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Revisiting Language Movement Through The Lens Of Newspapers

Rajib Kanti Roy

21 February, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Revisiting Language Movement Through The Lens Of Newspapers

Newspapers keep readers updated with different incidents happening at home and abroad. Apart from informing readers regarding the events which have already been held newspapers also play a pivotal role in developing public opinion and guiding the future proceedings of a nation. Besides, old newspapers bear testimony to the history. If anyone sheds light on the newspapers published on a particular date, he/she surely gets an empirical idea about what happened during that specific time. When it comes to our glorious language movement, it can be said that newspapers had significant contributions behind its success. Back then, the newspapers were the most reliable way through which the citizens could know about the overall progress of the movement. And language movement activists also didn’t have much option to make mass people aware of their agendas except newspapers. Today, on February 21, on the occasion of Shaheed Dibosh and International Mother Language Day, we will revisit the history through the pages of the then newspapers.

Just a few months before the birth of Pakistan, on May 17, 1947, influential Muslim League leader Chowdhury Khalequzzaman said in a statement, “Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.” News regarding his statement was published in daily ‘Azad’ on May 19. On the same day, Khalequzzaman reaffirmed his speech in the Urdu Summit held in Hyderabad. The next day journalist Abdul Haque, Mahbub Jamal Jahedi, Abdul Matin and Kazi Abul Hossain wrote in daily ‘Millat’, ‘Azad’, and ‘Ittehad’ protesting his statement. Immediately after the independence of Pakistan journalist-cum-politician Maulana Akram Khan opined in ‘Azad’ that the state language should be Urdu. However, daily ‘Dhaka Prokash’ published an editorial on September 24, 1947, that said, “If a new language is recognised as the state language, every Bangali will be considered as illiterate. Besides, despite having required qualifications none of them will be able to get job or do business only due to lack of their expertise in Urdu.” In August 1947, Professor Dr. Muhammad Enamul Haque wrote in monthly ‘Krishti’ that, “Urdu would bring political, economical and cultural death for the residents of East Pakistan.” Daily ‘Azad’ published a report on November 2, 1947, that East Pakistan Sahitya Sangsad and Bangabhasha Prochar Samity claimed to make Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan. On November 4, Purba Pakistan Sangbadik Sangha gave a memorandum, signed by almost all the prominent journalists of Dhaka, to Chief Minister demanding that Bangla be declared as the state language.

With a view to leading the language movement Tamaddun Majlish was formed in late September, 1948, led by Principal Abul Kashem. They published a pamphlet titled “Pakistan’s state language: Bangla or Urdu?” A good number of national newspapers covered this news. During that confusing time Mohammad Wazed Ali wrote an editorial in a progressive newspaper like ‘Saogat’ advocating Urdu to be the state language! However, Dhirendranath Dutta, a Congress leader, brought an amendment in the Constituent Assembly recommending Bangla as a state language on February 23, 1948, but Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, Chief Minister of East Pakistan Khwaja Nazimuddin, ministers and Muslim League CAP members rejected his proposal on March 2. All the newspapers of Pakistan published this news. In the meantime, mass students observed a strike in all the educational institutions of East Pakistan on February 26, 1948, and declared a programme of agitation throughout the country on March 11. Students in the rural areas came to know about it through newspapers. Thus before the next political programme police sent a message to the journalists by launching attacks on the offices of weekly ‘Fariyad’ and ‘Ittefaq’.

On the prescheduled day students of Dhaka University’s Fazlul Huq Hall, Dhaka Medical College and Dhaka Engineering College and other educational institutions picketed in front of the secretariat, High Court, and post and telegraph office. According to a report published in ‘Anandabazar’ on March 12, “Police charged baton on the agitators who took position in front of different government offices of East Pakistan. At least 50 people, including the former Prime Minister of Bengal AK Fazlul Huq, were injured. Police dispersed activists and arrested 20 of them.” It was a time when Pakistan’s first Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s maiden visit to East Pakistan was approaching near. Therefore, the government quickly negotiated with Tamaddun Majlish and made an 8-point-agreement on March 15, 1948, to make his trip trouble free. However, Jinnah himself created unrest. He said, first in a reception at Race Course Maidan on March 21 and then in the convocation of Dhaka University in Curzon Hall on March 24, “Urdu will be the only state language of Pakistan.” It made the mass students furious and they protested the declaration each time. And quite predictably these incidents made headlines in the newspapers.

