Birth of Bangladesh (and the origins of the International Mother Language Day 21 February)

I remember 17 December 1971 very well. I had been in England just over one year and two months during which time I had learnt a little about East Pakistan. It was part of Pakistan that I had not heard of until I came to England as a 12 year old. But then I didn’t know much about anything, being the age I was and having grown up in a rural community in Kashmir which had no contact with the outside world. We had not much access to radio or newspapers and no television (there was no electricity). And now East Pakistan had become Bangladesh.

Upon arrival in Birmingham I began to read Urdu newspapers. There was much coverage about East Pakistan. There was also much talk about Pakistan where an election was taking place, first such election in the history of the nation. 

Following the election I remember learning about the war in East Pakistan. This I believed was because the East Pakistanis wanted to become separate from Pakistan. I thought they were terrible people (for this was how they were portrayed in the Pakistani press). 

I also learnt there was some sort of disaster which had led to many people dying. This had led to a concert being organised in the West. I saw the film – A Concert for Bangladesh – at the cinema in Quinton, Birmingham. This was the concert where people had applauded Ravi Shankar, when he was tuning his sitar. 

Since then I have been trying to educate myself about what was East Pakistan, the birth of Bangladesh and the reasons for it. It took little time and learning effort to come to the conclusion that there was much reason for the new country to be born. I even wondered what took them so long. 

By 1979 I had a very different view of the Bangladesh situation and those who had come from there and were now living in Birmingham. It was this year that I established the Asian Studies, a course which enabled white public sector professionals to learn about the Asian communities they served. I made sure the Bangladeshi community was included alongside Pakistanis and Indians. 

Late, after deciding to become a baptised Christian, one of the first volunteering roles I had was to chair the Management Committee of St James Advice Centre which served the Bangladeshi community and which was staffed by the Bangladeshi Zia ul-Islam. A few years later I led the Birmingham Asian Role Models project. The 20 people I included in proportion to their presence in Birmingham had Tozammel Huq. Also, I took any opportunity to develop friendships with Bangladeshis wherever I could. 

My learning journey about Bangladesh has continued. Many years ago I picked up a copy of the book The Last Days of United Pakistan by GW Choudhury (1974). The author had been a member of the Pakistan Cabinet in 1969 so was able to see the situation first hand as it developed into the final breakup of Pakistan. He was of the view that there were similarities between the Muslim nationalism of undivided India and Bengali sub-nationalism within united Pakistan. He quoted an East Pakistani political leader:

What was the original demand of the Muslim League in India before independence? Fair shares – in appointments, in jobs, in political influence. It was only the blindness and selfishness of the Hindus that translated that into the demand for partition and now the West wing [West Pakistan] is taking the same attitude to us.

Elsewhere the author goes onto sum up the fundamental problem that led to the break up of Pakistan:

In a democracy, the majority should not have to ask for safeguards, such as regional autonomy, reservation of places in the civil service and the Army, and guarantees that the economic development of their region would not be neglected nor their culture threatened.

And yet, throughout its existence it is exactly these guarantees that the majority Bengali group had to seek. “When they were not granted Bengali sub-nationalism gathered momentum until ultimately it became a national movement for the creation of a separate state”.

My most recent reading matter about the Bangladeshi community has included the works of Aftab Rahman and Mashkura Begum. Since then I have read two more books (and a few other bits of information); the first of these was ‘Tony – the life of Tozammel Huq MBE’. ‘The making of Bangladesh as I saw it’ is the second book I read, by Muhammed Idrish. The author provides a first-hand perspective on his birthplace.

I learnt from these books that the seeds for Bangladesh were sown at least as long ago as 1948. According to Huq, “In February 1948 an announcement was made that Urdu was to become the official language of Pakistan”. The decision was embedded in 1952 when the Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin declared that “Urdu would be established as the sole official language of Pakistan. He went onto suggest that regional languages, if written at all, should use the Persian script to maintain compatibility with Urdu and emphasise the Islamic spirit of Pakistan”. The Bengali script is not Persian-based but derived from Brahmi.

We learn from Huq that politically conscious people across East Pakistan listened to this decree with horror and outrage: “the suggestion that Bengali should be reduced to a regional patios written in an alien script was just too much for any true Bengali to bear”. They planned a demonstration to be held on 21 February 1952.

Language martyrs, the birth of the International Mother Language Day

While all public protests were banned the Dhaka demonstration on 21 February went ahead. There was a stand-off between the demonstrators and the large number of police. Shots were fired which led to the killing of several of the student protestors. This tragic incident was a major turning point in the birth of Bangladesh. From that day onwards it was not a matter of if but when the citizens would achieve independence from their current oppressors. Four years later Bengali did get recognition as the official language of East Pakistan.

Idrish tells us:

On 21 February 1952, police opened fire with live ammunition on unarmed student protestors outside Dhaka university, killing five students. it outraged the whole of the Bengali population of the country.

