Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Religious

International Mother Language Day

Language is the most important and principal method of communication between humans and only language sets us apart from other animals. Yes, animals do communicate by making noises, by the sign language or by body language. But we, the Homo sapiens, had taken the method of communication to a higher level by inventing language comprising letters, words, punctuation etc in structured forms to convey our feelings by oral and written methods.

Thus, language confers us our mode of expression, our identity, our existential experience. We inherit it from our mothers, almost through umbilical cord – like blood, like nutrition. We develop our tongue like our mothers’ and that is why it is called the mother tongue and the language is called the mother language.

So, when language is challenged, the very identity is challenged. That is what happened immediately after the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The Two Nation Theory (TNT) propounded by Allama Iqbal in 1930 and supported by Mohammad Ali Jinnah to fork out a separate Muslim State called Pakistan in India was the beginning of Political Islam in India. The low-level sectarianism that had existed in India for centuries had been uplifted to communalism and patriotism by the support of the opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians.

The Indian subcontinent had been divided into India and Muslim Pakistan in August 1947. The province of East Pakistan comprising 55% of the whole country’s population was totally Bengali speaking, whereas West Pakistan having 45% population had Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi as well as Urdu speaking people; with Urdu spoken by about 7% population.

The fault line between the two provinces appeared in less than a year after partition when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in a speech on 21st March 1948 at the Race Course in Dhaka that Urdu would be the only national language of this nation. It was an injustice of monumental scale. It was an attempt to rob the mother language of 55% of the people and impose Urdu in the name of Islam.

The students from university level downwards felt betrayed and humiliated. Only a few months ago they spearheaded the creation of the Muslim State on the assumption that two provinces would be self-governing with their own culture, own language. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went to Guwahati, Assam in 1946 with more than 500 students from Calcutta to campaign in the plebiscite in Assam for Pakistan. Now they were at the brink of losing their language, their identity!

The students’ movement started to grow; low level local protests merged into sub-district and district levels. From 1948 to 1952 students’ grievances and anger were palpable and at the boiling point. They felt that they had been made to jump, at the urging of the politicians, religious leaders and above all their parents, from frying pan to fire!

The students took a decision to observe the Language Movement Day on 21 February, 1952 throughout the whole province and Dhaka University students took the lead. The government declared Section 144 of the Penal Code in Dhaka and banned all assemblies of more than five people. But schools, colleges and universities were left open and so assemblies of five or more people were inevitable. The government of Pakistan wanted to teach a brutal lesson to the arrogant and disobedient students and thereby to the people of the province!

The students started gathering at the Dhaka University Arts Faculty campus in the morning of 21st February. They wanted to express their demand that Bengali should be one of the national languages of the country. Slowly and cautiously, they emerged through the main gate of the campus and turned left towards the Dhaka Medical College. They had no weapon of any sort and had only placards. Hardly the front the demonstration moved 100 meters or so, the waiting police at the edge of the campus opened fire on the students. Five students died almost instantly with blood spilling over the street and more than 17 students were seriously injured. In less than five years of creation of Pakistan, the students had to pay with their own blood for the sins of their forefathers (and their sins too) for opting for a Muslim State!

First Shaheed Minar in Dhaka in 1952

A day later the university students along with medical college students started building a monument in memory of their fallen students at the side of the road, which was only a stone’s throw away from the campus, and it was completed on 23rd Feb. The police came and with all their brutality desecrated the memory and demolished the monument. It was an insult to the memory of martyred students and an all-out onslaught on the people of East Pakistan. However, a few days later, on 26 February, 1952 the editor of local Bengali newspaper, Daily Azad, inaugurated a new monument within the compound of the Medical College and it had been named as the Shaheed Minar – the Martyrs’ Monument.

The government of Pakistan eventually accepted Bengali as one of the national languages of Pakistan, when the National Assembly adopted it on 7th May 1954. In Pakistan’s first Constitution in 1956, Bengali and Urdu were given the status of national languages under Article 214.

But what led to the bloodshed of students on the street of Dhaka could not be swept away any more. The constant denigration of Bengali culture and language by the Pakistani government, economic subjugation, employment disparity etc added fuel to the fire of language movement. On 26th March 1971, Pakistani military junta launched an unprovoked attack with full military force on civilians and the Dhaka university students and teachers to teach another lesson. The hitherto tenuous link of Muslim fraternity between the East and West had then broken down completely and after nine months of brutal war, Pakistan surrendered and Bangladesh achieved liberation on the 16th of December 1971.

