Language Movement Leads to Creation of Bangladesh; Sheikh Hasina

Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina is currently on a four-day visit to India. Ahead of her visit, in interaction with news agency ANI, the Bangladesh PM delved into the history of the Language Movement of 1952 while expressing her love for her mother tongue Bangla.

While talking to ANI on how Urdu was imposed on the people of Bangladesh when Pakistan was formed, she said that it was the large-scale language movement that gave Bangladesh its Independence from Pakistan five decades back.

Upon being asked how Pakistan was formed, Urdu language was imposed upon us. A language movement started across our country, and we gained Independence through that movement,” she told ANI. When asked how important Bangla is to the people who speak it, she replied that language is essential for any community.

Referring to the initial part of the interaction with ANI where she spoke in English, Sheikh Hasina added, “So far I was speaking in English language and I couldn’t speak that well as it is a foreign language to me. I may have several things on my mind that I could not express. Language is really very important for any community.”

“Bangladesh’s origin began with language and the country has only one language…The attraction toward our own language is something special as the mother tongue helps us speak our minds. It helps you to work for your country, so it is very crucial,” the PM said.

In response to another query on whether it is pride and affection for the mother tongue Bangla, rather than the rejection of other languages, Hasina said, “Yes exactly. It’s pride and love for the mother language. We don’t oppose any languages but at the same time we encourage people to learn other languages such as English, Farsi, Arabic, French or for that matter any others.”

“World is now interconnected as people are moving from place to place for various purposes, including for work. So learning new languages help in communicating with others,” Sheikh Hasina added.

When questioned whether it is a disadvantage when people from Bangladesh visit foreign countries and feel they cannot communicate properly in English because they only learned their mother tongue, Bangla, she stated that Bengalis typically learn languages very quickly.

“They learn and speak English. But they do not speak that fluently as it is not their mother tongue… I don’t speak English that well but those who learn the language speak well. Many Bangladeshi people living in other countries learnt languages spoken in that country.”

Finally, she was asked if language creates a special rapport and what language she speaks when she visits West Bengal to meet with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and others, he said, “Yes, we speak in Bangla.”

In response to another question about whether the language binds even if there are various political disputes, such as over Teesta water, the Bangladesh prime minister said, “Problems may remain but the friendship should continue.”

“Yes for sure. Impending issues may be at hand, but that doesn’t mean the friendship will weaken. Problems may remain but the friendship should continue,” the prime minister added.

Language Movement of 1952

The West Pakistani-dominated government designated Urdu the official language of the country at an education summit held in Karachi in 1947. This would imply that all official communications would use Urdu as the means of communication and that it would be taught in schools.

In August 1947, India was liberated from the British, and Pakistan, a Muslim-majority country was born. The newly christened region, however, was divided into West Pakistan, which was dominated by Urdu and Punjabi speakers, and East Pakistan, which was dominated by Bangla speakers.

Bangla, a common language in one portion of Pakistan, was eliminated as an approved school subject. It was also taken off official currency and stamps.

East Pakistan denounced the decision, with several important leaders, politicians, and student activists passionately opposing it over the next five years. The Bengali Language Movement or Bhasha Andolan, as it was famously known, arose from grassroots efforts to combat cultural and linguistic discrimination and persecution.

The one-of-its-kind movement began on February 21, 1952, and ended with the creation of Bangladesh after the 1971’s Liberation War.

After the Basic Principles Committee of Pakistan’s Constitution Assembly published its suggestion in January 1952 to make Urdu the only official language, the All-Party Central Language Action Committee was formed in East Pakistan to fight for Bangla. The committee declared a strike and vowed to stage demonstrations and processions throughout East Pakistan, Jabeen, Chandio, and Qasim on February 21.

The government enacted Section 144 in Dhaka, prohibiting all meetings, processions, and demonstrations. Thousands of students from various schools and institutions came out in protest, breaching Section 144, and held a rally on the Dhaka University campus.

The police, in turn, used canes on the young protesters carrying a march and lobbed tear gas shells to disperse them. The students, further retaliated by throwing bricks and stones, which resulted in arrests. When some students erected a roadblock surrounding the parliamentary meeting, police opened fire, killing three people and injuring many more.

The attack on students on February 21 sparked more protests across the country. According to recorded history, on February 22 and 23, workers, writers, teachers, and other people observed a total strike and even defied the Section 144 order by taking out processions.

The Language Movement achieved success. The Pakistani government was forced to recognise Bangla as an official state language by 1956. 21 February, until today is celebrated as Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day) in Bangladesh.

Although the issue of official languages had been resolved by 1956, Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship favoured West Pakistan’s interests at the expense of East Pakistan’s. Despite constituting the majority of the national population, East Pakistanis remained under-represented in civil and military services and received only a minority of state money and other government assistance.

Sectional divisions emerged as a result of regional economic, social, and political inequities, and the Bengali ethnic nationalist Awami League invoked the 6-point movement for greater provincial autonomy. One demand was for East Pakistan to be renamed Bangladesh (Land/Country of Bengal), which subsequently led to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, during which 10,000-35,000 Bengalis were killed by the Pakistan army under Operation Searchlight while the death toll increased to over 3 lacs in the months to follow.