Genesis of Language Movement: Some reminiscences of the glorious past

A Q Khan


On the occasion of 50th anniversary of the Language Day the glorious role played by Dhaka Medical College students in the Language Movement of 1948-1952 is worth recalling. What happened at the medical college has received the least attention so far. It is at the hostels of the DMCH that student leaders planned their strategies for the language movement.

It was at the Dhaka Race Course Maidan (Suhrawardy Udyan) in March 1948 that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Governor General of Pakistan, on his first visit to East Bengal (East Pakistan) addressed a public meeting and in a most outrageous manner announced, "To make it finally clear, Urdu and only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan." Such atrocious proclamation was a shock to many and I came back from the meeting disillusioned and broken heart. It kept me wondering as to how a person of his stature and eminence could make such an utterance in complete disregard of the tenets of democratic polity, apparently with the ulterior motive to silence the voice of the language of the majority, though the struggle and support for creation of Pakistan mostly came from Muslims of Bengal.

The following day in the Dhaka University convocation address at the Curzon Hall, it was reiterated by Mr Jinnah, consequent upon which an instantaneous commotion ensued and students voiced their vehement protest, shouting "No" at the top of their voice.

It was also rejected by the intelligentsia.

As a matter of fact, conspiracy against Bengali language started much earlier than March 1948. It was the most apparent when in September 1947, post cards, envelopes, money order forms, coins and currency notes were printed only in Urdu and English, denying any place for Bengali, the language of the majority in Pakistan. Further, for superior service examination, the circular of Pakistan Public Service Commission, 1947, made provision for Urdu, English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Latin and other languages, but made no provision for Bengal language. However, it is not known whether there had been any change of mind in Jinnah, as no further views were heard from him on the issue, nor he ever made any statement expressing to leave the matter to be decided by the popular wishes of the people.

Eleventh March, 1948 was declared a protest day with a call for hartal (general strike). Hartal was observed throughout the country successfully when all educational institutions went on strike from 12th to 15th March. Then Provincial Assembly was held at Jagannath Hall. I was a student of Dacca Medical College residing at Block 18 of the hostel. The Dhaka Medical College hostel was housed in some 21 bamboo-barracks arranged in two rows.

Preparations were afoot from the morning for the observation of protest day by Medical College students. Loudspeakers were installed facing Jagannath Hall, the venue of the Provincial Assembly. The Provincial Assembly was to meet at 3 pm. Chanting of various slogans including "Rastra Bhasha Bangla Chai" and appeals to the legislators were continuously made through loudspeakers. The main approach to the Assembly was through the main road by the side of the hostel. The D.M.C Hostel became the heart of the movement. The passage in front of the hostel was virtually under the control of students. The police in patrol pickups were moving to and fro to keep the road clear, but to no purpose.

There was an apprehension of possible raid. A dedicated underground worker, Nadera Begum, was in the hostel. It became urgently necessary to move her to a safer place to avoid possible arrest. On a quick glance around, the western side of the hostel was found free from any police coverage and I was requested to move her to my house. The situation was so pressing that there was no time to seek the consent of my parents. Made up in the disguise of a male, wearing salwar and shirt and covering the head with a turban made with a white bed sheet and given the impression of moustache with ink, she was whisked away in a rickshaw on the Baksibazar side of the hostel. I kept myself looking from the back of the rickshaw to make it sure that we were not followed.

Finally I reached my house through various lanes in the old town. My mother enquired about the mustached young man, the peculiar dress and of my return at the unusual time. I explained her the situation quickly and also disclosed the identity of the 'young man'. My mother knew her family and readily took her to her room and got her dress changed, but was not quite willing to allow me to go back to my hostel. I could eventually persuade her to agree returned to my hostel.

Protest demonstration was also held in the heart of the city. Police resorted to baton charge injuring many and arrested several hundred (Shahed Ali, 2000, Matree Bhasha Dibash. Tamaddun Majlish). A huge procession of students and public, breaking the police barricades was approaching at the venue of Provincial Assembly. Members of the Assembly passing by the front of the hostel gate were approached and persuaded to support the cause and move necessary resolution in the Assembly. The venue of the movement by then was moved to the front of Dacca Medical College hostel gate which became the epicenter of the movement. There were spontaneous response with chanting of slogans and the movement gained momentum and in no time reached its climax. Tension rose to its height. Sher-e-Bangla came out of the Assembly hall and addressed the crowd saying Iiv Avgvi Mjv wUc aiQ- Iiv AvgvK cwil` K_v ejZ w`Q bv| (they are suppressing my voice, they are not allowing me to speak in the Assembly)

But in the face of tumultuous movement of students and public hand in hand, Nazimuddin, Chief Minister of East Bengal had no other alternative but to agree to eight-point demand and signed the historic agreement with Rastra Bhasha Sangram Parishad (State Language Struggle Committee) on 15 March, 1948.

From 1948 to 1951, 11th March was observed as State Language Day, and there was no major incidence related to it. However, the election of 1950 was fought against Muslim League by Jukta Front (Joint Front) with 21-point demand. There was a landslide victory for Jukta Front. Student community as a whole worked very hard for the victory. The Chief Minister of East Pakistan, Mr Nurul Ameen was defeated at Nandail constituency at the hand of an M A final year student, Khaleque Newaz.

We had the privilege of inviting leaders of Jukta Front -- Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Haque, Hussain Shaheed Shurawardy and Moulana Bhashani -- to a dinner at our hostel. Honoured guests were received at the northern gate in front of Block No 1. We enquired of Mr Shurawardy about the implementation of 21-point programme. He pointed out his finger to Sher-e-Bangla, as if the responsibility of implementation lied on him alone. Later, when Shurawardy became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, he claimed that, 20 points out of 21 have been achieved (purported to have been achieved, with the appointment of the Prime Minister of Pakistan from East Bengal).

On 20th January 1952, Mr Nazimuddin as Prime Minister of Pakistan denied to make Bengali state language of Pakistan. The utterance of Mr Nazimuddin was in betrayal of his agreement he made with the Sangram Parishad on 15 March 1948. In the meeting of 30th January held at the Bar Library, a committee was formed with Moulana Bhashani as chairman and 21st February was declared as the Language Day. Rest of the story is well known, and need no elaboration.

Giving world recognition to the Bengali's sacrifice for mother tongue, UNESCO proclaimed February 21 as "International Mother Language Day" -- a rare honour bestowed to February 21. It was initiated by a group of expatriates of different lingua franca (with selfless spirit of students) including Bangladeshis residing in Canada. Rafique along with other nine language lovers belonging to Canada-based "Mother Language Lovers of the World" played the pioneering role for the recognition and declaration of February 21 as the International Mother Language Day. The other nine members were: Abdus Salam (mother tongue-Bangla), Albert Vinzon (mother tongueFilipino), Carmen Cristobal (mother tongueFilipino), Jason Morin (mother tongueEnglish), Susan Hodgins (mother tongue-English), Dr Kelvin Chao (mother tongueCantonese), Nazneen Islam (mother tongueKachi), Renata Martens (mother tongueGerman), Karuna Joshi (mother tongueHindi). Their contribution for such a rare honour will be remembered with gratitude by the Bengali speaking people all over the world. It will also be remembered with gratitude the vigorous support given by different countries for declaration of 21st February as the "International Mother Language Day."

Dr Khan, a physician, is a front line language movement activist.


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


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