A rickshaw walla encompassing the hardworking nature of Bengalis

Pre-Bhasha Andolon - ordinary people's fight to survive

The eastern wing of Pakistan, much smaller in size than the western wing, was densely populated and extremely poor. It was just over 15% the size of the western wing (Bangladesh's total area is 143,998 sq km, whilst Pakistan is 796,095 sq km) but had more people. And though Dhaka remained a prominent city, the government headquarters and the capital of the country (Karachi in 1947) were also in West Pakistan.

Thanks to this location of the bulk of political power and privilege in West Pakistan - its central bureaucracy was composed of 80% Pakistanis from other provinces mostly from Punjab - the Bengalis of East Pakistan faced systematic discrimination in every area of government employment.

The rulers from West Pakistan did not want to share power with the Bengalis and all the higher posts were invariably occupied by West Pakistanis, chiefly Punjabis who held a dominant share in the senior military and civilian jobs in 1947.

The leaders of the Muslims League thought that we (Bengalis) were a subject race and they belonged to the race of conquerors.

Ataur Rehman, a Bengali leader and Member of Constituent Assembly (MCA) declared in the assembly

Very little job opportunities and lack of investment in educational sector

The national budgets showed great disparities in terms of resource allocation and sector wise expenditure between East Pakistan and other provinces of Pakistan. Most foreign investment was directed into West Pakistan, and the largest share of international assistance was disbursed there.

In 1969-1970, East Pakistan, with a population of 75 million had 7,600 physicians, while West Pakistan with a population of 55 million had 12,400. Even in the educational sector, the number of colleges in West Pakistan grew from 40 to 271 between 1947 and 1969, whilst in East Pakistan this grew from 42 to 162.

Matters were no better in the elite Civil Service of Pakistan where, in 1948, only 11% were composed of Bengali officers. And this discrimination remained even until 1970 when the Bengalis only made up 16% of the civil service.

Their share in private business was also disproportionate – Bengali Muslims owned no more than 3.5% of the assets of all private Muslim firms.

Table: Per capita income in East and West Pakistan (1959-60 prices, in rupees)
1949-501959-601969-70
West Pakistan 338 366 537
East Pakistan 287 278 331
East-West gap 51 88 206

Source: Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies

'Not a martial race' thus insignificant representation in national defence sector

The greatest discrepancy came in the military. It had less than 2% representation from East Pakistan and in 1948, out of 2,795 fresh privates, only 87 were Bengali.

Just before the 1965 war with India, East Pakistani men composed 6% of the army, 15% of the navy, and 16% of the air force. This was in large part due to the fact that the East Pakistanis were not considered to be a "martial race" – a British colonial notion where the Bengalis, seen as puny and 'naturally' rebellious intellectuals, were considered the black sheep of the Pakistani army.

East Bengalis who constitute the bulk of the population, probably belong to the very original Indian races. It would be no exaggeration to say that up to the creation of Pakistan, they had not known any real freedom or sovereignty. They have been ruled either by caste Hindus, Moghuls, Pathans, or the British. In addition, they have been and are under considerable Hindu cultural and linguistic influence. As such they have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races and have not yet found it possible to adjust psychologically to the requirements of new-born freedom.

Self-styled Field Marshall Mohammed Ayub Khan exemplifying the typical belief and contempt of the West Pakistani elite towards their Bengali-speaking Muslim brethren

The main effect of the language question was to exaggerate this growing sense of alienation in East Pakistan.

The main reason for opposition to Urdu was, however, not merely linguistic or even cultural. It was because Urdu was the symbol of the central rule of the Punjabi ruling elite that it was opposed in the provinces.

One explanation is that the Bengali salariat – people who draw salaries from the state (or other employers) and who aspire for jobs – would have been at a great disadvantage if Urdu, rather than Bengali, had been used in the lower domains of power (administration, judiciary, education, media, military etc). However, as English was the language of the higher domains of power and Bengali was a 'provincial' language, the real issue was not linguistic. It was that the Bengali salariat was deprived of its just share in power at the centre and even in East Bengal where the most powerful and lucrative jobs were controlled by the West Pakistani bureaucracy and the military.

