In 1951, I was in the second year honours class at Dhaka University. We had already formed the Sanskrity Samsad as a forum for the university students for progressive Bengali culture and thoughts and assertion of our Bengali identity. That identity was under attack and attempts were afoot to thrust alien script, language, and traditions in the name of religion upon the people of East Bengal.
At the same time, there were early signs of attempts by Pakistan's central government to deprive East Pakistan economically. Transfers were being made of resources from the East to the West in the form of larger investments in that wing and East Pakistan's valuable foreign exchange earnings, mainly through jute, hide and tea export, were mainly utilized for the development of the West. The disparity in employment of East Pakistanis in central government positions, including those in the influential civil services and the armed forces, was giving rise to an atmosphere of simmering discontent among the Bengalis.
It was in this context that the language movement emerged. Though it started primarily as a demand for declaration of Bengali as one of the two state languages of Pakistan along with Urdu, implicitly it was leading a broader movement for assertion of Bengali culture, identity and economic and political rights. The people of East Bengal wanted their self-respect back and did not wish to be treated as an inferior race. They were the majority of Pakistan's population and had earlier joined their Muslim brothers in the rest of India for a separate Indian Muslim homeland under the Pakistan slogan. But because of the treatment they were receiving from the Pakistan government, the Bengalis became restive. Naturally, we, the youths and the students, were in the vanguard of this movement. The overwhelming imposition of the cultural and economic might of the west had created an intensely wounded feeling in the minds of the students and the intelligentsia of East Bengal.
Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, declared at Curzon Hall in Dhaka in 1948 that Urdu alone would be the state language of Pakistan. This led to a spontaneous cry of 'NO' by the courageous student audience. When Khwaja Nazimuddin (the then East Bengali prime minister of Pakistan) in his speech at the Paltan Maidan in early January 1952 reiterated that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan, we started to strongly protest and agitate. We went on strikes and demonstrations in the streets of Dhaka the same month and in early February. The demand for recognition of Bengali as a state language was gaining strength and rose to a crescendo on February 20-21. Anticipating a students' march to the East Pakistan Assembly session in Jagannath Hall, the Muslim League government prohibited all gatherings and processions in the streets of Dhaka by imposing section 144 of the Cr PC effective February 21.
It meant that the next day, when we were due again to go on strike and demonstrate in the streets, we would be unable to make our genuine and heartfelt demand before our own legislators, the East Pakistan Assembly members. It was undemocratic and too much to tolerate. Our youthful blood began to boil. At their meeting on February 20, the All-Party Committee of Action of our elders suffered from indecision and failed to agree on actions to be taken in the face of the government's ban. My friend Azim and I, office bearers of the Sanskrity Samsad, were on Nawabpur road in the afternoon of February 20, preparing for the strike on the Ekushey. On our own and on behalf of the Sanskrity Samsad , we instantaneously decided to defy the government order and got 300 leaflets printed calling on students to come out into the streets and march on to Jagannnath Hall on February 21. I believe that was the only written call for a militant defence of the mother tongue from any individual or organization on that day. Unfortunately, I did not keep a copy of that historic document. I would be grateful if any one of my contemporaries can provide me with a copy from their old files
The subsequent fateful events were significant for East Bengal and in large measure led to its emergence as an independent country. We went out into the streets shouting slogans for recognition of the Bengali language-- not for any material demand, not for a political cause or change of government. It was a peaceful protest against what one poet wrote, “Ora amar mukher bhasha kaira laite chai.” It was so unique an event, unparalleled in world history that we, then in our late teens, some a little more, innocent men and women, had police lathis and tear gas directly hitting us in the street in front of thousands of spectators within the Dhaka University and Medical College area. With my shirt torn and tearful eyes due to heavy use of tear gas by the police, I had to take shelter in the one of the tin roofed bamboo walled Medical College hostel sheds, where the Shaheed Minar now proudly stands.
About an hour later, my friend Abul Barkat, with whom I had walked to the Arts Building in the morning, was shot in the thigh from behind by a police bullet inside the Medical College Hostel gate. He talked to me about his wound as he was carried by two students to the emergency room of the hospital. I vividly remember Dr. K.S. Alam, the surgeon who immediately operated on him, telling me as he came out of the surgery, “Baba, bagh mara guli die mereche- ki korbo, oke bachano jabe na.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Alam was proved right. Barkat died in the evening of February 21 at about 9 pm, shivering in cold and pain due to heavy loss of blood through the main veins. Tragically, at about 6 pm, he had sent Anwar, a student friend of mine, on a cycle to our house in Purana Paltan for a sweater that he thought would keep him warm. Barkat, a gentle low profile non-political student, earlier in the day had met me while we were addressing the meeting in Amtala in the Arts Building. He was very agitated. In a strong voice uncharacteristic of him, he demanded to know what we, in the student leadership, were going to do about the unjust government, which was trying to stifle our legitimate democratic movement by force.
By giving his life for the mother tongue, Barkat and a few others created history, as never before had anyone died for such a cause. Quite fittingly, the UNESCO, on November 17, 1999, proclaimed Ekushey February as the International Mother Language Day. The Bengali language martyrs did not die in vain.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
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