Thus, Bangladesh became the first and only country in the world that fought for and gained freedom to preserve the mother language. In recognition of the unique sacrifice that the Bangladeshis made to establish Bengali as the national language, UNESCO had assigned 21st February as the International Mother Language Day. This day is celebrated throughout the whole world, wherever Bengalis are. The Bengali language is the 5th largest language in the world and is spoken by nearly 275 million people – Bangladesh (162 million), West Bengal (100 million) in India and the diaspora of Bengalis in the world (13 million). The top five languages are: 1. Mandarin Chinese (1051 million); 2. English (510 million); 3. Hindi (490 million); 4. Spanish (420 million) and 5. Bengali 275 million. Bengali is also one the culturally richest languages in the world, enriched by Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1912), Nazrul Islam, DL Roy, Atul Prasad, Bankim Chandra and many more.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Life as it is, Political

The Completion of Partition of India

From the early part of 17th century, the great news about India’s wealth and affluence started to spread far and wide and invariably it reached the Western ears. The West was, of course, the centres of political and military might of the world at that time. Although India’s population was about 10% of world population, its economy was more than 30% of world’s GDP, taking the whole of Western economy into consideration. The amazing quality of muslin fabric in Dhaka, the exotic aromatic spices of South India, the evocating flavour of Assam tea etc were great attractions to the Western explorers, adventurers, fortune seekers and, of course, colonizers.

The Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and latterly British fortune seekers and colonizers all started streaming in various guises at various ports of India, Sri Lanka and even beyond into Indonesia and so forth. But the golden goose of India was the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh and West Bengal in India) where wealth was fabulous, people were generous, mild-mannered and hospitable. But the provincial administration was ridden with selfishness, sycophancy, antagonism and conspiracy; in short, it was simply in dysfunctional state. On top of that, the Moghul Empire at the centre in Delhi was just crumbling down. The European fortune seekers and colonizers could not dream of a better set of conditions to fulfil their ambitions than in India.

The East India Company of Britain started their stall in Calcutta in the 17th century as a simple trading post for import and export of various commodities. As they made jaw-dropping profits and their economic and political powers grew much bigger for their boots, the British government took notice. Moreover, when America managed to tear itself away from the British hegemony, Britain turned its attention towards the East. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny (the 1st Indian War of Independence) when the British colonizers just managed to hang on to powers by the skin of their teeth, the East India Company was nationalised urgently and India was taken under the British Crown and it became officially a British colony in 1858 CE.

Fast forward nearly a hundred years and come to the turbulent period of 1940s, when World War II was ravaging and tearing apart the very fabric of human society and civilisation, Britain as a major combatant had no option but to agree to grant freedom to the people whose support she needed badly at that time. America also had been exerting tremendous amount of pressure on Britain to decolonise its territories. After the end of war in 1945, Britain started to decolonise in earnest and in great haste.

In India, the poison of sectarian division had been sown for decades, if not centuries, first by the petty bourgeoisie administration and then firmly by the British Raj to ‘Divide and Rule’ the country. The Hindus and Muslims had been told that they were totally different people, different race and different culture. It played very nicely at the hands of opportunistic Muslim and Hindu politicians and rulers, although the great national leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and a few other leaders took a somewhat different stance. They asserted that the Muslims and Hindus in independent India would live in self-governing states based on democratic principles. But that that did not assuage the fear of the underclass Muslims being overwhelmed by the Hindu majority or the Hindu superiority. The political leaders of the Hindu majority did nothing to dispel such fears of the minority community; on the contrary they were rather flaming the fears.

The two communities started drifting apart ever since Allama Iqbal proclaimed his sectarian Two-Nation Theory (TNT) in 1930, where he envisaged the creation of a separate Muslim State in the North West part of India for Indian Muslims. Only as an after-thought Iqbal said years later that there was no reason why Bengal should not join the Muslim State. Although Muhammad Ali Jinnah was not keen to have a separate Muslim State at the beginning, but under Iqbal’s persuasion and, to some extent, due to antagonistic attitudes of some communal Hindu politicians, he gradually drifted towards separate two-nation-state idea.

