THE influence and inspiration of the language movement have been enormous in many of our cultural and political achievements during the past fifty-five years. It is generally agreed that the seed of our language-based nationalism started to grow from the very womb of the language movement. This view has earned almost universal acceptance in the historiography of the Bengali nationalism retailed by our educated middle class. On the other hand, serious debates are still raging from different political positions about the leadership of the language movement. But no such debate is noticeable on the importance of the people’s role in the movement. This is because there exists unanimity among the practitioners of history of Bengali nationalism that the task of the people is to follow the directives of the political parties and the elite political leadership. Debates do take place on issues such as the role of various leaders or the achievements of different political parties in the movement. Although these debates have not contributed much to our understanding of the history of the movement, the names in the list of the language veterans have grown longer as a result. These veterans are quite well-known to us. They belong to the middle class, are university educated and overt or covert members of one or the other political party. The task of weighing them on the measuring scale of history started since 1952. It is well known by now that some of the participants have even resorted to fraudulent claims to exaggerate their roles in the movement.
In this essay I want to discuss a neglected side of the historiography of the language movement. For example, what was the role of the ordinary people, whom we call the ‘public’ in the language movement? And why did they participate in the movement on such a wide scale? If the birth of language based nationalism is to be considered since 1952, then what was it like in the initial stage? After half a century I would like to start a debate on these aspects of the movement.
Let us first take up the question of people’s participation. Hardly a quarter of a year passed after Pakistan came into being in August 1947, the first clash on the question of language took place at Palashi Barrack in Dhaka city after 11 am in the morning of 12 December 1947.When a group of around 40 people riding a bus named Mukul started to shout slogans in favour of Urdu, someone from among the people who had assembled in front of Palashi barrack and Ahsanullah Engineering College shouted back slogans in favour of Bangla language. Reacting to this, the passengers of the bus, who were described in the official report as ‘hooligans’, attacked the assembled people with sticks. The names of those injured, as found in the official records, were the first victims of repression in the language movement. They included one guard, four cooks, two students and the rest clerks of government offices. It is possible to conclude, from this description, the social and economic status of those who protested and faced repression for defending their mother tongue.
Let us now look at the list of martyrs in the clashes of 21 and 22 February 1952. Abul Barakat was a student; Rafiquddin used to work in his father’s press, Abdul Jabbar was the owner of a small shop while Shafiqur Rahman was an employee of Dhaka High Court. Wahidullah was the son of a mason and Abdul Awal was a rickshaw puller; although the latter two were claimed to have been killed by motor accident in the official records. The cause of Wahidullah’s death was mentioned in the official record as ‘bullet wounds’.
Besides, the diary entries of Tajuddin Ahmed on 22, 23, 24 and 25 February, 1952, mention spontaneous strikes by the people in Dhaka and its surroundings. That means strikes were observed in Dhaka and elsewhere in the province without directives from any leader or organisation. The first Shaheed Minar was erected on the night of February 23, in the premise of the Dhaka Medical College. Shaheed Haider, a student of the medical college, who was the designer of the minar, mentions that apart from two masons, many canteen boys helped in its construction. They were the core workers of the construction team for the minar at that time.
Another important event took place on February 29, when Momtaz Begum, the headmistress of Narayanganj Morgan High School, was arrested for actively participating in the Language Movement. While she was being transported to Dhaka after her arrest, a large number of people obstructed the police van when it approached Chashara station. Badruddin Umar wrote that a large number of those who obstructed the police van were ‘ordinary people’. These were the people who certainly did not have the capacity to educate their children at Morgan High School. Why did such a huge number of people resist Momtaz Begum’s arrest then? The clashes with the public became so wid spread after 21 February that the government was in a way forced to concede to the demands for Bengali as a state language.
