslim League denounced the proposal as an attempt to divide the Pakistani people, and the proposal was then nullified.
Mean while, students of the University of Dhaka and Colleges of the city organized a general strike on 11 March 1948 to protest the omission of Bengali language from official use, including coins, stamps and recruitment tests for the navy. The movement restated the demand that Bengali be declared an official language of the Dominion of Pakistan. Political leaders such as Shamsul Huq, Shawkat Ali, M Sirajul Islam, Kazi Ghulam Mahbub, Oli Ahad, Abdul Wahed and others were arrested during the rallies. Rally leader Mohammad Toaha was hospitalised after attempting to snatch a rifle from a police officer. Student leaders, including Abdul Matin and Abdul Malek Ukil took part in the procession.
In the context of civic unrest and agitation against Urdu as the proposed State Language of Pakistan by the people of East Pakistan, the Governor General of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah came to Dhaka on 19 March, 1948. A public meeting   was held at Ramna  Race Course Ground on March 21, 1948. Here Jinnah emphatically further   declared that "Urdu, and only Urdu" embodied the spirit of Muslim nations and would remain as the State Language of Pakistan. Immediately after this declaration students of Dhaka University and many others who were present there stood up and pointing fingers to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, shouted, "No, No. Withdraw your words". Jinnah also delivered a similar speech at Curzon Hall of the University of Dhaka on 24 March, 1948. Here too; he was interrupted by a large group of students of Dhaka University.  Jinnah was greatly annoyed and delivered a speech on Radio reasserting his 'Urdu-only' policy before he left Dhaka.
The Urdu-Bengali controversy was reignited when Jinnah's successor, the then Governor General Khawaja Nazimuddin, staunchly defended the 'Urdu-only' policy in a speech on 27 January 1952.
Bangla in Arabic script
The central Muslim League leaders worked against Bangla and planned to undermine the position of Bangla as a language and also the Bengali people.   Pakistan government took a proposal to write Bangla in Arabic/Urdu script in December, 1947.
Students of Dhaka University and other leaders under Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod (All-Party Central Language Action Committee) vehemently protested it  on 31 January,1948 in a meeting at the Bar Library Hall of the University of Dhaka, chaired by Maulana Bhashani.
February '52 event
The action committee called for an all out protest on 21 February, including strikes and rallies. In an attempt to prevent the demonstration, the government imposed Section 144 in Dhaka, thereby banning any gathering. On the occasion of the Language Movement of 1952, Nurul Amin was the Chief Minister of East Pakistan. East Pakistan Assembly was in session. Muslim League was the ruling party, while Awami league was on the opposition. Maulana Bhashani was the President of Awami league.  The Muslim League government promulgated section 144 of CRPC on February 20, 1952. Efforts were made to go to the Provincial Assembly near Jagannath Hall and Engineering College to protest against Urdu as the State language breaking section 144 of crpc. From morning of 21st February, 1952 people started coming from different parts of the Dhaka city and also from Narayanganj. Hundreds of Police cordoned the Provincial Assembly.       
Processions came from different directions and stationed in front of the Medical College and the adjacent hostels and from where all moved towards the Provincial Assembly near Jagannath Hall. Police lathi charged and tried to disperse the crowd. And none moved away. Then came the gunshots. The police started firing indiscriminately. A good number of processionists were either killed or injured. Later it was known that five persons were killed. They included, Salauddin, Abdul Jabbar and Abul Barkat. They were students of  Dhaka University. The rest two Rafiquddin and Abdus Salam were outsiders.
They were all in the procession and moving towards the Provincial Assembly for demonstration against the government of Nurul Amin . Police arrested several hundreds. A good number of students were injured. More people were reportedly killed but the police reportedly picked them up and none could get the number of these dead 'Shahids' thus killed. The news of killing was spread all over like wildfire. Tens of thousands rushed towards Medical College, but the police did not allow them to enter into the hospital. Meanwhile students of the Medical College built a Shahid Minar working throughout the night.
On the following day hundreds of students including local people thronged at the Shahid Minar. The police again fired upon the angry mob. A good number of people were reportedly killed but the number was unknown because the police with army picked up the dead. The police again demolished the 'Shahid Minar' which was again rebuilt by students.
The Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod, with support from the Awami Muslim League, decided to commemorate 21 February as Shahid Dibosh (Martyrs' Day). On the first anniversary of the protests, people across East Bengal wore black badges in solidarity with the victims. Most offices, banks and educational institutions were closed to observe the occasion. More than 100,000 people assembled at a public meeting held in Armanitola in Dhaka, where community leaders called for the immediate release of Maulana Bhashani and other political prisoners.
Emergence of Jukta Front ( Joint Front) Ministry in East Pakistan in 1954
Mean while a united move took place and leaders of all parties excepting the Muslim League participated in the Provincial election held in East Pakistan and formed the government defeating Muslim League. It was a great victory  for Bengali people in East Pakistan. The provincial government planned to set up Bangla Academy and seriously pressed the central government for acceptance of Bangla as one of the State Languages of Pakistan.
Bangla was recognized as one of the State Languages in 1956
On 7 May 1954, the Constituent Assembly resolved, with the Muslim League's support, to grant official status to Bengali. Bengali was recognized as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956, and Article 214(1) of the Constitution of Pakistan was reworded to "The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali."
It was indeed a big victory for East Pakistan in regard to the making of Bangla as one of the State Languages of Pakistan.
The '52 Language Movement paved the way for Independence of Bangladesh
Bangladesh is perhaps the only country in the world which was born in 1971 as a logical consequence of our Language Movement in 1952. The Language Movement during 1948-1952 became a history in the whole world as a movement for Bengali as a State Language of Pakistan.
The stage was set and the time was ripe psychologically for a glorious rebirth of Bangladesh as a nation during the Great War of Liberation under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And Bangladesh came out victorious after a 9-month War against Pakistan under the leadership of Bangabandhu. And the country is now moving forward towards a country free from want and hunger. Long live Bangladesh.
(Professor Dr. Anwarul Karim is  a Columnist, writer, Visiting Scholar, Divinity School at Harvard University (1985) and Founder of Lalon Academy in Kushtia. He was Treasurer and Vice-Chancellor (In-Charge),Islamic University, Kushtia. E-mail dranwar.karim@gmail.com 

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