A booklet that changed the course of history
The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu was not only a booklet that first addressed the issue of language in the newly created Pakistan but also served as a foundation for our inception as a nation. For any national or revolutionary movement to take root, it must have a proclamation describing its ideological slant. In order to create the background for the movement and carry it on further, the proclamation has a historical importance. It is because of this realisation that a booklet outlining crucial aspects of the movement was published by `Tamaddun Majlish’, an Islamic cultural organisation in erstwhile East Pakistan. Titled The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu, the 18-page booklet was edited by the organisation's founder Principal Professor Abul Kashem.
Syed Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh's first interim president and a language movement veteran, candidly described the background of publishing the booklet, widely regarded as the proclamation of our language movement. He was quoted in a book titled The Subject of Language Movement: Certain Documents written by Badruddin Umar and published by Bangla Academy as saying:
“Abul Kashem and AKM Ahsan used to live in Azimpur. They first took the initiative. At a room in the West House of SM Hall at Dhaka University, they discussed the matter with us. Subsequently, we later met again, this time at their place in Azimpur.
Shamsul Alam, an assistant sales officer at East Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation, Matin Chowdhury, AKM Ahsan, Principle Kashem, Nurul Huda and I came to a decision that it was imperative that we protest the efforts to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan.
However, we also decided that before waging a movement we should release a booklet arguing why Bangla deserved to be made a state language alongside Urdu. Professor Kashem agreed to write the booklet. In addition, when approached, Qazi Motahar Hossain also consented to contribute. A letter was sent to Abul Mansur Ahmad, requesting him to contribute to the booklet, which he did.”
Unbeknown to those involved in the publication of the 18-page booklet, it would later serve as the proclamation of the Language Movement. It cost three annas. The printer's key read, “Publisher – Professor MA Kashem, Tamaddun Majlish, Ramna, Dhaka; Printer: AH Syed, Baliyadi Printing Works, 137, Bangshal Road, Dhaka; First Edition: September, 1947.”
On September 15, Tamaddun Majlish held an informal seminar, titled “Make Bangla and Urdu the State Language of Pakistan,” in a dormitory at Dhaka College, then known as Government Intermediate College. The seminar included a lengthy discussion about the proclamation. The discussants agreed to take necessary steps to wage a movement in light of the paper. It was the first seminar organised concerning the issue of language.
Among those present at the seminar were Dr Muhammad Shahidullah, Principal Professor Abul Kashem, Dr Qazi Motahar Hossain, Principal Ibrahim Khan, poet Jasimuddin, Professor Kazi Akram Hossain, Professor Shamsul Huq, Shahed Ali and Sanaullah Nuri, according to the latter's book, “When I Was a Journalist.”
There were three articles in the booklet, The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu. On behalf of Tamaddun Majlish, Principal Abul Kashem wrote an article titled 'Our proposals'. Dr Qazi Motahar Hossain discussed on 'State language and the language problem of East Pakistan.' Abul Mansur Ahmad, the then-editor of The Daily Ittehad, penned a piece, headlined 'Bangla shall be our state language.'
In the article penned by Abul Kashem on behalf of Tamaddun Majlish, the demand to make Bangla one of the state languages of Pakistan was clearly mentioned. He proposed,
“1. Bangla will be:
a. A medium of education in East Pakistan
b. A state language to be used in courts in East Pakistan
c. The state language in East Pakistan
2. There will be two state languages of the federal government
3. a. Bangla will be the first language of the education department in East Pakistan. All students in East Pakistan will learn this language.
b. Urdu will be the second or inter-state language. Only those interested in jobs elsewhere in Pakistan will learn in this language. The language can be taught in the secondary schools as a second language.
c. English will be the third or international language. Those wishing to work beyond the country's borders or those interested in learning science can be taught in English."
Principal Professor Abul Kashem further noted, “Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah has acknowledged the right to self-determination of every province of Pakistan. Even in the Lahore Resolution, sovereignty and independence are guaranteed for every unit of Pakistan. Therefore, each unit must be given the freedom to choose its own official language.”
Urging the people of East Pakistan to partake in the language movement, Abul Kashem wrote, “The efforts (to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan) must be resisted. A serious movement has to be waged against it. In order to launch our movement, we are publishing articles of some of the renowned litterateurs of the country. At the same time, we are calling on every citizen of East Pakistan to take part in the movement.”
