WE all know Syed Mujtaba Ali as a satirist, a romantic, a linguist, and a great storyteller, but how many among us know him as a great nationalist or a language movement activist? Surely, his is a name to reckon with in contemporary Bangla literature. His first book, Deshe Bideshe, was adjusted the best book of that year, and he was awarded the prestigious Narasinghe Das prize in 1949. His other thirty books are equally popular, and they speak volumes about his versatility and vast intellectual strength. But Syed Mujtaba Ali a pioneer language activist? Yes, I had heard about it from my elders but I had forgotten.
A family friend reminded me that my uncle Syed Mujtaba Ali was one of the first to call for Bangla as our state language on November 30, 1947, at the Sylhet Muslim Sahitya Sangsad barely three and a half months after the partition of India.
I decided to find out more about that meeting in Sylhet. It seems that the conservative elements had tried to harass and interrupt him, but indomitable Mujtaba had argued valiantly for long three hours. In order to understand this episode in its proper perspective, one has to evaluate the charged atmosphere that had prevailed in Sylhet at that time.
Unlike other districts of East Bengal, Sylhet, which was a part of Assam, could not join Pakistan automatically and had to take part in a referendum. Although the Sylhetis had voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Pakistan, it was unjustly partitioned on a purely technical ground.
Four out of its five sub-divisions – Sylhet Sadar, Maulvi Bazar, Hobiganj, and Sunamganj -- were awarded to Pakistan, while the fifth sub-division -- Karimganj -- was given to India. The partition of Sylhet created traumatic effects, and thousands of families were badly affected. The conservative ruling circle tried to exploit people's aggrieved feelings to create hysteria.
In that charged atmosphere, Mujtaba had the courage to emphasise that our people should be allowed to use their mother language, and that no attempt should be made to impose any alien language in the guise of a state language. He had warned that if Urdu were imposed as the state language on our people then it would provide a handle to the West Pakistanis to exploit us on that account alone.
This globe-trotting man, a PhD from Bonn University, had pointed out that people all over the world found their mother tongue the most convenient means to express themselves. Here, he had drawn an analogy from the Arabian conquests of Iran and Turkey, and underscored that the victor had failed to impose Arabic over Turkish or Persian.
He had also pointed out that the Mughals had been unable to impose Persian on us. Finally, he had cautioned that if Urdu were still imposed, then our people one day would revolt and secede from Pakistan. His prediction would later come true; we fought for and achieved our independence from Pakistan in 1971.
After that meeting, a dejected Mujtaba moved to Calcutta, and published the full text of his speech in the literary journal Choturongo. The story did not end there. What had begun in Sylhet ended a year later in Bogra. Mujtaba was invited to preside over a literary meeting in Bogra on December 12, 1948. At that meeting, he delivered two scholarly speeches, and the students and teachers of the local Azizul Huq College were so impressed with his vast knowledge that they wanted him to take over as the principal.
Mujtaba was most reluctant to leave the literary atmosphere of Calcutta and move to the small district town. However, some teachers and students went to Calcutta and finally persuaded him to join. In early 1949 he joined the college. It was an explosive time and the local students were getting involved in the emerging language movement. From the outset, conservative circles in the town did not view his appointment favourably, and they started conspiring against him.
The college annual magazine was published soon thereafter, and some students wrote articles against the police repression of students who had taken part in the language movement in Dhaka. All the materials for the magazine were selected long before Mujtaba had taken over, but he was accused of "inciting students for writing articles against the Pakistan government," and they even found fault with his highly scholarly Message from the Principal published in the magazine. The magazine was banned and all its copies were confiscated.
Bachelor Mujtaba, in the absence of an accommodation for the principal, was staying with his elder brother Syed Murtaza Ali in Bogra. The conspirators not only harassed Mujtaba but also tried to implicate his brother. Mujtaba fled to avoid arrest, and went back to Calcutta barely seven months after joining the college.
The language movement intensified, and our students and people had to shed blood on February 21, 1952. In the face of the determined movement, the Pakistani authorities had to recognise Bangla as one of the state languages in 1956. Only then was Mujtaba allowed to publish his famous Sylhet speech, first in Al-Islah magazine, and then as a small book entitled Purbo Pakistanar Rastro bhasha (State Language of East Pakistan).
This book was republished by the Ekushey Publications in 2002, and anyone interested in reading the full text of his scholarly speech should go through this book.
I visited Visva Bharati in Shantiniketan about four years ago. I was shown where Mujtaba had lived as a student and then as a professor. As I walked on the pebble stone roads, I recalled how Mujtaba had lived like a rebel all his life.
In 1921, some Hindu class friends of Mujtaba at the Sylhet Government School had stolen flowers from the local British deputy commissioner's garden for Saraswati puja. The offending students were summoned and caned. The non-cooperation and Khelafat movements were going on at that time, and this incident added fuel to the fire. Mujtaba, the first boy in class nine, led the students in boycotting the school.
The British government, in order to defuse the situation, had put all kinds of pressure on guardians, particularly on his father Syed Sikander Ali who was then posted as the district registrar in Sylhet. Mujtaba flatly refused to return to the British government-run school. Earlier, after listening to Tagore's historic speech on Akhanka at the local M.C. College, he had written a letter to Tagore, who asked him to come to Shantiniketon. Mujtaba could not accept the repressive actions of the British colonial masters and went to Shantiniketan.
After graduation from Visva Bharati, he sought and obtained a German government scholarship to study in Berlin and Bonn Universities towards Ph D. He had to learn German, but never wanted to go to a British university.
Although Mujtaba had to live most of his adult life abroad, his soul was always rooted in Bangladesh. Immediately after our independence, he moved to Dhaka and spent his last days with his relatives and family. The fiercely patriot Mujtaba died in Dhaka on February 11, 1974, and was buried here. His writings continue to inspire us, and his indomitable nationalistic spirit will always guide us. On his thirty fifth-death anniversary, I pay my respects to the memory of my choto chacha Mujtaba, the fierce patriot and a pioneer language movement activist.
Syed Muazzem Ali is a former Foreign Secretary.