Following the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah on September 11, 1948, and assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan on October 16, 1951, language movement lost its pace. First anniversary of March 11’s agitation was observed insignificantly in 1949 though West Pakistani establishment never forgot their intent. On December 27, 1948, and on February 7, 1949, in two different education conferences, central Education Minister Fazlur Rahman came up with an absurd idea of writing Bangla in Arabic alphabets! Professor Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah stated in daily ‘Azad’ on April 20, 1951, “I think if writing Bangla in Arabic alphabets is introduced, practice of knowledge in East Pakistan will be stopped.” On March 1, 1950, weekly ‘Noubelal’ published that a number of writers, educationists, journalists and artistes asked Chief Minister Nurul Amin to begin all government works in Bangla from April 1 through a letter. Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed on March 11, 1950, with Abdul Matin as its convener. It took an initiative to spread the movement all around the country. ‘Pakistan Observer’ informed on March 12, 1951, that the committee observed strike in all the educational institutions of Dhaka on March 11. It sent a memorandum to all the legislative council members of Pakistan and editors of West Pakistani newspapers claiming to announce Bangla as one of the state languages. This worked as ‘Khyber Mail’ and ‘Pakistan Times’ had published editorial supporting their demand.

On January 27, 1952, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin re-initiated the debate on language by announcing that “Only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan” at Paltan Maidan. He said, “If anybody opposes this, he will be an enemy of Islam and Pakistan” (‘Azad’, January 28, 1952). Rejecting this speech, a general strike was observed on January 30. All Party State Language Action Committee was formed on January 31, headed by Kazi Golam Mahbub. On February 4, students organised procession in front of Chief Minister’s house, and the committee called for a general strike on February 21. They picked that date as the budget session of the East Pakistan Constituent Assembly was supposed to begin on that day. All the newspapers published this news giving much importance. On February 5, 1952, daily ‘Azad’ headlined ‘A daylong strike observed demanding Bangla as the state language’. Weekly ‘Ittefaq’ published news with a number of photos on February 10. Similarly Dhaka’s daily ‘Pakistan Observer’, ‘Shoinik’, weekly ‘Noubelal’, Kolkata’s ‘Anandabazar’ and ‘Jugantor’, and West Pakistan’s daily ‘Dawn’ covered the news on agitation. Meanwhile, the government banned ‘Pakistan Observer’ on February 12 for writing an editorial accusing the Prime Minister of nepotism and fascism.

However, on February 19, daily ‘Azad’ published that the government prohibited all sorts of procession and agitation in Dhaka for a month, and enforced section 144 at Dhaka University and adjoining areas. On February 20, a meeting of All Party State Language Action Committee was held where most of the political party leaders opposed the idea of breaking section 144 as they wanted to avoid any clash before the national election. But the students were desperate to make the movement successful. They didn’t forget the failure of March 11 movement in 1948. They said they would take a final decision on the next morning. While describing the happenings of February 21, ‘Azad’, wrote on February 22, 1952, “Students started to gather near Dhaka Medical College gate around 9:00am. They could not reach a consensus with the political leaders. At one point at 11:00am, students decided to make small groups of 10 persons and defy section 144. Police fired tear gas shells at them. Some students ran into Dhaka Medical College while others went to university premises. Police arrested several students for defying section 144. Enraged by the arrests, the students took position before the East Pakistan Constituent Assembly. They blocked legislators’ way and asked them to support their demand. When they tried to enter the building around 3:00pm, police opened fire and killed a number of them.”

Daily ‘Azad’ also stated that, at least four students, including Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar, were killed by police. A young man was shot to death near Fuller Road and police took his dead body with them. Daily ‘Azad’ claimed that the number of injured students was 17. Journalist Ahmed Nure Alam took an interview of Azimpur Graveyard’s dresser Suruzzamal who told him that, on February 21 night, police called him when he was sleeping. They brought a total of 6 to 7 dead bodies with them. According to ‘Anandabazar’ report published on February 22, “When the session began, Dhirendranath Dutta asked Chief Minister Nurul Amin to visit the spot where students were killed. Manoranjan Dhar and Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish supported him. When CM refused to visit the place, Dutta walked out of the assembly. All the Congress and 12 Muslim League CAP members followed him.” On the same day daily ‘Insaf’ wrote that the CAP members visited the area and witnessed the signs of cruelty. Tarkabagish delivered an emotional speech there.

