Ékushé: How Language Trumped Politics to Birth a Nation



Blame Bengali as a cause for the war in 1971, and you wouldn’t be off the mark. Ékushé, ‘Twenty-first’, is the day Bangladesh celebrates as one of its spiritual birth, when the country that wanted to speak Bengali as much as be Bengali, was born in the minds and hearts of its people. On the 21st of February 1952, numerous Bengali language activists were attacked in Dhaka on the order of Pakistan’s government, and several, including students, killed. They were protesting the imposition of Urdu on Pakistan’s most-populous province.

And with that were sown the seeds of a future Bangladesh, a seismic reorganization of the subcontinent and a war into which India was drawn. The battle over language turned many Muslim League leaders of East Bengal—East Pakistan—who had just years earlier opted to be with Pakistan on account of religion, to break away from the Muslim League—and eventually birth the Awami League and fire up the career of those like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, considered the founding father of Bangladesh. Language oppression would be followed by major economic and policy biases against Pakistan’s eastern arm. In the late-1960s this would morph into political action. Then, in 1970, Awami League won a majority in Pakistan’s first general elections to the National Assembly. Opposition leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused to accept the results. The Dictator Yahya Khan refused to inaugurate the new assembly. East could not be seen to ‘control’ West. In March 1971, the genocide in the east began. By December 1971, the war was over. Bangladesh was born.

Aptly there is now even a series of Ékushé free Unicode ‘open type’ Bānglā fonts. Bangladesh has dedicated Shōhid Mínār, the country’s iconic martyrs’ monument, to this day. The Ékushé Podōk is the country’s second highest civilian award. Ékushé is celebrated with as much gravitas and nearly as much pomp as 26th March, when Bangladesh celebrates its formal independence day. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 21st February as International Mother Language Day.

This exclusive excerpt from Sudeep Chakravarti’s The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community, shows how and when it all began—a time when language trumped politics:

What was Jinnah thinking?

On 21 March 1948, the man who helped to conjure up Pakistan, now the country’s governor-general carrying the formal sobriquet of Great Leader—Quaid-i-Azam—visited Dhaka. There Muhammad Ali Jinnah addressed a public meeting at the city’s Racecourse Maidan, which set the tone for his speech at the convocation of the University of Dhaka some days later. Jinnah’s erudition would ignite a second firestorm of identity in the subcontinent in less than two years. And, ultimately, contribute quite handsomely to the birth of Bangladesh, when Jinnah’s two nations, Pakistan and India, became three.

Already aware of severe tensions in his brand new country, in particular a growing resentment against the Muslim League and provincial acrimony between West Pakistan and its more populous and nature-blessed cousin in the East, Jinnah spoke about the primacy of Pakistan and the Muslim League, a party which he put above all else—‘a sacred trust in your hands’, as he termed it. He then addressed matters of provincialism.

‘Now I ask you to get rid of this provincialism because as long as you allow this poison to remain in the body politic of Pakistan, believe me, you will never be a strong nation, and you will never be able to achieve what I wish you could achieve. Please do not think that I do not appreciate the position. Very often it becomes a vicious circle. When you speak to a Bengali he says “Yes, you are right, but the Punjabi is so arrogant”; when you speak to the Punjabi or a non-Bengali he says “Yes, but these people do not want us here, they want to get us out.” Now this is a vicious circle, and I do not think anybody can solve this Chinese puzzle.’

But it is worth trying, Jinnah pleaded, as much as a man who didn’t exactly suffer from a common touch could. He spoke of the province relying on good sense and sensibilities, practical considerations of nation-building, ‘statesmanlike’ behaviour that would set apart the more conscientious as ‘rendering the greatest service to Pakistan’.

Then he added fuel to an already lit fire, claiming that a demand to grant Bānglā the status of a national language was an attempt by ‘political saboteurs or their agents’ to ‘create disruption among the Mussulmans’. Just the previous month an opposition legislator from East Bengal, Dhirendranath Datta, had moved an amendment in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly to make Bānglā the second official language, after Urdu. It would, after all, only be fair as it was spoken by 56 per cent of Pakistan. It was rejected; and it greatly angered the League leaders including Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan. I read in chronicles of the time that three days after this incident, on 26 February 1948, students of Dhaka University went on strike in protest.

