February 21st

Today marks Language Movement Day, celebrated in Bangladesh in commemoration of the fight to retain Bengali as the national language after the division of Southern Asia and India by British colonialists in 1947.

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Communist graffiti written in Bengali

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The region was divided as shown following the end of British rule

The division of Southern Asia and the quick, poorly organised removal of British leaders from India left the borders drawn in awkward ways for many people. Nowhere was this clearer than in East Bengal, part of the Dominion of Pakistan but almost entirely encompassed by the behemoth that was the Indian mainland. Moreover, there existed cultural and language differences which made the regions of Pakistan incompatible.

The government was dominated by leaders from West Pakistan and, in 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools. This angered the Bengali speaking people of the East province, who numbered 44 million of Pakistan’s 69 million total population. Teachers and students rose up in complaint of the decision, however this was met with little response. Indeed, the Pakistan Public Service Commission decided to remove Bengali from the list of approved subjects and the language from stamps and bank notes later that same year.

By 1952 54% of the nation spoke Bengali, but Urdu was still being pushed as the primary language by the Pakistani government. As such, protests continued and became increasingly violent, with students dying in struggles with police on university campuses in an attempt to preserve their language for future generations.

This situation climaxed when students, teachers and the vice-chancellor for the University of Dhaka gathered on campus in defiance of laws preventing such activity. Armed police were quickly called to the scene. They opened fire with tear gas, and arrested students as they fled. The violence led to groups surrounding the legislative building in East Pakistan and preventing members entering without guaranteeing that they would voice their concerns in the Parliament. The poor response to this action encouraged some students to attempt to storm the building, but this only led to the police opening fire and killing more people. The incident did, however,  cause widespread outrage and incited more violence in shops and around cities.

In response, key legislative figures like Manoranjan Dhar presented a motion to close the building as a sign of mourning, which successfully passed.

Subsequently, relations improved and constitutional reforms were passed in 1956 to recognise the Bengali language, with the addition of article 214(1) of the constitution of Pakistan reworded to “The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali”. The issue of language was largely settled by this addition, however national identity would continue to be a key issue, with the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War leading to the deaths of millions of people before the forming of the nation state of Bangladesh in the place of East Pakistan.

To this day, this region still has unsettled borders, with the region of Kashmir being heavily disputed for its natural resources. What is now settled, however, is the future of the Bengali language which, thanks to many martyrs and protestors, has been secured for generations to come.

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