The 21st February is a red-letter day in our national life. On this day in 1952, the brave sons of our motherland laid down their lives to protect the interest of our mother tongue.
When Pakistan was created in 1947, it had two geographically separate parts: East Pakistan (currently known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently known as Pakistan). The two parts were very different from each other in the sense of culture and language. The two parts were also separated by India in between.
In 1948, the then Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan, even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of people combining East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The East Pakistan people protested, since the majority of the population was from East Pakistan and our mother language is Bangla. We demanded Bangla to be at least one of the national languages, in addition to Urdu. The demand was raised first by Dhirendranath Datta from East Pakistan on 23 February 1948, in the constituent Assembly of Pakistan.
To demolish the protest, the government of Pakistan outlawed public meeting and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka, with the support of the general public, arranged massive rallies and meetings. On 21 February 1952, police opened fire on rallies. Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Jabbar and Shafiur Rahman died, with hundreds of others injured. This was a rare incident in history, where people sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.
Since then, Bangladeshis celebrate the Mother Language Day on 21st February as one of our tragic days. We visit the Shaheed Minar, a monument built in memory of the martyrs and its replicas to express our deep sorrow, respect and gratitude to them.
This signalled some other significant features of the post-1952 phase of intense struggle to generate defiance and stimulate the development of more mass movements in future. In early 1971, our central task was to deploy mass people against the Pakistani military government in a credible revolutionary offensive. Each people reiterated and refined the demands for rights and freedom and built support for the cause of establishing Bangladesh.
The Language Movement of 1952 is the fledgling mass movement of people of all classes and religions that could herald a people’s movement truly independent of nationalism and Bengali, being our state language. Each generation of us faces a different set of economic, political, and social conditions. There are no easy formulas for challenging injustice and promoting democracy. But unless we know this history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and what still needs to change to make Bangladesh more livable, humane, and democratic.
The course of our movements explores the history, sociology, and politics of Bangladesh’s struggles for freedom and social justice. The organising class puts more emphasis on fighting for social change. The bottom line of course is to encourage students to see themselves as potential history-makers, by learning from the past and learning the skills and analytic tools to help mobilise people for action now and in the future.
But we can be prideful and joyful especially because of our triumph or success of our just cause. 21st February, 1952 is a milestone in our history of struggles to establish Bangladesh and Bengali language as our state language. This is a solitary event in the world history that a sovereign and independent country was born in 1971 based on a nation’s mother tongue.
21st February has taught us that this struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
In everyday parlance, that sometimes the time was ripe for movements to emerge, to grow, and to bring about change. Ultimately, movements are about real people making choices about how to use their time, talents, and resources. Our great leaders and patriotic people did the right thing at the right time to throw away the yoke of the roughshod Pakistani rule which persecuted us for more than two decades. Howard Zinn competently said, “Freedom and democracy does not come from the government, from on high, it comes from people getting together and struggling for justice.”
Politicians are elected and selected, but mass movements transform societies. Judges uphold, strike down, or invent brand new law, but mass movements drag the courts, laws and officeholders all in their wake. Progressive and even partially successful mass movements can alter the political calculus for decades to come, thus improving the lives of millions. All our struggles were hard-won outcomes of protracted struggle by progressive mass movements, every one of them are epoch-making.
A mass movement aims to persuade courts, politicians and other actors to tail behind it, not the other way around. Mass movements accomplish this through appeals to shared sets of deep and widely held convictions among the people they aim to mobilise, along with acts or credible threats of sustained and popular civil disobedience. All our mass movements are politically aggressive. And that’s why, we achieved success every time.
Mass movements are kindled into existence by unique combinations of outraged public opinion in the movement’s core values, political opportunity and aggressive leadership. The absence of any of these can prevent a mass movement from materialising, but in our movement of 21st February in 1952, the seeds of something may have been sown to eventually emerge Bangladesh as a new independent and sovereign state in 1971.
A progressive mass movement is inconceivable without a prominent place for the energy and creativity of youth. The movements in 1952, 1962, 1966 and 1969 for the upright causes of our people were spearheaded, and often led by young people. Any mass movement aiming at social transformation must capture the enthusiasm and energy of youth, including the willingness of young people to engage in personally risky behaviour.
A mass movement consciously aims to lead politicians, not to be led by them. Mass movements are civilly disobedient, and continually maintain the credible threat of civil disobedience. Bangladesh’s people remain in remarkable, consistent agreement on political issues, a shared commonality of views that holds strongly across lines of gender and age. A mass movement is an assertion of popular leadership by the people themselves. It makes politicians into followers. It truly happened in our country. As a matter of fact, the mass movement of 21st February 1952 acted as a prelude to the creation of Bangladesh.
It is also gratifying that in 1999, UNESCO declared 21st February as ‘International Mother Language Day’. This declaration has turned a national celebration into an international event. We used to celebrate the day at our national level because it was not only important regarding our mother tongue. Rather, the day had greatly influenced all the struggles of the people to establish legal rights including our Liberation War.
But with the declaration of the UNESCO, a new dimension has been added to the day. The teaching of the day is that we all should respect the mother languages of others.
Our mother language is our unique possession. In the same way, other people’s mother languages are also priceless to them. In broader sense, the day teaches us to have respect for people’s rights.
On this day, everybody wakes up early and gathers before the martyrs’ monument barefooted just to offer their profound respect to the martyrs. The govt. and different organizations arrange programmers to celebrate the day. All the states under UNO also celebrate the 21st February as International Mother Language Day every year.
The writer is an independent political analyst who writes on politics, political and human-centred figures, current and international affairs