Language Movement and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman


Published on February 21, 2017
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Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had a special contribution to the Language Movement. A lifelong supporter of the mother language, he dedicated his services to acquiring the due recognition of Bangla language in the initial phase of the Language Movement in 1947 and later on as a lawmaker and as the President. Till his death, he spoke for, and worked towards, the development and advancement of Bangla language, and the right of the Bangla speaking people. To date, literature in the form of articles, novels and books have failed to adequately depict Bangabandhu’s contributions to the Language Movement. In some instance, his role has been downplayed. Keeping those in mind, this article attempts to portray the real extent of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s role in the Language Movement.

If the history of the Language Movement is analyzed, the truth about Bangabandhu’s contributions becomes crystal clear. After the 1947 partition, Mohammad Ali Jinnah became the virtual overlord of Pakistan. Among the two newly created provinces, the rulers of West Pakistan started discriminating against East Pakistan on a variety of issues, including language. This gave rise to the Language Movement. Right after the birth of Pakistan in 1947, some political activists gathered in Sirajuddoula Hotel in Kolkata to discuss the future of East Pakistan. That meeting resolved to form a non-communal political movement and organization in Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was present in that meeting.

In an activists conference held on 6 and 7 September, 1947 in Dhaka, the Democratic Youth League was formed. The said conference adopted some proposals regarding language. In this regard GaziulHuq comments: “The adopted proposals of the conference were read out by the erstwhile student leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”. Raising the proposal regarding language, he said: “The workers conference in East Pakistan proposes that, Bangla language should be made the medium of writing and legal/administrative language of East Pakistan. As to what would be the language of the entire Pakistan should be left to further discussions, negotiations, and decisions of the general people. The people’s decision should be considered final in this regard”. This is how the first cry for language rights was made [Source: “BhashaAndoloneBanagabandhu’rBhumika”, GaziulHuq, (Language Movement and Bangabandhu)’, BangabandhuGobeshonaKendro 1994].

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman directly joined the Language Movement after coming back to East Pakistan from India. At the outset of the movement, he participated in the activities for national language movement of TomuddunMojlish. Biographer of Bangabandhu’s early life Professor Dr. Mazharul Islam states in this regard: “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman helped and supported this party on many works related to the national language” (Source: Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib, Mazharul Islam: Dhaka, Agami Publication, 1993, Page 104). In 1947, he participated in the signature collection campaign and various meetings and processions with the RashtroBhashaShongramPorishod. On 5 December 1947, he led a procession and attended the meeting of the Muslim League Working Committee held at the residence of NawabNazimuddin, demanding Bangla be recognized as the state language.

In December 1947, 14 language heroes including contemporary some politicians, formulated a 21 points manifesto which for the first time propagated the Language Movement. Within those 21 points in the manifesto, the second item was regarding the state language. This historical document came out as a small booklet called: “RashtrobhashaEkushDofaIshtehar - OitihashikDolil” (State Language-21 Points Manifesto- Historical Document). This booklet is recognized a historical documentary evidence of the Language Movement. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had an undeniable contribution in the drafting of this manifesto and was one of the key signatories. In this regard, Professor of History at Dhaka University, Dr. Syed Anowar Hossain says: “The publication of the booklet within 3-4 months of the creation of Pakistan represented a call for the residents of East Pakistan to wake up from the illusion of the concept of Pakistan. The people in whose name the booklet came out were all dedicated activists for the movement of Pakistan. It is to be noted that one of these people was Faridpur’s (currently Gopalganj) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; who subsequently led Bangladesh to its creation as Bangabandhu” (To know more, see “RashtrobhashaEkushDofaIshtehar - OitihashikDolil”, Shaikhul Bari, Reprinted January 2002).

The “Workers Camp” at No. 150 Mogultuli was at that time the meeting hub of progressive students, youths and political activists. The members of the Workers Camp exposed the issue of Bangla language and other discrimination by Pakistan in front of the nation. The people in support of the Language Movement used to regularly frequent this place and many plans to realize the goal of making Bangla the state language used to be pitched here. Sheikh Mujib, Showkat Ali, Kamruddin Ahmed and others were the lifeblood of this camp. Bahauddin Chowdhury states: “Even after the formation of Pakistan in 1947, 150 Mogultuli continued to be the incubator of opposition politics. Leaders like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Zahiruddin and Naimuddin used to gather at 150 Mogultuli”. (Source: 150 Mogultuli, Bahauddin Chowdhury, JanakanthaEid Edition, 2008). The East Pakistan Muslim Students League was formed on 4 January 1948. The legacy of this organization in the history of the Language Movement was remarkable. Formed under the aegis of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 4 January 1948, the 10-point demands of Students League included, among others, the demand to make Bangla a state language of Pakistan, recruitment of Bangali officers in the military and mandatory military education for all.

