[lg policy] When Bangladesh Went to War Over Language

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 4 11:08:55 EDT 2018

When Bangladesh Went to War Over Language

By Anirban Mahapatra • MAY 04 2018


Why you should care

Because language meant destiny for this South Asian nation.
[image: BD flag]
Bangladesh <https://www.ozy.com/topic/bangladesh>
23.684994° N, 90.356331° E
view map <https://www.ozy.com/around-the-world>

   - 164,669,751Population
   - BengaliSpoken Language
   - $4,207GDP Per Capita
   - DhakaCapital City

Aroma Dutta was in her early 20s when her grandfather, Dhirendranath Datta,
was arrested at their home in Comilla on a fateful March night in 1971.
Those were turbulent times in what was then the Pakistan-administered
province of East Bengal (also called East Pakistan).

An independence movement seeking sovereignty from Pakistani control had
begun to gain rapid momentum among the region’s Bengali-speaking
population, and the state had launched a crushing military drive to weed
out prominent separatist leaders suspected of playing a part. Atop the list
of wanted men — mostly eminent members of the Bengali intelligentsia — was
Datta. He died in confinement soon after, succumbing to torture at the
hands of his captors.

… the groundwork of nationalism founded by the Language Movement eventually
shaped Bangladesh’s struggle for independence.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh

Far from a mere act of intellectual cleansing, Datta’s death was not
without grave context. “They [the government] had decided long ago that
Dhirendranath would have to pay with his life for his advocacy of the
Bengali language
<https://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/the-future-of-language/78946>,” contends
his granddaughter, now one of Bangladesh’s foremost social and human rights
activists. “He never compromised on his demand to instate Bengali as the
lingua franca of Pakistan, and that never went down well with most members
of the government who had no inherent regard for the language.”

In the annals of South Asian history, 1971 was a momentous year. In the
months following Datta’s death, brute military force to curb the freedom
movement resulted in an infamous genocide that claimed millions of lives.
Nearly 10 million refugees fled to neighboring India, prompting an
impassioned George Harrison and Ravi Shankar to organize the Concert for
Bangladesh in New York City in August. Finally, on December 16, following
the routing of Pakistani forces in the Liberation War, the sovereign nation
of Bangladesh, which exclusively identified itself by the language of its
people, was born.

The seeds of Bangladesh’s nationalism had been planted over more than 20
years of cultural turmoil preceding the war. The story begins in 1948 —
with Datta, of course. Attending a constituent assembly meeting in the
Pakistani city of Karachi in February that year, Datta — as an elected
assembly representative from East Pakistan — put forth an earnest demand to
recognize Bengali as the official language
<https://www.ozy.com/fast-forward/love-in-any-language/81887> of the
country. The leader’s logic was simple. “Out of six crores and 90 lakhs [69
million] of people inhabiting this state [Pakistan], four crores and 40
lakhs [44 million] of people speak the Bengali language,” he reasoned
before the house. “So, sir, what should be the state language?”

The argument behind the rhetorical question was sound, but it failed to
resonate with the house. Pakistan’s administrative power was in the western
mainland, where the native population spoke languages such as Punjabi, Urdu
or Pashto, but not Bengali. Moreover, as an overarching answer to
Pakistan’s complex linguistic matrix, the government had recently ruled
that Urdu would be adopted as the state language, even though that decision
alienated the majority of citizens in its eastern province.
[image: Gettyimages 97308121]

         <?subject=When Bangladesh Went to War Over Language&body=Some
nations evolve culturally over millennia, but this South Asian nation was
founded on the shared heritage of a
mother tongue. %20https://www.ozy.com/flashback/when-bangladesh-went-to-war-over-language/85912#img123782%0A%0ADon't
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George Harrison (center), flanked by Allen Klein (left) and sitarist Ravi
Shankar, speaks to reporters about their benefit show for East Pakistan
refugee children at Madison Square Garden, NYC.

Source Leonard Detrick/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

Soon after Datta’s petition was quashed in the assembly, Muhammad Ali
Jinnah — governor-general of Pakistan — visited East Pakistan and delivered
a conclusive speech at the University of Dhaka. “The state language of
Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language,” he said. “Anyone who
tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan.”

In its unequivocal prioritization of Urdu over Bengali, Jinnah’s speech
sparked mass outrage among East Pakistan’s Bengalis. Waves of public
criticism denouncing the government’s linguistic policy swept through the
region over the next few years, before coming to a head in 1952. “On the
morning of February 21 that year, as political debate spearheaded by
Dhirendranath raged in Dhaka’s Provincial Assembly house over the
recognition of the Bengali language,” recalls Dutta, “thousands of
university students, college students and common people assembled on the
adjacent university grounds to stage a public protest.”

Despite starting off as a peaceful assembly, the day’s proceedings began to
reel out of control as the hours went by. Before long, organized protest
had given way to frenzied chaos, forcing the police to open fire on the
gathering. Four students were killed, and their deaths sparked further
civic unrest, which resulted in even more death and destruction of what was
widely believed to be the state’s cultural hegemony over its Bengali

Looking back on the remains of the day, many of Bangladesh’s leading
thinkers concur that the tidings of 1952 — as well as the people involved
in the affairs — played a critical role in shaping and foreshadowing
subsequent path to independence. “There were many language activists who
were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the Language Movement, and
among those, however, Shaheed [martyr] Dhirendranath Dutta’s role was
seminal by any measure,” noted academic and political observer M.
Waheeduzzaman Manik in his column in Bangladeshi newspaper *The Daily Star*
in 2014.

In a written statement issued in 1994 while she was opposition leader in
Parliament, current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina observed that
“the groundwork of nationalism founded by the Language Movement eventually
shaped Bangladesh’s struggle for independence,” and that freedom was
finally obtained in exchange for “the lives of 3 million martyred men and
the dignity of 2 million violated women.”

A price that steep is difficult to forget. And even after four decades,
Bangladesh continues to remember its heroes. A national monument called
Shaheed Minar now stands in poignant silence within the premises of Dhaka
University, paying tribute to all of Bangladesh’s shaheeds who made the
supreme sacrifice for their motherland. Just like Datta.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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