Moreover, the Bengalis were conscious that money from the Eastern wing, from the export of jute and other products, was predominantly financing the development of West Pakistan or the army which, in turn, was West Pakistani- (or, rather, Punjabi-) dominated. The language, Bengali, was a symbol of a consolidated Bengali identity in opposition to the West Pakistani identity.

Dr. Tariq Rahman, Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University

Muhammad Ali Jinnah with Muslim League members of the Punjab Assembly (1948)

Beginning of language controversy

Roots of language controversy can be traced as far back as mid-19th century when Urdu was promoted as the language (lingua franca or working language) by political and religious leaders of Indian Muslims, especially by non-Bengali leaders for All-India Muslim League (AIML), popularly referred to as just Muslim League. The Uttar Pradesh-based Urdu-speaking stalwarts of the Muslim League had begun mobilizing their support and resources in favor of establishing Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan.

The Central Parliamentary Board of Muslim League prepared a 14-points Manifesto in June 1936 for the "protection and promotion of Urdu language and script". Another 25-points program was also designed for "setting out the special needs of Bengal" in 1936 by the same board. The board did not feel any need of adopting the Bengali language and script as Urdu-speaking leaders and their Bengali collaborators of Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML) supported the idea that "Urdu should be the official language of Bengali Muslims" as advocated in the 3 October 1937 Lucknow session of the Muslim League.

On this momentous occassion Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was bestowed with the title of "Quaid-i-Azam" (Great Leader) for the first time at this session, propagated unity amongst the Indian Muslims whilst warning they’d be subjected to tyranny and hardship.

To the Muslims of India in every province, in every district, in every tehsil, in every town, I say: your foremost duty is to formulate a constructive and ameliorative program of work for the people's welfare, and to devise ways and means for the social, economic and political uplift of the Muslims…Organize yourselves, establish your solidarity and complete unity. Equip yourselves as trained and disciplined soldiers. Create the feeling of an esprit de corps, and the cause of your people and your country.

No individual or people can achieve anything without industry, suffering and sacrifice.

There are forces that may bully you, tyrannize over you and intimidate you, and you may even have to suffer. But it is going through this crucible of the fire of persecution which may be levelled against you, the tyranny that may be exercised, the threats and intimidations that may unnerve you - it is by resisting, by overcoming, by facing these disadvantages, hardships and suffering, and maintaining your true glory and history, and will live to make its future history greater and glorious not only in India, but in the annals of the world.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah tells Indian Muslims to be strong and united

Ironically, few decades later it would be the Muslims and Hindus of East (Purbo in Bengali) Pakistan who would embody the qualities that he is advising here against West (Poschim) Pakistan during Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

Nevertheless, many Bengalis started to voice their support for the Bangla language more publicly.

  • # All-India Muslim League ()
  • # Muhammad Ali Jinnah ()

An ancient fight made new

The debate over the position and use of Bangla, the mother tongue of the people of Bengal, particularly of the Muslims, traces as far back as 17th century.

Muslim poet Abdul Hakim was the first litterateur to condemn in writing those Bengalis who looked down upon their own language. In his famous work "Nurnama" (Story of Light) - a depiction of the life of prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) in lyrical Bengali, and considered as an important step in creating a Bengali Muslim identity - he wrote the poem "Bangobani" where he expressed his profound love for Bangla. In the poem, he criticised the Bangla detractors saying such people had no identity ('I cannot tell who gave birth to them') and urged them to change their attitude or to leave Bengal for good ('if one is not happy with his own language why doesn't he leave Bengal and go somewhere else'). Abdul Hakim's great patriotism fuelled him to promote Bangla at a time (medieval ages) when Persian and Arabic tended to be court languages all over South Asia and perceived by some as the literary language of choice.

