Two days after Ekushey February, on 23 February 1952, the students of Dhaka Medical College erected a column (minar) – known as Shaheed Minar (Martyr's Memorial) – as tribute to the martyrs who given up their life for the Bengali language. The main incident had been occurring inside of Dhaka medical college hospital (DMCH), so a decision was taken to build a memorial adjacent to DMCH on the spot where the shootings had taken place: the south-eastern corner of the present Shaheed Minar premises, in the Dhaka University area. It is adjacent to the Mathematics department of Dhaka University and is only 0.5 km away from Shahbag and 0.25 km far from Chankharpul.
This Minar was sponsored by Pearu Sardar, one of the old dhaka panchayet sardars when some of the students asked his help at the midnight of 22 February 1952 to contribute the raw materials needed to build the monument.
Planning on the small symbolic structure measuring 10.5 ft high and 6 ft wide started that night and even though a curfew was in place, construction began the next day in the afternoon. The students worked through the night and finished it by midnight.
Immediately after construction, a plate with the words 'Shahid Smrtistambha' (monument in the memory of the martyrs) hand written on it was affixed to the monument.
The memorial was formally inaugurated by Abul Kalam Shamsuddin, the then editor of the daily Azad, on the morning of 26 February 1952. Others attribute this inauguration to the father of slain activist Sofiur Rahman.
Nevertheless, the police retaliated by cordoning the Medical College hostel that afternoon and demolished the monument – three days after its construction.
Although the monument was demolished, the Pakistani ruling coterie could not efface the memory of the martyrs. Innumerable small memorials on the same model were built all over the country, specially in the educational institutions.
In 1954 major opposition political parties of East Pakistan formed the Jukta (United) Front and stood against the ruling Muslim League Party in the first general election of East Pakistan, held in March 1954.
That the magic figure of 21 became a symbol of struggle, national unity, and emancipation, became clear when the major opposition political parties of East Pakistan formed a united front on the basis of a 21 point program.
In the subsequent general election, the Jukta Front won an overwhelming victory and formed a government on 3 April 1954 which was led by A. K. Fazlul Huq and the Awami League. In the Session of 9 May 1954 the government announced that, according to their commitment in the 21-point programme, the Shaheed Minar would be built. 21 February was declared as Shaheed Dibosh (Martyred Day) and also as a public holiday.
However, the Jukta Front Government could not execute its decision as it was ousted from power three weeks later, on 30 May 1954, by the West Pakistani government.
They would have to wait nearly two years when on 21 February 1956 the foundation stone of the Shaheed Minar was laid for the second time by Abu Hossain Sarkar, the then Chief Minister of East Pakistan, along with Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Hasina Begum, mother of Abul Barkat, the language martyr. On this day 'Ekushey February' was once again formally declared as Shaheed Dibosh and a public holiday and for the first time the anniversary of the language martyrs was observed in a peaceful and honourable manner.
When the Awami League government came to power in 1956, it became possible to construct the new monument to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives. Chief Minister of East Pakistan Ataur Rahman Khan requested Chief Engineer Jabbar and Zainul Abedin to ask famous architect Hamidur Rahman to prepare a plan for a larger Shaheed Minar in the yard of the Dhaka Medical College Hostel.
He had designed a massive Shaheed Minar complex on a large area of land. The enormous design included a half-circular column to symbolize the mother with her fallen sons standing on the dais in the main part of the monument. Many yellow and deep blue pieces of glass were to be imbedded in the column as symbols of eyes from which the rays of the sun would be reflected. The marble floor was designed to reflect the moving shadows of the columns. The basement of the Minar also included a 1,500 sq ft (140 m2) fresco depicting the history of the language movement.
Besides these, there was to be a railing adorned with the Bangla alphabet in front of the monument complex and also two footprints, one red (indicating the blood-stained footstep of the shaheeds) and one black (indicating the aggressor), symbolising the two opposing forces. The design also included a museum, a library and a series of mural paintings. At one end there was supposed to be an eye-shaped fountain with a high undulating platform. Rahman specifically designed the materials of the monument to withstand the area's tropical climate.
The central, largest column bends at an angle toward the other columns and is widely regarded as representing a mother bestowing love, affection, and protection on her children.
The region of Bengal is the mother, and the children are the martyrs and ultimately all Bengalis – that is, anyone born in the region and speaking the language. The monument serves, therefore, to reinforce a natural bond between land and people, a bond central in creating a secular nationalist sentiment. Many Bangladeshis see the Shaheed minar’s numerous destructions as a powerful reminder of the oppression that the region’s people have overcome.
Based on this design, the construction work was started in November 1957 under the supervision of Hamidur Rahman and sculptor Novera Ahmed along with the staff of the then Construction and Building Directorate. This time the basement, platform and some of the columns were completed. The rails, footprints, some of the murals as well as three sculptures by Novera Ahmed were also finished. However, marital (military) law was introduced by Ayub Khan in 1958 and the construction was forced to a halt. Despite this, people continued to visit the Shaheed Minar to place floral wreaths and hold meetings.
A committee, formed in 1962 under the order of Azam Khan, the then Governor of East Pakistan, and headed by the Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, suggested extensive changes in the original design of the Shaheed Minar. As such the design was changed, leaving much of Rahman’s design unfinished, and the construction resumed under the supervision of Greek architect Doxiadis, who was then working at the Construction and Building Directorate.
Though reduced and curtailed, the Shaheed Minar became the symbol of the spirit of the Language Movement in the mind of the people. The monument stood in its solemn glory until the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, when it was demolished completely during Operation Searchlight, a genocide carried out by the Pakistani Army resulting in an estimated 50,000 civilian deaths. The Pakistani Army crushed the Minar and placed over the rubble a signboard with the word ‘Mosque’ written on it. The mosque was not built, and in 1972, after Bangladesh had attained its independence, new initiatives were taken to construct the Shaheed Minar once again.
