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Bangla Language Politics

Rabia Bajwa
Spring 2004
Prof. Ralph Fasold
On the eve of Aug. 15th, 1947 the states of East and West Pakistan appeared on

the political map. The separation from India developed out of severe religious tensions

between Hindus and Muslims. For the Muslims an Islamic state became the only possible

resolution to diminish tensions and the only opportunity to develop economic, social and

political autonomy. No such opportunities availed while being a large minority group

alongside Hindus. The idealized Islamic state, nonetheless, had to encompass both

Muslims living in East Pakistan, also called East Bengal, and West Pakistan. This agenda

amounted to difficult language planning and ignited internal tensions between the various

ethnic groups living in both East and West Pakistan. The most drastic challenge was in

managing the two sides of East and West Pakistan, which was separated by 1200 miles

and completely different linguistic and ethnic cultures. In this paper I will examine how

such an ideal failed to take into consideration basic language rights as part of its political

and ideological attempts to empower the Bengali people from Hindu domination. More

closely, I will look at the history of the Bengali language movement, known as the

Bhasha Ondolan, which took place from 1947 to 1952 and instigated the war between

East and West Pakistan in 1971. What I will ultimately show is that the triumph and

success of the Bengali speakers who fought for their language rights firstly was genuine,

and secondly stands to show the plight of a people who retrieved themselves from a

linguistic fate of discrimination and third-class citizenship.

Upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947 Islam and Urdu were used as important

symbols in constructing a sense of unity among the various ethnic groups such as the

Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis, Pashtoons, and Bengalis. Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-

1948), the founding father of Pakistan, promoted a Muslim identity to these ethnic groups

which he sought to materialize under a new national Pakistani identity. An example of

such encouragement exists in his numerous addresses to the various groups. He states:

“…what we want is not to talk about Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi, Pathan and so on.

They are of course units. But I ask you: have you forgotten the lesson learned thirteen

hundred years ago? …So what is the use of saying “we are Bengalis, or Sindhis or

Pathans, or Punjabis?” No, we are Muslims.”1 His reference to the lesson learned

thirteen hundred years ago is to the arrival of Islam which unified the warring tribes of

Arabia for the first time. The example he provides is not relevant because of the fact that

the five ethnic groups he attempted to unify did not all speak varieties of the same

language, rather five distinct languages representing various ethnicities. This statement is

a perfect example of the type of rhetoric Jinnah was brainwashing new Pakistanis with.

Using the name of Islam for political concerns implanted feelings of guilt among the

ethnic groups making it impossible for them to voice concerns of ethnic and linguistic

discrimination and alienation. This unfortunately holds true till today for the various

ethnic groups in West Pakistan, however, was not tolerated by the Bengali people in East


The language of Urdu, for Jinnah, was undoubtedly linked to Islam. He argued it

was a language “which more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that

is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the languages used in other

Islamic countries.”2 Urdu’s lexical borrowing from Persian and Arabic during the

Mughal empire rule resulted in this feel of its nearness to other Islamic languages.

Fundamentally, what gave Urdu its Muslim identity above all was the fact that only

Naim, C.M. 1979. Iqbal, Jinnah and Pakistan: The Vision and the Reality. Syracuse: Syracuse University
Press. [p.98]

Muslims spoke it and it was the Muslim dialect of Hindi, which was spoken by Hindus.

Urdu, however, was only spoken by a small percentage of elitist rulers and was not

indigenous to any of the other Muslim ethnicities. In a report on the demographics of

Urdu speakers as late as 1963 it states that “its speakers do not constitute either ‘a

particular community or religious group’.” 3 The usage of Urdu was even less significant

in numbers at the time of partition and at the time of formulating language policies for the

new polities. Bengali, on the other hand, at the time of partition was the native language

of the largest Muslim ethnicity, ninety-five percent of which lived in East Pakistan. This

language was not chosen as the NOL of Pakistan for various reasons that I will show and

moreover was not even recognized as the state language of East Pakistan until a much

later time period after partition.

