1952: The decades before and after

Hemayetuddin Ahmed

Though the language movement of 1952 generated a sense of our national identity and unity that eventually led to our nationhood, tumultuous events of the earlier decades were no less significant. Today, as we look back down the memory lane, it seems amazing how a largely uneducated, under-privileged, conservative community shook off its age-old belief in the status quo and the pre-destined fate, to reinvent itself, and struggled to curve out its place in the world community as an independent, secular, sovereign republic.

Here are a few glimpses of an emotional journey through those troubled decades by one who though born in the riot-torn city of Dhaka way back in 1929 grew up in a typical village where Muslims, Hindus and a sizable number of Christian Adibashi converts lived together in peace and harmony. This is a real life account by one who had the unique opportunity of watching how this miracle happened.

The village was not far from Dhaka, in Upazila Kaliganj, in former Dhaka (North) subdivision, now called Gazipur district. Ours was a middle class family by the standard of those days, the head of the family doing a government job in the city having some landed properties as well as remnant of some ancestral Taluks in Bhawal area. Socially, we, and our blood relations were considered a little different from the common folk because of the spread of education in our larger family bounds.

In the village, I went in 1937 direct to the High School. The school was in a magnificent red brick building with a huge green ground on the south, beyond which flowed the placid waters of the river Sitalakhya. It was called Raja Rajendra Narayan High English School, Kaliganj. Two years later, in 1939, the World War II began in Europe but we were not affected. When I was a student of Class VII in 1941, we started feeling the pangs of the war and the famine after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had brought European war to Asia. A camp was set up behind our school by a battalion of the Indian Army (25 Baluch Regiment). Dhaka city, which I visited occasionally,was transformed into a frontline city with military jeeps and trucks moving to and fro in haste. A huge airfield was built at Kurmitola hardly five or six miles west of our village. Hundreds of fighter planes started flying daily from Kutmitola to the east, towards Chittagong and from the east towards the Kurmitola airfield. A large number of temporary barracks were built around the airfield to accommodate the troops where many people from our area got some job of bearers, cooks and in other menial posts.

The fear of Japanese bogeymen in the midst of a severe famine was looming large. There were great uncertainty and anxiety all around. In the same year, 1941, shortly after our half-yearly examination, we heard the news of Tagore's death in Calcutta. Classes were immediately suspended, and on the following day, we had a memorial meeting where my class fellow and friend, Pranesh Dhar, rendered a beautiful Tagore song, playing the harmonium himself: Maranere Tuhu momo Shayama Shaman. I never knew about this quality of my friend. From that day, I held him in great respect, and often asked him to sing for us.

One of my cousins was settled in Assam working in a tea garden at Naharkatya, near Dibrughar. Like many people he and his family got scared, and returned to his native home leaving his things behind, but he brought along with him a battery-operated radio in a huge wooden box. This was a GEC radio set, perhaps of 1940 model with GEC inscribed on top in italics bold. I used to take great interest in war news through newspapers coming to school, and through radio in the evening that used to be placed in the veranda of our outer house overlooking the tank.

At the news hours in the evenings, all village people gathered there to hear the war news and the radio play thereafter. The Japanese had occupied Burma from where Admiral Mountbatten had to retreat with his vast force. Netaji Shubhash Bose with his Azad Hind Fauj was trying to cross the border at Manipur and enter India. One evening we also heard Netaji addressing the Indians from Germany. In those days, I was also worried for my father's illness, a fatal disease, diagnosed as liver sirosis, from which he died a year later.

Despite the worries and anxiety, my excitement knew no bounds when I heard from a cousin who was a resident student of Salimullah Muslim Hall in Dhaka that he and others of our clan, studying in Dhaka, thought of observing the 'Pakistan day' on March 23 that year at our School. They had already asked an ex-student of our school, Abdul Momen Khan (later Cabinet Secretary and Minister), to come to his alma mater and explain to us the Pakistan scheme. We went to the railway station to receive him and took him to the school in a procession with banners and flags and shouting slogans.

Women students march by Dhaka Medical Collage, 21 February 1952

Momen Khan explained the Lahore resolution of the Muslim League for separate homelands for the Muslims of Bengal and Assam on the east and the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the Frontiers Provinces on the west side of India. He also explained why it was necessary and how would it benefit the Muslims, discriminated against in the Hindu-dominated Indian society. Every now and then, Momen's speech was greeted by slogans for Pakistan. That was the prelude to my involvement in student politics.

In 1945, after the German surrender in Europe, my results of the Matriculation examination were out, and having passed out, I left for Dhaka to get admitted in the Dhaka Intermediate College in the Arts faculty. The college was located at that time in a cluster of private houses in Siddique Bazar area on the south of the old Fulbaria Railway station.

The old college building was turned into an Allied forces hospital looking after the injured personnel of the Assam and Burma front brought in droves by red colored Red-Cross trains passing through our area. While in college, during our off-periods, we used to meet at the Sorabji Refreshment Room of the Railway, and in the evening at the Shaheed Nazir Library at Siddique Bazar Lane. In both places we used to spend long hours discussing and debating the burning social and political issues of the day. In course of these interactions, some of my class fellows took a liking for me, and when the college union election came, they pushed me to seek a position in the students union.

