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  History of Language Day

Rash B. Ghosh, Ph.D (Founder IIBB)  
(510) 870-4988 (510) 575-5112  

IIBengalBasin@gmail.com & usak2@yahoo.com  




History of Language Day

 THE BENGALI LANGUAGE Movement stands out as the inauguration of Bangladesh's struggle for self-determination. Our quest for saving Bengali language from the transgression of Punjabi dominated colonial rulers of Pakistan is a landmark in the history of our nation's struggle for freedom and independence. The recent declaration by the UNESCO for making 21st February as the International Mother Language Day is a clear recognition of the inspiring universal message of our language movement. The Bengali Language Movement that took place in multiple phases in 1948 and 1952 was not the making of any single individual. There were more than one leaders who spearheaded our language movement in all of its phases. The purpose of this commentary is to underscore Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta's role in the making of the early phases of our language movement. 

Given the fact that December is a season not only for 'celebration' of Victory Day but also a time for 'mourning' the brutal murders of our martyred intellectuals and leaders, it is an appropriate occasion to pay homage to Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta, the inaugurator of the language movement and a martyr of our liberation war. The recent world recognition of the sacrifice of Bangalees' blood for saving our mother tongue from external cultural aggression by making 21st February as the International Mother Language Day makes a tribute to Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta more relevant. 

The roots of both 1948 and 1952 phases of Bengali Language Movement in East Bengal can be traced back to a debate on language that took place in June-July, 1947 between the proponents and opponents of Urdu as the "only" state language of Pakistan, a nation-state soon to be curved out of British India. In response to Mountbatten's declaration of June 3, 1947, the creation of Pakistan through the partition of India was imminent. The Uttar Pradesh-based Urdu-speaking stalwarts of the Muslim League had begun mobilizing their support and resources in favor of establishing Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan. For example, Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University declared in a Conference that "only Urdu deserves to be the state language of a Muslim nation." 

It was Dr. Mohammad Shahidullah, a renowned and respected Bangalee scholar, who forcefully protested the advocacy of those non-Bengali Urdu lovers. In a thought provoking article titled "Pakistaner Bhasha Shamasya" (The Language Problem in Pakistan), published in Daily Azad, July 29, 1947, Dr. Mohamad Shahidullah, a doyen in the field of linguistics, squarely refuted the irrelevance, uselessness and unfairness of Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed's advocacy for imposing of Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan. He emphasized that "Bengali being the mother tongue of 55% of population of Pakistan deserves to be the State language of the new nation. Once Bengali is being adopted as the State language, we may then deliberate whether or not Urdu can also be afforded the status of one of the State languages of Pakistan." 

Various progressive political forces of East Bengal started mobilizing support for making "Bengali" as one of State languages of Pakistan even before the emergence of the nation. For instance, some of the Bengali Muslim Leaguers formed the Gono Azadi League under the leadership of Kamruddin Ahmed in July, 1947. In its manifesto, Kamruddin Ahmed clearly emphasized: "Bangla will be our State language. All necessary steps need to be taken immediately for making Bangla language suitable for all parts of Pakistan. Bangla shall be the only official language of East Pakistan." 

 

Once Pakistan became a reality on August 14, 1947, the unresolved language controversy continued to surface during the early months of independent Pakistan. The Central Government of Pakistan had already started the unilateral use of "Urdu" in most of the official documents and letterheads of the Central Government even before formally adopting "Urdu" as the "only" State language. The anti-Bengali policies of the Central Government spawned the feeling of distrust and discontent among the student community about the ulterior motives of Pakistani ruling elite. The most enlightened segment of student community of Dhaka University started to oppose various policies of the Central Government even before the year 1947 ended. The Democratic Youth League (DYL), founded in Dhaka on August 5, 1947 by the leftist and progressive students of the then East Bengal, took the leadership role in forging unity among the various pro-Bengali forces to build up resistance against the imposition of Urdu. In spite of the governmental repressive measures against the DYL in the name of eradication of "communism," the dedicated workers of the DYL were in the vanguards in 1948 and 1952. 