In the early formative years of Pakistan many groups proposed different

suggestions for a national language. Arabic was proposed because it symbolized the

Islamic language. It was considered an antidote to the tensions between the various

ethnicities and a means to counter the Bengali Ethnicity which posed the largest threat of

ethnic domination. Arabic continued to be brought up in hope to neutralize ethnic

rivalries, especially again at the height of the problems in 1971. This proposal however at

all occasions never received favorable votes.4 The organization called Tamaddun Majlis

made the biggest impact on the scene of the debate in choosing a national language. The

Tamaddun Majlis demanded that not only Bengali be the medium of instruction,

language of the courts, administration and mass communication in East Bengal, but also

Rahman, Tariq, 2002. Language, Ideology and Power: Language-learning among the Muslims of
Pakistan and North India. London: Oxford University Press [p. 236].
Ibid., p. 92

one of the national languages of Pakistan along with Urdu.5 This organization expressed

its fears that if Urdu became the state language of East Bengal “the educated people of

East Pakistan will become illiterate overnight and they will also become disqualified for

government service.” 6 Not all Bengalis shared the same views for a national language.

There were many students from Dhaka University as well as Bengalis involved in the

formative legislations of Pakistan who supported Urdu. For example, the Minister of

Education at that time was Fazlur Rahman, a Bengali who supported the benefits of

establishing Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan and asserted that there were

“unassailable grounds” for its establishment.7 It is likely that those Bengalis supporting

Urdu were nevertheless Urdu speakers as well for whose jobs and economic standings

would be maintained.

Evidence pointing to what was going to become the official language of both

states was already present in 1948. Currency notes, money order forms, tickets, official

documents, practically all the documents of the state were in Urdu or English. Bengalis

found it difficult to fill out forms or even understand the value of money written on

stamps.8 Essentially, East Bengal’s alienation process was well under its way before any

official announcements. On March 19th, 1948 any hope for Bengali being declared an

official language alongside Urdu was defeated. Jinnah visited Dhaka to address East

Bengal regarding the language situation. He stated “…let me make it very clear to you

that the State language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone

who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no

Rahman, Tariq, 1997. Language and Politics. London: Oxford University Press [ p.84]
Sayeed, Khalid, 1968. Pakistan: The Formative Phase 1857-1948. London: Oxford University press

nation can remain tied up solidly together and function.” 9 It was after this address that

the Bengali Language movement developed into a mobilized vehicle. Soon after the

speech the first riots broke out which included people breaking down gates and tearing

down decorations at the lecture hall. From this point onwards severe fighting over

language issues did not stop until after the bloody war of 1971. It is necessary for us to

see that what appears from Jinnah’s statement as a concern for a unified state, however, is

not wholly rooted in political motivations. Behind the rhetoric of a unified Muslim

identity post 1947 rested particular attitudes and prejudices towards the Bengali language

and consequently the Bengali people. There was a long standing history throughout the

Muslim period in India for non-Bengali Muslim speakers to hold the view that Bengali

was a “Hindu” language.

The attitudes associated with Bengali as a “Hindu” language were spread among

the majority of Punjabi, Balochi, Sindhi and the few Urdu speakers in West Pakistan. It is

difficult to cite specifically where and why such attitudes emerged in the first place. One

possible reason is the high percentage of Sanskrit words in the Bengali language and the

fact that Bengali was written in a script resembling the Devanagari script of Hindi. In a

linguistic survey of India from 1968 it was established that in modern Bengali works “88

percent of the words used were pure Sanskrit, every one of which was unnecessary and

could have been represented by a vocable of true home growth.”10 Another factor was

that the population in West Bengal, which became part of India, was predominantly

Rahman, Tariq. 1997. p. 87
Gandhi, K.L. 1984. The Problem of the Official Language of India. New Delhi: Arya Book Depot [ p.

Hindu and spoke a variety of Bengali.11 The Standard Colloquial Bengali which

developed out of the local dialects spoken in and around Calcutta, the former capital and

industrial and cultural center of the un-partitioned Bengal, was spoken by both Hindus

and Muslims. It was this variety that occupied the “high” status and formal domains.12

These facts were extremely relevant for Muslims trying to purge every aspect of

Hinduism from their newly formed independent identity. The purging efforts were

explicit in proposals that the Bengali language should be written in the Arabic script.

Rahman points out that “it was felt that the Bengali script, being a derivative of the

Brahmi family of scripts, was associated with Hindu identity and hence had to be

Islamized.”13 The “Islamization” process essentially equated to changing the script and

naming the language “Pak-Bangla,” which translates from Urdu to “Holy”, or “Pure”,

“Clean” Bangla. With this objective in mind, West Pakistan’s government set up centers

in East Pakistan to execute this agenda. In 1950, twenty centers were established in East

Pakistan to teach Bengali to adults in the Arabic script.14 The results of these efforts did

not leave the Bengali people empowered with any such “Islamic” identity rather it was

perceived as oppression to their Bengali ethnicity and language. The idea of “Pak-

