Can language alone be the basis of forming a separate nation? In a meeting with the Foreign Relations Committee of US Congress in 1973, the Chairperson Congressman Poage asked the visiting Bangladesh Commerce Minister Kamaruzzaman: What were the chances that newly-born Bangladesh could unite with West Bengal of India, since people in both places had a common language?
Mr Kamaruzzaman was startled, but kept his composure and politely replied that there was no such chance, since Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan was not just on the basis of language.
He would later say that if language were the sole reason for nationhood, many other countries in the world would merge into one nation.
The anecdote illustrates a crucial part of our freedom struggle and our identity as a nation. Was our struggle for liberation driven by our separateness from the rest of Pakistan because of our language, or was it something that goes beyond our language?
Why did our leaders, who had participated in the struggle for independence from the British and a separate homeland for the Muslims of India, have to fight another battle years later for a new identity?
Was it simply because they were denied the place of their mother tongue in their new found home or was it because they realized that they had substituted one hegemony for another?
The answers to these questions lie not in just what happened in then East Pakistan after the partition of India, but well before it.
Language was only a part that played in the later war for independence from Pakistan, albeit it sowed the seed. Dissension and fight over language would prepare the ground, since this dissension started to lay bare the thin veneer of unity of two different parts of the new country on the basis of religion.
Born out of frustration
The idea and fight for a separate state for the Muslims of India came from that section of Muslims who identified themselves as one nation based on religion alone. This idea rejected any other hypothesis that would argue a more comprehensive definition of nationhood based on ethnic, geographic, cultural, and linguistic affinity.
This concept was born out of frustration, economic deprivation, and lament from fall in status from political domination to subjugation. Therefore, the political leaders emerging from this self-serving section saw opportunities in driving a wedge between two dominant religious communities and asking for separate states.
In tandem, these leaders also started to propagate the concept of a common language to forge unity. To them, Urdu would be such a language and, to that end, many would speak in only this language. This became the preferred language of this political class, which would spread among the Muslim elites of Bengal also.
It brought about a sense of pride in our identity as Bengalis
Pakistan came into being fulfilling the wishes of the people who took pride in calling themselves Muslims and gave them a country, albeit divided in two parts by a thousand miles and by different languages.
The leaders could not bridge the geographic difference, but they thought the other differences could be patched by religion and legislation, and if not, then, by force.
The first fissure of artificial integration of the two parts of Pakistan over religious identity would be noticeable in the first Educational Conference held in Karachi in November 1947.
The conference was convened by the then Education Minister of Pakistan, Fazlur Rahman (ironically a Bengali), the ostensible purpose of which was to introduce reforms in education and promote Islamic ideology in education.
But the conference went beyond this and recommended that government stationeries, including money order forms, envelopes, and postcards, be printed only in Urdu and English. Additionally, the non-Bengali speakers declared that Urdu would be the official language of Pakistan.
These decisions were tremendously opposed by participants from East Pakistan (then East Bengal), particularly by members of the Tamaddun Mazlish, a group of East Bengal educationists attending the conference. The Mazlish members were especially incensed by the utterances of the then education minister in favour of Urdu as the national language.
They followed their protests with write ups in the Mazlish weekly, Sainik, and in other East Pakistani newspapers. All of this was sufficient to arouse anti-Urdu sentiments in East Pakistan.
While Bengali youths were organizing efforts to generate support for Bengali, leaders in Pakistan would dub these efforts as left-wing or anti-Pakistani conspiracies.
The language controversy reached a new level in the first constituent assembly meeting in Karachi in February 1948, where members were asked to speak either in Urdu or English. Dhirendra Nath Dutta, a member from East Pakistan, demanded that Bengali be allowed as a language in the assembly noting that Bengali was spoken by 55% of Pakistan’s population (44 million out of 69 million).
All central leaders at that time including Khawaja Nazimuddin, the chief minister of East Bengal, opposed the demand. Later in the Assembly, he would state that “most of the inhabitants of East Bengal think that Urdu should be adopted as the only state language of Pakistan.”
He was no doubt speaking of the non-Bengali speaking population of East Bengal of which he was a part of the language controversy would however come to a peak when Bengali was taken out of the constituent assembly, currency notes, stamps, and from recruitment exams for government employees. Students in East Bengal observed hartals, protesting these decisions.
Beginning of the end
But these protests were only the beginning. The student protests continued and gained momentum during Jinnah’s week-long visit to Dhaka in March 1948 and his famous statement in the Dhaka University convocation that Urdu shall be the only state language of Pakistan.
He reiterated his support for Urdu in his other speech at Curzon Hall later. Jinnah was greeted with large and voluble protests by students in those meetings, but he would not change his stand.
Jinnah’s death in September 1948 and the demise of Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951 would suffuse the agitation over language for a couple of years. But this was revived in greater force after elevation of Khawaja Nazimuddin’s as governor general of Pakistan.
His lifelong association with non-Bengali elites of Bengal and total ignorance of culture and societal aspirations of the Bengalis made him cling to the anti-Bengali politics of Pakistan government and its leaders.
In January 1952, the Basic Principles Committee of the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan recommended that Urdu be adopted as the state language of Pakistan. This led to a wave of anger and resentment throughout East Bengal.
An All Party Language Action Committee was formed to protest this recommendation. The committee called for a general strike all over East Bengal on February 21, 1952. The government of Chief Minister Nurul Amin took a firm position against the strikes, and opposed the protesters with brutal police force.
All is history from that watershed point.
February 21 epitomizes sacrifices for preserving one’s language and its heritage, but also the spirit of freedom and emancipation from all kinds of domination. It brought about a sense of pride in our identity as Bengalis that would later shape our politics and deliver us from a mistaken notion of nationhood based on religion alone.
The language movement gave us back our tongue, but the fight nearly two decades later gave us our sovereignty over ourselves.
A nation is not built on language or religion. It is built on traditions and heritage that people grow with for generations. On this day, we hope that we can preserve that heritage and tradition, and the values we fought for, which are democracy, equality, and social justice for all.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.