The voice of freedom

The voice of freedom

Azzam Khan,
It’s February. It’s spring in Bangladesh. The trees are lit up with the fiery hues of shimul, palash and other brilliant blossoms. In the capital city Dhaka, all roads lead to the Ekushey Boi Mela, the annual book fair. The date 21 February stands out prominently on the calendar. This is Shaheed Dibash, the language movement martyrs day. It has now taken on even broader connotations and has been declared by the UN as International Language Day. It is a day of pride for the Bengali nation, a day replete with emotion and a sense of identity. The flaming flowers flare up in the hearts of the Bengalis. To Bengalis, Bangla, or Bengali, is more than a language, it is the voice of freedom.

History of the movement

It was on 21 February 1952 that the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rallied in de
mand of Bangla being included as a state language, rather than Urdu alone. The authorities imposed Section 144 to prevent crowds from gathering and the demonstration to grow in strength. But there was no stopping the protesters. As their slogans grew stronger and louder, the law enforcement opened fire to ‘control’ the crowds. Blood was spilled. Rafiq, Barkat, Jabbar and many more were killed. They laid down their lives for the language.
Going back, on February 23, 1948, the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan went into session at Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan. It was proposed that the members would have to speak either in Urdu or in English at the Assembly. As very few Bengalis spoke Urdu, Dhirendranath Dutta, a member from the National Congress Party, moved an amendment motion to include Bengali as one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly. He noted that out of the 69 million population of Pakistan, 44 million (64%) were from East Pakistan with Bengali as their mother tongue. The central leaders of the Pakistan government, including Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Chief Minister of East Bengal Khwaja Nazimuddin, strongly opposed the motion. Hearing that the motion had been rejected, students, intellectuals and politicians of East Pakistan broke out in protest and agitation.
The Bengali-Urdu controversy was not a creation of the Pakistani state, but a legacy of the pre-partition Muslim League policy that thought Muslim identity had to be strengthened by a unified ‘national’ language in the shape of Urdu which would have suited the traditional Muslim aristocracy.
While the central leaders and the Urdu-speaking intellectuals of Pakistan declared that Urdu would be the state language of Pakistan, the students and intellectuals of East Pakistan demanded that Bengali be made one of the state languages. Agitated East Pakistani students held a meeting on the Dhaka University campus on 6 December 1947, demanding that Bangla be made one of the state languages of Pakistan. The meeting was followed by student processions and more agitation.
The Governor General of Pakistan Muhammed Ali Jinnah came to visit East Pakistan on 19 March, 1948. He addressed two meetings in Dhaka, reiterating that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan. He said “Now I ask you to get rid of this provincialism, because as long as you allow this poison to remain in the body politic of Pakistan, believe me, you will never be a strong nation…” From 1948 onwards the Bengali movement became a symbol for East Pakistan’s struggle for political, economic and cultural equality with West Pakistan, and ultimately leading to secession from Pakistan. The Language Movement spread throughout East Pakistan. The Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed on 11 March 1950 with Abdul Matin as its convener.
By the beginning of 1952, the Language Movement took a serious turn. By this time Jinnah had passed away and Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated. Khwaja Nazimuddin had succeeded Liaquat Ali Khan as Prime Minister of Pakistan. With the political crisis becoming more intense, the economic condition in East Pakistan deteriorated sharply. With the growing sense of deprivation and exploitation in East Pakistan, the Language Movement got fresh impetus.
As preparations for the demonstrations were underway, the government imposed Section 144 in the city of Dhaka, banning all assemblies and demonstrations. The students were determined to violate Section 144 and held a student meeting at 11.00 a.m. on 21 February on the Dhaka University campus, then located close to the Medical College Hospital. When the meeting started, the Vice-Chancellor, along with a few university teachers, came to the spot and requested the students not to violate the ban on assembly. However, the students were adamant. Thousands of students from different schools and colleges of Dhaka assembled on the university campus while armed police waited outside the gate. When the students emerged in groups, shouting slogans, the police resorted to baton charge. The students then started throwing brickbats at the police, who retaliated with tear gas. Unable to control the agitated students, the police fired upon the crowd of students, who were proceeding towards the Assembly Hall. Police action got out of hand. In a battle between the police and students in the campus of the Dacca Medical College hostel about 19 students were killed.
Today a memorial stands tall on the site of the protest, in memory of the martyrs. On 21 February every year people stream in endless lines to the Shaheed Minar to lay wreathes there and pay their respects.

The culture factor

The Bangla language itself has become an intricate part of Bangladesh’s culture. The month-long book fair, Ekushey Boi Mela, held every February, has become a symbol of the Bengali cultural identity. February is the month when the people are reminded that we fought not just for economic independence, but for cultural emancipation too.

“I take pride in the manner in which we uphold the Bangla language in every sphere,” says Raihan Mahmud, a young man holding up a book he just bought at the book fair. It’s a Bangla graphic novel depicting heroic historical figures of Bengal. “This is the way to go in learning about history!” he laughs.
Jharna Rani, just back from Kolkata, draws a contrast between Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal. “We always had the idea that West Bengal was the vanguard of Bengali culture, but I was in for a shock this time. In place of Tagore’s songs, all I heard was loud Hindi music, people were talking in Hindi and even shop signboards were in Hindi. When I was back in Dhaka, if felt good to be a Bengali once again!”
The West Bengal people themselves feel a tinge of envy as they see the erosion of Bangla culture in their own state, while it flourishes in Bangladesh.
The pride in the language spills over to other cultural events like the Bangla new year or Pahela Baishakh, the advent of spring or Pahela Falgun, and so on. The festivities are marked with a fierce pride in the language and traditions.


In few decades after 1952, 21 February was commemorated with mourning and solemnity. As the years rolled on and the day gained international standing, the solemnity was replaced with more pride and indeed, celebration. It was a celebration of the Bengali self. Earlier every 21 February, black and white simple cotton clothes were the unspoken dress code. Now fashion houses have brisk business in February and so do the accessory stores.
While black and white are still prominent, red creeps in too. The letters of the Bangla alphabet appear everywhere. They are on the men’s kurtas, the girls’ saris and kameezes and even painted on the cheeks.

Liberation of languages

Initially after 1952, and all the more so after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, there was a fierce adherence to Bangla at the cost of all other languages, including English. As a result, the standard of English fell. This impacted negatively in all sectors as undeniably English remains an essential international language be it in trade and commerce, education and, in general, communication with the outside world. This blind nationalism began to take its toll.
Gradually realisation dawned and English began to be paid more attention, though not at the cost of Bangla. However, it will take time to make up for those initial years of impulsive neglect of foreign tongues. Now various institutions offer courses not just in English, but in French, German, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and more. Bangladesh is part of the global village.
No matter how hard Bangladesh is bombarded with Bollywood song and dance and imported culture from the West, Bangla is here to stay, Bengali culture is here to stay. Bangla has been indelibly etched with the blood of the martyrs on the psyche of the nation.