It was early spring in Dhaka, the then capital of the province of East Bengal in Pakistan. Students from the University of Dhaka started gathering for a protest on 21st February 1952. The protest was a result of more than four years of petitions and requests to give Bengali the status of the national language. A resolution passed in 1947 in Karachi made Urdu the only national language. This meant approximately two thirds (44 million Bengali speaking people out of 69 million Pakistanis) of the population was rendered illiterate and ineligible for government jobs. The Bengalis saw this as an attempt by West Pakistani political machinery to dominate them and eradicate their rich cultural and linguistic history.
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The February protests obviously did not go down well with the administration. Section 144 was imposed to prevent “unlawful” assembly by protesters. Students were arrested and teargas was fired. In their attempt to meet the legislators the students faced gun fire and many were killed. The iron hold of the administration to stifle the movement was understandable. In 1948, none other than the Qaid himself has declared that Urdu and Urdu alone represents the spirit of a Muslim nation.
The language movement or Bhasha Andolan as it was called in Bengali lasted for another four years and the issue was settled with a constitutional amendment of 29th February 1956. Bengali was accepted as the second national language of Pakistan. The issue may have been settled constitutionally but it continued to be controversial. During the Martial Law imposed by Ayub Khan, attempts were made to reverse the constitutional amendment but it did not succeed.
Bengali was not the only reason for the bitterness between the eastern and western halves of Pakistan. It had much to do with the assumed racial supremacy of West Pakistanis over their eastern brethren. The army was dominated by recruits from West Pakistan and state aid hardly reached the flood and cyclone prone East Pakistan. Amidst all this the final blow came with the overwhelming victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League in the general elections of 1970. West Pakistan never allowed the transfer of power to the legitimate contender, leading to a standoff between Mujibur Rehman and West Pakistan. It led to the Bangladesh’s liberation in 1971 and a humiliating defeat of Pakistan. Ironically the instrument of surrender was signed at the Ramana Race Course, the same place from where the Qaid has once declared that Urdu alone represents the spirit of a Muslim nation.
The polarisation unleashed by Urdu proved to be stronger than the Two Nation Theory on which Pakistan was created. The liberation of Bangladesh was proof that the Two Nation Theory was not only flawed but failed to act as the cohesive bond between the two halves of Pakistan.
The dominance of Urdu in Pakistan happened at the expense of local languages like Punjabi, Baluchi and Sindhi. A section of undivided India, which had many different languages was forced to accept an alien language. A language, which the elite imported from India, a country they refused to call their own.
Urdu influenced literature in much of Northern India and continues to do so. It has given us poets like Ghalib and Mir. It was once the language of the Delhi elite and represented the high culture of cities. Sadly, the language that once incited romance also incited hatred and bloodshed.