Muhammad Shahidullah, Dhirendranath Datta and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani
Muhammad Shahidullah, Dhirendranath Datta and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani|Wikimedia Commons

Several years later, Dhaka University would, on the night of 25 March 1971, feel the brunt of an attack by several battalions of Pakistan’s army. Aided by tanks and automatic weapons, soldiers would converge on staff quarters and students’ hostels and, as part of the opening moves of Operation Searchlight, kill several hundred students and staff, both Mussulman and Hindu. Datta, eighty-five at the time and retired from active politics, would be picked up from his residence in Comilla four days later, and ‘disappeared’. Some accounts say he was taken to the cantonment at Mainamati (or Moynamōti) in eastern Bangladesh, where lie the stunning ruins of a great Buddhist culture, and tortured to death. That would be just a few days adrift of the day in March that Jinnah had spoken to East Bengal more than twenty years earlier:

‘Whether Bengali should be the official language of this province is a matter for the elected representatives of the people of this province to decide. I have no doubt that this question should be decided solely in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants of this province at the appropriate time. Let me tell you in [the] clearest language that there is no truth [in rumours] that your normal life is to be touched or disturbed, so far as your Bengali language is concerned. But ultimately it is for you, the people of this province, to decide what should be the language of your province.

‘But let me make it clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead [you] is merely the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries. Therefore so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s language should be Urdu; but, as I have said, it will come in time.’

Wrong move.

The insanity of political cartography in creating countries was one thing. To demand that a massive part of the country, that for several hundred years hadn’t experienced as a language of the people anything other than Bānglā, acknowledge without recourse what was practically a foreign language presaged an attitude that some had feared, colonialism of a sort. It didn’t play well in a region that had only just rid itself of British colonialism, and—ironically, arranged in great part by Muslim League—also shaken off the bogey of neo-colonialism by a Hindu-majority India. Intellectuals—writers, journalists, academicians—were at the forefront of this revolt. The noted Bangladeshi academic Anisuzzaman highlights a tongue-in-cheek and quite angry response to the suggestion by a vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Ziauddin Ahmed, that, just as Hindi was going to be made the state language of India, Urdu be made the state language of Pakistan: ‘Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, doyen of the academics in East Pakistan, countered his arguments and suggested that Bānglā, the language of the majority, should be the state language of Pakistan, but if there was a scope for a second State language, then Urdu should be awarded that position.’

Shahidullah’s words counted. He was more than just a ‘doyen of academics in East Pakistan’, he was a phenomenon. A scholar of Bānglā and Sanskrit, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Sanskrit from Calcutta City College, and a master’s in comparative philology from the University of Calcutta. He followed this up with a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris on dialects of the Charyapad, a mystical Buddhist text with tantric overtone. Shahidullah later taught at the University of Dhaka.

He was also associated with an influential Islamic cultural organization called Tāmāddun Mōjlis, which had begun to campaign for Bānglā in 1947, publishing important pamphlets and holding meetings with leading intellectuals and political personalities. The moving force of the Mōjlis was Mohammad Abul Kashem, a professor of physics at the university who was generally known as Principal Abul Kashem. The Mōjlis was emphatic in its stand—again, a key signal Jinnah and his colleagues deliberately or inadvertently misread—that its approach was vastly different from the leftists and others who were politically motivated. To its mind the almost entirely Bengali East Bengal (soon to be formally known as East Pakistan) simply could not have any language other than Bānglā for instruction, and official and judicial purposes. In its opinion Urdu could be the second language of the East—say, kept for the purpose of those wishing to live and work in West Pakistan—with English accorded third priority; again, a language of specific purpose.

The Mōjlis emerged as a prime mover in formation of the Rāshtrōbhāshā Shongrām Pōrishod, a council for the movement for the national language. Shongrām usually sits better as ‘struggle’ or ‘battle’.