Bangla” was ultimately resented by the majority of Bengali speakers. In the National

Assembly all members from East Pakistan opposed “Pak-Bangla” on the grounds that this

would alienate future generations from the old literature of Bengal written in the Bengali

script.15 It has also been recorded that students from the Bengali department of Dhaka

Chowdhury, Munier. 1965. “The Language Problem in East Pakistan” In Studies In Pakistani Linguistics
edited by Anwar Dil. Lahore: Punjab Educational Press. p.131
Ibid., p. 127
Rahman, 2002, p. 94

University wrote a nine-point memorandum to the Pakistan Education Advisory Board

expressing their opinions that they would not allow the script of their language to be


The attitudes towards the Bengali language were closely linked to general racism

towards the Bengali people. The prejudice against Bengali Muslims existed long before

the emergence of Pakistan as an independent state. Hamid Hussain, in an article for The

Bangladesh Observer, reminds readers of this historical racism in his analysis of the

creation of Bangladesh. He states that “Muslim intellectuals, elites, and politicians,

which belonged to Northern India, had the picture of a Muslim as tall, handsome and

martial in character. As Bengali Muslims didn’t fit into this prejudiced and racist picture,

therefore they were ignored at best and when even allowed to come closer, were

considered inferior.”17 He further explains that a large portion of Bengali Muslims were

converts from Hindu low castes and that the majority of Bengali Muslim populations who

shared common customs with Hindu peasantry and exhibited a proud sense of their

language were not considered ‘proper Muslims’ by almost all West Pakistanis and by few

Bengali ‘Nobles’ who claimed foreign ancestry.18 The crux of this racism originates

from the developed hatred Muslims felt for Hindus in Modern India. It is this racism that

spilled over to the Bengali Muslims because of their un-voluntary relationship with

Hindu culture and language. The “Islamization” process, noted earlier, found its greatest

potential in changing the Bangla script to Arabic. The reality of how language is treated

as a fundamental identity marker is exemplified in such proposals and also in the staunch

promotion and development of Urdu in India. West Pakistanis believed that East

Rahman, 1997, p. 89
17 5/19/04

Pakistani Bangla speakers could potentially raise their status level to that of “proper”

Muslims with a superficial and overt realization such as the Arabic script. West

Pakistanis saw the Bengali people as incompatible with both the new Islamic and the

Pakistani identity. The Bengali people, however, did not conceive of such notions and

advertently became strengthened and reinforced by the threat to their Bengali ethnicity.

Coming back to the time period soon after Jinnah’s speech at Dhaka University in

1948, the results were that Jinnah’s hopes for the Bangla speakers to concede to the

national status of Urdu did not bear any fruits. Rather, his efforts ignited further

differences between opposing groups and lead the government in West Pakistan to

undertake repressive policies, explicitly defeating the Bengali language and placing its

supporters in prisons.19 Statements in 1951 such as “those who opposed Urdu in East

Bengal were antagonistic to Islam” were publicly made which did not help the tense

relationship between the two sides of Pakistan.20

The Bengali language movement, representing a Bengali nationalist movement,

grew in strength and vigor as the “Islamiziation” proposals were being implemented in

1950. This coupled with the general attitudes and prejudices towards the Bengali

language held by non-Bengali Muslim speakers were all significant factors in the shift

that took place for Bengalis from a Muslim identity, existing prior to 1947, into a Bengali

nationalist identity which emerged during the crucial formative period of independence

from India. A memorable date in the history of the Bengali Language movement was

Feb. 21st 1952. It is at this point when the movement reached its climax and left for

Rahman, 1997, p.93

history a legacy which is celebrated till today across the world on the International

Mother Tongue Language Day.

In 1952, after the deaths of Jinnah and Liaqat Khan, the new Prime Minister of

Pakistan Khawaja Nazimuddin was elected. The economic situation of East Pakistan at

this point had deteriorated and with the new formation of the Awami Muslim League,

there was a growing sense of deprivation and exploitation in East Pakistan and awareness

that a new form of colonialism had replaced British imperialism. It was under these

circumstances that the language movement was slowly gaining momentum. The situation

was greatly worsened when Khawaja Nazimuddin went to Dhaka, as did Jinnah a few

years back, and stated once again that “Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.”21 He,

too, continued to emphasize Urdu as a symbol of Pakistani nationhood. Following this

talk it became a massive trend in East Pakistan to protest and demonstrate for Bangla

recognition. Processions became daily occurrences and on Feb. 4th 1952 the protest was

described as the largest demonstration in the living memory of East Bengal. Hundreds of

students were chanting “rashtro bhasha bangla chai”, ‘We want Bengali as a state

language.’22 It was not until the day of Feb 21st that the course of East-West politics

completely changed.

