Tuesday, May 21, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


They did not speak Bengali

The killings of 21 February 1952 gave rise to a set of conditions where the state of Pakistan was forced to concede demand for Bengali as a state language.

Update : 21 Feb 2024, 04:03 PM

The killings of 21 February 1952 gave rise to a set of conditions where the state of Pakistan was forced to concede the demand for Bengali as a state language. And yet it was a concession which came in half, for the constitution adopted in March 1956, Pakistan’s first, spoke of both Urdu and Bengali as the languages of the state. It was a provision of the constitution which did not go far enough in ensuring the primacy of the Bengali language in the country.

That Bengali did not much matter to the Pakistani establishment based in the western part of the country came through the failure of the political leadership to address the inhabitants of East Bengal in Bengali. In March 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who of course knew little or no Urdu, addressed the convocation of Dhaka University and the public rally at the Race Course in English. But those who followed him to power after his demise, all the way to General Yahya Khan, evinced no interest in Bengali.

On visits to East Bengal/East Pakistan, they spoke in public mostly in Urdu and sometimes in English. Ayub Khan addressed all public rallies in the province in Urdu. In contrast, Bengali politicians, among whom were Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, made it a point to speak in Urdu at public meetings in West Pakistan. That sentiment was hardly, if ever, reciprocated by their West Pakistani colleagues, who clearly had no wish to learn Bengali. Politicians like Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan spoke in Urdu in Dhaka.

Senior army officers and the soldiers under them, while stationed in East Pakistan, always spoke in Urdu in their interaction with Bengali citizens at markets and offices. It was different from the Bengali civil and military officers who, based in West Pakistan, happily used Urdu in their dealings with non-Bengalis. At the educational level, while schools in East Pakistan offered Urdu as a subject to non-Bengali students, in West Pakistan, with the exception of such places as Karachi, no Bengali subject was there for Bengali students, who consequently were compelled to study Urdu as a second language.

Observe the world of movies in pre-1971 Pakistan. In East Pakistan a good number of Urdu movies, starring such Bengali artistes as Shabnam, Rahman, Shabana, Khalil, Reshma and others, were produced over the years. But no Bengali movies were produced in West Pakistan, where film producers and directors focused on solely Urdu and Punjabi movies.

In the area of playback singing, with the exception of a few Bengali songs from Mehdi Hasan, Nahid Niazi and Ahmed Rushdi, the field was an empty landscape where Bengali melodies by non-Bengali singers was concerned. Among Bengalis, Ferdausi Rahman, Anjuman Ara Begum, Runa Laila, Shahnaz Begum, Bashir Ahmed, Farida Yasmeen and others enriched the world of Urdu music with their songs for the movies. Their songs are yet remembered both in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

On inter-wing PIA flights, it was common for stewardesses to speak in Urdu and English. The reason was obvious: all of them belonged to West Pakistan and so had little reason to understand or speak in Bengali. While many shops in East Pakistan carried signboards in Urdu, in addition to Bengali and English, hardly any such establishment in West Pakistan deigned to have shops carry their details in Bengali.

In effect, it was a failure of the Pakistani leadership, all the way from 1947 to 1971, that it was unable to promote linguistic cohesion in the country. Bengali was, for most West Pakistanis, an exotic language which did not need to become a language they could employ, at least while in East Pakistan or in the company of Bengalis. Besides, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan did not hold himself back from denigrating Bengalis in his memoirs, Friends Not Masters.

In Ayub’s opinion, Bengalis were not a martial race, which was another way of suggesting that they could not qualify for senior positions in the armed forces. Mohammad Ataul Gani Osmany, who was to head Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini in 1971, could not rise above the rank of colonel in the Pakistan army. Prejudice was at work. No Bengali could therefore make it to the position of commander-in-chief of any of the three military forces in Pakistan. Much has been made of Lt Gen Khwaja Wasiuddin, with roots in East Pakistan, being in his senior position in the army. The truth, though, is that as part of the Nawab clan in Dhaka, he spoke Urdu at home.

People by and large in what used to be West Pakistan did not warm to the Bengali language. They were unfamiliar with Bengali movies or the heritage of Bengali literature. While Bengali young men and women hummed songs from Urdu movies, their fellow citizens in the west had little idea of Bengali melodies.

The prejudice against Bengalis came to be pronounced only too well in 1971 when, within days of the general election which resulted in a massive victory for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League, a senior Pakistani military officer based in East Pakistan reassured his troops thus: ‘We will never let these black bastards rule over us.’ And in the course of the war, General A.A.K. Niazi, responding to reports of West Pakistani soldiers raping Bengali womenen masse, boasted: ‘hum unke nasl badal denge' (we will change their generations)’, of course through molestation.

Postscript: This writer, on his way to his village with his father in August 1971, was asked by a Pakistan army officer at a check-point on the banks of the Sitalakhya at Demra: ‘Kaise ho bundu?’ He meant ‘bondhu’, but the teenager in me was not ready to indulge him. In English I told him I did not understand Urdu. But of course I understood Urdu, having studied it at school in West Pakistan. My point was simple: why was this officer speaking in Urdu to the Bengali that I was, and that too in my occupied, full-blooded Bengali country? 

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