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Bangladesh was the eastern part (as East Bengal and later East Pakistan) of Pakistan prior to its emergence as an independent country in 1971. Pakistan was born in 1947, on the eve of the abolition of British rule, on the basis of religion-based partition or two-nation theory (India-Pakistan). With this political setting, it is imperative to analyze how Bangladesh withdrew its religious identity and became a secular one.
Immediately after the partition (within six months) in 1947, Pakistan's attitude toward the Bengalis began to be exposed. Although divided by religion, their discriminatory views were quickly manifested in actions and policies, and thusly evident in the indifference and deprivation of the majority Bengali Muslims of East Bengal. In this context, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's self-realization is very relevant: "I was still angry at the Muslim League leaders. What they were doing with Pakistan was contrary to the Pakistan I had dreamed of. Things needed to change "(Unfinished Memoirs, 2012, 134). He struggled throughout his life to bring about this change.
Soon after the partition, the Bengalis faced a thorny reality. Although the attitude of Pakistan toward Bengalis was noticeable immediately, the Pakistanis took no time to attack on the spoken language of the majority Bengali-speaking Bengalis, Bangla (Bengali). They (Pakistanis) wanted to take Bangla out of Bengalis' tongue.
Accordingly, they started discussions on the state language of Pakistan in early February 1948. Muslim League leaders favored making Urdu the state language, although Bengali was the language of the majority in Pakistan (about 56%). Despite the reasonable demand, Pakistanis conspired to make Urdu the state language by excluding Bangla. But they had no idea that it was just impossible to keep Bengalis under suppress. The Bengali students of the time, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, expressed their firm determination in the all-out movement to uphold the mother language Bangla. As organized, the East Bengal Chhatra League, and the Tamuddin Majlis demanded for both Bangla and Urdu to be made the state languages. Accordingly, 'Rashtrabhasha Bangla Sangram Parishad' was formed, and March 11, 1948 was declared as 'Bangla Language Day' (Rahaman, Unfinished Memoirs, p. 92).
Eventually, the Bhasha Andalan (language movement) started in 1948, the year after the partition. Dhirendranath Dutt, a member of the East Pakistan Congress, rejected the proposal to address the Pakistan's Constituent Assembly in Karachi on 23 February 1948 in Urdu or English, and demanded that Bangla be made one of the languages of the Constituent Assembly. The proposal was rejected as the then Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan and the Chief Minister of East Pakistan Khwaja Nazimuddin, opposed the Bangla. Thus, the Bengalis' movement against Pakistani policy started demanding their mother language. It was first protested by a popular Hindu leader in the assembly that immediately turned into a movement of all Bangla speaking people, all religious groups, including the majority Bengali Muslims. Likewise, the East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League and Tamaddun Majlis protested and demanded that both Bengali and Urdu be state languages.
By then, it was evident in Pakistan's attitude and behavior that British colonization was just replaced by the postcolonial states-from 'white to brown one' (Razzaq, 2022, p. 1). Meanwhile, people of all walks of life in East Bengal began to lose confidence in the Muslim League due to various discriminatory policies, including language. In response to the growing situation of deprivation and exploitation in East Bengal, a new political party, the 'Awami Muslim League', was formed in 1949 under the leadership of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani, a socialist non-communal leader, which later revived the secular consciousness and turned into the 'Awami League' five years later. The language movement gained momentum under the non-communal consciousness and leadership.
Although Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in jail, he was made joint secretary of Awami Muslim League. It is pertinent to mention here that Sheikh Mujib's political activities in post-colonial Pakistan became significant essentially through his participation in the language movement aimed at making Bangla one of the state languages. Due to his involvement with the movement, he was arrested and imprisoned at the time (two years in a row). Nevertheless, while in prison, he planned and led the movement to succeed. The Pakistani government was forced to release him from prison on 26 February 1952 in the final stage of the movements both in jail and streets.
Although the language movement reached its climax in 1952, the demand was not met. After much discussion and movement, in 1958, the East Bengal Legislative Assembly finally recommended the recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan. As a result, both Bengali and Urdu were adopted as the state language of Pakistan in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on 17 February 1956.
Throughout the movement, the Pakistanis wanted to streamline the language movement into a communal one. Even though Bengali is the mother language of 56 percent of the people of Pakistan, this logical struggle of language was considered by the Pakistani ruling class as a symptom of Hindu-Indian conspiracy to destroy Pakistan, and accused East Pakistanis of treason. The Pakistani government even claimed that some Hindu youths came to Dhaka from Calcutta and started agitation wearing pajamas.
