We have already covered a few pieces in this column about the direct and indirect role of Sheikh Mujib in the historic language movement in East Bengal during the early days of Pakistan. Thanks to that movement for making Bengali as a state language of Pakistan the seeds of Bengali nationalism were firmly grounded in the mindset of the people of East Bengal. The students and youths played a decisive role in establishing Pakistan with the hope that ordinary people will enjoy socio-economic freedom in the new state. Sheikh Mujib was one of their frontline dominant leaders. He came from the same socio-economic background which was anchored by a growing middle class originating from the rural agricultural surplus, mainly from jute. No doubt, he could connect so effectively with the youths and get them on board in taking forward his ‘dream project’ of a modern, secular and language-based independent Bangladesh.
The new Pakistani state, however, let down the Bengalis and their hopes of freedom. From the outset, the state defended colonial institutions such as the semi-feudal zamindari system, and even invalidated the Bengali language by refusing to make it a state language. It seemed as though East Bengal was entering yet another stage of foreign domination, only with West Pakistanis at the top of the hierarchy instead of the British. Sheikh Mujib, despite having been a frontline campaigner for the Muslim League during Partition, noticed this change and dedicated himself to advocating for the Bengalis in this new tumultuous time. His years of advocacy culminated in the massive Bengali language movement, and his historic and near-fatal hunger strike in jail during February 1952 [see also Abdul Alim, ‘BhashaAndolone Sheikh Mujib: Tarikh o Ghotonaponji,(Role of Sheikh Mujib in the Langage Movement: Dates and chronology of events) ‘Annyadin’ EidShonkhya, 2019)].After his release from jail on 27 February 1952 he went to his village home for a few days to recuperate his health. The moment he was a little better he left to tour the countryside and touch base with the political activists and the ordinary masses. This clearly indicates that he was gradually emerging as the mouthpiece of the political forces directly opposing the ruling Muslim League.
He represented the emerging secular and modern socio-economic threats that the state of Pakistan wanted to suppress ruthlessly. I led a research team that investigated the socio-economic perspectives of the language movement in the 1980s. The study has been published by UPL [see Atiur Rahman(edited), ‘BhashaAndolonerArtho-SamajikPariprekhsit, 1986]. The major findings of the study can be summarised as follows:
Even though the mainstream leaders took advantage of the communal divide before the Partition, the overwhelming participation of the East Bengalis was motivated by the promise of socio-economic emancipation. The educated members of the Muslim community lived under the shadow of majoritarian Hindus who led the socio-economic landscape. The Muslims felt that they would always be marginalised if they lived in a single state with the Hindus. So they supported the Muslim majoritarian state of Pakistan. Even the elite representatives of the Muslim middle class had this fear of marginalisation.
Late Justice Habibur Rahman was a frontline leader of the Language Movement. When asked why East Bengal had been so supportive of the Pakistan movement he said, “That day our prime concern was the fundamental right to self-rule. This was a time of religious nationalism. This was the auspicious time to establish Pakistan.” (Atiur Rahman, ibid). Late Kamruddin Ahmed in his seminal work on the middle class in Bengal clearly identified the socio-cultural cleavages between two communities which led to the partition of India (see Kamruddin Ahmed, ‘BanglarModhyabitterAtmoprakash’, 1382, Inside Library). The Muslim middle class had lofty dreams of socio-economic emancipation in a newly created Pakistan. Yet, West Pakistani elites only served their vested interest groups. The politics, administration and economy of Pakistan were soon taken over by a coterie of bureaucrats, businessmen, and their patrons.
The dream of the East Bengali middle class, along with farmers and laborers, was intentionally undermined by the public policy of the new state. Moreover, Bengali language was the first victim of West Pakistan’s cultural hegemony. The young activists who fought for Pakistan soon found themselves in the middle of distress and humiliation. Yet despite their broken dream, this young generation was rejuvenated by the words of comfort from progressive Bengali leaders. Maulana Bhasani especially motivated the young leadership at that time. Meanwhile, Sheikh Mujib organised the student leaders, and the student leaders in turn mobilised the general students. Certainly, the language movement was driven by progressive forces from both cultural and political spheres and became increasingly more mature and formidable.