I was elected secretary in charge of the Common Room and the Library. Both the Common Room and the Library were located in a separate large abandoned zamindar house nearby, called Chandra Kutir. I used to go there daily to ensure that the staff and the bearers had done their work properly. It was during this time that I also became a member of the Muslim Students League.

It was Oli Ahad who inducted me as a member of the Students League. From then, I started to visit frequently the Muslim League office at 150 Old Mogultooli Road along with Oli Ahad, A.M.G. Mohiuddin, Bahauddin Choudhury, Shamsul Huq (later minister), Abul Hasnat, Abdul Wadud , Khan Ataur Rahman and others.

I discovered a new thing there. Some wholetime workers stayed in the few rooms on the second floor of the office building to study, research and develop plans to popularize the League and do the field work as well. Notable among them were. Toaha of Noakhali,Tasadduk Ahmad of Sylhet, Tajuddin Ahmed of Kapasia, Dhaka, Shaukat Ali of Kaltabazar of Dhaka city, Shamsuddin Ahmad of Munshiganj and Shamsul Huq of Tangail. The inmates of the house used to fondly call this the Party House which was in fact a branch office of the Bengal Provincial Muslim League from the time Abul Hashim became its General Sectary.

Kamruddin Ahmed, who was the Worker in Charge of the Party House, did not stay there. He lived in a rented house close by, but he was there most of the time to talk to students and give them guidance. It was at his request that I, along with some 25 students of the Dhaka Intermediate College, undertook a visit to Gafargaon, on the eve of the visit there by Laquat Ali Khan to drum up support for the Muslim League, challenged there, by Maulana Shamsul Huda's Emarat Party. There, one day Tajuddin, Toaha and Oli Ahad got a beating from the Maulana's henchmen. This Maulana was not merely a Maulana but a polical maverick like Titu Mir having in his organization, an army of workers with swords, spears and otherlethal weapons, and a press of his own. We were given some bicycles there to go round the area for party work. It is there that I learnt how to ride a bi-cycle.

While at Gafargaon, we stayed in the Gafargaon High School premises on the bank of River Brahmaputra. We used to sleep on the floor, with a sheet spread over a lair of dry hay. There at sleepness nights, often, I remembered my school which, in contrast with this one and others, was the finest, being financed largely by the Bhawal Raj estate and the government, and not depending upon the students' tuition fees like other village schools. The teachers were all outstanding. The head master was an erudite graduate of the Presidency College in Calcutta. The Headmaster used a wooden revolving chair was donated by Bhawal Raja to one of his predecessors. There were very few Muslim teachers though Muslims of good families in our area were relatively advanced in education. I remember two of them distinctly. One was a distant relation, Syed Mohebbur Rahman who taught us Persian. (We had to take one of the three second languages, Arabic, Sanskrit or Persian) He had authored an Education Directorate approved textbook titled, A Handbook of Anglo-Persian Grammar and Translation. His grandson Syed Badrul Ahsan, is now a renowned journalist of the country. The other was M. Badruzzaman, the father of Dr. Rashiduzzaman and Dr. Waheeduzzaman, both now teaching in the universities in America.

Muslims in Bengal always fought for social, cultural and economic freedom and were proud of their tradition and heritage as Muslims in Bengal where they lived in peace and harmony for centuries, with the non-Muslims retaining their own cultural traits. together. A new pattern of life developed here after the Turkish Sultans proclaimed themselves as the independent rulers of East Bengal with Sonargaon as their capital. In 1352 A.D, Iliyas Shah made himself the master of Bengal and took the title of Shamduddin Iliyas Shah--'Shah-e-Bangalia'. This was the first time that the vast deltaic area was called Bangala.

Eminent researcher, writer and broadcaster Ghulam Murshid, in his monumental work, “Bangalee Culture of a Thousand Years”, has said that Banga or Vanga do not appear in the old scriptures. In Oitero Brahman (BC) and in Notes on Panini by Patanjali (200BC), Banga is mentioned but along with Aunga, Pundra, Magadha, Kalinga and Shumma. In all other epics, from time to time, Gaud, Rarh, Varendra, Pundra, Harikel and Samatata have been alternately used, but not Bangala or Banga. The nomenclature of Bengal owes its origin during the Muslim rulers.The Turks treated the non-Muslims with respect and gave them high position. The Palas and the Senas who ruled Bengal from ninth to twelfth century did not use the name Banga or Bangala either.

In retrospect, today, it seems that while the Lahore resolution gave the Muslims of Bengal a sense of identity of their own from the rest of Indians, the Dhaka University students' impetuous and emphatic 'NO' to Jinnah's claim of Urdu alone to be the state language reinforced this further. Younger generation wanted Pakistan, but certainly not at the cost of their language and culture. In fact, the Pakistan movement never took the shape of a religious movement. Religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind or the Majlis-e- Ahrar opposed Pakistan.