The government imposed a new law, Section 144, in the city of Dhaka which

banned all protests and demonstrations. This did not prevent the thousands of students

and teachers from different universities and schools to assemble at Dhaka University

campus on Feb. 21st, a day known as “Ekushey” translating to the number 21, and protest

for their language rights. This demonstration resulted in many bloody deaths and violent

Ibid. 95

blows to both male and female students by police forces. Students fought back with

brickbats and eventually the police resorted to using tear gas and bullets. On this day

approximately 165 people were killed and till today they are venerated as language

martyrs in Bangladesh. Their deaths symbolized the victimization of Bengali ethnicity

and also Bengali revolt and struggle for their identity. Moreover, their deaths became a

potent symbol of resistance to West Pakistan.23 The incidents of this day ignited a

number of confrontations between the police and the students which resulted in other

unfortunate deaths of innocent people on subsequent days. Even newspaper offices

known for opposing Bangla language were burned down by students. The behavior of the

police left a fear in the people that turned into strong anti-government sentiment. The

public, in general, throughout the riot days showed an unprecedented solidarity with the

students' demand for constitutional adoption of the Bengali language as one of the state

languages of Pakistan.24

It is hard to believe that the elite ruling group of West Pakistan did not understand

the nature of the language movement. West Pakistani leaders such as Abdul Haq and

Nurul Amin expressed views that the movement was lead by communists and was

instigated by the Indian government. Rahman states that “the official conspiracy theory

still widely believed in Pakistan—that the communists cleverly manipulated most of the

Bengalis—is simplistic and uninformed.”25 Thus, we can see that West Pakistan failed to

understand the basic points of the Bangla language movement. They were unaware of the

root causes, albeit triggered by economics and social discrimination. It is obvious that the

frustrations from a deteriorated economy and social discrimination were channeled into a

Ibid. 97

thriving struggle for the Bangla language. The Bengali people saw the answer to all their

problems as a language issue. West Pakistan in hope to keep East Pakistan a unit of West

Pakistan failed to realize the relevance of cultural ethnicity and its significance for a

people to survive. A simple overt policy of recognition could have provided the Bengali

people with a comfortable psychological space at the least. Till today, many Pakistanis

view Bangladeshis as “traitors” to Islam and view them as “dupes in the hands of anti-

state agents” because of their resistance and revolt. 26

The hostility with the government was such that two years later in the election to

the provincial assembly the ruling party Muslim League, which was at the vanguard of

the Pakistan movement, suffered a humiliating and deadly defeat which could never be

resurrected. It was not until 1956 that Bengali was given the status of a state language

under certain conditions, along with Urdu, in the Pakistan constitution. Other stipulations

that were made which all won favorable results were that the day of Feb 21 be a

government holiday, education in East Pakistan be taught in the mother tongue, and that a

monument called Shaheed Minar be erected at the spot of the deaths in memory for the

martyrs. Also, that financial compensation should be provided for families of the martyrs.

The significance of Feb 21st 1952, as I have stated before, left a historical legacy.

Each year since then on the eve of Feb. 21st the Prime Minister and President of

Bangladesh and thousands of people gather at the Shaheed Minar monument and engage

in rituals of veneration for the martyrs. The day is a public holiday and the national flags

are all at half-mast atop government and private buildings. The Bangla alphabet appears

everywhere on the entrance to the monument and roads surrounding it.27 An entire culture

27 5/19/04

of national pride and theme songs emerged from it. Essays, poems and plays on the

language movement which emerged in Bengali culture bear witness to the crucial

significance. A famous song commemorating the martyrs, perhaps more significant than

the National anthem, is sung each year at the Ekushey celebration. It goes by the name of

“amar bhayer rokte rangano Ekushey February.” The first line of the lyrics to this song

translates as “How can I forget February 21 a day drenched in the blood of my brothers.”
At the most recent celebration in 2004 President Iajuddin Ahmed stated “The language

movement inspires us for sustained advancement in our language, literature and culture—

it is the responsibility of us all to keep high its flame to the future generation.”29 Further,

the President of the Awami League said that the martyrs “created a new chapter in the

history of Bangladesh by shedding their blood for establishing the right to mother

language.”30 As we can see, fifty years later the emotions and feelings for Bangla still

thrive. The movement’s watershed moment on Feb 21st in Dhaka was so significant, in

that it represented a fight for mother tongues, that it inspired the creation of the

International Mother Language Day.