Post February 21 editorials of different newspapers are mentionable. Dhaka’s Nawab family owned ‘Morning News’. Breaching all ethics of journalism they blindly distorted truth. From a communal point of view, they stated, “Dhotis roaming Dacca streets!” Except them all the newspapers provided an objective account of the incident. Pro-government newspaper ‘Sangbad’ wrote, “Bangla is the language of the majority people of Pakistan. It can be made one of the state languages as many countries have more than one state language.” Moving a bit from their conservative standpoint Muslim League mouthpiece daily ‘Azad’ headlined, ‘We want investigation’. They wrote if a group of youths violated laws or even if they tried to excite the authorities, it should be investigated that whether it was essential to open fire on them or not. Weekly ‘Shoinik’ wrote that Dhaka’s roads were wet by the blood of martyrs while weekly ‘Chashi’ published a special issue on February 22 regarding the atrocious incidents that happened the previous day.

In absence of ‘Pakistan Observer’, daily ‘Insaf’ and weekly ‘Ittefaq’ tried to counter the propaganda of ‘Morning News’. Despite some restrictions, daily ‘Insaf’ published brave editorials. With the title of ‘We want justice’ they penned, “Several students are killed and many are injured by police. Everything should have a limit. But Nurul Amin’s government is crossing all limits. Besides the government employees, we want legal proceedings against the government that has taken such inhuman policy.” Weekly ‘Ittefaq’ also run their editorial with the headline ‘We want justice’. They stated, “Echoing the voice of millions of people of the country we want to say that we want trial for the employees who shoot the unarmed students. And the government that ordered to do this shouldn’t go unpunished.” Weekly ‘Noubelal’ published an emotional editorial with the title “Who sang song of life before the bullets.” They wrote, “We don’t have enough language to express hatred to the people who repeated the brutality of Jallianwala Bagh in Dhaka.”

On February 23, 1952, West Pakistan’s influential daily ‘Dawn’ wrote in their editorial, “The people of West Pakistan shouldn’t have any objection if Bangla gets similar status of Urdu. We hope that the Constituent Assembly will approve it soon.” Karachi’s daily ‘Evening Times’ and ‘Evening Star’ also claimed a proper investigation into the killings. ‘Evening Star’ editor ZA Suleri came to Dhaka and gave a statement in favour of declaring Bangla as a state language. He told daily ‘Azad’ on February 25, “The government can accept the reality by declaring Bangla as the state language. It is not only about facilitating the people of East Pakistan. Rather it is necessary to consolidate our nation.” Besides, Kolkata’s weekly ‘Motamot’, daily ‘Jugantor’ and ‘Statesman’ also published news regarding the incidents of killings, and editorials criticising the cruelty of the government. With a title ‘Language movement activists and students shot in Dhaka’, ‘Anandabazar’ published news on February 22. In their editorial published on February 24, they stated, “The sacrifice the people of East Bengal have made to protect the honour of their mother tongue will never go in vain.”

The mass people of East Pakistan reacted strongly on February 22. Daily ‘Azad’ wrote on February 23, “Dhaka turned into a city of red and black yesterday. The megacity was flooded with the posters and festoons written in red letters, and mass people hoisted black flags on the rooftop of every house. People occupied the streets ignoring the aggressive preparation of law enforcement agency members. The government was not ready for such response. They continued curfew and deployed Army in the city. Police and Army opened fire on the procession where Shafiur, Awal, Ohiullah and Sirajuddin lost their lives. It was seen that police were taking dead bodies and injured people away through their vans.” Weekly ‘Ittefaq’ published realistic analysis of the incidents. They asked the people to get united to establish their rights. On February 22, the agitated people set fire in the Jubilee Press of ‘Morning News’ and prevented the cars of fire brigade so that they could not control the fire! Protesting the indiscriminate killings journalist Abul Kalam Shamsuddin resigned from ‘Azad’ editorial board on that day. The next day, in their editorial, ‘Azad’ asked the government to resign. It is mentionable that Maulana Akram Khan was the editor of ‘Azad’. He and his newspaper backed the establishment and criticised the language movement activists until February 21. But later, they were bound to change their side.

Frontline newspapers covered all the incidents related to the language movement right from the beginning. They offered people a clear idea of the happenings in Dhaka. It helped the language movement activists to get public support. And following the language movement their role was more crucial. Then, almost all the newspapers understood the importance of unity among Bangalis. Thus they formed public opinion in favour of Bangali nationalism which ultimately led the nation to the struggle for freedom.


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