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21 February: International Mother Language Day


21 February: Bangla earned at a price

Sixty years ago today, the Bangalee nation (Bangladeshi) reached a decisive phase in its collective existence.

It was the Rubicon that was crossed on February 21, 1952. It was a people conscious of its heritage pitted against the machinery of the state. The state, in this case Pakistan, was brazenly willing to be insensitive to the concerns of the majority of its citizens.

The citizens, in this case the Bangalees of the country's eastern province, were perfectly ready to resist the power of the state, to defy it as it were, in a democratic demonstration of their loyalty to the language they had been born to. It was thus that Ekushey February came to pass. On this day, three score years ago.

Beginning at dawn on February 21, 1952, the Dhaka University campus soon turned into a gathering of students, indeed young men driven by the urge to assert themselves. Section 144, announced the previous day, was in force. The government had decreed a ban on public gatherings in the city, despite the fact that there had been no provocation, no hint of violence from the students.

It was a democratic movement through which the students and politicians and with them the Bangalee nation as a whole planned to ask for the democratic and moral right of Bangla to be recognised as the state language of Pakistan. An uncaring state, beginning with Mohammad Ali Jinnah and then coming to a moment of heat with Khwaja Nazimuddin, would have none of it.

On that morning, the crowd increased, both in numbers and in intensity, sending out the clear feeling that a showdown was on the way. Room for compromise was conspicuous by its absence. And yet no one could imagine that the state would shoot its own children. At 11:00 am, a students' gathering at Amtala, presided over by Gaziul Haq, went into the pros and cons of the emergent situation.

And then Shamsul Haq, armed with the decision of the State Language Action Committee, turned up -- to tell the students that Section 144 should not be violated. Not many among those students were ready to heed his call. The mood was fast turning militant. But Haq had his own friends too to boost him in an expression of his opinion. Abdul Matin and Ahmed Rafiq have recorded the day's happenings for posterity. Shamsul Haq, in a sherwani and black Jinnah cap, urged restraint on the part of the students. It was followed by a loud roar of protest from the students. Haq was unable to finish his speech.

At this point, Abdul Matin, convener of the University State Language Action Committee, took charge. He flung a question at his audience: “Are we then to retreat because we are afraid of breaking Section 144?” The result? A resounding "No".

And then the students, restrained by Section 144 from marching to the legislative assembly premises in a body (to present lawmakers with a memorandum demanding a recognition of Bangla), decided on the stratagem of trying to break through the police cordon in groups of 10. And just as they put their plan into implementation, the police swooped on them. Truncheons were liberally applied on the students. Confusion and chaos set in. Even so, slogans rent the air -- Rashtra bhasha Bangla chai, cholo cholo assembly cholo. The battles between the students and the police spilled out on to the streets.

The shootings began sometime around 3:00pm. Four young men fell before the fury of the state -- Abul Barkat, a student of MA at Dhaka University; Abdul Jabbar, a tailor who had come to Dhaka all the way from Gaffargaon to care for a relative in hospital; Rafiquddin Ahmed, a college student from Manikganj; and Abdus Salam, employed as a peon in an office. Salam was to die of injuries a few days after February 21. There were others who died. The state made swift work of concealing their bodies.

The bodies of those killed, notes Badruddin Umar, were not given to their families. The security forces had them buried in the eerie silence of night descending on the province after a day of tragedy.

Bangalees would never be the same again.

Source: Daily Star

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