However, when at the Lahore Conference of the Muslim League (ML) in 1940, the creation of a Muslim State, called Pakistan, on the basis of two-nation theory was adopted, the partition of India was virtually sealed. Communal feelings ran high throughout the whole of India and sometimes they boiled over into communal riots. In the 1946 provincial election in British India, the creation of Pakistan was a matter of patriotism, self-preservation and religiosity all rolled into one for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslims in the province were mostly landless farmers, day labourers and contract workers. So, they took the election as an opportunity to seek emancipation from not only the British colonial yoke but also Hindu dominance.

The election was also taken as a new dawn for the Bengali Muslims. The Muslim League got nearly 95% Muslim seats (114 out of 119 of all Muslim seats) in Legislative Assembly of Bengal. That was the best performance of the Muslim League in the whole of the country. Although 114 seats out of the Provincial Seats of 250 were not the majority, but they were the overwhelmingly dominant group.

Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as a student leader, was a staunch supporter of the Muslim League and was associated with Husain Shahid Suhrawardy, a very prominent leader of the Muslim League from Bengal. He went to Sylhet with about 500 students from Calcutta to campaign for Pakistan before plebiscite in that district of Assam. The election result was the outcome of emancipation of dispossessed and landless farmers who had been promised to be made landed farmers.

Things started moving at break-neck speed after the Provincial Election in 1946. British Prime Minister Clement Attlee declared on 20 February, 1947 to give independence to India within two years. On 3rd June 1947, British government formally accepted the division of British India into India and Pakistan. However, nobody, not even the top leaders like Jinnah and Nehru had the faintest idea on 3rd June what the two countries would look like. Communal riots broke out throughout the whole country due to uncertainty. This vagueness had created a grave chaotic situation and aggravated the plight of people who suffered tremendously during the partition. Hindus in their millions moved from anticipated Pakistani territories in one direction and Muslims from Indian territories moved in the opposite direction and anger spilled over these moving migrants!

The British government washed its hands off from all responsibilities for the peaceful transfer of power and oversight of proper partition of the subcontinent under the guise of its commitment to transfer power as soon as possible. On 17th August 1947, the first batch of British military troops set sail out of Bombay for home. Both India and Pakistan had been left on their own devices to slug it out.

But the province of Bengal (the then East Pakistan) where the British East India Company first set its foot some 200 years ago was in much disorientated state. It joined up, albeit on the strength of the provincial election in 1946, with another province (in fact, four provinces in West Pakistan which were later merged into one) which was some 1500 miles away, separated by an enemy state (as per Pakistani version). There was no common tenuous bondage between these two provinces except only religion; everything else like culture, language, attire, attitude and even race were different. The state of Pakistan was simply huddled up on the outcome of an election, which was based on emotion and centuries of pent-up injustices on the Muslims, and from undue haste of the British colonial masters to depart.

Within one year of Pakistan’s independence, in 1948, the severe fault line appeared when Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in Dhaka, East Pakistan that Urdu would be the national language. But by far the majority, nearly 55%, of the whole country’s population was Bengali speaking and Urdu was spoken by less than 20% of the population. So, what was the justification for Urdu to be national language other than sheer subjugation of East Pakistan?

The Language Movement ensued in 1952 when police opened fire on unarmed university students and killed eight of them, when they demanded Bengali to be the national language.  Ever since that time, West Pakistan tried to kowtow the Bengalis into total submission and keep them as the underclass in the country. The Punjabis of West Pakistan started dominating by sheer military strength all spheres of activities in life – economy, education, employment, the civil service, sports and so forth and worst of all, they were conducting organised campaign to wipe out the Bengali identity by disenfranchising Bengali and to force people to learn Urdu. When Britain withdrew in 1947, Pakistan became the de-fact colonial power over East Pakistan and started exploiting with even more ruthlessness than the British.  

Independence Day 2018: London rises for Bangladesh liberation war 1971

Pertaining to Bangladesh liberation war, 1971

The independence for Bengalis (Muslims and Hindus) in Bangladesh did not come about until 16th December 1971, when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and became a sovereign independent state. So, it can truly be said that there was a hiatus of 24 years for the Bengalis. The process of independence, which started on 14th August 1947 when the British Crown hurriedly left the scene without fulfilling its colonial obligations and responsibilities, did not come to completion until the 16th December 1971. Then and only then the true partition could be said to have been completed.  