Kobita - Bangobani

"Bangobani" by Abdul Hakim

In 1918, Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah, an influential educationist and social reformer, expressed similar views to Abdul Hakim. In one of his writings, "Bangabhasha o Musalman Shahitya" (Bengali Language and Muslim Literature), he advocated the need to respect Bangla and recognise it over other languages such as Urdu.

Social welfare should ideally be the aim of literature...

A nation which does not have its own literature does not have self-esteem. The development of such a nation will always be a forlorn prospect. If one is to introduce oneself as a true Muslim and an equal to the rest of the world, then one has to uphold one's mother tongue with a nationalistic fervour. For restoring the very existence of the nation, the development of the Bengali language is a must.

Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah on the importance of mother language

Around the same time as Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah other social activists such as the Muslim feminist Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (aka Begum Rokeya) were choosing to write in Bengali to reach out to the people and develop it as a modern literary language. On 28 February 1927 - twenty five years before Ekushey February - two papers were presented on the second day of the two-day First Annual Literary Conference of the Muslim Sahitya Samaj (Muslim Literary Society) held in Dhaka. The papers discussed the role of Bangla in a Muslim society, specially in relation to education. Kazi Nazrul Islam inaugurated the Conference. Abul Hussain, the secretary and one of the founders of the Sahitya Samaj, wrote that the mother language barrier had been the major obstacle to the social development of the Muslim community in Bengal.

  • Abdul Hakim (1620 - 1690) Medieval Bengali poet. Knew several languages including Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit and thus had access to Persian texts as well as Sanskrit classics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc. Translated book include Yusuf-Zulekha (translation of the Persian romance Yusuf Wa Zulekha, 1483 AD), Nurnama (Story of Light) and Durre Majlish (a book of moral instruction translated from Persian). Original writings in Bangla include Lalmoti Saifulmulk (a romance, was published towards the end of the nineteenth century and immediately gained wide popularity) and Hanifar Ladai (manuscript still incomplete). Other work include Shihabuddinnama, Nasihatnama, Karbala, and Shahornama. Son of Shah Razzaque. Born on the island of Sandwip, off the coast of Noakhali.
  • Khan Bahadur Ahsanullah ()
  • # Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (aka Begum Rokeya) (1880 - 1932)
  • Abul Hussain ()

Dr. Qazi Motahar Hossain and Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah at literary conference on 23 April 1954

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah & others advocate Bangla and question suitability of Urdu

The new language controversy of Pakistan started even before the creation of Pakistan.

In 1946, Abul Hashim, General Secretary of Bengal Provincial Muslim League (BPML), had proposed in his party's election manifesto that Bangla be the state language of Bengal. He remained active during the Bengali Language Movement and days after Ekushey February tragedy he was arrested and jailed. He was to remain a prisoner of the Pakistan state for sixteen months.

By the early 1940s, Abul Hashim emerged as a politician of a different kind with his preachings of Islamic socialism on the one hand, and his ardent belief in the principle of self-determination of every nation in India, on the other. He was often believed to be a communist, which he was not, in the Marxist sense of the term. It seemed that he was a separatist and a supporter of Jinnah’s “two-nation” theory but, in fact, he believed in the right to self- determination of every nation. According to him, India was a multi-national geographical entity where people of different religions, castes, races and languages lived side by side. Hashim was the exponent of the idea of the “multi-nation” in India and believed in nationalism, regionalism, lingualism and socialism. His political moves for the United Independent Bengal in 1946-1947, with Sarat Chandra Bose and others clearly exposed him as a secular and democratic leader.

Rana Razzaque, author

When the independence of India became imminent, Chowdhury Khaliquzzaman, a Muslim Leaguer, declared at an Urdu Conference held in Hyderabad on 17 May 1947 that the national language of Pakistan would be Urdu. This view was supported by Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, a former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh University of India, who stipulated on 14 July 1947 since Hindi was going to be the state language of India, Pakistan should adopt Urdu as her state language. Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah, a renowned Muslim linguistic researcher and a respected Bengali scholar from Dhaka University, challenged his suggestion. He rejected this discriminatory proposal which he believed was "tantamount to political slavery".

