To many, the liberation war of 1971 is an extension of the Ekushey movement. Part of that happens because our history making and our history writing has not always belonged to the same group.
The imagination of identity and subsequent expansion into nationalism has been largely with the intellectuals who were not friendly with the pre-1947 Bengal Muslim League identity. They saw the peasant based middle class politics of marginalized East Bengali Muslims as ‘communal’ while their own elitist Kolkata values rooted, minority dominating middle class politics as “liberal.”
So the fight against Pakistan was often a fight against the “two nation theory” of pre-1947 India, rather than the One nation theory of Pakistan after 1947. It partly became an extension of the Tagorean imagination of the political Bengal of 1906-11. For many, the attempt was to implant the culture of urbane colonized Kolkata in East Pakistan rather than a new culture of peri-urban agro-society based Dhaka. This trend is still very strong with identification based on language similarity rather than history.
From Bengal Muslim League to Awami League
By 1949, Bengal Muslim league had wholesale become Awami Muslim League. Awami League members were considered ‘repentant Pakistanis’ by the intellectual and bhadrolok
community. The argument was and often is that these people saw the folly of their pre-1947 politics and joined the ‘mainstream’ that is language based movement, which was closer to the “One Bengal” thesis.
This cultural identity of the Bengali bhadrolok dominated the language of politics. An element of the middle class ethos began to invent itself as the prime trigger of nationalism. The socio-economic aspiration of a marginalized people was imagined as culturally triggered. Language rights mattered more than peasant aspirations as represented by AL politics.
Having only Urdu as the language in public exams, media and education institutions would have immediately cut off the East Pakistani middle class babu from the job market. It’s not an accident that the movement was rooted in Dhaka University
Fear of the Bengali middle class by Urdu speakers was rooted in history. The Urdu speaking elite of the Mohajir community who initially ran Pakistan were sourced in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Hindu Bengali professionals migrated there and competed for jobs and careers with the locals. To them, the babu was a scary beast, the one with ‘brains and tongue’ who did well as teachers and lawyers. After 1947, Hindus were not a threat but the Bengali babu was still there, now a Muslim but he could steal jobs again.
How old was the language issue?
Muslim League tried to make Urdu its official language in 1906 at birth and in 1937, after the first Indian general elections but failed as other regions including Bengal protested. But after 1947, it was a matter for the government to decide and not the party. It was an administrative decision, not a political one.
Having only Urdu as the language in public exams, media and education institutions would have immediately cut off the East Pakistani middle class babu from the job market. It’s not an accident that the movement was rooted in Dhaka University. It’s the University graduates who resisted the Pakistani plan the most as they stood to lose the most. Access to education became a political and cultural signifier.
East Pakistani leftists also saw in the movement an opportunity to come to the forefront and joined the cause. The Language movement was begun by Tamaddun Majlish – a rightist cultural organization – but it was quickly eclipsed by University and Leftist outfits. By 1948, it had become a movement which was greatly accelerated by the formation of Awami League in 1949, basically the entire Bengal Muslim League. Its victory in 1954 showed which party was the dominant party. The same lot had won elections in 1937 and 1946, so the 1954 elections was just a new version and politicians were still the same.
The rise of DU, Shaheed Minar and 4th class employees strike
The Left and the cultural activists had a Centrist political attitude- whether Kolkata or Moscow and later Peking- with a bhadrolok
leadership that was uneasy with the rising star of Bengal politics, Sheikh Mujib. This middle class had little to do with Mujib and Bhashani, both members of the “communal” ML, the party of non-bhadroloks.
In 1952, it was the politics of language, symbolized by the Shaheed Minar of DU and not the tradition which was held by the stalwarts of AML that dominated. The continuity of the pre-1947 movement of the marginalized people was not through the Leftists, but Bengal Muslim League which peasants supported and which later became the Awami league. Language could hardly have interested the peasants as a political cause.
However, the Dhaka University 4th class employees strike and participation of students who were expelled, including Sheikh Mujib, shows that a stream of the middle class politics at that point was non-elitist also. Within months of the strike, the AL was formed and politics gelled long before police fired in DU in 1952. But it was not a stream that was iconized, unlike the culture based language movement.
Culturalization of politics
Perhaps the linguistic culturalization of the political movement was an achievement of the Tagorean middle class. The eclipsing of the employees strike also shows how political ideas were shaping up. Ekushey was imagined as the prime trigger of the nationalist movement. Although it was a long continuous process that began long before 1947 and continued long after, the interpretation dominated. Ekushey was important but only as one of the many elements. However, how and why students of DU became involved in a strike of the lower class has been left largely unexplored compared to Ekushey, with its cultural rather than economic roots.
The author is researcher, journalist and political commentator.