February 2023

Bonded by Bengali

On the anniversary of Bangladesh’s Feb.1952 Language Movement for Bengali, Syed Badrul Ahsan reflects on how far the language has progressed since then

As the people of Bangladesh prepare to observe the anniversary of the Language Movement of February 1952, questions arise about the impact of the demand for Bengali as a state language in pre-1971 Pakistan, and the progress made in having the language established in all sectors of life in post-1971 Bangladesh.

A significant aspect of the movement – beginning as it did with the shootings of university students by Pakistani police and other security forces in Dhaka on 21 February 1952 – was to be its consecration as the inauguration of the Bengali nationalist movement for self-assertion. The core principle in Bangladesh’s history is that the nationalism which eventually led its people to an armed struggle for freedom in 1971 had its roots in February 1952. In simple terms, therefore, Bengali nationalism, as it came to be, was based on a linguistic approach, in opposition to the politics pursued by Pakistan’s establishment in 1952.

But, of course, the demand for Bengali as the language of the Pakistan state rested on demographic factors. Following the partition of India in August 1947, the state of Pakistan, comprising four provinces in the west and the eastern half of the old Bengal, contained within its territory 56 per cent of its population in East Bengal, the remaining 44 per cent being based in the west. In other words, the Bengalis of Pakistan formed the majority segment of the population.

The problem arose when Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder governor general, decreed, in March 1948, that Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan. Predictably, the Bengalis protested. Earlier, the Bengali member of the Pakistan constituent assembly, Dhirendranath Dutta, demanded on the floor of the house that official documents, at that point written in English and Urdu, include Bengali – for the good reason that the peasants of Bengal were unable to decipher the language in the Urdu script.

Dutta’s motion was shot down by Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, Pakistan’s first prime minister, who castigated Dutta’s act as a conspiracy against the state. Dutta, a Hindu Bengali, was murdered by the Pakistan army in the course of the genocide launched in occupied Bangladesh in March 1971. His remains and those of his young son were never found.

Dhirendranath Dutta
Dhirendranath Dutta was a key figure in raising the demand in the Pakistan assembly for Bengali to be used as a state language

The Language Movement gathered steam once February 1952 came to pass, with the constitution of Pakistan, adopted in 1956, eventually acknowledging Bengali as one of the two state languages of Pakistan (the other being Urdu). But it was a cosmetic change at best in the circumstances prevailing at the time. For the Bengalis of Pakistan, a decisive moment for self-assertion as a distinctive segment of the population, came in 1961 when widespread celebrations of the birth centenary of the poet Rabindranath Tagore got underway in East Pakistan.

A few years later, in February 1966, a clear concept of Bengali nationalism emerged with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the rising leader of the Awami League, who advanced a radical six-point formula envisaging autonomy for the Bengalis. His focus was clearly on an assertion of Bengali nationalism as he sought to inaugurate a new era for his people. The idea of Bangladesh was now materialising.

History took new – and newer – turns, culminating in the emergence of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh through a tortuous guerrilla war against the Pakistan army in mid-December 1971. The surrender of Pakistan’s forces to the India-Bangladesh joint military command marked a decisive triumph for Bengalis. Their nationalism, deepened by their faith in their language, solidified their battlefield victory.

The surrender of Pakistan’s forces to the India-Bangladesh joint military command marked a decisive triumph for Bengalis

So how has the Bengali language gone on to consolidate itself in the post-war situation? A beginning was made through the constitutional provision of Bengali as the language of the state, based naturally on the principle of Bengali nationalism. The new government headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had been incarcerated in Pakistan during the entirety of Bangladesh’s war of liberation, made it a state policy for education to be conducted in the Bengali language.

To be sure, when it came to having official documents prepared in Bengali, impediments came up, largely to do with the absence of such linguistic practice in the lead-up to liberation. But the principle could not be ignored – all government offices, the courts and other institutions of the state would need to carry on doing business in Bengali. Radio Bangladesh, previously Radio Pakistan, adopted the Bengali term ‘Bangladesh Betar’. The government went for a renaming as well as restructuring of banks in the Bengali language.

The result was a dash of poetry, with such banks as Sonali, Pubali, Rupali, Agrani, et cetera, succeeding banks which had operated in the Pakistan era. The national airline was given the Bengali name ‘Bangladesh Biman’. The presidential residence came to be known as Bangabhavan, while the prime minister’s office was renamed Ganobhavan. The Bangladesh currency, known previously as the Pakistani rupee, became the taka.

Abroad, the Bengali diaspora regularly organises national celebrations

In September 1974, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Bengali. It was a first for the Bengali nation before a global community, so much so that it had an emotional impact on a Bengali member of the Indian delegation to the UN, who rushed forward to convey his gratitude to Bangladesh’s leader.

In the last 50-plus years, literary as well as historical works have proliferated in the Bengali language. Bengalis at home have been privy to such literary festivals as the Ekushey book fair, organised every February to commemorate the martyrs of 1952. Abroad, the Bengali diaspora regularly organises national celebrations, included among which are book festivals catering to not only overseas Bengalis but also people from abroad (the latter privy to publications in English).

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in Bengali in Sept. 1974
HISTORIC: In Sept. 1974, Bangabandhu, as Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, addressed the UN General Assembly in Bengali

For its part, the Bangla Academy has been instrumental in promoting intellectual activities in the country on a regular basis. The sheer scale of its publications, dealing as they do with Bangladesh’s literary, cultural and historical heritage, has been impressive.

February 1952 is, therefore, in that broad sense of the meaning, a metaphor for the Bengalis of Bangladesh. On the twenty-first day of the month, a rekindling of the old nationalistic spirit re-energises the Bengalis.

And let the truth not be ignored either – the Ekushey February spirit, as it has come to be known, has also been a bridge to the Bengalis inhabiting the Indian state of West Bengal. As a recent seminar in Kolkata put it all too well, in the formulation ‘Divided Land, Undivided Nation’, the Bengali language brings its adherents together in a commonality of cultural purpose. And then it moves out into the wider global spaces beyond.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a Bangladeshi journalist and political commentator based in London. He is the author of biographies of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country’s first prime minister Tajuddin Ahmad