Bengali being the mother tongue of 55% of the total population of Pakistan deserves to be the state language of new nation. Once Bengali is being adopted as State language, we may then deliberately focus on the question whether or not Urdu can also be afforded the status of one of the State languages of Pakistan.

Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah in an article titled "Pakistaner Bhasha Shamashya" (The Language Problem in Pakistan) in Daily Azad newspaper, Kolkata, on 29 July 1947

A month before Dr. Shahidullah, award-wining essayist (and later Director of Bangla Academy) Abdul Haque had written an article entitled "Bangla Bhasha Bishoyok Prostab/Bhasa Bisayak Prastab" which initiated the debate on the role of Bangla in the soon-to-be Pakistan. Published in two installments in the Kolkata daily "Ittehad" on 22 and 29 June 1947, the article argued for Bangla as Pakistan's state language. Abdul Haque had written many more essays on Bangla language and Bengali nationalism during the 1948-1952 Language Movement. These included 'Pakistaner Rastrabhasa' (1947), 'Urdu Rastra Bhasa Hale' (1947), and 'Arbi Harafe Bangla' (1949). In 1966, he wrote two essays 'Muslim Jatiyatabad: Punaniriksa' and 'Yuddha O Sampradayikata' which were published in the monthly Samakal under the pseudonym of Abul Ahsan. The Government of Pakistan confiscated the issues of Samakal for publishing these two essays.

Like Abdul Haque, Dr. Shahidullah continued his efforts for protecting his mother tongue after independence and his principle stand on this issue added much confidence and legitimacy to language movement in both 1948 and 1952 phases. As the President of the East Pakistan Arabic Association, he also campaigned for Arabic as one of the national language but never favoured for writing Bengali in Arabic script. He opposed the plan of central government for Arabization of Bengali script and called it an external aggression against Bengali language and culture.

  • Abul Hashim ()
  • # Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah ()
  • Abdul Haque ()
  • # Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed ()

GAL triggers Bangla campaign

In July 1947 the Gono Azadi League (People's Freedom League), or GAL for short, was formed by a small group of workers including some discontented Muslim Leaguers for mobilizing public support to make Bengali as one of the state languages of new country. It was formed in Dhaka, capital city of the province of East Pakistan, under the leadership of Kamruddin Ahmed, a well-known Bengali leader. He was one of the pioneers of the first phase of the Bengali language movement of 1948.

Bangla will be our State language. All necessary steps need to be taken immediately for making Bangla language suitable for all parts of Pakistan. Bangla shall be the only official language of East Pakistan.

Kamruddin Ahmed, Gono Azadi League (GAL) leader

Though the group was small in size yet it aroused the sentiments of progressive workers who played important role in the coming years for political development in East Pakistan. However, GAL could not become a political organization because government restricted its activities. In 1950, this organization was renamed as Civil Liberties League.

  • # Kamruddin Ahmed ()

Gonotrantric Jubo League

At the same time as the creation of GAL, the Gonotantric Jubo League (Democratic Youth League) was established at Dhaka by students, political workers and non-communal and secular elements of the society. One of its primary task was to highlight to the government the distinctive features of languages, literatures and cultures of various regions of Pakistan. It decided to call a conference for 6th and 7th September 1947 to forge unity among the various pro-Bengali forces to build up resistance against the imposition of Urdu and decide on future course of actions. A draft manifest was adopted a month earlier on 5 August 1947. However, no single newspaper reported the September conferences due to the intervention of government agencies.

Government made sporadic attacks on organization along with repressive measures against its members in the name of eradication of "communism", but the dedicated workers of the Gonotantric Jubo Leauge remained as vanguards in both phases of 1948 and 1952 of Bengali language movement. In spite of initial enthusiasm, the organization did not make much headway and became practically defunct.