Founded as a cultural organization in Dhaka on September 1, 1947, Tamaddun Majlish played a historic role in the defense of our mother tongue. Although the main intent of 'Tamaddun Majlish' was to invigorate Islamic spirit and culture among the citizens of the new nation of Pakistan, the vigorous role played by this organization made it clear to the Bengali-speaking Muslim population of Pakistan that the demand for adopting Bengali as one of the State languages was "not supported only by the anti-state elements and communists of East Bengal." Tamuddun Majlis issued on September 15, 1947, a well-written pamphlet titled "Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla Na Urdu?" ("Pakistan's State Language: Bangla or Urdu?"). The authors of this historic booklet, Kazi Motahar Hossain, Abul Mansur Ahmed and Professor Abul Kasem made a strong case in favor of introducing Bengali as the only language of instruction in offices and courts of East Bengal. They also forcefully articulated their demand for Bengali to be one of the State languages of Pakistan. 

By December 1947, the progressive forces enlisted enough support among the students and intelligentsia in Dhaka and elsewhere in East Bengal for protecting Bengali language. It was on January 4, 1948 when the East Pakistan Students' League (EPSL)-an assortment of pro-Suhrawardy Muslim students of the defunct All Bengal Muslim Students' League (ABMSL), was formed. Soon after its emergence, EPSL played a crucial role in all of the phases of Bengali language movement. Aimed at building resistance against the reactionary and anti-Bengali policies of the Muslim League Government, the leftist youths and the disenchanted dissidents of the ruling Muslim League party organized the "Workers' Camp" in January 1948 at Dhaka. The seven-day long Camp was very critical about various anti-Bengali policies of the ruling Muslim League. The organizers of the Camp were very vocal in articulating the demand for Bengali. 

It is obvious from the preceding that the intent of this paper is not to allude to the idea that Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta was the 'only' person who was trying to defend Bengali language. In fact, there is a plethora of evidence to suggest that the patriotic forces started mobilizing support in favor of "Bengali". Yet, those resistance and protests against the imposition of Urdu remained essentially confined within the pages of newspapers, pamphlets, articles or statements. It was by no means a mass resistance against the ulterior motives and policies of Pakistani ruling elite. However, the demand for making Bengali as one of the State languages started taking more concrete and volatile shape in early months of 1948. Among many others who were in the vanguards of the 1948 phase of the Bengali language movement, Dhirendranath Datta's role was seminal in the process of jumpstarting our resistance against the forces of Urdu. In other words, Dhirendranath Datta's courageous step ignited the initial phase and widened the extent of the Bengali Language Movement in East Bengal. 

It was on February 25, 1948 when Dhirendranath Datta, a member from Comilla, East Bengal, rose to address the President of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, and said in no quivering voice. (Direndranath Datta's speech is being cited in full. Due to limitation of space, only some relevant segments of the responses of Liaquat Ali Khan and Khwaja Nazimuddin are cited. No correction has been made outside parenthesis excepting the word "Bengalee." For maintaining consistency of the word Bengali, I have used "Bengali" to substitute for the word "Bengalee." Dhirendranath Datta's speech and responses to his speech have been gleaned from "Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta Smarakgrantha," Edited by Anisuzzaman, Dhaka: Shaheed Direndranath Datta Smritiraksha Parishad, 1994, pp. 391-404): 

"Mr. President, Sir, I move: That in sub-rule (1) of rule 29, after the word 'English' in line 2, the words 'or Bengalee' be inserted." He continued: "May I move the other motion as that can be considered together because that relates to the same rule?" In response to his query, the President of CAP (M.A. Jinnah) said: "I think you take them separately and not together, you may take item No. 2 on the agenda-your first amendment." Dhirendranath asked for permission to speak in support of his amendment to Rule 29: "May I speak, Sir?" The CAP President, M.A. Jinnah said: "Yes, speak." 

