Eastern Pakistanis wanted Bengali acknowledged as one of Pakistan’s national language. After years of bloody repression, they won their battle in 1956.
by Massimo Introvigne
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In March 1948, a few months before he died, the father of modern Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876–1948), visited East Bengal and proclaimed Urdu the sole national language of the country. The decision had a cultural reason. Although Pakistan had a great variety of languages, Urdu had been an element unifying the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent since the Mughal Empire.
Indian Muslims, that is, except those in Bengal. Bengalis had a language with a venerable literary and even religious tradition. They did not want to renounce it, and when Muslims started to be politically active in British India, Bengalis consistently asked that Bengali be regarded as the official language of national Muslim organizations together with Urdu. The movement known as the Bengali Renaissance, which flourished in the 19th century, further promoted the use of Bengali among both Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims. Bengali was also the language spoken by the majority (54%) of Pakistanis in 1947, as it dominated East Pakistan while West Pakistan had a variety of different languages.
Yet, Jinnah decided for Urdu, which was also perceived in East Pakistan as a way to perpetuate the economic and political subordination of the East to the West within the new country. He chose a trip to East Pakistan to announce that no other language than Urdu will become the country’s official language, and attacked those who thought otherwise as a fifth column of India and even the Soviet Union.
When Jinnah arrived in Dhaka in 1948, students at the local university were already protesting the government’s orientation towards the imposition of Urdu as the national language, and there had been clashes with the police. Jinnah made his announcement on March 21 and went to University of Dhaka to explain his decision on March 24. He barely managed to conclude his speech, with students repeatedly interrupting him.
In the following months Jinnah, who was suffering from tuberculosis, was also diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on September 11, 1948. Language claims were part of the agenda of the Awami Muslim League, later Awami League, founded in East Pakistan in 1949 and later to become the largest Pakistani political party.
Although Eastern Pakistanis had hoped that Jinnah’s successors would be more flexible on the language question, in January 1952 the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan reiterated that Urdu will be the only official language. Under the leadership of the Awami League, protests erupted in Dhaka, where on February 21 five students (and perhaps more) were killed by the police. From 1999, the United Nations celebrate on February 21 the International Mother Language Day, remembering those who lost their lives for their language.
From February 22, protests extended to the whole East Bengal, and more were killed, with the government blaming again India and the Soviet Union for the unrest. On February 23, a Monument to the Martyrs was erected in Dhaka, only to be destroyed by the police on February 26. Thousands, including leaders of the Awami League, were arrested.
On the first anniversary of the February 21 killings, a massive demonstration was held in Dhaka with more than 100,000 participants, and the foundation of a memorial for the victims, the Shaheed Minar, was laid down. The February 21 event was repeated in subsequent years.
Slowly, the Bengalis won their battle. By 1954, there was a majority in the Constituent Assembly favoring the introduction of Bengali as official language together with the Urdu. This was achieved with the Constitution of 1956. In a spirit of reconciliation, the government even supported the construction of the Shaheed Minar.
The idea of a national reconciliation was, however, short-lived, although the victory in the language campaign divided Bengali nationalists between those who wanted separation from Pakistan and those who would have been happy with autonomy and federalism.
The Constitution was abrogated after only two years, in 1958, after the military coup of General Ayub Khan (1907–1974). There were voices among the Pakistani military calling for a return to the Urdu-only regime, but they failed to prevail. Bengali remained an official language. However, the ban of political parties also affected the Awami League, whose leaders ended up in prison again.
In 1965, Pakistan went to a war with India originated by the question of Kashmir. East Pakistan claimed again that its meager resources had been drained to support the inconclusive war, its borders had not been protected, and the power continued to remain firmly in the hands of Western Pakistanis.
In 1966, the Awami League launched the Six Point Plan, calling for a federal Pakistan where the central government will handle only Defense and Foreign Affairs, and all other subjects should be governed by the states. Although the program stopped short of separation, General Ayub Khan and the new chief of the Pakistani army, General Yahya Khan (1917–1980) reacted with virulent speeches calling the Awami League “separatist.” On March 24, President Ayub Khan said he was fully prepared for civil war. Eventually, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.