  •   Dr. Anisur Rahman (a nuclear scientist) is an author and a columnist and
  • Dr. Jadabeswar Bhatrtacharjee (a medical doctor) is a freelance writer.

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Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, International, Literary, Political

Tagore and Bengali Identity

If there is one person who embodies Bengal, Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore.

Tagore , ca, 1930
Rabindranath Tagore, ca. 1930

Bangladesh was liberated from the yoke of Pakistan in 1971 as the land of Bangla (বাংলা) speaking people; not as an outpost of alien culture of Pakistan or Middle East. What started as the language movement, following the brutal killing of university students in 1952 demanding Bengali as a national language, eventually turned into ‘linguistic nationalism’ that culminated in the liberation of Bangladesh.

For long 24 years, from 1947 to 1971, Pakistan tried to impose Urdu as the national language of Pakistan and obliterate Bengali language and Bengali culture from the indigenous population of the then East Pakistan. The leaders of Pakistan implanted and patronised Islamism in East Pakistan and that helped to evolve Razakar, al-Badr and many other factions of Islamist organisations during the liberation war not only to defeat the nationalist movement but also to wipe out Bengali-ness among the people. But they failed. These Razakars changed their guise, but maintained their ‘Muslim-ness’ as an opposition force against the dominant cultural identity of the people in post-independent Bangladesh.

The ‘Muslim’ identity people might have retreated temporarily following the defeat of their patron, Pakistan, but they were not beaten. They kept reappearing, as and when opportunity arose, to undermine Bengali language and culture. The other arm of their strategy is to propagate Islamic culture as a replacement of Bengali culture. The proliferation of ‘hijab’, ‘niqab’ and ‘burqa’ among Bangladeshi women, the trend of inserting adjuncts like ‘bin’ or ‘bint’ (for men and women respectively) in names, increasing use of Arabic words replacing common Bengali words, all testify cultural invasion under the guise of religion.

This twin strategy of undermining Bengali language and culture, and the import of alien culture had become apparent during the period of military rules in Bangladesh from 1975 to 1992 and then whenever Islamic-oriented political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), often supported by the more overtly Islamist organisations like Jamaat-e-Islam, came to power. Of late, in anticipation of the BNP coming to power in the forthcoming national election at the end of this year, these ‘Muslim’ identity people at the behest of BNP are gearing up and attacking Bengali language and culture.

Although, Willem van Schendel in his book ‘A History of Bangladesh’ identified two competing identity groups distinguishing them as (i) “Bengali-ness” that upholds Bangladesh as the homeland for Bengalis and embraces linguistic community of Tagore, Nazrul, Bankim, Madhushudan, Jasimuddin, Jibanananda Das, Sarat Chandra, Golam Mostafa and so forth and (ii) “Bangladeshi-ness” which takes the view that Bangladesh is, in effect, a logical outcome of Pakistan and the homeland of Muslim Bengal. As, the argument goes, without Pakistan, Bangladesh would not have come into existence and hence Bangladesh remains Muslim and it is ‘overwhelmingly and essentially Muslim’. (They conveniently forget or ignore the fact that during the liberation struggle they did everything to stop Bangladesh coming into existence and now they are claiming it to be Muslim Bangladesh!)

This second group, despite Schendel’s branding it as “Bangladeshi-ness”, is a misnomer and gross misrepresentation. It should rightly be put under “Muslim-ness”, as they put Muslim as their prime identity and their country affiliation comes far below. They accept disgruntledly Bengali as the national language, but many of them would happily accept Urdu as the national language, which conforms to their Muslim identity. They are, in effect, the remnants of the Pakistani period.

Bengali is one of the richest languages in the world. It is the direct descendant of Sanskrit, which is a Proto Indo-European language that has evolved over four millennia. That is why one can find similarities and resemblances between many Bengali words and Italian, English and Cyrillic words.

Of all the Bengali litterateurs, the person that stands out head and shoulder above the rest is Rabindranath Tagore, who was the poet, essayist, novelist, song writer and composer, playwright, philosopher and educationist. He was simply a literary giant not only in India but also in the whole world. He was the only person from Indian subcontinent who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature (1913) and his songs are sung as national anthems in two sovereign States – India and Bangladesh.

