Hena Das: A frontliner of 1952

She has been an active name throughout many of the country’s crises including the 1952 language movement

Hena Das is mostly recognised as a veteran leftist and a women rights leader. Her other identity as a frontliner for women activists in the 1952 language movement often remains overshadowed. 

Her contributions are not limited to being an advocate for women only. She has been an active name throughout many of the country’s crises, including the anti-British movement, the 1952 language movement, the coup d’état of 1969 and the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan.

She was the most active during the language movement, working in the wings of Ashu Sen and Rabindra Datta.

A national award recipient, in later years Hena expressed her frustration at the role of women in the language movement not being recognized. 

Rise of a Swadeshi

Being an active part of various movements had not been easy for Hena, who was born in a Hindu Brahmin family. Born on February 12, 1924, in Sylhet, she was the daughter of renowned lawyer Roy Bahadur Satishchandra Datta and Manorama Datta, the eldest daughter of Jagat Chandra Biswas, a zamindar of Narpati village of Chunarughat.

Hena had been an avid lover of swadeshi songs and Rabindra Sangeet. She grew up in Sylhet’s Puran-Lane Para area, close to the historic Govinda Park, the center of different gatherings. The 1930s were a time when the Indian subcontinent saw protests, uprisings and insurrections. Hena observed the slogans, processions and rallies very closely. 

At an early age, she was witness to police brutality on her compatriots, which left her deeply scarred and disturbed and eventually led her to become active in movements and politics. 

The language movement

Hena disregarded family reservations and overcame many obstacles to join the 1952 language movement against the Pakistan regime’s plan of imposing Urdu as the national language.  

Pakistan’s 1948 announcement sparked extensive protests across the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. In the face of the mass discontent, the government outlawed public meetings and rallies. 

On January 27, 1952, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, while addressing a rally at the council session of the Muslim League said: "Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.”

His staunch backing of the Urdu-only policy led the students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists to defy the law and stage protests on February 21, 1952. 

The movement was marred by the police attack on the students and the killing of students which gave rise to massive civil unrest in the region, prompting the Pakistani government to officially recognise Bangla as an official language.

Hena Das was among those who violated the government-imposed Section 144 and joined the movement. 

In an interview, included in the book ‘Bayannor 52 Nari’, written by Supa Sadia, Hena Das described how the first Shaheed Minar was built at Sylhet’s Chauhatta with bricks that she and her fellow activists managed. 

She remained in continuous contact with women activists and helped them out even when she was in hiding. The same year she became the mother of a baby girl, Bulu. The staunch warrior, in later years after the country was freed, would express sadness at the women’s role in the movement remaining unrecognised. 

In an interview, she said that it hurt to not see the love of the Bengali language in the present generation.

“I will not blame them; they need to be taught the history of the language movement; they need to be taught, they need to know what happened then,” she said.

Hena Das was actively involved with the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, beginning in 1970, and became its president after the death of the poet and political activist Begum Sufia Kamal in the early 2000s.

In addition to playing a key role in women's development, she was involved in various political movements as well as education movements in her later years. In 2001, the national award Begum Rokeya Padak was conferred on her.

Until her death on July 20, 2009, she played a significant role in different cultural movements across the country, serving as an inspiration to many. 

Reference: ‘Bayannor 52 Nari’ by Supa Sadia, ‘Nari Bhasha Shoinik’ by Syed Shakil Ahad, and ‘Gunijan Dal’ by S A M Hussain.