The role Bangabandhu and his co-leaders played in rejuvenating these youths from their disillusionment and trauma was widely noticeable. The declaration of the East Pakistan Jubo League proved the extent to which the young East Pakistanis had experienced their dreams being shattered:“In Pakistan we the middleclass youths dreamt of a good living, flourishing business environment, a moderate house to live, a rich culture and a good standard of living. But the reality here has turned our dreams down. We are shattered with poverty now. It has been impossible to live in city” [Declaration of East Pakistan Jubo League, 17 March 1951 as reported in Hasan Hafizur Rahman edited (1982), Bangladesher Swadhinat Judhya: Dalilpatra Protham Khando,(Documents on War of Independence, volume 1), page 208]. The Language Movement came as a light of hope for the youths in East Pakistan who felt deeply undermined by the Pakistani misrule and oppression.
Bangabandhu clearly delineated in his Memoirs the initial protests and activism in East Pakistan. According to him, Jinnah arrived in Dhaka on 19 March 1948. Many people went to Dhaka’s Tejgaon airport to greet him. It was raining heavily. Sheikh Mujib was also there. In his own words, “Jinnah went to the Race Course ground and declared at a huge meeting, ‘ Urdu will be the only state language of Pakistan.’ Some four or five hundred of us students were sitting in one corner of the field. Many of us raised our hands in protest and shouted, ‘No, no.’ Later when he went to Dhaka University’s Convocation Centre and again announced Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan the students sitting in front of him shouted out, ‘No, no, no.’ Jinnah paused for about five minutes and then resumed his speech. I believe that this was the first time that Bengali students had dared to oppose him.” (‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, UPL, 2019, fourth impression, page 1040).
The Language Movement became a neo-nationalist identity for Bengalis during those days of 1948 to 1952. Gradually Bengalis, regardless of religion and class, came out of their shell to participate in the movement. Their continued aspiration for economic freedom was certainly at the heart of this movement. The attack on their culture through undermining their mother language added fuel to the fire. No doubt, the language movement spread like a wildfire after 21st February 1952 and embraced people from all classes across the province. In fact, the very foundation of the state of Pakistan was deeply shaken by this movement.
The leadership of this movement was in the hands of the middle class. After surveying 123 participants in 1985, we found that:
• More than 50 percent of the protesters' fathers lived in the city.
• The fathers of 80 percent of the protesters owned more than 5 acres of land.
• 68 percent of the protesters were college or university students.
This middle-class leadership had a deep connection with the peasants and workers. Undoubtedly, the participation of people from all walks of life was key to the success of the movement. One of the participants described the transformation of the movement as follows:
‘... Urdu was also spoken on our microphones, making it clear that our fight was not against the Urdu language. Our demand was for the recognition of the Bengali language, for the establishment of democratic rights. Every afternoon thousands of people would gather on the hall premises to get the news of the next program. On the same day (February 23, The Author) the Sardars of Dhaka expressed their support for the state language movement. We used to pay special attention to the support of the Sardars.’ [ AMAMuhith as quoted in Mohammad Hannan (1992),‘History of the Liberation War of Liberation’].
This was an exceptional middle class who deeply empathised with the struggling millions. They had a proletariat-oriented mindset. In fact, the heavy presence of the lower-middle class shop employees, who were defying their owners to protest, gave this movement a much broader base. The participants from this group had to live from hand to mouth with very little financial security. It was easier for them to harmonise their demands for economic emancipation with the peasants and laborers. This aspiration of freedom was further consolidated by the cultural and literary activists echoing their dreams. And Sheikh Mujib, the rising soul of Bengalis, was at the forefront of this revolution.
Bangabandhu was intensely involved in every phase of the movement leading to the consolidation of Bengali nationalism. Indeed, the source of power of the middle-class political leadership was its deeper involvement with the common people. The nationalist struggle of the Bengalis moved forward by uniting all the deprived communities grinding under the oppressive rule of Pakistani elites. With the political foresight of the middle-class leadership (especially Bangabandhu), the mass unification of the middle class with the working classes reached a climax in 1971. However, there is no denying the fact that the seeds of this unified nationalism were sown during the language movement.
The writer is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor of Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]