During the strike of 26 February, there was a meeting chaired by Chief Professor AbulKashem at Dhaka University premises. Students from Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, Engineering College and Engineering School boycotted their classes and joined the meeting. As to the contributions of Sheikh Mujib during the 26 February strike, Dr. Mazharul Islam states: “It should be noted that in this procession, Sheikh Mujibur played a leading role in the overall management and direction. Sheikh Mujib, along with other progressive student leaders deeply understood the need for building up a universal campaign for establishing Bangla as a state language” (Source: Language Movement and Sheikh Mujib, Pages 19-20). He met with leaders of ShongramParishad and even released a joint statement. The ShongramParishad was reformed at the joint meeting of TomoddunMajlish and Muslim Students League held at FazlulHuq Muslim Hall on 2 March 1948. This meeting was attended by leaders and activists of various organizations, of whom Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ShamsulHuq, Oli Ahad, Muhammad Toaha, AbulKashem, Ronesh Das Gupta, AjitGuha were notable. The meeting decided to build up a concerted movement against position on Bangla language of National Assembly and Muslim League by forming the All Party Council for Struggle on State Language. This included two members each from GanaAzadi League, Democratic Youth League, East Pakistan Muslim Students League, TomoddunMajlish, committees of residential halls and youth organizations. ShamsulAlam was elected as the Convener of the Council. Sheikh Mujib played an active, bold and farsighted role in the formation of the Council.

11 March of 1948 was a memorable day for the history of the Language Movement. On this date, a spontaneous strike was observed throughout the country for demanding Bangla as the state language. This was the first successful strike in the history of the Language Movement as well as after the formation of Pakistan. Sheikh Mujib was arrested and repressed by police after leading this strike. Language Veteran Oli Ahad in his book “National Politics 1945-1975” wrote: “In order to take part in the strike, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman came to Dhaka from Gopalganj on 10 March. During the strike programme of 11 March, Sheikh Mujib was so involved and excited that this strike redefined the course of life”. The publication “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: Life and Politics”, edited by Monayem Sarkar and published by Bangla Academy states: “This was the first arrest for him in independent Pakistan”

In order to make the strike on 11 March successful, a statement was released to the press on 9 March, 1948. This was signed by Professor AbulKashem (Secretary of TomoddunMajlish), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Member of East Pakistan Muslim League Council), Naimuddin Ahmed (Convener of East Pakistan Muslim Students League) and Abdur Rahman Chowdhury (Leader of Pakistan delegation in Southeast Asia Youth Conference). The significance of this statement was immense in the context of national politics and history of the Language Movement. Being arrested on 11 March was a turning point in the life of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Speaking on the importance of 11 March in the history of the Language Movement and his own arrest, Bangabandhu said: “The Language Movement did not start on 21 February 1952, it mainly started on 11 March, 1948” (Source: Daily Azad, 16 February, 1971). He added “Our movement started with the formation of the All Party Council for State Language by the Students League on 11 March 1948. On that day, I was arrested at around 9 in the morning. My fellow activists were also arrested. From there, the movement went ahead in phases”. On 15 March 1948, the Chief Minister of East Pakistan KhwajaNazimuddin signed an 8-points agreement with the Council for the Struggle of State Language. Before the agreement was signed, it was shown to the arrested activists of the Language Movement, who also gave their approval to the deal. Only after such endorsement was the agreement signed. Among those incarcerated, Sheikh Mujib also viewed the document and gave his approval. This historic agreement resulted in the first official recognition of Bangla as a language of education. The terms of the agreement also resulted in the arrested language activists being freed, including Sheikh Mujib. The deal also signified the defeat of the powerful government to the demands of the people of East Pakistan. However, the government started dilly dallying with the issue of liberating the incarcerated leaders from March 15. This made Sheikh Mujibur Rahman furious and he issued a strong condemnation of it.

