21st February: Look back in ambivalence
 

Hayat Saif

 

Without Ekushey we would not be what we are today. Without Ekushey we would not be what we aspire to be tomorrow. We are a sovereign nation today because of Ekushey. We better resolve today to imbibe in us the essence of Ekushey and orient our cultural and political steps so that we may realize the dream that we had dreamt fifty years ago, and firmly move towards a future free of repression, deprivation and hunger.

It is significant that today is the fiftieth return of an auspicious day in the calendar. Auspicious because it made us aware, though cruelly, of a betrayal incomparable in history --a betrayal from without as well as from within. A complete loss of trust galvanised a people into action that, through a relentless struggle of about two decades or so, culminated in a bloodbath unsurpassed in magnitude which finally ended in a cathersis giving birth to a nation-state. The day is auspicious because, fifty years ago, it marked the beginning of a national ethos that characterised a large population and bound them together into a single entity. Auspicious because the incidents that followed empowered us to draw nourishment from our own soil stirring roots into the spring of our rejuvenescence. Significant because half a century later we may now look back, not necessarily in anger if you like, but in a kind of ambivalence even a kind of quiet contemplation, towards our inner being as a unique people. Significant because half a century has elapsed since the firing, an act of repression, that ironically for those who fired, bestowed martyrdom and set on motion a movement that resulted in our liberation. The firing was ordered by a ruling government that was supposed to be the government of the people which, however, it was for only less than half of them. Significant because that overt action of repression represented a total disregard to the general feeling of the people irrespective of caste or creed. That day, therefore, set into action the innate craving of a people to liberate its subjugated self from an evil power. That witnessed the beginning of struggle for survival culturally, economically and socially. It prompted us to discover our own inner strength that lay deep in our culture symbolizing our entire way of life through our language, our mother tongue -- Bangla.

That day suddenly made us aware of the delusions that we lived through in being enticed into the blunder of a two-nation theory. It was a sense of danger, an ominous feeling of insecurity of having been unwittingly fallen a victim to a domination for a second time by an alien culture which was somehow similar and yet so very different from us. It inevitably created in the minds of the thinking few a sense of loss, a feeling of inexorable bondage. During the nineteen thirties and the forties these very people aspired for freedom were tricked instead into a trap of servitude and blatant exploitation.

The basis of the state called Pakistan was not only weak but also artificial. The rift showed even within a few months of independence from the British rule on the 14th of August 1947. It is recent history, but it is worthwhile to clear our vision. In the first phase of the language movement the seed of freedom was sown in the minds of the educated few. It found impetus due to the animosity and jingoism of some arrogant Urdu-speaking government officials who were working at that point of time in the then East Pakistan. They had a lopsided view of reality, a curtailed vision of life. The anti-people and therefore anti-Bengali attitude as well as their atrocious high-pedestal mentality gave a further momentum to the movement. The bitterness that was created centring round the language issue gave rise to a denunciation of such domineering tendencies of the then West Pakistani jingoists.

That the Pakistanis of this kind, who started to think themselves superior and privileged disregarding the fact that the verdict of the people of the then East Pakistan in the referendum was crucial to the birth of Pakistan, believed that the Bengalees were no factor and their cultural being did not exist is the context of Pakistan and they even started behaving to that effect. This had become clear to the intelligentsia even before the incident of firing on the 21st of February 1952. On the 24th of August 1947 just after the independence from British rule, some political activists and students conceived and organised a convention on the language issue. The convention resolved that Bangla would be the state language of East Pakistan, an official language as well as a medium of instruction. All-Pakistan state language would be decided on dialogue and people's mandate. There were also acts of betrayal by our own people who represented us in the central government as well as the provincial government. On the other hand there were people like Dr Muhammad Shahidullah who was among the first few to put forward the justifications for Bangla to be the state language rather than Urdu.

But whatever were the actual incidents that preceded 21st February 1952 the fact remains that the language issue became central to our struggle for existence, a struggle that was intimately related to our national ethos in expressing our deep concern for protecting our place under the sun. That our premonition was true became clear later on.

It did not take too long for us to be disillusioned with the dream of a homeland induced by a very transient phase of this sub-continent's history. Pakistan was to be an overly theocratic state or at least so she was made out to be by her exponents. The religious factor became a bit of a fraud as soon as the regions comprising it became actually independent. It, therefore, took less than a year for vast numbers to realize that a state could not exist by dogma. It perhaps became clear even to the founder of the state himself. He, however, sounded rather unconvincing when he expressed the view that people of various religious faiths could safely co-exist in his dreamland of Pakistan: 'the Muslims will cease to be Muslims and the Hindus cease to be Hindus', etc. Nobody listened to such wisdom, particularly when personal ideals and group interests came to surface in dealing with larger issues of state. Urdu was declared to be the only state language of the country called Pakistan when the majority spoke, thought and dreamt in Bengali. This declaration was the denial of the rights of a culturally vigorous people to preserve their own traditions and cultural heritage and in fact their existence as a people was threatened. The later history of the movement centring round this issue is well known. It is, however, important to realize that the 21st symbolizes our struggle for survival as a people and it put into clear relief the fact that the language question was basically a question of survival of the Bengali-speaking population in economic, social and cultural terms.

It is impossible to forget the 21st February. It is central to our existence today. It stands for the very best in our tradition and culture. It is the symbol of the most inalienable, the most intimate and the most sacred in our hearts. In this country of six seasons spring comes last and in its ambience of love, colours and now pathos 21st is held high in our esteem. Without Ekushey we would not be what we are today. Without Ekushey we would not be what we aspire to be tomorrow. We are a sovereign nation today because of Ekushey. We better resolve today to imbibe in us the essence of Ekushey and orient our cultural and political steps so that we may realize the dream that we had dreamt fifty years ago, and firmly move towards a future free of repression, deprivation and hunger.

Saif is a poet and essayist.

  

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 21, 2002

 

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