Adiba Mahbub Proma
1947 marked the end of the 200-year British rule with the second partition taking place. After much agitation the British Empire of India was finally divided. Thus, India and Pakistan were born. The new East Pakistanis had dreamt of a new beginning- one of freedom and peace. However, their happiness was rather short-lived as the ruling parties from West Pakistan began attacking the culture and heritage of their Bengal motherland. The first stab taken was at our sweet mother-tongue Bangla.
In November 1947, the Pakistan Educational Conference proposed that Urdu will be the only national language. This meant that the educated society of East Bengal would lose its edge on jobs and government positions because of language restrictions. Making Urdu the national language would certainly put Bengalis at a major disadvantage. After many meetings and demonstrations, the first Rastra bhasa Sangram Parishad or National Language Action Committee was formed by the students of East Pakistan just a month later in retaliation to this proposal.
Attempts were made for a peaceful solution with the assembly member Dhirendranath Datta proposing legislation at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to let members speak and use Bangla in offices. However, the Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan and the Muslim League of West dismissed the legislation, labeling it as an attempt to divide the Pakistanis.
Agitations increased throughout the year of 1948. Triggered by the Governor General Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s speeches on how “Urdu, and only Urdu!” will be the state language upon his arrival on the Racecourse Ground and at Curzon Hall of University of Dhaka, more meetings and demonstrations opposing the decision continued. While political arrests were on the rise, the spirit of the Bengalis in protecting their mother language was high and mighty!
The issue was again brought up in 1952 when Jinnah's successor, Governor-General Khawaja Nazimuddin defended the "Urdu-only" policy in a speech on January. The National Language Action committee called for a massive protest on 21 February, with strikes and rallies.
While the government banned all gatherings that day, the early morning of 21st February saw students gathering at the University of Dhaka in defiance. The brave students marched on despite warnings with tear gas from the police. Arresting several students did nothing to reduce their spirits. More students gathered around the East Bengal Legislative Assembly and blocked the legislators' way, asking them to support their cause. And when a group of students tried to enter the building, the police opened fire on the students. The streets of Dhaka were bloodied by student martyrs such as Salam, Rafiq, Barkat and Jabbar.
The blood battle continued till the 22nd. Finally, throughout the night of 23rd February, the students of Dhaka Medical College constructed a Shaheed Smritistombho, or Monument of Martyrs to commemorate those that gave their lives on the 21st and the 22nd. Completed at dawn on 24 February and inaugurated by the father of the slain activist Sofiur Rahman, the monument’s name was attached to it on a handwritten note, representing the love of Bengalis for their mother language. However, it was soon destroyed by the police on the 26th.
Shaheed Minars through the ages
Two years after the destruction, a new Shaheed Minar with exactly the same design as the previous was constructed. Inaugurated by the then Professor of Dhaka University, Natyaguru Nurul Momen, it was a symbol of the ongoing struggle to give Bangla its rightful place.
With the support of the United Front ministry, the architect Hamidur Rahman started designing a larger monument in 1957. It consisted of a half-circular column which symbolized a mother with her martyred sons standing elevated in the center. Despite much interruption due to ongoing tension between the East and the West, the Shaheed Minar was completed and inaugurated on 21 February 1963 by Abul Barkat's mother, Hasina Begum. Alas, the monument was demolished by the Pakistani army during the Liberation War of 1971.
Following the 1963 design, a committee headed by the then president Abu Sayeed Chowdhury was formed in 1972 to rebuild the monument. The monument was completed quite quickly, and the area was once again filled with flowers from grievers on National Mother Language Day. Finally during the 1983 renovation, marble stones were used, giving us our current Shaheed Minar.
The Language Movement had a major cultural impact on Bengali society. It has inspired the development and celebration of the Bengali language, literature and culture. On 17th November 1999, UNESCO supported Bangladesh’s proposal to declare 21 February as International Mother Language Day. From the Ekushey boi mela to the Ekushey Padak, Bangladesh had found various ways to celebrate the Language movement and mourn its martyrs. In fact, even the world joins in this celebration, taking a moment to appreciate their own mother languages, and marveling at the bravery shown by the sons of Bengal during the Language Movement.