On March 16, 1948, a general students’ demonstration was held under the Banyan Tree in Dhaka University to consolidate the Language Movement. Following the demonstration, a procession was taken out towards the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly. This meeting was led by the recently freed leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. From the narrative of Bangabandhu, it was learnt that some excesses were committed during the demonstration and procession. He said: “There was some demonstration against the MLAs. Abuses were hurled against and some were even roughed up. One MLA from Bagerhat named Dr. Moazzem was confined by students in Muslim Hall. I went there to arrange his release. Shawkat was injured on the evening of that day by police” (Source: BhashaAndolonProshongo, Certain Documents, Part 2, Badruddin Omar: Dhaka, Bangla Academy, 1985, Page 325).

On March 17, 1948, a general students’ demonstration was held under the Banyan Tree in Dhaka University called by East Pakistan Muslim Students League led by Naimuddin Ahmed. Sheikh Mujib participated in that meeting (See National Politics, 1945-1975, Oli Ahad). The decision was taken to observe nationwide strike in educational institutions on the 17th. The strike of that day received never seen before support. Sheikh Mujib came to be known as a youth leader with a resolute stance and unfettering courage from that time onward to the general student body. Due to the relentless efforts of Sheikh Mujib, Tajuddin Ahmed, Mohammad Toaha, Naimuddin Ahmed, Shawkat Ali, Abdul Matin, ShamsulHuq and others the Language Movement spread across East Pakistan as a mass movement. Entire Bangladesh was reverberating with the vibrations of meetings, processions and slogans. There were posters on the walls of streets after streets saying “We Want Bangla as State Language”. To realize the demand, the Shongram Committee worked without rest. Among those student leaders who worked inextricably with the Committee, Sheikh Mujib was most notable. His role was particularly effective when leading processions or demonstrations. (Source: Language Movement and Bangabandhu, Page 3). In 1949, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested twice for his activities in the movement.

Sheikh Mujib was in jail during the explosive phase of the Language Movement in 1952. Although he was not physically present during the activities of that time, he used to meet with the activists in jail and give directions. (Source: 21st February, National to International, Dr. Mohammad Hannan, Page 53). In this regard, Language Veteran GaziulHuq wrote in his memoirs: “After being arrested in the October of 1948, Mr. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was incarcerated at various prisons up to the February of 1952. Hence, naturally, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman could not physically participate in the Language Movement of 1952. But from jail, he maintained communications with the activists and leaders of the movement and advised on various issues”. (GaziulHuq, “Amar Dekha, Amar Lekha”, Page 40). The key leaders of the movement, including AbdusSamad Azad, Zillur Rahman, Kamruzzaman, Abdul Matin and others have all unequivocally stated that Bangabandhu used to send his directions through small pieces of paper from jail and subsequently from hospital. Language Veteran and renowned journalist Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury wrote in his article “EKushNiyeKichuSriti, KichuKotha” that Sheikh Mujib sent letters to multiple leaders of Students’ League before being taken to Faridpur Jail on February 16, 1952. (Source: BhalobashiMatribhasha, Page 62).

National leader Shaheed Suhrawardy took a stance against the Language Movement of 1952. He issued a statement supporting Urdu as the state language. The movement could have suffered immense damage had he maintained this stance of his. (Source: (Source: 21st February, National to International, Dr. Mohammad Hannan, Page 53).

But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was able to change his mind in this regard and was able to solicit his support for the cause of promulgating Bangla as the state language. He himself observed in this regard: “We got into a lot of trouble when Shaheed Suhrawardy issued the statement regarding language. So, in the June of that year, I went to Karachi to meet him. I explained the situation to him and asked him to issue a statement supporting the demand for Bangla”. (Source: Language Movement of East Bengal and Contemporary Politics, Part 3, Badruddin Omar, Page 396). Due to Bangabandhu’s love for his language and political will, Suhrawardy did finally issue a statement supporting instatement of Bangla as a state language of Pakistan. That statement was published by Ittefaq on June 29, 1952. In 1952, a statement of MaulanaBhashani was featured in Daily Ittefaq. There he said: “If Mujibhad not convince Suhrawardy to change his mind about supporting Bangla language, then not only the Language Movement, but the future of Awami League too would have been rendered uncertain”. Only a farsighted leader like Bangabandhu could have achieved such a feat. This contribution of Bangabandhu to Bangla language and the Language Movement would remain etched in time immemorial.