In a firm voice, Dhirendranath Datta started to speak: "Sir, in moving this- the motion that stands in my name--- I can assure the House that I do so not in a spirit of narrow Provincialism, but, Sir, in the spirit that this motion receives the fullest consideration at the hands of members. I know, Sir, that Bengali is a provincial language, but, so far our state is concerned, it [Bengali] is the language of the majority of the people of the state [State of Pakistan]. So although it is a provincial language, but as it is a language of the majority of the people of the state and it stands on a different footing therefore. Out of six crores and ninety lakhs of people of people inhabiting this State, 4 crores and 40 lakhs of people speak the Bengali language. So, Sir, what should be the State language of the State [of Pakistan]? The State language of the State [of Pakistan] should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the State, and for that, Sir, I consider that Bengali language is a lingua franca of our State. It may be contended with a certain amount of force that even in our sister dominion [India] the provincial language have not got the status of a lingua franca because in her sister dominion of India the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly is conducted in Hindustani, Hindi or Urdu or English. It is not conducted in the Bengali language but so far as the Bengali is concerned out of 30 cores of people inhabiting that sister dominion [of India only] two and a half crores speak the Bengali language. Hindustani, Hindi or Urdu has been given an honoured place in the sister dominion [of India] because the majority of the people of the Indian Dominion speak that language. So we are to consider that in our state it is found that the majority of the people of the Indian Dominion speak that language. So we are to consider that in our State it is found that the majority of the people of the State do speak the Bengali language then Bengali should have an honooured place even in the Central Government [of Pakistan]." 

Dhirendranath Datta pointed out: "I know, Sir, I voice the sentiments of the vast millions of our State [of Pakistan]. In the meantime I want to let the House know the feelings of the vastest millions of our State. Even, Sir, in the Eastern Pakistan where the people numbering four crores and forty lakhs speak the Bengali language the common man even if he goes to a Post Office and wants to have a money order form finds that the money order is printed in Urdu language and is not printed in Bengali language or it is printed in English. A poor cultivator, who has got his son, Sir, as a student in the Dacca University and who wants to send money to him, goes to a village Post Office and he asks for a money order form, is printed in Urdu language. He can not send the money order but shall have to rush to a distant town and have this money order form translated for him and then the money order, Sir, that is necessary for his boy can be sent. The poor cultivator, Sir, sells a certain plot of land or a poor cultivator purchases a plot of land and goes to the Stamp vendor and pays him money but cannot say whether he has received the value of the money is Stamps. The value of the Stamp, Sir, is written not in Bengali but is written Urdu and English. But he can't say, Sir, whether he has got the real value of the Stamp. These are the difficulties experienced by the common man of the State. The language of the State should be such which can be understood by the common man of the State. The common man of the State numbering four crores and forty millions [4 crores and forty lakhs] find that the proceedings of the [Constituent] Assembly [of Pakistan] which is their mother of parliaments is being conducted in a language [Urdu], Sir which is unknown to them. Then, Sir, English has got an honoured place, Sir, in Rule 29. I know, Sir, English has got an honoured placed because of the International Character [of English]. But, Sir, if English can have an honoured place in Rule 29 that the proceedings of the [Constituent] Assembly should be conducted in Urdu or English why [then] Bengalee, which spoken by the four crores [and] forty lakhs of people should not have an honoured place, Sir, in Rule 29 of the procedure Rules." 

Dhirendranath Datta continued to emphasize: "So, Sir, I know I am voicing the sentiments of the vast millions of our State and therefore Bengali should not be treated as a Provincial Language. It should be treated as the language of the State. And, therefore, Sir, I suggest that after the word 'English,' the word 'Bengali' be inserted in Rule 29. I do not wish to detain the House but I wish that the Members [of the Constituent Assembly ] present here should give a consideration to the sentiments of the vast millions of our State, Sir, and should accept the amendment [to Rule 29] that has been moved by me."

