21st February – or 8 Falgun (in Bengali calendar) – is revered/observed throughout Bangladesh as 'Shaheed Dibosh' (Martyrs' Day), more commonly known as 'Ekushey' (Twenty-first). It has come to represent the beginning of a struggle to celebrate Bengali language and ethnicity as well as a symbol of resistance and the beginning of the struggle for independence.
The day is a public holiday and the national flag flies at half-mast atop all government and private buildings.
First shaheed dibosh
On 20 February 1953 students at Eden College and Dhaka Medical College planned to observe the first anniversary of Ekushey. They began to construct a replica of the Shaheed minar (martyrs’ column) at Siddique Bazaar, Dhaka, and covered it with a black cloth but were eventually prohibited from completing it by several faculty members who supported the central government’s position. Though the monument was destroyed, from that symbolic Shaheed Minar, students launched their prabhat pheri (mourning procession) on 21 February 1953 for the first time that year. At midnight, demonstrators chanted slogans proclaiming Bengali as the state language. People also came to lay wreaths at the site of the demolished Shaheed minar. The students also organised a musical celebration at Britannia Cinema Hall.
With the killing innocent language protestors still raw, the early ceremonies of Shaheed Dibosh invariably took on an anti-West Pakistan tone.
Since the tragic clash with police in 1952, many poems had been written about the event. Abdul Gaffar Choudhury’s poem was set to music composed and sung by Abdul Latif that evening, and the piece became the most celebrated Ekushey song, "Amar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano" (Coloured with the blood of my brother). "Amar Shunar Bangla" (My Golden Bengal), composed years earlier by Rabindranath Tagore and later the Bangladesh national anthem, was also sung that evening.
The following year (1954) the Shaheed Dibosh was observed in a similar manner
The site and date have been transformed into spatial and temporal loci of holiness on which justification for the eventual birth of Bangladesh would be based. This newly formed sacred space and event identified two imagined communities, one a common oppressor and the second the Bengali nation (encompassing many religious communities).
Those killed on 21 and 22 February 1952 included not just members of the aspiring intellectual elite but also victims who cut across all social issues – an employee of Dhaka High Court, the son of a mason, and the son of a farmer. All of the victims shared a Bengali identity, a point that is highlighted at each annual Ekushey observance. The tragic 1952 events rallied Bengalis around a common purpose: the protection and preservation of their culture as exemplified in the monument, the commemorative events, and the activities inspired by the clashes with police.
Days before Ekushey, the Shaheed minar area is cleaned, and women gather to create alpanas (paintings, typically made of rice paste, on floor or wall surfaces) at the site. Bangla verses and prose passages about Bangla are written on the walls facing the Shaheed Minar, and the surrounding areas are decorated with banners and festoons.
A central coordinating committee draws up an official program for the observance of 21st February. Different political, educational, government, private, socio-cultural and professional organizations chalk out elaborate programs for the day that consists of placing wreaths, cultural functions and discussion sessions.
At one minute past midnight on 21 February, the President of Bangladesh arrives at the Shaheed Minar to pay homage to the language martyrs. He is followed by the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet, staff of diplomatic missions in Dhaka, political leaders, representatives of various institutions and organisations etc.
Throughout the day, thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life, usually dressed in traditional Bengali garb, visit the Shaheed Minar to pay tribute to those who gave their lives for Bangla.
They proceed barefooted – a symbolic gesture referring to the sons of the soil – to the Shaheed minar and to the Azimpur graveyard, burial site of the martyrs. The participants wear black badges and lay the wreaths on the marble stone minars built 14 feet high above the ground, and climb up the wide stairs sliently or by singing the mournful notes of "Amar bhaiyer rakte rangano ekushey february ami ki bhulite pari" (Can I forget 21 February reddened with the blood of my brothers?). This process is referred to as prabhat pheri (mourning procession).
At every corner of the country people lay wreaths and garlands of marigolds and krishnachura as a token of their respect and pledge a fresh vow to translate the dreams of the martyrs into reality towards establishing a democratic order, of a society free from exploitation and of economic emancipation of the nation.
Accordingly, the Honourable President of the country is the first to place wreaths at the central Shaheed Minar at one minute past midnight, followed by the Prime Minister and other ministers.
Starting from midnight till the end of last hour of February 21, the central Shaheed Minar stands in glory in the midst of thousands of people and enormous flower wreaths.
Its significance transcends from language movement to symbolize the struggle for emancipation from the oppression of the oppressors. Through the sombre but intrinsically native observance the day continues to define the national and cultural identity that set Bengalis apart as a nation of independent people. It stands as a monumental pride for Bangladeshis who refused to accept domination and culminates into their victory for the mother language and the map of Bangladesh in the globe.
Special programmes are broadcast and telecast highlighting the importance of the day. Different cultural organisations also arrange various functions. Newspapers publish special supplements.
After Bangladesh gained independence in 1971, annual observance of Ekushey developed into a month long commemoration during which the Bangla Academy holds a book fair, 'Omor Ekushey Grontho Mela' (Book Fair of the Immortal 21st), popularly referred to as 'Ekushey Boi Mela' (Book Fair of 21st) and organises literary and cultural events throughout the month.