Pakistan and Bangladesh: A people ’ s history of the language movement

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Oct 25 20:51:28 UTC 2008

A people's history of the language movement

by Ahmed Kamal
THE influence and inspiration of the language movement have been enormous in
many of our cultural and political achievements during the past fifty-five
years. It is generally agreed that the seed of our language-based
nationalism started to grow from the very womb of the language movement.
This view has earned almost universal acceptance in the historiography of
the Bengali nationalism retailed by our educated middle class. On the other
hand, serious debates are still raging from different political positions
about the leadership of the language movement. But no such debate is
noticeable on the importance of the people's role in the movement. This is
because there exists unanimity among the practitioners of history of Bengali
nationalism that the task of the people is to follow the directives of the
political parties and the elite political leadership. Debates do take place
on issues such as the role of various leaders or the achievements of
different political parties in the movement. Although these debates have not
contributed much to our understanding of the history of the movement, the
names in the list of the language veterans have grown longer as a result.
These veterans are quite well-known to us. They belong to the middle class,
are university educated and overt or covert members of one or the other
political party. The task of weighing them on the measuring scale of history
started since 1952. It is well known by now that some of the participants
have even resorted to fraudulent claims to exaggerate their roles in the

In this essay I want to discuss a neglected side of the historiography of
the language movement. For example, what was the role of the ordinary
people, whom we call the 'public' in the language movement? And why did they
participate in the movement on such a wide scale? If the birth of language
based nationalism is to be considered since 1952, then what was it like in
the initial stage? After half a century I would like to start a debate on
these aspects of the movement.

Let us first take up the question of people's participation. Hardly a
quarter of a year passed after Pakistan came into being in August 1947, the
first clash on the question of language took place at Palashi Barrack in
Dhaka city after 11 am in the morning of 12 December 1947.When a group of
around 40 people riding a bus named Mukul started to shout slogans in favour
of Urdu, someone from among the people who had assembled in front of Palashi
barrack and Ahsanullah Engineering College shouted back slogans in favour of
Bangla language. Reacting to this, the passengers of the bus, who were
described in the official report as 'hooligans', attacked the assembled
people with sticks. The names of those injured, as found in the official
records, were the first victims of repression in the language movement. They
included one guard, four cooks, two students and the rest clerks of
government offices. It is possible to conclude, from this description, the
social and economic status of those who protested and faced repression for
defending their mother tongue.

Let us now look at the list of martyrs in the clashes of 21 and 22 February
1952. Abul Barakat was a student; Rafiquddin used to work in his father's
press, Abdul Jabbar was the owner of a small shop while Shafiqur Rahman was
an employee of Dhaka High Court. Wahidullah was the son of a mason and Abdul
Awal was a rickshaw puller; although the latter two were claimed to have
been killed by motor accident in the official records. The cause of
Wahidullah's death was mentioned in the official record as 'bullet wounds'.
Besides, the diary entries of Tajuddin Ahmed on 22, 23, 24 and 25 February,
1952, mention spontaneous strikes by the people in Dhaka and its
surroundings. That means strikes were observed in Dhaka and elsewhere in the
province without directives from any leader or organisation. The first
Shaheed Minar was erected on the night of February 23, in the premise of the
Dhaka Medical College. Shaheed Haider, a student of the medical college, who
was the designer of the minar, mentions that apart from two masons, many
canteen boys helped in its construction. They were the core workers of the
construction team for the minar at that time.
Another important event took place on February 29, when Momtaz Begum, the
headmistress of Narayanganj Morgan High School, was arrested for actively
participating in the Language Movement. While she was being transported to
Dhaka after her arrest, a large number of people obstructed the police van
when it approached Chashara station. Badruddin Umar wrote that a large
number of those who obstructed the police van were 'ordinary people'. These
were the people who certainly did not have the capacity to educate their
children at Morgan High School. Why did such a huge number of people resist
Momtaz Begum's arrest then? The clashes with the public became so wid spread
after 21 February that the government was in a way forced to concede to the
demands for Bengali as a state language.