The history behind UNESCO’s establishment on Nov. 17 1999 of an International

Mother Language Day to be observed every Feb. 21 was Bangladesh’s official proposal

sent to UNESCO requesting such an observance. Numerous countries seconded the

motion on Nov. 17, 1999 at the General Conference. This day is not only symbolic for

Bangladeshis but is a celebration for all speakers of all language all over the world. The

IMLD has brought attention to dying mother tongues and works to save them.31 The fact

28 5/20/04
31 5/19/04

that the country proposed such an idea to UNESCO reflects that the creation of

Bangladesh for the Bengali people was not completely political as many South Asian

scholars have suggested. Tariq Rahman sees the entire language movement as only a

political campaign for a new state.32 Such beliefs undermine the significance of the

Bengali language for Bengali identity and ethnicity.

The right of Bengali as a language used and spoken by the majority of the

Pakistanis was established in East Pakistan through persistence and struggle. New

developments such as the Bengali Academy also came about. This Academy was set up

in 1955 with the major function of promoting the culture and development of Bengali

language and literature.33 Other trends indicating positive changes for the Bangla

language situation continued until much later years. In 1966 name plates, signboards,

posters and streets signs were changed to Bengali throughout Dhaka. These positive

developments were all leading to one logical outcome, that of an independent


The exact outcome Jinnah feared if Bangla was given state recognition proved

true. Eventually, the state language movement ideology turned into a mass movement

supported by the entire population of the then province of East Pakistan. Ultimately, this

gave birth to a powerful national consciousness. The newly founded sense of national

awareness was honed by the exploitation and deprivation of East Pakistan and triggered

the creation of an independent Bangladesh. The winning results of the Bangla language

movement was a key factor in the movement gaining national momentum. In the

development of East-West politics prior to the 1971 war, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the

Rahman, 1997 p. 79

Bengali Awami League gained the majority vote in the national parliamentary election of

1970. His statements to the Bengali people clearly indicated a patronization for their

language: “I appeal to our writers to express themselves freely for the benefit of the

people and for the enrichment of the Bengali language and culture. I can assure them that

any attempt from any quarter to suppress the creative urge of the artists, poets and writers

will be resisted by me and my party.” 34 However, Pakistan was still strategizing to

recapture state power. The Pakistani military began a campaign of genocide on the night

March 25th, 1971 and arrested the leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Consequently, the

Bengali people organized guerilla warfare against the well-organized military force of

West Pakistan. The “freedom fighters,” the name for Bengali soldiers, gained mass

popular support in their struggle against the Pakistani army. Although the Pakistani

forces at this point were supported by countries such as the United States and China,

Bangladesh gained popular support from all over the world. An example of this is that

popular musical figures such as the pundit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison arranged a

concert to strengthen world-wide support for Bengalis. Eventually, after a long a nine-

month war of and at the cost of millions of lives, the new country of Bangladesh was

created on December 16th, 1971. Without any hesitance, Bangla found its coveted place

as the only state language of Bangladesh in the country's constitution of 1972.

The history of the Bengali people and their struggle post-1947 is one that is

marked by language and ethnic discrimination. Their plight and success stands as

evidence for history that the value in sustaining and promoting indigenous language and

identities amid new political and religious identities is extremely significant. William

Safran points out that the “the bases of collective identity vary according to history and
Ibid., p. 101

context: thus, originally, the Bengalis broke away from India because of religion, but

later seceded from Pakistan because of language and geographic distance.”35 The shift

the Bengali people exhibited in their identity formation from a Muslim people to a

Bengali people also serves to exemplify the importance of language for a people

establishing a sustainable identity. Language could not be divorced from the Bengali

ethnicity albeit a Muslim nation post-1947. Ironically, West Pakistan’s attempt to

maintain a unified Muslim nation by oppressing the Bangla language is completely

antithetical to the spirit of Islam. Islam only entered and spread throughout South Asia,

similarly to the course of Buddhism in South Asia, because of the Sufi orders which

absorbed and used indigenous languages. In conclusion, it is suffice to say that Bengalis

stand as a unique people in history to fight for their language, establish a nation-state out

of linguistic concerns and, ultimately, save themselves from a linguistic fate of alienation

and discrimination as many other minority languages suffer today.

Fishman, Joshua. 1999. Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. London: Oxford University Press
[p. 80].