Huq was 12 years of age at the time of the language demonstration. It was to prove formative for him and he would go onto play a key role in response. 21 February became established as the Language Martyrs Day.

In 1988 Huq was appointed Ambassador of Bangladesh to France and concurrently as Ambassador to Spain and Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. Federico Mayor, Director General of UNESCO 1987-1999, in his Introduction to Huq’s book says the following:

Tony played a crucial and significant role with regard to UNESCO’s proclamation of 21 February as an international Mother Language Day. The proposal was sent to UNESCO at its headquarters in Paris in late summer 1999 by the Government of Bangladesh…. Tony had already talked to me about it and briefed me about the history and significance of 21st February 1952. He requested my support to which I agreed.    

UNESCO wanted to delay the adoption of 21 February but “on the strength of Tony’s argument” “relented” and “agreed to revive the proposal” and “unanimously passed the resolution in November 1999 “.

Language was not the only issue. It was obvious that all of the development efforts of the government were centred on West Pakistan even though the East wing contained more than half of the country’s total population.

New capital? West Pakistan. Major infrastructure projects? West Pakistan. Industrial development? West Pakistan. Head offices of the banks and financial houses? West Pakistan. If a new era was dawning it was certainly not promising much for East Pakistan.

Huq was active in student politics. This led him to attend a conference in Canada where he made a speech which was seen as sharply critical of the Pakistan government, headed by Ayub Khan. He was advised to not return home for fear of arrest. This he did by enrolling as a PhD student. However, after eighteen months he was persuaded to move to London, in 1963, where he enrolled at the Inner Temple, to study for the Bar.

Circumstances led for Huq to end up in Birmingham where he began working as a teacher in Balsall Heath, eventually to be the Headteacher at Ladypool School, in the late 1970s. This was when I first encountered him; I was a youth and community worker and had organised the Asian Studies. We learn that Huq married his wife Sheila, a school colleague, in Solihull on 26 October 1968.

Back in East Pakistan in November 1970 a cyclone had hit the area, causing almost half a million deaths and a million more became homeless. We learn from Idrish:

The Pakistan government was very slow in organising rescue and relief operations. For the first three days they even denied that anything serious had happened.

We heard that more than 200 relief planes landed in Dhaka airport from many countries of the world; only one of them was from West Pakistan.

I saw unburied dead bodies scattered around, some floating on the water. We had to divide ourselves into two groups: one group to orgnaise food for the living and the other to bury the dead. The bodies floating on the water were rotten and yellow in colour. The corpses washed ashore were so rotten and decomposed that we had to douse them with paraffin and burn them.

This neglect by the government was to inflame the independence movement.

Soon after an election was held which led to more than half of the seats being won by the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib, a colleague of Huq. According to Idrish:

The Awami League (led by Mujib) won 151 seats. This gave them an outright majority in a 300 seat Assembly.

Yahya Khan (the president of Pakistan) came to Dhaka soon afterwards, met Sheikh Mujib and told reporters that Sheikh Mujib would be the next Prime Minister. 

In West Pakistan the People’s Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won 81 seats.

Bhutto demanded power sharing. Sheikh Mujib refused.

In Birmingham and elsewhere in the UK, Huq played his full part in the Bangladesh struggle for independence.

Every weekday morning at 7 am he would be standing at the gate of one of the factories, Wilmot Breedon or BSA, talking to East Pakistani workers as they emerged from the night shift and collecting the small sums they were able to afford, five shillings here, ten shillings there. At 8.30 am he would report for duty at the school. then, after a full day of teaching, he would return to the factory gates to catch the workers as they poured out at the end of the day shift.

Idrish played a frontline role in the struggle for the new nation. He and his friends were a part of the home-made guerrilla movement:

A few rifles for our training were supplied by the police department. There was no ammunition; there was no shooting practice. Most of us carried replica wooden rifles, made by ourselves and painted black to give them an authentic look.

We learnt about various tactics in guerilla warfare. We were taught how to crawl on our knees and elbows holding a rifle parallel to the ground. … In the absence of the real thing we used dried mud balls as grenades.

We started imagining ourselves as Viet Cong guerillas fighting the Americans. We imagined ourselves in the army of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. We were the heroes in our own imagination.

  How the birth of Bangladesh was announced in these words:

‘At 16.31 hours Indian standard time, General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, commander of the Pakistan Eastern Command, surrendered to General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the general officer commanding of the Indian Eastern command at Ramna Race Course in Dacca. All fighting has ceased. Dacca (Dhaka) is now the free capital of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognise it as a significant milestone in man’s quest for liberty…….’.

Idrish tells us that a new country was born.

We were free. The hundred or so people who gathered round the radio burst into impromptu chants. People were chanting:

‘Victory to Bengal, victory to the freedom fighters.’

