Within class and beyond
Beyond symbols and sentiments
Adages and bachans in Bangla
Globalization, language and Ekushey
Ekushey - towards secular democracy
Making Ekushey meaningful to the young
Intimations of Ekushey
Our pride, our sorrow, our joy
The elitist Ekushey
Rediscovering Ekushey February
Bangabandhu and Language Movement
Incipient nationalism and freedom
My first Ekushey
Bangla and Muslim era in India
Dhirendranath Datta: Glimpses of a life
A generation united and untied
The unforgettable
A privilege and a responsibility
Remembering Ekushey
It's a different February
Reflections on 21st February
When memory sweeps across history


Incipient nationalism and freedom

Shahid Alam

21 February 1952 represents the manifestation of the first stage of nationalism of the people of East Bengal, which inevitably and inexorably gathered political momentum that culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign and independent nation. As years went by since that fateful day, concomitant factors of nationalism appended themselves, or were constrained to by myopic economic, political, and administrative policies taken by the central government of Pakistan, to that of the language factor, and the political process took over to bring the force of nationalist aspirations of an entire people to its natural conclusion. Ekushey turned out to be the vocal and vital outlet of a nation's cry to be seen and recognized as such, one that forced a country to look towards itself beyond the euphoria of statehood born out of political and economic necessity.

Generally widely known is the catalyst that led to the events of 21 February. The founder of Pakistan , Mohammad Ali Jinnah, uttered these fateful words in Dhaka on 21 March 1948: “…let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language…. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.” And, thereby, let loose a force which ended the state that he had created literally almost by himself. There is an element of irony in the entire affair from the inception of Pakistan to the birth of Bangladesh , as one element of nationalism overwhelmed another.

Initially, that is, before Pakistan was created, the irony was twofold. As Harun-or-Rashid points out in The Foreshadowing of Bangladesh, “Bengal, of all the Muslim-majority provinces of India, had been the strongest support base of the Muslim League (ML) before 1947” and, based on the results of the 1946 general elections, where ML won 110 out of the total number of 117 Muslim seats , that is 94 % of them (as against 75 out of 84 in the Punjab, or 89.2 %, and 53 out of 64 in U.P., or 82.8 %), that is a self-evident conclusion. Since ML represented the aspirations of nationalist Muslims for a separate homeland in a future Pakistan, it stands to reason for concluding that the support of the Muslims of Bengal played at least a critical role in the realization of Pakistan as it emerged territorially. The irony here is that they, as a nation, were instrumental in bringing about its end from the territorial configuration with which it had emerged on 14 August 1947.

The other irony lies in the character of the person who had created Pakistan . As Samuel P. Huntington, in his celebrated (alternately, reviled) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, in the process of discussing his point that, “Democratization conflicts with Westernization, and democracy is inherently a parochializing not a cosmopolitanizing process. Politicians in non-Western societies do not win elections by demonstrating how Western they are,” observes, “Jinnah was a committed secularist…. The secularist Jinnah became the fervent apostle of Islam as the basis for the Pakistani state.” The irony is compounded when one considers the contents of his speech of 11 August 1947, three days before Pakistan came into being, in Karachi : “You are free, you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan . You may belong to any religion or cast or creed that has nothing to do with the business of state.” Thus, from the perspective of Pakistan 's creator, its basis of nationalism was contrived, one that was necessitated out of a complex and uncompromising relationship between the Indian National Congress and ML, a confrontational situation that was poorly handled, perhaps deliberately so, by the British raj. Interestingly, just the other day, Pakistan amended its political history by declaring that, henceforth, its basis for coming into being was not for having a separate Muslim state, but as a haven for the economically disenfranchised Muslims of British India. This was the original raison d'etre for the creation of Pakistan , and the major reason for which the Muslims of East Bengal had voted so overwhelmingly for its champion, the Muslim League.

In any case the mullahs lost no time in seizing the opportunity presented by a state brought about by a broad religion-based nationalism to embark on their ruinous role: “to mislead the innocent religious masses,” in the words of a former Pakistan army chief, Gul Hassan Khan. That unwholesome trend has unfortunately continued in the independent state of Bangladesh . Religion can be, on the odd occasion, the sole factor of nationalism leading to an independent state. Israel is a case in point. The Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl's pamphlet entitled Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896) provided the impetus to Zionism, and the first Zionist Congress at Basel , Switzerland , which he convened in August 1897, drew up a constitution for the movement. In May 1942, almost half a century after Herzl had spelt out his vision, and the Balfour Declaration and mandate of 29 September 1923 had facilitated the creation of a state based on religion, a Zionist conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City called for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Palestine and for the ultimate establishment of the country as a Jewish commonwealth. By the end of World War II, Zionist political activity in the US had succeeded in winning the American government's support for Zionism. The birth of Israel based on political Zionism backing religion-based nationalism then became a formality.

