When Bangladesh Went to War Over Language

Why you should care

Because language meant destiny for this South Asian nation.

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Aroma Dutta was in her early 20s when her grandfather, Dhirendranath Datta, was arrested at their home in Comilla on a fateful March night in 1971. Those were turbulent times in what was then the Pakistan-administered province of East Bengal (also called East Pakistan).

An independence movement seeking sovereignty from Pakistani control had begun to gain rapid momentum among the region’s Bengali-speaking population, and the state had launched a crushing military drive to weed out prominent separatist leaders suspected of playing a part. Atop the list of wanted men — mostly eminent members of the Bengali intelligentsia — was Datta. He died in confinement soon after, succumbing to torture at the hands of his captors.

… the groundwork of nationalism founded by the Language Movement eventually shaped Bangladesh’s struggle for independence.

Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh

Far from a mere act of intellectual cleansing, Datta’s death was not without grave context. “They [the government] had decided long ago that Dhirendranath would have to pay with his life for his advocacy of the Bengali language,” contends his granddaughter, now one of Bangladesh’s foremost social and human rights activists. “He never compromised on his demand to instate Bengali as the lingua franca of Pakistan, and that never went down well with most members of the government who had no inherent regard for the language.”

In the annals of South Asian history, 1971 was a momentous year. In the months following Datta’s death, brute military force to curb the freedom movement resulted in an infamous genocide that claimed millions of lives. Nearly 10 million refugees fled to neighboring India, prompting an impassioned George Harrison and Ravi Shankar to organize the Concert for Bangladesh in New York City in August. Finally, on December 16, following the routing of Pakistani forces in the Liberation War, the sovereign nation of Bangladesh, which exclusively identified itself by the language of its people, was born.

The seeds of Bangladesh’s nationalism had been planted over more than 20 years of cultural turmoil preceding the war. The story begins in 1948 — with Datta, of course. Attending a constituent assembly meeting in the Pakistani city of Karachi in February that year, Datta — as an elected assembly representative from East Pakistan — put forth an earnest demand to recognize Bengali as the official language of the country. The leader’s logic was simple. “Out of six crores and 90 lakhs [69 million] of people inhabiting this state [Pakistan], four crores and 40 lakhs [44 million] of people speak the Bengali language,” he reasoned before the house. “So, sir, what should be the state language?”

The argument behind the rhetorical question was sound, but it failed to resonate with the house. Pakistan’s administrative power was in the western mainland, where the native population spoke languages such as Punjabi, Urdu or Pashto, but not Bengali. Moreover, as an overarching answer to Pakistan’s complex linguistic matrix, the government had recently ruled that Urdu would be adopted as the state language, even though that decision alienated the majority of citizens in its eastern province.

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George Harrison (center), flanked by Allen Klein (left) and sitarist Ravi Shankar, speaks to reporters about their benefit show for East Pakistan refugee children at Madison Square Garden, NYC.

Source Leonard Detrick/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

Soon after Datta’s petition was quashed in the assembly, Muhammad Ali Jinnah — governor-general of Pakistan — visited East Pakistan and delivered a conclusive speech at the University of Dhaka. “The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language,” he said. “Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan.”

In its unequivocal prioritization of Urdu over Bengali, Jinnah’s speech sparked mass outrage among East Pakistan’s Bengalis. Waves of public criticism denouncing the government’s linguistic policy swept through the region over the next few years, before coming to a head in 1952. “On the morning of February 21 that year, as political debate spearheaded by Dhirendranath raged in Dhaka’s Provincial Assembly house over the recognition of the Bengali language,” recalls Dutta, “thousands of university students, college students and common people assembled on the adjacent university grounds to stage a public protest.”

Despite starting off as a peaceful assembly, the day’s proceedings began to reel out of control as the hours went by. Before long, organized protest had given way to frenzied chaos, forcing the police to open fire on the gathering. Four students were killed, and their deaths sparked further civic unrest, which resulted in even more death and destruction of what was widely believed to be the state’s cultural hegemony over its Bengali population.

Looking back on the remains of the day, many of Bangladesh’s leading thinkers concur that the tidings of 1952 — as well as the people involved in the affairs — played a critical role in shaping and foreshadowing Bangladesh’s subsequent path to independence. “There were many language activists who were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the Language Movement, and among those, however, Shaheed [martyr] Dhirendranath Dutta’s role was seminal by any measure,” noted academic and political observer M. Waheeduzzaman Manik in his column in Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star in 2014.

In a written statement issued in 1994 while she was opposition leader in Parliament, current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina observed that “the groundwork of nationalism founded by the Language Movement eventually shaped Bangladesh’s struggle for independence,” and that freedom was finally obtained in exchange for “the lives of 3 million martyred men and the dignity of 2 million violated women.”

A price that steep is difficult to forget. And even after four decades, Bangladesh continues to remember its heroes. A national monument called Shaheed Minar now stands in poignant silence within the premises of Dhaka University, paying tribute to all of Bangladesh’s shaheeds who made the supreme sacrifice for their motherland. Just like Datta.

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