A committee was formed under the guidance of the then president Abu Sayeed Chowdhury and renovation work began. The original sketch was ignored and the Construction and Building Directorate followed the abridged design of 1963.
This time also the construction was hastily completed.
The murals destroyed by the Pakistani army were not restored and the basement was sealed off. Hamidur Rahman’s original design was not approved by the directorate in the renovation work.
In 1976 a new design was approved, but it was not implemented.
The Shaheed Minar, with all its architectural and sculptural imperfections, still stands as a symbol of the linguistic and nationalistic struggle of Bangladeshis.
In the mid-eighties, the monument underwent further renovation under the supervision of the then Department of Architecture chief architect SHM Abul Bashar, which extended the area of the Shaheed Minar premises, giving it a square shape from a triangular one. However, there were still supporters who demanded proper implementation of the original design by Hamidur Rahman which he created with the help of sculptor Novera Ahmed and Danish architect Gean Deleuran. They highlighted the maltreatment and degradation, such as, how due to the the extension, two entrances to the basement murals were permanently closed and after remaining in an abandoned state for 15 years, the murals had lost much of their gloss. Subsequently in 1983, the Shaheed Minar was expanded to its present dimensions.
In the 1983 renovation, the original poor materials were lined with marble stone. A museum and library were also featured in the original plan. On 25 August 2010, the High Court issued nine directives for the maintenance and renovation of the Shaheed Minar and asked the Public Works Department to establish a museum and a library on its premises.
Despite some flaws of proportionality, the Shaheed Minar still stands high. It is one of the city's most important monuments. The Shaheed Minar of Dhaka has a very close association with the city's cultural history. It also happens to be one of the primary Dhaka Tourist Attractions and is visited by thousands of tourists throughout the year.It is one of the most well-maintained monuments in Bangladesh. Special care is taken each year on the occasion of 21 February (Ekushey February). The premises are washed and cleaned thoroughly. Artists of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University then colorfully paint the Central Shaheed Minar premises with intricate designs. Thus the Shaheed Minar premises are colorful throughout the year.
The Central Shaheed Minar of Dhaka goes up to a height of 14 meters and is a brilliant piece of architecture which has been made with marble stones. The staircases and barrier are highlighted white to create a divine look. The fence on both sides is painted with lines from poems of legendary poets in iron letters. As the visitors enter the monument they will find two statues of the patriots who sacrificed their lives in that tragic police firing of 1952.
Hurried repair of the Shaheed Minar resulted the Minar to be constructed incorrectly. The height of the column was shorter and the head bent more than originally planned, and the proportions of different parts of the monument were not properly maintained.
The language movement was one of the formidable movements which has come up in the country of Bangladesh, thus The Central Shaheed Minar epitomizes in other words represent the spirit of Bangladeshi nationalism and also highlights the importance of the Bengali language in the social and cultural progress of the country. As a result The Shaheed Minar has a very significant place in the social and cultural mechanism of Bangladesh.
At present, all national, mourning, cultural and other activities occurred each year regarding 21 February is centered around the Shaheed Minar.
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.
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 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.
'Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano Ekushey February' (21st February - coloured with the blood of my brother) is a Bengali song - originally a poem - which was written by Abdul Gaffar Choudhury to mark the Bengali Language Movement in the 1950s in East Pakistan.
Amar bhaiyer rokhte
rangano ekushey february
Ami ki bhulte pari
Cheleyhara shoto mayer osru
Ami ki bhulte pari
Amar shunar desher
rokhtr rangano ekushey february
Ami ki bhulte pari.
Jago naginira jago
sishu ho'ita bikkobey aaj
desher shunar chele khun
kore rokhey manusher dabi
din bodler krantilogney
tobu tura par pabi?
Na, na, na, na khun ronga
itihashe shesh rai dewa
ekushey february ekushey
Sheidin o amini nil
gogoner boshene shittyer
raat jaga chad chumu
Can I forget the twenty-first of February
incarnadined by the love of my brother?
The twenty-first of February, built by the tears
of a hundred mothers robbed of their sons,
Can I ever forget it?
Wake up all serpents,
wake up all summer thunder-storms,
let the whole world rise up
in anger and protest against the massacre of innocent children.
They tried to crush the demand of the people
by murdering the golden sons of the land.
Can they get away with it
at this hour when the times are poised
for a radical change?
No, no, no, no,
In the history reddened by blood
the final verdict has been given already
by the twenty-first of February.
It was a smooth and pleasant night,
with the winter nearly gone
and the moon smiling in the blue sky
and lovely fragrant flowers blossoming on the roadside,
and all of a sudden rose a storm,
fierce like a wild horde of savage beasts.
Even in the darkness we know who those beasts were.
On them we shower the bitterest hatred
of all mothers brothers and sisters.
They fired at the soul of this land,
They tried to silence the demand of the people,
They kicked at the bosom of Bengal.
They did not belong to this country.
They wanted to sell away her good fortune.
They robbed the people of food, clothing and peace.
On them we shower our bitterest hatred.
Wake up today, the twenty-first of February.
do wake you, please.
Our heroic boys and girls still languish in the prisons of the tyrant.
The souls of my martyred brothers still cry.
But today everywhere the somnolent strength
of the people have begun to stir
and we shall set February ablaze
by the flame of our fierce anger.
How can I ever forget the twenty-first of February?
Translated by Kabir Chowdhury
The song is sung every year in the probhat feri, the morning march in barefoot towards the Shaheed Minar to pay homage to the martyrs.
"Kandte Ashini Fashir Dabi Niye Eshechi" by Mahbub-ul Alam Chowdhury
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