The Bengali 'salariat' – people who draw salaries from the state (or other employers) and who aspire for jobs – would have been at a great disadvantage if Urdu, rather than Bengali, had been used in the lower domains of power (administration, judiciary, education, media, military etc). However, as English was the language of the higher domains of power and Bengali was a 'provincial' language, the real issue was not linguistic. It was that the Bengali salariat was deprived of its just share in power at the centre and even in East Bengal where the most powerful and lucrative jobs were controlled by the West Pakistani bureaucracy and the military.

Moreover, the Bengalis were conscious that money from the Eastern wing, from the export of jute and other products, was predominantly financing the development of West Pakistan or the army which, in turn, was West Pakistani - (or, rather, Punjabi-) dominated. The language, Bengali, was a symbol of a consolidated Bengali identity in opposition to the West Pakistani identity. This symbol was used to 'imagine', or construct, a unified Bengali community, as communities, such as nations, were constructed through print language and other unifying devices in Europe.

Dr. Tariq Rahman, Professor at Quaid-i-Azam University

'Pakistaner Rashtrobhasha Bangla Na Urdu' pamphlet by Tamaddun Majlish

Tamaddun Majlish strengthen case for Bangla

On 15 August 1947 India was partitioned and Pakistan was born. Two weeks later a Bengali cultural organisation was formed made up of scholars, writers and journalists with an Islamic approach.

Tamaddun Majlish (Cultural Association) was organized by professors and students of Dhaka University under the leadership of Professor Abul Kashem, a young Physics professor from Dhaka University, on 1 September 1947. Abul Kashem was the first person to convene a literary meeting to discuss the issue of national language. In the coming days, many other non-communal and liberal organizations supported this issue which finally turned into a mass movement.

Meanwhile, provocative speeches and statements of Pakistan's Minister of Education Fazlur Rahman, for adopting Urdu as the only state language, forced Majlish to make serious preparation for countering him on various forums. Sainik, the weekly organ of the Tamaddun Majlis, Muslim League’s President Akram Khan’s daily paper Azad and many other newspapers came out to support Bengali in spite of central government’s opposition. The only opposing newspaper was the Daily Morning News.

On 15 September 1947, a mere month after Partition and Independence, Tamuddun Majlish issued a pamphlet in Dhaka entitled "Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla Na Urdu?" (Pakistan's national Language: Bangla or Urdu?). The authors of this historic booklet, Dr. Qazi Motahar Hossain, Abul Mansur Ahmed and Professor Abul Kasem made a strong case advocating that Bengali had all the qualities to become the language of instruction in education, offices and courts of East Bengal, as well as the language of central government.

In the pamphlet "Pakistaner Rashtra Bhasha: Bangla Na Urdu?" Tamaddun Majlish proposed that:

  1. Bengali will be:
    - The medium of instruction in East Pakistan;
    - The court language of East Pakistan;
    - The official language of East Pakistan.
  2. Urdu and Bengali will be the two official languages of Central Government of Pakistan.
  3. Bengali will be the first language for the purpose of imparting education in East Pakistan which will be learnt by 100% of people;
    - Urdu may be treated as second language or inter-wing language in East Pakistan which can be taught as a second language to those people who will be working in West Pakistan. It will be more than adequate, if Urdu is learnt only by 5% to 10% of population of East Pakistan. Urdu may be taught in higher classes at the secondary school level in East Pakistan;
    - English will be the third or international language of East Pakistan.
  4. Both English and Bengali will be used for few years as official languages in East Pakistan

Those who ran the country failed to appreciate the significance of this claim.

The proposals were the manifestation of the aspirations of the Bengali-speaking people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the Central Government of Pakistan failed ot appreciate the depth of feelings of the majority community of Pakistan and to allot the rightful place for the Bengali language in state affairs.

Rafiqul Islam's contribution on "Language and Civilization Change in South Asia" (1978)

  • Abul Kashem ()
  • Abul Mansur Ahmed ()
  • Qazi Motahar Hossain ()
  • Maulana Akram Khan ()