If there is one person who embodies Bengal and Bengali language and culture that must be Tagore. Although he was born in Kolkata, his ancestors were from Jessore in Bangladesh. Tagore married Mrinalini Devi who hailed from Khulna. Tagore spent more than two decades looking after the zamindari in the then East Bengal and spent extended periods in Shelaidah, Kushtia and Shahjadpur, Pabna and Petishar, Rajshahi. His poetic genius, his philosophy, his perception of life were all moulded by everyday lives of people in this part of East Bengal. He wrote many famous poems, songs, short stories while he was in the houseboat (called Padma) in Shelaidah and Shahjadpur. The most famous book of poems ‘Sonar Tari’ ( সোনার তরী) (The Golden Boat) was written in those days. He gave poetic expressions to occasions such as Bengali New Year (বাংলা নববর্ষ), welcoming rainy season (বর্ষাবরণ), spring festival (বসন্ত উৎসব) and so on that ripple through the hearts and minds of Bengali people the world over.

Tagore felt very strongly for the plight of his poor Muslim tenants (প্রজা). One such occasion that had been narrated by Krisna Dutta like this: When he called a meeting of his tenants one afternoon, he noticed that Hindu tenants were sitting on mattresses and poor Muslim tenants were sitting on grass farther apart. He was cross at this segregation and asked his tenants that everyone must sit together on mattresses; if there were not enough space in the mattresses, everyone must sit on the grass. Quite often he would relieve his poor Muslim tenants of taxes and that did not endear him to his father, Debendranath Tagore.

There is a concerted move by the ‘Muslim’ identity people – the Islamists and Islamist sympathisers – to denigrate Tagore by egregious falsification and trumped up stories. They branded Tagore as a plagiarist, a second-rate poet who attained fame only by British patronising. Needless to say, any attempt to counter such grossly egregious allegations is like going into the dirty gutters with them.

Also, it had been said by those bigots that Tagore was anti-Muslim as, they assert, he wrote a number of poems praising Hindu culture and Hindu religion; he wrote none for Islam. That is quite frankly utterly ridiculous. As a Hindu (in fact he was a follower of Brahmo sect), it was quite natural that he would write about these religions; that does not imply that he was against Islam or Jain or Buddhism. Did he write anything against Islam? No. No. So, how on earth, could he be called an anti-Muslim or racist?

Only one point that merits addressing here is that he had been accused of opposing the foundation of Dhaka University. He might have opposed it initially on economic grounds. It is also possible that he was not enthusiastic about it as he was in the process of setting up his own university at that time, which came into existence the same year that Dhaka university did. But, later on, he supported the Dhaka University when adequate financial provisions were made. He could not have opposed it strongly, as brazen Islamists claim, on grounds of race or religion, because in East Bengal in those days overwhelmingly large fraction (between 70 to 75%) of educated people primed to go to the university were Hindus. So, Tagore’s opposition to Dhaka University would have affected predominantly Hindus. The problem with semi-literate Islamists is that they think that he opposed Dhaka University because it was in Muslim-Bangladesh! How ridiculous!

Syed Abul Maksud in his book ‘Purabange Rabindranath’ (পূর্ববঙ্গে রবীন্দ্রনাথ ) (Rabindranath in East Bengal) stated that Tagore had cordial relations with Muslims in East Bengal. The Muslim aristocrat of Dhaka, Nawab Sir Salimullah “paid rich tributes to the greatest poetical genius of modern India” in a meeting organized in the city on 26 November 1912 to celebrate his Nobel Prize award. Maksud also pointed out that Tagore was given a very enthusiastic reception by the Salimullah Muslim Hall Students’ Union of the University of Dhaka on the 10th of February, 1926 during his second and last visit to Dhaka. It may be pointed out that Dhaka University was founded only five years previously. (If Tagore had opposed it, then SM Hall students’ Union was probably unaware of it and now nearly 100 years later the brazen Islamists had found it out!) It should also be pointed out that the University of Dhaka awarded Tagore an honorary doctorate in 1936.

To say that Tagore had opposed Dhaka university is totally disingenuous and dishonest. Also, the accusation that he was against Muslims has racist connotation. The ‘Muslim’ identity people are hell-bent on carrying out character assassination of Tagore and thereby undermine the very essence of ‘Bengali’ identity of the Bangladeshi people. The sooner these clandestine agents doing Pakistan’s bidding for ‘Muslim-ness’ are exposed, the better it is for the country.

A. Rahman is an author and a columnist