On April 27, 1952, the council of district and sub-district level representatives of the “ShorbodoliyoRashtrobhashaShongramParishad” was held. During chairing the event, AtaurRahman Khan at one point fell unconscious from illness. At this point, the written speech of the chair was read out by Kamruddin Ahmed. In that representative conference, on behalf of Awami League, a speech was delivered by the party’s acting General Secretary Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Bangabandhu did not leave the cause of Bangla language even after 1952. His contributions in the events leading up to the Language Movement is undeniable. In the legislative assembly, his voice roared with the demands of making Bangla a state language, using Bangla at all levels, and conducting the day to day activities of the Assembly in Bangla.

Bangabandhu played a key role in observing the first anniversary of Ekushe in 1953. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was at the front of every demonstration and procession on that day. In the public rally at Armanitola Field, he requested that 21st February be observed as the martyrs day and demanded that Bangla be immediately be recognized as the state language.

Jukto Front was formed using the spirit unleashed by the Language Movement of 1952. During 1954, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman played a crucial role in contemporary politics and development of Bangla language as a Minister of Jukto Front government. In later times, he was able to voice these demands for Bangla language and the Bangalis of East Pakistan in a more amplified manner in front of the nation.

The responsibility of resolving the language issue fell on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman because of his undying love of Bangla and his successful and prudent leadership in nurturing the potential and development of Bangla at all levels. This great man introduced to the world stage the struggle for Bangla, the language and its users. The historic role he played by delivering his speech in Bangla at the United Nations on September 25 1974 will forever be remembered in golden letters. This was the first successful attempt at establishing the dignity of Bangla language on the international arena.

On January 17, 1956, Bangabandhu demanded that the daily cause list of the Legislative Assembly be published in Bangla. On the session of February 7 of the same year, he said regarding the issue of state language vis-a-vis the draft constitution: “In East Bengal, we don’t understand official language to be the same as state language. Hence, the provision in the draft constitution dealing with language of the state has been inserted with ulterior motives”. He reminded everyone that 56% people of Pakistan speak in Bangla and said: “No games can be played regarding the question of state language. The demand of the people of East Pakistan is that Bangla be also recognized as a state language”. On the session of the Legislative Assembly on February 16, he reiterated his demand to make Bangla a state language. (Source: BhalobashiMatribhasha, Publication on the 50th Anniversary of the Language Movement, Bangladesh Awami League, March 2002, Pages 182-191).

During his time as the President, on March 12, 1975, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman gave his official order to start using Bangla as the official language. Promulgated by President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the order stated: “The state language of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh is Bangla. Bangla is our national language. However, it has been noticed with utmost regret that even after three years of independence, officials documents are still being drafted in the foreign language English instead of the mother language Bangla. It is difficult to believe that those who don’t have love for their mother languagecan have love for their motherland. It is intolerable that Bangali officials of Bangladesh would draft their documents in English even after three years have passed. Such irregularities are taking place despite my previous order. Such insubordination cannot be allowed to continue” (Secretariat of the President, Ganabhaban, Dhaka, Dated 30/12/75, General-729/9(400), 12 March 1975).

While addressing a meeting at Bangla Academy on February 15, 1971 , the then President of Awami League Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman stated: “With respect to the martyrs of the Language Movement, I announce that from the day my party assumes power, Bangla would be used at all levels of offices, courts and national lives. We will not wait for formalities to do this. Because that would risk preventing us from introducing Bangla at all levels. This way, we may commit some errors. However, that is not paramount. We need to advance notwithstanding" (Source: Daily Pakistan, 16 February, 1971).

He helped insert Bangla as the state language in the constitution of 1972. This was the first constitution in the world promulgated in Bangla. The undisputed leader and architect of Bangladesh’s independence said: “Bangladesh’s independence and sovereignty are the far reaching implications of the Language Movement” (Daily Sangbad, February 21, 1975). This is a historic fact that our cherished independence emanated from an unbroken chain of struggle starting from the one for Bangla language rights. Bangabandhu acted as the principal architect who paved the way from the beginning of this struggle to its ultimate resolution, enabling us to launch ourselves as an independent nation on the world map. Bangabandhu’s contributions as the founder of this geographical area called “Bangladesh” must be recognized for historical reasons. To deny him his rightful place is tantamount to denial of our own history, heritage, nationhood and very existence.

(Translated from article by M R Mahbub, BhorerKagoj, 21 February 2015)