‘Joy Bangla, Joy Mukti Bahini.’ 

‘My country is Bangladesh, your country is Bangladesh.’

‘Amar Desh,Tomar Desh, Bangladesh, Bangladesh.’ 

People hugged each other and marched through the country paths in darkness. There was an outpouring of emotion and people were crying tears of joy. All-India radio played:-

‘A million salutes to you, whose name is Bangladesh’

‘Lakho se Salaam, Bangladesh Zisco Nam.’ “

Idrish tells the story in these words:

….. When I reached the Nazneen Cabinet firm, I saw a group of young boys sitting in front of the shop commonly known as the Inspector’s shop, which belonged to retired food inspector Muhammad Abdul Bari. They were holding rifles in their hands but their heads were lowered. They were in a very dishevelled state.

I recognised one of them, a student of Rajendra College. They were Freedom Fighters and they had just entered the town. They were part of the Mukti Bahini unit which fought battles the week before with the Pakistani army at Karimpur Bridge, on the Jessore road, where some of their comrades had fallen. One of the fallen comrades was Meshbauddin Noufel, son of the shop’s owner. They had come to see Noufel’s parents who lived in their house behind the shop. I knew Noufel, a student of Rajendra College, a polite and intelligent boy. I felt sad.

I stood there for a while to pay my respects to them. I had a chat with them. Tears came to my eyes when one of them said, ‘Today everybody is happy but we are sad.’ I could say nothing in reply; there was no reply.

Uncomfortable questions

An indication of my interest in Bangladesh is the various material that I have gathered over the years. In a democracy it is the norm that the political party that wins the most seats forms the government. This had not happened when it came to the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib who had won 160 of the 300 seats for the National Assembly. 81 of the seats were won by the Pakistan People’s Party (led by Bhutto in West Pakistan).

In his article – who broke up Pakistan? The Nation from London 19-25 May 2007 – Aqeel Daanish spoke of the phrase “idhar hum udhar tum” (us here, you there), which was referenced to Bhutto who had won most seats in West Pakistan and Mujib had won the most seats in East Pakistan. So, Bhutto was effectively saying two majority parties would rule in the different wings of Pakistan, in other words a break up of the country. The writer also points out that right from day one East Pakistan was treated as alien and its population (majority of the nation) were ruled by the Western wing (the minority).

For Syed Munawar Hasan (The Nation 17.12.2005)

“dismemberment of Pakistan is to date the worst disaster of our national history. Its route cause was the sense of deprivation among Bengalis caused by dictatorial policies of the rulers from Pakistan. However, the refusal to accept the results of 1970 elections proved to be the last nail in the coffin”.

He also confirmed the ‘idhar hum, udhar tum’ intention of Bhutto.

Ahmad Faruqi (The Nation 11-17 December 2009) wrote an article on the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh; the title says it all: ‘The darkest December’. The longstanding cause of this for him went back to the early days after Pakistan had come into existence.

Since the two wings did not share a common language, it made no sense to impose a single language on them. Imposing Urdu, a minority language spoken in the west, made even less sense. But that was precisely what was done in 1952. Deadly language riots ensued in the east.

He goes onto point out that in the years that followed the Bengalis felt like they had traded one colonial master for another. This was the same point Choudhury had made:

The Bengalis found a new ruling group set over them in place of the former British officials.

It is pleasing to see that some in the Pakistani civic society have continued to ask questions about the separation of East and West Pakistan. Recently, it was asked: why was Sheikh Mujib not invited to form the government when he had won the most number of seat? This was by the journalist Tanveer Zaman Khan. The answer is obvious: Because he was from East Pakistan. It was inconceivable for the West Pakistani dominated government including and especially for the largest political party Pakistan People’s Party led by Zualfiqar Ali Bhutto. According to Tanveer Zaman Khan, for the previous three decades the Western wing had exploited East Pakistan’s resources- rice, tea and patsun (white jute). Any resources in the western wing were treated as belonging to the provinces but the resources of the eastern wing were seen as belonging to the Centre (meaning the West). Choudhury confirmed this:

East Pakistan earned most of the country’s foreign exchange by the export of jute; yet most of the foreign exchange was spent on the industrialization of West Pakistan.

Idrish provides an example of Bengali exclusion. He mentioned that in 1971 he was watching a cricket match between an international team and the Pakistan national team (who for the first and only time had included one single Bengali player).

I end this review note with two quotes, from Idrish. The first of Joan Baez singing the song of Bangladesh:

When the sun sinks in the west

Die a million people of Bangladesh

The American poet and activist Allen Ginsberg visited the refugee camps in Kolkata and wrote his famous poem September on Jessore Road:

Millions of fathers in rain

Millions of mothers in pain

Millions of brothers in woe

Millions of sisters nowhere to go

Happy belated 52nd birthday anniversary to the nation of Bangladesh. May its people, home and abroad, forever go on prospering.