As the people resolutely responded to the call, public support for the Language Movement gained momentum. Announcing the programmes of the movement, he wrote, “We have to arrange meetings at every school, college and town and pass a resolution against the efforts to impose a non-native language upon us and send it to the Quaed-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and other leaders. Every member of the Gana Parishadh (the assembly) must be educated so that they don't pave the way for the suicide of the Bengali people by supporting motions against Bangla.”
Professor Dr Qazi Motahar Hossain, in his article titled “State language and the language problem of East Pakistan,” contended that it was imperative that both Bangla and Urdu be made the state language of Pakistan.
“In the entire Pakistan, the Bangla-speaking people, combining Muslims and Hindus, are the majority. Even then, we do not want Bangla to be made the state language in West Pakistan because such a move will impede the natural progress of the people of West Pakistan. Therefore, the state language for West Pakistan will be Urdu or Poshtu and for East Pakistan it will be Bangla.”
Warning of the adverse consequences that might befall the country if Urdu was made the only state language, he noted, “If attempts are made to impose Urdu on the Hindu-Muslim population of East Pakistan as its sole state language, they will go in vain. Discontent cannot be repressed for long. In that case, I fear, the relation between the East and West may cease to exist.”
By mentioning the possibility of “a cessation” in relations between two parts of Pakistan, Dr Qazi Motahar Hossain courageously and craftily hinted that it may result in calls for independence in East Pakistan. Consequently, as foretold by him, the Language Movement did pave the way for our independence struggle, which would be led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh. Therefore, the influence that the booklet had on preparing the ground for the Language Movement, independence of Bangladesh and our separate nationhood is undeniable.
Abul Mansur Ahmad, in his piece, put forth a set of arguments for making Bangla as the state language of East Pakistan.
“If the language of the masses and the state is different, a democratic nation in its true sense cannot be built. If Urdu is made the state language, the educated class of East Pakistan would overnight become “uneducated” and “ineligible” for government employment. In the mid 1800s, British imperial rulers have made English the state language replacing Farsi, making the Muslim educated class “uneducated” and “ineligible” for government jobs. The argument that Bangla will remain to be the medium of education even if Urdu is made the state language is, in effect, deceptive and a fallacy. For any individual, the standard of “eligibility” will be determined by how much knowledgeable he is in the official language of the state.”
The article penned by Abul Mansur Ahmed was an excellent manifestation of our spirit of language and nationalism.
Overall, the booklet did not only explain why Bangla should be made one of the state languages of Pakistan but also contained guidance for the nation, stating that if the demand was not met, the only recourse would be waging a mass movement and resistance. The booklet outlined how a possible movement would be carried out. It even hinted that any failure to acknowledge the demand might lead to the independence of East Pakistan.
Commenting on the booklet, The Daily Jugantar noted, “The influence that the booklet has had on not only our language movement but also our independence struggle and national history is undeniable...In fact, the proclamation of the language movement laid the foundation of our liberation.”
“It is imperative that the The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu edited by Principal Professor Abul Kashem is recognised as the basis of the language movement,” assessed M. R. Akhtar Mukul, an eminent writer, journalist and historian, in his book, “The Morning of the Storm.” (Ghurnijhorer Sokal)
Dr Serajul Islam Choudhury, an emeritus professor at Dhaka University, said, “It is obvious that the language movement began with the publication of the aforementioned booklet (The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu). Oli Ahad, a language movement veteran, was quoted in a book, “The Language Movement, 1947-1952,” as saying, “Principal Professor Abul Kashem, on behalf of the Majlish, published the first booklet of the language movement titled The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu. The booklet clearly put forward the demand to make Bangla a state language.”
Mohammad Toaha, a renowned politician and language activist, wrote, “The Majlish published on September 15, 1947 a booklet entitled The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu. In the articles published in the booklet, strong arguments and views were presented in favour of making Bangla one of the state languages in East Pakistan. Subsequently, the issue of state language became a popular subject of discussion among students and eventually turned into a national demand.”
Language activist and politician Kazi Golam Mahboob wrote, “'The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu,' better known as the proclamation of the Language Movement, was the first booklet relating to the language movement which was published by Abul Kashem, the founder of Tamaddun Majlish.”
