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Language movement and emergence of Bangladesh

The basic tone and spirit of nation-building is reflected in the practice of language.

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Language Movement (Bhasha Andolon) of 1952 [File Photo]

Language Movement began in 1948 and reached its climax in the killing of 21 February 1952 leading to establishment of Bangladesh in 1971.

Ekushey February or Language Movement Day or Mother Language Movement Day is a glorious day for all the Bengali language people of the world including Bangladesh. We can speak Bengali language only for the martyrs, in exchange for their blood, we can speak in Bengali.

The basic tone and spirit of nation-building is reflected in the practice of language. How a land based on religion gradually turned into a secular country is the historical witness of the language movement of 1952.

Eight language martyrs were killed on February 21, 1952 who were identified as Rafiquddin Ahmad, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Abdus Salam, Shafiqur Rahman, Abdul Awal, Ahualullah and an unidentified boy.

The language movement led to the realisation that the Bengalis constituted a separate nation. Their destiny lay not with Pakistan but elsewhere as an independent country.

21 February is the International Mother Language Day and in Bangladesh, the day is observed as National Martyr’s Day since 1952. The day is marked with the martyrdom of valiant sons of Bangladesh for establishing Bangla as the state language of the then East Pakistan (present Bangladesh).

It can be said that the significance of the language movement is not limited to the right to speak the mother tongue. It extends to the right to speak in all the languages of the world, as well as to express one’s thoughts. Its significance is more extensive in the context of Bangladesh. A historical re-reading of the Bengali language movement (1948-1971) is necessary to understand how language organizes a nation and in turn can be the basis of a country’s independence.

Language is not only speech, nor is speaking only an expression of language. Language expresses the thoughts and consciousness of the human mind. It can be said that the seeds of ethnicity and nationality lie in language. Language is the mirror of society. Therefore, apart from language, social issues (such as ethnicity, nationalism, freedom, non-communalism) are rooted in the language. The proof of this is the language movement of 1952.

Language movement is not only about 21 February 1952. The events before and after 1952 must be understood in interrelated historical realities. The first example of the division of the country based on religion is the betrayal of the Bengali language by the ruling group of West Pakistan. The language movement of 1952 is a prime example of the Bengali nation being inherently non-communal.

It can be said that the significance of the language movement is not limited to the right to speak the mother tongue. It extends to the right to speak in all the languages of the world, as well as to express one’s thoughts. Its significance is more extensive in the context of Bangladesh. A historical re-reading of the Bengali language movement (1948-1971) is necessary to understand how language organizes a nation and in turn can be the basis of a country’s independence.

The language movement started immediately after partition 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Specifically, from the beginning of 1948, which culminated in 1952. Then in 1956 to move for related other demands and as a result, the independence movement of 1966 and the achievement of independence in 1971. That is, the impact of the language movement extended to the sentiments, perceptions, politics and independence of the Bengali public.

Language movement in the immediate aftermath of partition Pakistanis’ views were felt in the adverse reality of the language movement in the immediate aftermath of partition. From there, the idea of a separate state was awakened in the then Bengali society. Bangladesh’s independence was born from there. That is, the language movement was the beginning of the independence of Bangladesh.

In the post-partition situation, the Bengali students realized that the chain of slavery could not be broken if the mother tongue and Bengali language could not be made the state language in the reality of Pakistan’s insular attitude towards East Bengal.

All possibilities for liberation lie in the right to language. Therefore, the Bengali students were active in the language struggle for the ultimate liberation of the nation. The language movement started immediately after partition. Specifically, from the beginning of 1948, which culminated in 1952. Then in 1956 to move for related other demands and its result was independence movement in 1966 and independence in 1971.

That is, the impact of the language movement extended to the sentiments, perceptions, politics and independence of the Bengali public. In short, East Bengal or East Pakistan became Bangladesh within two decades of the language movement. Therefore, its significance must be deeply understood through the forward and backward interrelated events and consequences.

Soon after the religious partition of 1947, Pakistan’s negative attitude towards Bengalis began to emerge. Although divided on the basis of religion, their socio-political and racially discriminatory views were soon exposed. It is reflected in their indifference and deprivation towards the majority of Bengali Muslims in East Bengal. It was unexpected that Pakistan’s view of Pakistan as reckless and ‘unrighteous’ would strike so mercilessly at the Bengali-speaking majority so quickly.

Unfortunately, from the beginning of February 1948, discussions on the state language of Pakistan began. Muslim League leaders were in favor of making Urdu the state language. But the language of the majority of Pakistan (56 percent) is Bengali. Despite the logical demands, the conspiracy to exclude Bengali and make only Urdu the state language began. At one stage of the movement, the first Governor General of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, announced on March 19, 1948 at the Race Course Maidan in Dhaka – ‘Urdu will be the only state language of Pakistan.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many students who were present raised their hands in protest and said – ‘I don’t accept it’. In the convocation meeting of Dhaka University, Jinnah again said, ‘Urdu will be the only state language’. Immediately the students present shouted ‘no, no, no’. Jinnah remained silent for about five minutes.

In this context, Bangabandhu mentioned in his unfinished autobiography – ‘I think this is the first time the students of Bengal protested his words to his face. Thereafter, Jinnah never said Urdu would be the only state language as long as he lived’ (2012, 99). In the meantime, the people of East Bengal began to lose confidence in the Muslim League due to various policies of discrimination including language.

In response to the increasing situation of deprivation and exploitation by Pakistan in East Bengal, a new political party called ‘Awami Muslim League’ was formed in 1949 under the leadership of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, which later became ‘Awami League’ after being inspired by non-sectarian spirit. Non-sectarian ideas began to spread.

The uncivilized Pakistani establishment branded Bengali language as rooted from Sanskrit or Hinduani language, not recognizing 56 percent of the Bengali people out of Pakistan’s total population despite it being our mother tongue – etc. The discriminatory character of communal Pakistanis is clearly revealed everywhere.

In the second half of the 1960s, communal consciousness was awakened in the ideology of non-communal leaders like Maulana Bhasani, Shaheed Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujib and other non-communal leaders. Which resulted in the successful independence of 1971. So, it can be said that the language movement not only gave Bengalis the right to speak in their mother tongue, but also gave them a red-green flag – an independent homeland for the Bengalis – Bangladesh at the bay of blood in 1971.

Anwar A. Khan

Anwar A. Khan is an independent political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs

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