Those who scathingly attacked Dhirendra Datta's amendment on the House floor were: Liaquat Ali Khan (the Prime Minister of Pakistan), Sardar Abdur Rab Khan Nishtar (the Central Minister for Communication), Ghaznafar Ali Khan (the Central Minister for Refugees, Relief and Rehabilitation), Khwaja Nazimuddin (the Chief Minister of East Bengal), and Alhaj Mohammed Hashim Gazder (a CAP member from Sind). Tamizuddin Khan, a distinguished member from East Bengal and the Deputy President of the CAP also opposed the amendment of Dhirendranath Datta.

Immediately after Dhirendranath Datta's speech, Prem Hari Barma, a member from East Bengal spoke in favor of the amendment. Once he stopped, Liaquat Ali Khan (the Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Pakistan) vociferously and maliciously attacked the intent and content of Dhirendranath's amendment. Liaquat Ali Khan, a Mohajir and the Prime Minister, was elected to the CAP by the then East Bengal Legislative Assembly. Yet, he demonstrated his innate disdain for "Bangalee" race in general and "Bengali" language in particular when he said: "Mr. President, Sir, I listened to the Speech of the Hon'ble Mover [Mr. Dhirendranath Datta from East Bengal] of the amendment with very care and attention. I wish the Hon'ble member had not moved his amendment and tried to create misunderstanding between the different parts of Pakistan. My Honorable friend has waxed eloquence and stated that Bengali should really be the lingua franca of Pakistan. In other words, he does not want Bengali only to be used as a medium of expression in this House, but he has raised indeed a very important question. He [Dhirendranath Datta] should realize that Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this sub-continent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu and, therefore, it is wrong for him [Dhirendranath Datta] now to try and create the situation that as the majority of the people of Pakistan belongs to one part of Pakistan, therefore, the language which is spoken there should become the State language of Pakistan. Pakistan is a Muslim State and it must have its lingua franca, the language of the Muslim nation."

Among other things, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan also said that Pakistan "must have a State language-the language which would be used between the different parts of Pakistan for inter-provincial communications. Then, Sir, it is not only the population you have to take into consideration. There are so many other factors. Urdu can be the only language which can keep the people of East Bengal or Eastern Zone and the people of Western Zone jointed together. It is necessary for a nation to have one language and that language can be Urdu and no other language."

Liaquat Ali Khan, the die-hard exponent of one nation, one state and one language policy also cast aspersion on Dhirendra Datta's patriotism when he said: "The object of this amendment [moved by Mr. Dhirendranath Datta] is to create a rift between the people of Pakistan. The object of this amendment is to take away from the Mussalmans that unifying force that bring them together." [At that point, Dhirendranath Datta protested Liaquat Ali Khan's downright distortions by saying: "Certainly not, that is not the intention."].

After several members spoke on the language issue, Khwaja Nazimuddin claimed on the CAP floor that his support for Urdu as the "only" State language of Pakistan was shared by the views of an overwhelming majority of the people of East Bengal. He said: "Sir, I feel it my duty to let the House know what the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the people of Eastern Pakistan over this question of Bengali language is. I think, there will be no contradiction if I say that as far as inter-communication between the provinces and the Centre is concerned, they [people of East Bengal] feel that Urdu is the only language that can be adopted [as the State language of Pakistan]. But there is a strong feeling that the medium of instruction should be Bengali in educational institutions and as far as the administration of the province is concerned. The language [to be] used in administering the province should also be Bengali. I am glad to find out that the Honorable the Leader of the House [Liaquat Ali Khan] has made it clear that there is no question of ousting Bengali from the province [of East Bengal] and I am sure that the overwhelming majority of the people [of East Bengal] are in favour of having Urdu as the State language for the Pakistan State as a whole."