National Professor Dr Anisuzzaman noted, “In mid-September, a booklet titled 'The State Language of Pakistan: Bangla or Urdu' was published by the Tamaddun Majlish. It was the first publication that espoused the cause for Bangla to be made the state language.”
To the ordinary citizens of East Pakistan and those who would later wage the language movement, the booklet triggered a new sense of nationalism. Many activists were inspired to take part in the movement after reading the booklet.
While explaining why the booklet was so important, language activist Advocate Gaziul Haque wrote in the Daily Bhorer Kagaj in 1998, “In the large canvas of the Language Movement, the emergence of Principal Professor Abul Kashem was that of a hero. He emerged with a big question: What will be the state language of Pakistan? The days back then were not similar to those we are going through. The political consciousness of the people was not as robust as it is now. Pakistan was created based on the two-nation theory, causing a division between Muslims and Hindus. ”
“From 15 August, the day Pakistan was created, to 15 September, the day the booklet was published, it was a difference of just one month. The people of this country hadn't yet learned how to question their leaders. In the political stage of Pakistan, there was an absolute dominance of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Quaid-e-Millat Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and Ghazanfar Ali Khan. The very creation of Pakistan being a nation for Muslims was a result of their activism.”
“In such an adverse time, a young professor asked the question, challenging the establishment. And, he himself answered the question, saying both Urdu and Bangla would be the state language. This is not just an unparalleled courageous act but displays the psyche of a hero.”
Language activists have effusively discussed about the booklet. Yet, regrettably, in our national history, it has continued to be neglected and denied the importance it deserves.
The Daily Janakantha in 2003 carried an article and called on the country to recognise September 15 as the proclamation day of the Language Movement. “On this day in 1947, just one month after the creation of Pakistan, a movement demanding Bangla to be made a state language was declared,” the article stated. In the same year, The Daily Prothom Alo ran an article which also called September 15 as the proclamation day of the Language Movement.
On 15 September 2003, six eminent citizens of the country released a statement calling on the nation to commemorate the day. “It was the first booklet relating to the question of language in East Pakistan. It described the rationale as to why Bangla should be made a state language and outlined the strategy of a possible language movement.”
Expressing sorrow as the day isn't commemorated with dignity, they said, “It's regrettable that such an important chapter of our national independence struggle is being gradually forgotten.” Those who signed the statement were National Professor M Innas Ali, poet Shamsur Rahman, Dr Anisuzzaman, language movement veterans Gaziul Haque, Abdul Matin and Abdul Gafur.
Four years later, in 2007, on the 60th anniversary of the publication of language movement proclamation, the nation's nine eminent intellectuals and Language Movement veterans released a statement. “After the proclamation was published, the language movement began in 1947 based on the demands outlined in it. The proclamation paved the way for our struggle for self-determination and independence. We, therefore, feel that, given the historic significance of the day, it should be commemorated under the state auspicious.”
The signatories were former Chief Justice Kamaluddin Hossain, National Professor and political scientist Talukder Maniruzzaman, former Director General of Bangla Academy Dr Ashraf Siddiqui, language movement venetans Gaziul Haque, Muhammad Takiullah, Dr Mirza Mazharul Islam and Professor Abdul Gafur, poet Nirmalendu Goon and Professor Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq, who was also the chairman of the department of Bangla at Dhaka University.
In 2018, The Daily Prothom Alo carried a news article covering a discussion held in the Language Movement Museum. The seminar was jointly organised by Language Movement Research Centre and Museum and BD Morning, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the publication of the language movement proclamation. Speaking at the event, former secretary and columnist Manzoor-e-Maula said, “It is beyond any doubt that the proclamation in particular and the booklet that contained the proclamation in general was of immense importance. Through the proclamation, the intellectual and theoretical premise of the language movement was built. It clearly described in detail why Bangla should be made one of the state languages of Pakistan and how to attain the goal.”
“The proclamation demanded that Bangla should be made the medium of education and used in the courts. Yet, even now, Bangla is not the medium of education at every school. Even now, Bangla is not the language used in courts. Do we have to resurrect the Language Movement?” he asked.
The booklet was donated by language movement veteran Muhammad Takiullah to, and currently stored in, the Language Movement Research Centre and Museum.
The article is an excerpt from Ekusher Nepathya Katha written by MR Mahbub. The piece was translated by Nazmul Ahasan, an editorial assistant at The Daily Star.