At a time when 85 per cent people of East Bengal were illiterate, why did the ordinary people join this movement for language rights? What was the nature of the conjuncture in the movement of the illiterates and the educated middle class? And what was the level of people’s participation? This is the subject of my discussion. Was the language movement such pure gold that there was no blight in it? Should not the noise of one or two accomplishments of the ordinary people become audible amid the crescendo of glory surrounding the role played by the educated middle class? Was there any other question related to the mobilisation of people in the language movement? Has any experience of braiding of the two strands of mobilisation or any experience of the living, which contradicts the myths, especially those created after the emergence of Bangladesh as a nation state, been archived in our national memory? If these questions are explored, then we can get an idea of the role of the ‘illiterate’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘superstitious’ collective called the ‘people’, and of their consciousness.
Badruddin Umar, who has authored three volumes on the language movement, holds the view that the way this movement spread to the villages outside Dhaka proved that the social, economic, political and cultural issues of the people merged with the language question of 1952. Our historiography lacks an explanation of how this merger was achieved. I shall only attempt to offer a preliminary explanation of how the protests by the educated middle class and the illiterate peasants and workers were woven together. It has been proved in recent research on nationalism that in pre-capitalist societies the contradiction that exists between the state and the peasantry creates space for the elite aspiring for state power to unite with the latter. This aspect should be considered seriously while exploring deeply the question of participation of the masses in the language movement.
People’s disillusionment with the food policy, market price of agricultural commodities, the behaviour of bureaucrats and the members of the law enforcing agencies, especially the police, in the newly created state of Pakistan are important inputs for our discussion. We know that the cordon and levy systems — introduced throughout East Bengal following food shortage after 1947 — made the life of the peasants miserable. Added to this was the repression of the police and the bureaucracy. The nature of police repression would be apparent from the following statistics. On the pretext of maintaining law and order, the police opened fire at the people 38 times in 1948, 90 times in 1949, 110 times in 1950, and 50 times in 1951. Examples of police-people clashes during this period abound in official records. There were reports of people-police clashes even on flimsy grounds. From a news item published in the October 16, 1947, issue of the Dainik Azad it is gathered that around 3,000 people had taken away 200 boats from the police earlier seized by the latter for breaking the cordon law. Details of many such incidents are found in the official documents of the period. The excesses committed by the forces had been admitted by higher bureaucracy. In the Police order No.1 of 1949, issued by the Inspector General of Police on April 21, 1949, it was noted that, ‘there has been an unfortunate increase in the cases of firing by the Police’. In spite of this cautionary note from the highest Police authority, the situation remained unchanged.
In 1952, the police, engaged in maintaining law and order, had almost lost their legitimacy among the people. On the other hand, the economy in the agricultural sector was facing a disaster. The late Tajuddin Ahmed mentions in his diary entry dated February 29, 1952, ‘Jute price unusually went down since the middle of February from an average of [Tk] 40/- P.M. [per maund] top and 28/- P.M. bottom to 25/- P.M top and 15/- P.M bottom. Last year in the same days any kind of jute was about 50/- per maund, upto 65/- highest in village markets’. Tajuddin Ahmed also mentioned that the middle and lower middle class peasants were seriously affected due to the wrong policies of the government. He further observed that a deep frustration pervaded the minds of the peasants from the middle of February. On the other hand the price of rice was very high similar to the previous year. Rice was being sold at Tk 15 per maund. Tajuddin Ahmed wrote that the economic condition was disastrous. The state of the economy as described in his diary and the actions of the police as evident in contemporary official documents make clearer the logic of ‘spontaneous’ participation of peasants and workers in the movement initiated by the educated middle class for the right of language. In such circumstances, it is not difficult to understand why the peasants and the ordinary people were participants in the mobilisations of the language movement. But to document the reason for unity between these two classes, the language, metaphors, rhetoric employed in the movement and the tradition of popular protests in East Bengal should be examined properly. Above all, the nature of ordinary people’s political consciousness should be explored to make sense of the sporadic and short-lived upsurges that had routinely rocked the social world of Bangladesh. Even a more important issue is to understand the nature of braiding that takes shape between the elite leadership and the ordinary people in pushing forward the agenda political change in Bangladesh. Future research will, hopefully, shed more light on these issues.