The untenable arguments and unfair characterization of "Bengali" by Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and his anti-Bengali cohorts were challenged on the floor of the CAP only by the members of Hindu community. Those who wholeheartedly supported Dhirendranath Datta's historic amendment and vehemently defended the rightful place of Bengali on February 25, 1948 were as follows: Prem Hari Barma, Bhupendra Kumar Datta and Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya. Although only a limited number of opposition members were allowed to speak on the CAP floor in support of Bengali language on February 25, 1948, there is evidence to suggest that "all" members of the opposition party in the CAP (all of them were Hindu members) had endorsed Dhirendranath Datta's motion for adopting Bengali as one of the "official" languages of the CAP. Unfortunately, not a single Muslim member of the CAP supported Dhirendranath Datta's rightful amendment. No Bengali Muslim member from East Bengal (not even "one") lent any support for Bengali language on February 25, 1948. There was total absence of any endorsement of Dhirendranath Datta's amendment from the Muslim members for adopting Bengali language in the CAP. It needs to be underscored that only the Hindu members of the CAP voted in favor of Dhirendranath Datta's amendment and spoke in support of Bengali to be one of the State languages of Pakistan. It is indeed ironic that the leaders of the most maligned minority community of our nation had to volunteer to speak for defending the mother tongue of the majority population of Pakistan.

Although Dhirendrannath Datta's amendment to Rule 29 was defeated by the Muslim Leaguers in the CAP, he continued fighting inside both the CAP and EBLA for establishing Bengali language as one of the State languages of Pakistan. His demand for adopting Bengali as one of the official languages of the Central Government fully exposed the hidden anti-Bengali design of the ruling coterie of Pakistan. He remained vocal in the CAP against various anti-Bengali policies of the Central Government. He vehemently opposed the adoption of Arabic script for writing Bengali. Dhirendranath Datta pointed out in the CAP on March 27, 1951: "I represent not only Hindus but also the Musalmans. I can tell you that the ordinary people will not understand the language (i.e. Arabic) that is sought to be introduced in Eastern Bengal. That policy shall have to be changed. I do not know whether the Government is aware of this fact that amongst the large sections of the people and especially among younger generation there is a demand made in a certain conference that the Bengali language should be made one of the State languages of Pakistan" (cited in Rangalal Sen's 'Political Elite in Bangladesh', Dhaka; University Press Limited, 1986, p. 106).

Given the fact that our Bangla Bhasha Andholon (Bengali Language Movement) had profound impact on all of the subsequent political movements in the then East Pakistan, Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta's name cannot be separated from our quest for freedom and independence. Although he was not one of the language martyrs on February 21, 1952, he can be characterized as the inaugurator of the glorious Bengali language movement. Dhirendranath Datta was a martyr of our ultimate war of independence. He was not murdered by the 'retreating' Pakistani occupation forces. His murder was planned ahead of time. He was not a random casualty of cross fire. Nor was he a victim of a mistaken identity. The way he was picked up from his Comilla residence (along with youngest son) on the fateful night of March 28, 1971 and later tortured to death lends credence to the fact that the brute Pakistani ruling elite did not forget Dhirendranath Datta's role in the making of the language movement in 1948. His elimination at the beginning of our liberation war was also designed to cripple the nation intellectually. Above all, the Pakistani military junta wanted to deprive us of Dhirendranath Datta's leadership during our liberation war. At the age of 85, Dhirendranath Datta was brutally murdered along with his son by the marauding Pakistani military junta. The alluvial soil of Bangladesh was drenched with Dhirendranath Datta's blood.

Doubtless, Shaheed Dhirendrannath Datta spoke for all Bangalees of the then East Bengal when he forcefully yet respectfully demanded at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) on February 25, 1948 that Bengali should be afforded the status of one of the Sate languages of Pakistan. However, his amendment was consciously designed to accomplish much broader societal goals. Being a well known Congress leader, Dhirendranath Datta was fully aware that his demand for making Bengali as one of the State languages might be deliberately misconstrued by the ruling coterie of Pakistan. Since he was from the minority community, he also knew that his "patriotism" would be under the scrutiny of Pakistani ruling elite. Yet, Dhirendranath Datta took a courageous stand on the CAP floor on that day. Indeed, he was standing on a high moral ground when he demanded a rightful place for Bengali language.


Dr. M. Waheeduzzaman Manik, the author, is an Associate Professor and Coordinator in the Department of Public Management at Austin Peay State University.


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