This is How February 21 Turned into Struggle for Bangladesh’s Independence

By Ehtesham Arshad Nezami
Shaheed Minar monument built in memory of the mother language martyrs, who were killed on 21 February 1952 during the language movement. A memorial to the martyrs was built immediately after the killings, on 23 February 1952. (Photo by Mostaque Ahammed, CC license)
I have the honor of accompanying Sheikh Kamal (Son of Banga Bondhu Shaikh Mujibur Rahman), perhaps in the 21st February procession of 1969 when I was an Intermediate student at Dhaka College. In the same procession, a student named Assad was killed by the police. Later the name of the “Ayub Gate” in Muhammadpur was changed to “Assad Gate.”

February 21 is a significant date for Bangladeshis and Bengalis around the world, no matter where they live. In fact, the language movement itself laid the foundation for the independence of Bangladesh.

As a matter of fact, Urdu was not the language of any province of Pakistan. Jinnah himself could not speak Urdu well.
Within six months of the creation of Pakistan, the people of East Pakistan realized the highhandedness of West Pakistan. On December 6, 1947, at a rally at Dhaka University, it was demanded that the Bengali language be proclaimed Pakistan’s second official language. Then in 1948, when the founder of Pakistan, Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was addressing a students’ gathering at Dhaka University, he was asked about the national language of Pakistan. He replied that “Pakistan’s national language will be Urdu and only Urdu.” That reply resulted in a protest on the spot by the students, including the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, demanding that Bengali also be recognized as Pakistan’s national language.

In 1948, Quaid e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah was addressing a students’ gathering at Dhaka University, and he was asked about the national language of Pakistan. He replied that “Pakistan’s national language will be Urdu and only Urdu.” That reply resulted in a protest on the spot by the students, including the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, demanding that Bengali also be recognized as Pakistan’s national language.
Later in 1952, when the students of Dhaka University took out a procession to demand that Bengali, too, be made the national language of Pakistan, the police opened fire and killed several students. No doubt these were extra-judicial killings.

(File photo, courtesy Ehtesham Arshad Nezami)

Many intellectuals in Pakistan still criticize Jinnah’s decision to make Urdu the only official language of Pakistan. As a matter of fact, Urdu was not the language of any province of Pakistan. Jinnah himself could not speak Urdu well. He thought that Urdu could serve as the lingua-franca among different provinces of Pakistan, but neither he nor his successor Liaquat Ali Khan realized that the Bengalis were too sentimental about their language. After the death of these two leaders, the next governments, too, handled this problem erroneously.
In the same way, the Baluchistan problem is being mishandled right from the first governor general’s time until this day. As a result, a large number of Baluchis are not happy with Pakistan and voices are being raised for secession. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s leaders have always committed political blunders and could not even keep only five provinces united.

Today they are doing with the urban population of Sindh what they did to the people of East Pakistan after independence and to the people of Baluchistan in the coming years. If, right from the beginning, the Bengali language had been recognized as the national language together with Urdu, the situation would not have taken this drastic turn. Since an atmosphere of mistrust was created in 1947, a time came when the Bengalis refused to be a part of Pakistan.
On February 23, 1948, the constitutional assembly of Pakistan was meeting in Karachi. Someone from West Pakistan proposed that the members should address the assembly either in English or in Urdu.

Dhirendranath Datta, a member of the constituent assembly from East Pakistan, demanded that Bengali should also be included as one of the official languages of the constituent assembly. The member pleaded that out of 69 million people of Pakistan, the mother tongue of 44 million was Bengali. Choosing the national language on the basis of the mother tongue was a controversial issue at that time, but the concept of such language being the national language of the country had weight.

Ironically, the main leaders at that time, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan rejected the idea. Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Ameen, who hailed from East Pakistan, also did not support this demand. Not only this, but Khwaja Nazimuddin announced at the Paltan Maidan, Dhaka, that Urdu will be the national language of Pakistan, which enraged the students.
Ironically, the main leaders at that time, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Liaquat Ali Khan rejected the idea. Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Ameen, who hailed from East Pakistan, also did not support this demand. Not only this, but Khwaja Nazimuddin announced at the Paltan Maidan, Dhaka, that Urdu will be the national language of Pakistan, which enraged the students.

Later in 1956, Bengali was recognized as the national language of Pakistan, together with Urdu. The controversy should have ended because the issue was resolved, but Awami League kept this issue alive just to create uncertainty for political gain. The chasm of mistrust had widened and the follies of the West Pakistani leaders had distraught the Bengalis. They thought that living with West Pakistan would be fruitless.
The West Pakistani politicians and rulers were so oblivious and occupied with themselves that they did not read the writing on the wall. When the first elections were held in 1954, the Muslim League was wiped out from East Pakistan. Bengali stalwarts like A. K. Fazlul Haque, Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani, and Ataur Rahman Khan had left Muslim League.

Only Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, together with his disciple Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained. It is said that Mr. Jinnah did not treat Suhrawardy well. In my opinion, the foundation of Bangladesh was laid at the time when, due to the improvidence of the West Pakistani leaders, Muslim League was routed out from East Pakistan.
It is so unfortunate that a government kills its own students for protesting the language issue. The position of the non-Bengalis in East Pakistan became questionable due to the irresponsibility of the West Pakistanis. They spoke Urdu and because of that their position became controversial in the eyes of the Bengalis.

It is unfortunate for Pakistanis that after the creation of Bangladesh the Baluchis, too, are not happy and the urban population of Sindh considers itself unsafe in Pakistan. On top of that the Pakistanis betrayed those loyal people who had migrated to East Pakistan and sacrificed everything not only to create Pakistan but to save it from disintegration. They opted to go to Pakistan after the secession of East Pakistan, but the Pakistanis cruelly rebuffed them.

If Pakistan can accommodate 3 million Afghans and 2 million Bengalis, then why not 250,000 loyal Pakistanis? Even though Pakistan has signed international treaties with India, Bangladesh and the Muslim World League to repatriate the stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh to Pakistan, it has backed out.
If Pakistan can accommodate 3 million Afghans and 2 million Bengalis, then why not 250,000 loyal Pakistanis? Even though Pakistan has signed international treaties with India, Bangladesh and the Muslim World League to repatriate the stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh to Pakistan, it has backed out.
I admire the people and the government of Bangladesh that even after 45 years they have not expelled those stranded people. In many camps, electricity is provided free of charge. Whenever I visit Bangladesh, I meet with Awami League leaders, the Co-Chairman of Jatio Party and former Minister of Commerce Ghulam Quader and other Bengali leaders at their homes. They not only welcome me with love and respect, but they also show great concern and empathy for the camp dwellers.
The Bengali Language Movement is the only movement of its kind in the world that led to the independence of a country. The Bengali students’ struggle, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, started with the language movement and culminated in the independence of the country in only 25 years.
If Pakistan did not learn lessons from its past, it is hard to predict a better and more prosperous future for Pakistan.

The author of this article is a Chicago-based freelance journalist, writer, and political analyst, who earned his SSC and HSC certificate from Dhaka and later did his master’s in political science at Karachi University. He contributes his analysis to several ethnic newspapers in North America and Pakistani media as well as to the Voice of America Radio service.

Posted in English Columns.

 

 

 

 

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