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Remembering Dhirendranath Datta

Hero of the Bengali language movement

Published : 28 Mar 2024 10:04 PM | Updated : 29 Mar 2024 01:01 AM

The day was March 29, 1971. The Pakistani military junta had launched its infamous ‘Operation Searchlight’ to clamp down on Bengali nationalists in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Dhirendranath Datta, the 84-year-old freedom fighter, became the target of the onslaught against the Bengali community. 

He was arrested along with his son, Dilipkumar Datta, from his residence in Comilla district by the Pakistan army. The duo was taken to the Mainamati Cantonment where they were tortured to death. Their bodily remains were disposed of in such a manner that they were never found.

Dhirendranath Datta was the first East Pakistani to openly advocate for the inclusion of the Bengali language as a medium of instruction in the Pakistani Constituent Assembly. The name of Dhirendranath Datta, who died such a tragic death for his nation at the hands of the barbaric Pakistan military, still remains unknown to the Bengali community and the people of the Indian subcontinent at large.

Born on November 2 in 1886, Datta fought for India’s independence from British rule. He participated in agitation against the Partition of Bengal (1905), the Non-Cooperation movement (1920-1922) and the Quit India movement (1942-1945).He was arrested several times for his anti-British stance. A lawyer by occupation, Dhirendranath Datta devoted his time and energy to social welfarism (including relief work during the devastating Bengal famine of 1943).

In 1937, he joined politics and became a member of the Bengal Legislative Council. Although he opposed Partition along religious lines, Dhirendranath Datta refused to flee East Pakistan after India’s Independence. Instead, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to frame the Constitution of Pakistan. The defining moment of his political career came on February 25, 1948, when he proposed the use of Bengali at par with Urdu and English in the Assembly. Dhirendranath Datta thus became 

the first East Pakistani to openly advocate for the acknowledgement of the Bengali identity and inclusion of the Bengali language as a medium of instruction in the Pakistani Constituent Assembly. However, his motion was turned down both by then CM of East Bengal, Khwaja Nazimuddin, and the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan. This resulted in widespread resentment among the students and intellectuals of East Pakistan and culminated in the Bengali Language movement.

Some of the excerpts of the historic proposition of Dhirendranath Datta in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on February 25, 1948, are reproduced below: 

“I know, Sir, that Bangla is a provincial language, but so far our state is concerned, it is the language of the majority of the People of the state.

So although it is a provincial language, as it is a language of the majority of the people of the state and it stands on a different footing, therefore. Out of six crores and ninety lakhs of people inhabiting this State, 4 crores and 40 lakhs of people speak the Bangla language.

So, Sir, what should be the State language of the State? The State language of the state should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the State, and for that, Sir, I consider that Bangla language is a lingua franca of our State.

A poor cultivator, who has got his son, Sir, as a student in the Dhaka University and who wants to send money to him, goes to a village Post Office and he asked for a money order form, finds that the money order form is printed in Urdu language. He cannot send the money order but shall have to rush to a distant town and have this money order form translated for him and then the money order, Sir, that is necessary for his boy can be sent.

These are the difficulties experienced by the Common man of our State. The language of the state should be such which can be understood by all. The common man numbering four crores and four million feels that the proceedings of this Assembly which is their mother of parliaments is being conducted in an alien language.

So, Sir, I know I am voicing the sentiments of the vast millions of our State and therefore, Bangla should not be treated as a Provincial Language. It should be treated as the language of the State. And therefore, Sir, I suggest that after the word ‘English’, the words ‘Bangla’ be inserted in Rule 29.”

In 1954, Datta expressed his discontentment against the high-handedness of the West Pakistani government by moving an adjournment motion against the imposition of Governor’s Rule in East Pakistan. He continued his political career under Ataur Rahman Khan and served as the Minister of Health and Social Welfare in the East Pakistani government between 1956 and 1958.

In 1960, he was handed an Elective Bodies Disqualification Order (EBDO), two years after martial law was declared in Pakistan. Dhirendranath Datta was placed under house arrest during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Although he retired from active politics soon after, he continued to uphold the spirit of Bengali nationalism and maintained good relations with prominent Bengali leaders. On March 29, 1971, he along with his son Dilipkumar Datta was forcibly disappeared by the West Pakistani army and killed at the Mainamati Cantonment. He was 84 at the time of his death.

While he was not alive to witness East Pakistan’s Independence and the formation of present-day Bangladesh, his contribution to the Bengali language movement has been immense. However, his legacy has been forgotten by the citizens of Bangladesh. Today, his ancestral house in Comilla lies in tatters. In 2010, it was declared that the residence of Dhirendranath Datta would be converted into a museum but no progress has been made so far on that front.

In an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Post Correspondent, Dhirendranath Datta’s granddaughter Aroma Datta, MP talked about his contributions. “He (Dhirendranath Datta) was a secular and peace-loving person. He used to read books of all religions. He advocated religious harmony. He always dreamt of living in a secular country,” she said.

She urged the government to keep his memory alive by establishing a monument in the capital city of Dhaka. “He was the torchbearer for establishing Bangla as state language. In order to preserve the memory of Dhirendranath Datta, it is necessary to construct a square named after him along with his bust sculpture,” she said.

The historic Bengali Language Movement in 1952 stands out as the single most important event that shaped our identity as an independent country. It shaped the revolution that took the form of our Liberation War.

Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta whose historic 1948 speech ignited the spark for the Language Movement remains as one of the foremost war heroes of our history. The story of the luminary has screened with ‘Obinasshor’, a docu-fiction film. National Award-winning director Fakhrul Arefeen Khan has made the documentary film titled ‘Obinashor’ on Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta.

The documentary film has been made with government grant for 2019-20 fiscal year. The shooting of the film took place at different locations in Kushtia and Dhaka districts. About the project, Fakhrul Arefeen said, “Dhirendranath Datta was the first person, who took the first step in the language movement in Bangladesh. And that’s why he was killed in 1971.” 

“The main objective of the documentary on the life and work of Dhirendranath Datta is to convey the true history and consciousness of the Bengali language movement and Liberation War to the younger generation,” he added.

Again another artistic work has been made on the legendary life of Dhirendranath Datta. Documentary film on Martyr Dhirendranath Datta titled ‘Titas Parer Manushti: Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta’ has been directed by renowned filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel and produced by Datta's family members. It’s 70-minute film on Martyr Dhirendranath Dutta life. 

During a conversation with Mohammad Habibur Rahman, the District Commissioner (DC) of Brahmanbaria, regarding preparations for the death anniversary of Dhirendranath Datta, he mentioned that there isn't a concrete plan in place yet. However, he expressed the intention to commemorate the occasion, acknowledging Dhirendranath Datta's significant contribution to the Bangla language, despite his relatively unsung status.