While religion as a single determining factor of nationalism is not unknown, as has happened in the case of Pakistan and Israel, it is usually a component, sometimes one that is compelling, of a mix of factors making up a nation. And no two nations will necessarily have the exact same ingredients, or the same weightage accompanying them, in determining the basis of nationalism. Thus, in Bangladesh , the Bengali language and culture, and the country's traditional rural character (in spite of growing urbanization) and particular values combine with its nearly homogenous ethnicity and its predominant religion of Islam, yet with a tolerant outlook characterizing its people, to shape its identity as a nation. However, and this contention is arguable, more than any other factor, language has a greater hold on the psyche of the average person. And there we have the fundamental ingredient of a concept that is not easily defined: a feeling of being part of a nation. Nationalism is, in its essence, a felt sense of belonging in the people feeling it.

Nationalism emerged triumphant after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as the crystallization of the belief that the human being could better win his/her freedom through nationhood than through political machinery. In the case of Bangladesh , that crystallization first found expression in the outrage over Jinnah's declaration on the issue of state language. Again, language by itself rarely determines nationalism, although the province of Quebec in Canada offers a modern exception, or as exceptional as one can hope to find in a complex world. Although Canada had attained general economic prosperity throughout most of the twentieth century, there continued to be a conflict between the English and French-speaking communities of the country. A movement for Quebec separatism, based primarily on the French language and its accompanying culture, grew in the second half of the last century, and, in spite of the overall prosperity of the country, has not subsided yet, if it has become a little subdued in the face of some concessions given to the people of that province. Or, maybe it has simply run out of steam. Thus, the French-speaking Quebecois have failed to translate their language and culture-based nationalist aspirations into a breakaway independent and sovereign entity, as have other similar yearnings, but Bangladesh has succeeded, although it took twenty three years from when Jinnah made his imprudent assertion and that, too, after a protracted series of political struggles culminating in a bloody armed struggle.

At this point it would be worth pondering upon what might have prompted Jinnah to make the declaration that spelt the eventual demise of the Pakistan he had created. Certainly, he could not but have been aware that, even if, for argument's sake, it was conceded that the entire population of West Pakistan spoke Urdu, that would still have made Bengali the language spoken by the majority population of the entire country. To cap it all, Jinnah himself hardly spoke a word of Urdu, English essentially being his mother tongue to go with his English habits, dress and mannerisms. And the hard reality was that those Muslims with Urdu as their mother tongue had mostly stayed back, of their own volition or through force of geographical and economic circumstances, in India . One reason for Jinnah's stupefying declaration could be that the Urdu-speaking ML leaders, and they had preponderance in numbers in India , had successfully persuaded him to give their language the nod. Another possibility could be that he really thought that he could unite the country through a common language rather than through a common religion, which was already a fact that needed no particular emphasis. If this assessment is correct, then Jinnah had seriously underestimated the power of language and culture in controlling and driving nationalist emotions. At the very least, he had shown a marked ignorance of the Bengali's persona and mental makeup, especially a pride in, and strong affinity to, his/her language, literature and other cultural aspects.

Jinnah had created a state, but faltered at the outset in nation-building. He died soon after he had made his assertion (could it have been one last-ditch effort to stamp his authority over the nation for posterity from a man who was aware that his days on earth were numbered?), and political pygmies and incompetents stepped in to add the elements of political, administrative and economic exploitation of the Bengalis to add fuel to the fire of growing nationalism. And, as inept politicians made certain that institution-building remained in the doldrums in the critical early postcolonial years, the elite higher civil servants (mostly Indian Civil Service officers, who also happened to be from parts of what constituted West Pakistan and from the Urdu-speaking areas of India ) stepped in to establish their bureaucratic turf even on the political field. And that proved to be a disaster for political institution-building, a situation that was soon to be exploited by the military (again, whose senior officers were from the British Indian army and mostly from the Punjab area). But the adverse ramifications of those two factors form the basis of another story, and will not be taken up here.

Here the thesis is that the events that led to 21 February 1952 formed the bedrock of nationalism that eventually resulted in the creation of Bangladesh . In the event, Bengali was given the status of state language, along with Urdu, but in terms of the very fact that it had been acquired through a bloody struggle, rather than being given as a matter of right, the matter failed to contribute to nation-building. The bitterness and disillusionment ensured that it would not. Had Jinnah not made that fateful announcement, or, better still, proclaimed Bengali as the state language, would that have prevented Pakistan from breaking up?

This is an imponderable that even a twenty-twenty hindsight is providing no clear answer. Maybe the cultural and ethnic divide between the two parts was too great to be papered over across a massive landmass, and eventually, at some point, the cracks would have shown, grown wider, and finally torn asunder. Or, maybe, a morale-boosting decision in favour of the Bengalis at the outset, followed by prudent and effective political and economic policies that did justice to their hopes and needs might have done the trick and helped build a national identity that bridged the differences. But, from what is known, we can safely say that the Ekushey February of fifty five years ago was a mighty harbinger of fate. Bangladesh , of course, was not born on 21 February 1952, but the nationalism that was manifested that day, over the course of time, led to its inevitable emergence as a sovereign independent nation.

Shahid Alam has been a diplomat, has acted in films, writes fiction and teaches media communication.

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