However, ironically though, the language movement provided a bitter perspective to the Bengalis to know Pakistan's negative attitude towards East Bengal, on the one hand. On the other hand, the need for unity of the Bengalis intensified through this movement, and the foundations of non-communal consciousness was strengthened-the ultimate consequence of which was the independence of Bangladesh. Thus, the language movement played an important role in gaining and nurturing the power of the autonomy or independence movement in East Pakistan or present-day Bangladesh, and in bringing about a significant change in the mindset of Bengalis with secular values. Despite being the mother language of the majority, by not recognizing it, the Pakistanis mocked with the Bengali language as Sanskrit or Hinduized, revealing their communal attitudes, through which their ignorance about the unified power of the Bengalis was revealed. While the communal and discriminatory character was manifested among the Pakistanis, secularism developed among the Bengalis of East Bengal.
The non-communal trend in the minds of Bengalis was further matured by the plight of religion-based partition, which is the oldest tradition of this region. In the 1940s, the concept of religion was artificially applied to the British-invented "divide and rule" policy, which inevitably led to ethnic and religious desolation in both countries (India and Pakistan). Realizing this, the secular communal consciousness among the Bengalis was revived with the ideology and struggle of non-communal leaders like Maulana Bhasani, Hossain Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujib-through the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Thus, the language movement provided the Bengalis the right to speak their mother language; ultimately, it gave them an independent red-green flag.
Language is not just about speaking; through language, human emotions are expressed. So, the consensus of like-minded people is created through language. The Bengali language movement has played a unique role in creating harmony among all Bengali speakers in that respect. People of all religions and classes participated in this movement, because Bengali is the mother language of people of all Bengalis irrespective of religion or class.
The language movement was the first manifestation of the non-communal consciousness of the Bengalis after the creation of Pakistan. It was a struggle for the right to speak one's mother language began everywhere in assembly, in jail, and on the streets. Through this movement, Bengalis realized that religion-based partition was not perfect; rather, it created a path of division in different parts of religion, language and region. In this situation, language played a very effective role in reducing and uniting the people of East Bengal. At the same time, Bengali nationalism based on secular values, language and culture developed in opposition to the religion-centered state policies. In that sense, the language movement strengthened the secular foundation of a separate state called Bangladesh. If there had not been a language movement in 1948-1952, it is difficult to say how much non-communal consciousness would have worked in the subsequent movements.
Throughout the history, the Bengalis had to fight to save their language, literature, music, dance and art from destruction. Immediately after the partition, Bengali culture was identified as a "Hindu tendency" which alienated them from the Muslim government of Pakistan. It was in this spirit that the cry for non-communalism, autonomy and democracy arose in the Bengali nation. However, there has always been secularism in the Bengal region, the best testimony of this is Bangabhanga (partition of Bengal). With this reality Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote: 'Gahi Samyere Gaan-where all the barriers have come together; where Hindu-Buddhist-Muslim-Christian are mingling.' In continuation of this, non-communal consciousness among Bengalis of all walks of life developed: 'Hindus of Bengal, Buddhists of Bengal, Christians of Bengal, Muslims of Bengal, we are all Bengalis. Titumir, Isa Khan, Siraj, children of this Bangladesh. Khudiram, Surya Sen, Netaji, children of this Bangladesh' (Gauriprasanna Majumdar). And based on this non-communal consciousness, Bangladesh gained independence through a number of ups and downs.
Therefore, it can be said that in the aftermath of the religion-based partition of 1947, the Bengali language movement was an iron test for the non-communal consciousness of the people of the region. When Hindu-Muslim riots in Pakistan and India escalated as a result of partition, when the world's most extensive emigration or mass migration took place (about 14 million) to save lives, there was a place and possibility for peaceful coexistence of majority Muslims and non-Muslims living in East Bengal. Yes, in the bond of unity of language. With the attitudes of the Pakistanis and the consequences of the partition, the Bengalis were vocal against religion-based partition. With the spirit, language movement ensured the continuity of the traditional secularism in East Bengal. When Pakistan used religion to refer to Bengali as a Hindu language and refused to give it the status of one of its mother languages, the futility of religion-based partition was exposed.
History has shown that wherever there is oppression, inequality and racial or religious hatred, there is unity of resistance, and where success is inevitable. For example, the Urdu-loving and Bengali-fearing attitude of the Pakistanis and the policy of discrimination against the Bengali-speakers made the Bengalis vocal and irresistible in their demand to protect their mother language. In response to the indiscriminate attack of the Pakistani military on the night of March 25, 1971, the unarmed Bengalis turned into human weapons; and through all-out struggle, they finally liberated their mother land by overthrowing the Pakistani forces. Therefore, in all sense, it can be said that the language movement is indicative of secularism and is the main basis of language and culture-based nationalism in non-communal Bengal.
Clearly, the Bengali language movement is a blow in the face of religion-based two-nation theory. The success and significance of this movement lie in building a secular Bangladesh. And its recognition as International Mother Language Day is a sign of respect to all mother languages around the world, and the conviction to create a new non-communal world.
Dr. Ala Uddin, Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chittagong. Email: [email protected]
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