A fearless agitator who always stood up for his convictions
It is significant that I am writing these few lines on the anniversary of the birth (November 2, 1886) of a fearless “Quit India” agitator, a devoted son of Bengal, Dhirendranath Dutta. He was an outstanding individual, being a combination of a lawyer, a social worker, and a political leader.
However, he is remembered most for his efforts to have the Bangla language being accepted as one of the official languages of Pakistan.
At the time of Partition in 1947, he did not choose to move to India but declared that he would remain in the place of his birth, his ancestral land and home in Comilla in East Pakistan.
In 1937, Dhirendranath Dutta had been elected as a member of the Bengal Legislative Council and was subsequently involved in a number of “Quit India” activities for which the British authorities arrested him on seven occasions. In 1943, Dutta was deeply involved in relief activities related to the Bengal Famine.
Later, as a member of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, in August 1948, Dutta unsuccessfully demanded the use of Bangla along with English and Urdu for conducting proceedings. The Bangla Language Movement, however, continued, and the bloody events of February 21, 1952, ensured that the Bangla language could never be erased.
Dutta continued to be a thorn in the side of the Pakistan establishment and opposed the declaration of Governor’s Rule in East Pakistan in 1954.
Even so, he was made minister of health and social welfare of East Pakistan from September 1956 to October 1958, an appointment ended by the imposition of martial law.
He was later, in 1960, served with an “elective bodied disqualification order” and at the time of the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, he was in house arrest after which he did not participate in politics again, though he kept close contact with Bengali political leaders.
After Operation Searchlight was launched by the Pakistan army on March 25, 1971, it did not take long for Dhirendranath Dutta and his son, Dilip Kumar Dutta, to be arrested on March 29 at his home in Comilla, and taken to the Moynamoti Cantonment. They were never seen again.
In May 1971, when I was working for the Bangladesh refugees with Oxfam, and based in Kolkata, I met the journalist Peter Hazlehurst who told me that he had heard that immediately after March 25, 1971, the Pakistan authorities had been systematically executing Awami League members of the provincial assembly and other prominent political leaders.
In the April 2, 1971 issue of the London newspaper, The Times, the following had appeared written by Peter Hazlehurst: “Reports from refugees and students fleeing from the hinterland of East Bengal indicate that indiscriminate killings by the Pakistani Army have not been confined to Dacca.
Politicians, students, and ordinary citizens are said to have been shot down in towns throughout the province. Thousands of east Bengalis today began their flight from several cities from which the army has withdrawn during the past few days.
“Refugees from Comilla, on the eastern frontier, claim that at about midnight last Friday, the army began to shoot Awami League members of the Provincial Assembly and other prominent political leaders, including Mr Dhirendranath Dutta, aged 84, a former minister in the late Mr Suhrawardy’s cabinet.”
Mr Dutta’s grandson, Mr Kalyan Chowdhury, a journalist, said: “Neighbours said my grandfather was dragged out into the street and shot in public.
The news spread, and as people began to move out into the street, the army opened fire. They estimate that about 100 people were shot down.”
One finds the same story at Jessore near the Western border. Two weeping students said that Mr Mashiur Rahman, one of the high ranking officials of the National Awami Party who declared that East Bengal was a sovereign state, was pulled out of his bed and shot in front of his wife.
The students added: “The army then drove through the streets with loudspeakers announcing a list of the wanted students. They warned people that anyone who gave shelter to the students would be shot and their houses would be demolished.”
It is significant to note that the grand-daughter of Dhirendranath Dutta, Aroma Dutta, a social and human rights activist, is currently a very active member of parliament and continues to work in the same courageous way as her grandfather.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.