After the partition of India, with a truncated Pakistan lying astride in two wings, with no corridor, the people's faith was shaken and their belief in Pakistan of being a viable, vibrant country blew to smithereens. Feuding leaders dithered over constitution -framing for nine years, and when they had reached a consensus in1956, influenced by the Ulemas, it became an Islamic republic; the opposite of what Jinnah wanted which was a secular Pakistan.of citizens irrespective of their religious faith. Bengali, however, was given the status of one of the two state languages of the Islamic republic of Pakistan.. That constitution was in force for two years only and scrapped by Ayub's Martial Law in 1958 that ruled as a dictatorship for over a decade when the final movement for autonomy in the shape of the Six-Point charter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was launched.

Even before Pakistan came into being, leftist elements in the Muslim League feared a mingling of religion and politics might lead to corruption, injustice, exploitation and tyranny, and therefore, formed a new organization called, the Peoples Freedom League of which the Convener was Kamruddin Ahmad, a veteran worker in Dhaka. It came up with a secular and economic program that was drafted with his leftist colleagues of the Dhaka Party Office as early as July 1947. Its manifesto that was issued by Kamruddin Ahmad from his residence at old Dhaka. This manifesto pointed out the freedom of the state was quite different from the freedom of the people. It said its object was to work for the latter.

I was quite close to Kamruddin Ahmad when he was the Worker-Charge at150 Old Mughaltooli Road and had great regards for his analytical mind, leftist views and sincerity of purpose. Fate ordained for me to work again with him at Calcutta in 1957-59 when he was the Pakistan Deputy High Commissioner and I was the Press Attaché selected by the Central Public Service Commission. At Calcutta, he drew me closer to him and used to have long discussions almost everyday at his 3 Suhrawardy Avenue bungalow along with Late Enayet Karim and Late SAMS Kibria, two Third Secretaries (both jailed in1948) and others of his confidence, to which Mrs. Asma Kibria now is the lone surviving witness. We did a lot of things for Bengali language in Calcutta that was acclaimed by the West Bengal press and drew wrath of the Government, but it could do nothing, except transferring Kamruddin on promotion to Burma as an Ambassador.

Towards the end of February 1948, after Dhiren Dutta's amendment in the Constituent Assembly on February 25, 1948 for declaring Bengali as one of the state languageswas rudely discarded by Liaquat Ali on the ground that Pakistan was a Muslim State gained momentum. A Committee of Action was formed that called a province-wide students strike and demonstration on March 11, 1948. A charter of Demands was prepared. The Committee comprised two representatives each from People's Freedom League, Tamaddun Majlis, Salimullah Muslim Hall and the Students League. At that time late Dr. Badrul Alam and I took a whole week the entire poster writing in Samir Bose's room at Dhaka Hall. The response to the strike call was spontaneous. Hundreds of students courted arrest. Ultimately, Nazimuddin panicked and accepted all their demands. He also moved a resolution in the provincial assembly to make Bengali the official language and the medium of instruction. Arrested students were all released. The ban on some periodicals was removed.

Emboldened by the success of the language movement of 1948, the leftist students' resentment against the authorities took another form the next year. They tried to build up alliance with the trade union organizations. By the time I entered the University in August,1947, barely a month after partition, a sense of deprivation and frustration engulfed the Bengalees. At that time I also got involved with the leftist students organizations. First of these alliances was with the University Lower Grade Employees Union which went on strike from March3 to 9, 1949 forcing the University to close down for a while. Then came the police rebellion that was quelled by force. The University authorities apparently accepted the demands, but only to go back later from their pledge, saying it was under duress. They took harsh disciplinary action later against 27 students siding with the employees. The list of the punished students appears in Badruddin Umer's book, titled, Language Movement of East Bengal and Contemporary Politics (Mowla Brothers, Dhaka, First Edition, 1970 (Page 202). Six of them, Toaha, Oli Ahad, Dabirul Islam, Abdul Hamid, Abdul Mannan, Samir Basu and Umapati Mitra were expelled from the university for four years, 15 were ousted from the Halls, and five were fined Rs 15 each. Onefemale student was fined Rs 10. This writer of this article was in the the group of 15 ousted from their Halls.

Meanwhile Pakistan's politics that traditionally revolved round personalities, rather than principles, got messy after Jinnah's death, Liaquat's murder, Ghulam Muhammad's intrigues, and Iskender Mirza's conspiracies before being overpowered by Ayub's Martial Law. Ironically, while all this intrigues and deceit had a free playin the country, the hold of religion on politics, here, was getting weaker. The People's Freedom League with a secular program was followed, next year, by the setting up of the Youth League and the Ganatantri Dal. The Awami Muslim League, founded in 1949, became the Awami League in 1955. The old Muslim League was completely routed in East Pakistan's general elections in 1954. It was in the sixties that the Awami League Leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman raised the legitimate demands of the people in the Six-Point charter that united the Bengalees in one platform and led them to the liberation war five years later to taste the fruits of freedom and liberty for the first time.

Hemayetuddin Ahmed is former Director General, External Publicity, Government of Bangladesh and a political commentator.

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