At a time when 85 per cent people of East Bengal were illiterate, why did
the ordinary people join this movement for language rights? What was the
nature of the conjuncture in the movement of the illiterates and the
educated middle class? And what was the level of people's participation?
This is the subject of my discussion. Was the language movement such pure
gold that there was no blight in it? Should not the noise of one or two
accomplishments of the ordinary people become audible amid the crescendo of
glory surrounding the role played by the educated middle class? Was there
any other question related to the mobilisation of people in the language
movement? Has any experience of braiding of the two strands of mobilisation
or any experience of the living, which contradicts the myths, especially
those created after the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation state, been
archived in our national memory? If these questions are explored, then we
can get an idea of the role of the 'illiterate', 'ignorant' and
'superstitious' collective called the 'people', and of their consciousness.

Badruddin Umar, who has authored three volumes on the language movement,
holds the view that the way this movement spread to the villages outside
Dhaka proved that the social, economic, political and cultural issues of the
people merged with the language question of 1952. Our historiography lacks
an explanation of how this merger was achieved. I shall only attempt to
offer a preliminary explanation of how the protests by the educated middle
class and the illiterate peasants and workers were woven together. It has
been proved in recent research on nationalism that in pre-capitalist
societies the contradiction that exists between the state and the peasantry
creates space for the elite aspiring for state power to unite with the
latter. This aspect should be considered seriously while exploring deeply
the question of participation of the masses in the language movement.

People's disillusionment with the food policy, market price of agricultural
commodities, the behaviour of bureaucrats and the members of the law
enforcing agencies, especially the police, in the newly created state of
Pakistan are important inputs for our discussion. We know that the cordon
and levy systems — introduced throughout East Bengal following food shortage
after 1947 — made the life of the peasants miserable. Added to this was the
repression of the police and the bureaucracy. The nature of police
repression would be apparent from the following statistics. On the pretext
of maintaining law and order, the police opened fire at the people 38 times
in 1948, 90 times in 1949, 110 times in 1950, and 50 times in 1951. Examples
of police-people clashes during this period abound in official records.
There were reports of people-police clashes even on flimsy grounds. From a
news item published in the October 16, 1947, issue of the Dainik Azad it is
gathered that around 3,000 people had taken away 200 boats from the police
earlier seized by the latter for breaking the cordon law. Details of many
such incidents are found in the official documents of the period. The
excesses committed by the forces had been admitted by higher bureaucracy. In
the Police order No.1 of 1949, issued by the Inspector General of Police on
April 21, 1949, it was noted that, 'there has been an unfortunate increase
in the cases of firing by the Police'. In spite of this cautionary note from
the highest Police authority, the situation remained unchanged.

In 1952, the police, engaged in maintaining law and order, had almost lost
their legitimacy among the people. On the other hand, the economy in the
agricultural sector was facing a disaster. The late Tajuddin Ahmed mentions
in his diary entry dated February 29, 1952, 'Jute price unusually went down
since the middle of February from an average of [Tk] 40/- P.M. [per maund]
top and 28/- P.M. bottom to 25/- P.M top and 15/- P.M bottom. Last year in
the same days any kind of jute was about 50/- per maund, upto 65/- highest
in village markets'. Tajuddin Ahmed also mentioned that the middle and lower
middle class peasants were seriously affected due to the wrong policies of
the government. He further observed that a deep frustration pervaded the
minds of the peasants from the middle of February. On the other hand the
price of rice was very high similar to the previous year. Rice was being
sold at Tk 15 per maund. Tajuddin Ahmed wrote that the economic condition
was disastrous. The state of the economy as described in his diary and the
actions of the police as evident in contemporary official documents make
clearer the logic of 'spontaneous' participation of peasants and workers in
the movement initiated by the educated middle class for the right of
language. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why the
peasants and the ordinary people were participants in the mobilisations of
the language movement. But to document the reason for unity between these
two classes, the language, metaphors, rhetoric employed in the movement and
the tradition of popular protests in East Bengal should be examined
properly. Above all, the nature of ordinary people's political consciousness
should be explored to make sense of the sporadic and short-lived upsurges
that had routinely rocked the social world of Bangladesh. Even a more
important issue is to understand the nature of braiding that takes shape
between the elite leadership and the ordinary people in pushing forward the
agenda political change in Bangladesh. Future research will, hopefully, shed
more light on these issues.

Ahmed Kamal is professor of history, Dhaka University
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