Jinnah died in September 1948, leaving behind a divided country. His colleagues would run headlong into the Great Bānglā Wall, as they remained adamant over the premier status of Urdu for all Pakistan. There was an attempt to introduce the Arabic script for written Bānglā which even Khwaja Nazimuddin, born into the Nawab of Dhaka’s family, who became governor general of Pakistan after Jinnah’s passing, supported alongside the absolute primacy of Urdu. All it did was raise the temperature in the east, and in time fracture the hold of the Muslim League, beginning the transformation of a vast part of Pakistan from the cause of religion, identity and livelihood to the cause of language, identity and livelihood. The Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, a staunch and powerful League supporter, moved away from the party in 1949, formed the Awami Muslim League—it would later morph into Awami League—and placed his heft behind Bānglā.

Nearly four years after Jinnah’s speech in Dhaka, matters snowballed into a crisis. An umbrella all-party committee for Bānglā chaired by Bhashani called for a hortāl, a general strike on 21 February 1952. The plan was to lead a procession to the East Bengal Legislative Assembly to coincide with a session that day, as well as stage protests across the east. The government banned demonstrations and prohibited the assembly of more than four persons—backed by a legal code which Pakistan and India seamlessly inherited from their colonial overlords.

Though the committee voted to accept the prohibitory order, based on political calculations that also factored in a promise of general elections the following year, students had other ideas. They gathered in large numbers at Dhaka University. A group attempted to force its way into the nearby Assembly building.

The police opened fire. Several people were injured. Five would die, including students, a worker, and a nine-year-old boy—some accounts describe him as a teenager. The idea of Bangladesh had its first martyrs.

Dhaka erupted. East Bengal—East Pakistan—erupted. The creation of East Bengal—later East Pakistan—and West Bengal in 1947, somewhat reprising the partition of 1905, was not about language, but largely about carving out territory in which the Bengali Hindu or Bengali Mussulman was in the majority—much like Partition that ultimately tore apart the province of Punjab into dominions of Pakistan and India. But it had now become a matter of language-identity and pride.

Abdul Gaffar Choudhury
Abdul Gaffar Choudhury|Wikimedia Commons

A poem by the young student-poet Abdul Gaffar Choudhury—later a writer and commentator—became an instant classic, carrying as it did the emotion of the time basted by the very Bengali respect for blood sacrifice and revolution. ‘Ékushér gān’, the song of the Twenty-first, was soon set to music by Altaf Mahmud and Abdul Latif and is sung today in Bangladesh and wherever Bangladeshis live on nearly every occasion commemorating the language movement. Indeed, it now identifies an entire genre called Ékushér gān. I prefer the original as a stirring recitation to the deceptively soft melody that so much of classical and modern Bānglā singing is, but that’s a quibble with a work replete with protest. Its opening lines are captivating in any form:

Āmār bhāiyér rokté rāngānō Ékushé Phébruāri
Āmi ki bhūlité pāri?

How can I ever forget
The twenty-first of February painted with the blood of my brother?

Ōrā édéshér noy, the poem urged, they are not of this land—those who barter its future, those who snatch away our food, clothing, our peace. Dārūn krōdhér āguné ābār jālbō Phébruāri. We shall again set February afire with our fierce anger.

Ékushé quickly changed the political landscape of Pakistan, certainly its eastern aspect. In the provincial elections in 1954, the Muslim League was routed. It won 7 seats in the 309-member Assembly. The United Front coalition of five parties won 228, the Awami Muslim League accounting for more than half that number. (The following year it would recast itself as the Awami League—its present name—in a move designed to attract non-Mussulmans to the party.) The Front’s plank was the so-called 21-Point Programme, which covered vast ground, from demanding Bānglā as a state language of Pakistan to a complete overhaul and rejuvenation of the political, administrative and economic system of East Pakistan—indeed, except for defence matters, foreign affairs and the currency, for all practical purposes the East wished to be autonomous.

Excerpted with permission from the book The Bengalis: A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarti (published by Aleph Book Company). You can buy the book here.

This article is part of our special series the 'Making of Modern India' through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India's exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.

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