Bangladesh Slideshow

20 February, 2012

Celebrating 21st February

Today I will tell a tale of love. Love for the language. Love for the country. It is a tale of unity and strength. Of defiance and sacrifice. It is a tale that still brings people close six decades after it happened, transcending boundaries and communities.

Once upon a time there was a country united by religion. But it was separated by geography, split by culture, and most importantly, divided by language. When the central government declared that one particular language was to be the state language for all, those speaking the other language (who also happened to be the majority population) erupted in protest. They demanded that both languages be state languages, but no heed was paid. Thus began the famous Language Movement of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1948 - culminating in a bloody tragedy on 21 February 1952.

At the forefront of the Language Movement were the Bangla-speaking university students, and they took to the streets in strikes and demonstrations. The central government’s next, and equally unacceptable, proposal of writing Bangla in Arabic script was also vehemently opposed. Posters voicing the demands of the nation covered walls around the major cities. This was the sole topic of discussion everywhere in the province - from tea stalls to university dormitories to elegant living rooms. There were also clashes between the police and the public. The authorities responded by arresting the protestors and imposing a ban on various Bangla language periodicals.

In February 1952, students in Dhaka called for a provincial strike. The government responded by imposing a ban on gatherings of more than four people. Defying the ban, hundreds of students marched in processions around the Dhaka University area, chanting the slogan “Rashtro Bhasha Bangla Chai” (we want Bangla as the state language). The general public marched shoulder to shoulder with them, boiling in resentment at the audacity of the government! "Ora amar mukher bhasha kaira nitey chay" (they want to snatch away the language I speak). This was 21 February 1952. A day that was to change the course of history in the Indian subcontinent.

Around 3 pm, pandemonium erupted. A group of armed police, upon the order of the district magistrate, opened fire on the processions marching past Dhaka Medical College. A number of students and public were instantly killed, their blood staining the streets crimson. Tear gas shells were also fired to disperse the crowds. News of the killings spread like wildfire across town and soon there were more people on the roads than bullets in the police guns. Outnumbered, the police retreated, taking a few of the dead bodies with them. The remaining dead and the injured were rushed to the hospital. One body could not be identified because the head had been blown off (he was later identified as Abul Barkat).

Fearing that these bodies too would be taken away, students mounted a vigil at the morgue gates. But they were no match for the armed troopers who stormed the morgue at the dead of night and took away the bodies at gun-point. The students were not to be thwarted so easily. Some followed the police jeeps on foot to the local cemetery and marked where the bodies were being unceremoniously dumped - without any funeral prayers. The following morning, masses of people went to the cemetery to pay their tribute to the martyrs. Funeral prayers were also offered. Friends and family of the deceased broke down in tears. Resentment and anger boiled anew.
The elderly parents of martyr Barkat.

Disorder spread across the province as large processions ignored the ban and condemned the actions of the police. More than 30,000 people congregated at the Dhaka University campus the very next day. During the continued protests, police actions led to the death of four more people including a child. Police also severely beat up those marching in the processions.

Later that week, a monument was lovingly built in the honor of the martyrs only to be destroyed by the police within 48 hours.

Undeterred, the protests continued for two more years, with 21 February being celebrated all over East Pakistan. Sectional tensions in the country were further aggravated by such declarations that anyone who wanted Bangla to become an official language would be considered an "enemy of the state”. It had little impact. If the majority population turned state enemies, there was not much that the minority could do about it. On 7 May 1954, the constituent assembly finally resolved to grant official status to Bangla, and the language was finally recognized as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956. The sacrifices of the language martyrs did not go in vain.

The Language Movement was a political and cultural movement that centered around a broader reaffirmation of the ethno-national consciousness of the Bengali people. It also led to an intensification of the political and sectional rivalries between the two wings of Pakistan. The Language Movement of 1952 also had sown the seeds of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

A monument for the language martyrs was constructed in 1963. It was inaugurated by the mother of language martyr Abul Barkat. This symbol of love and gratitude was razed to the ground by the Pakistani army during the 1971 war, but rebuilt in all its glory after liberation. The design includes half-circular columns made of white marble to symbolize the mother with her fallen sons. The Shaheed Minar (literally, the martyr's monument) stands tall and proud and is one of the city's most important monuments.

In Bangladesh, February 21 is commemorated annually as the Language Movement Day. On the anniversary of the language martyrs' death, students and teachers of the Faculty of Fine Arts of Dhaka University colorfully paint the Shaheed Minar premises with intricate designs.

Floral tributes start pouring in at the Shaheed Minar from midnight on 21 February, called the Probhat Feri (the early morning march), starting with the head of the state. People wear black and white, and come bare-footed as a sign of sorrow and respect. The famous song "Amar bhaiyer roktey rangano Ekushey February, ami ki bhulitey pari" (how can I forget 21 February reddened with the blood of my brothers) is sung with such depth of feeling that it never fails to bring tears to our eyes. Throughout the day, people of all ages and from all walks of life visit the Shaheed Minar to pay tribute to those who gave their lives for Bangla language.

This is an occasion to fondly remember the language martyrs, whose sacrifice allows us to proudly speak Bangla today. It is a day to remember those brave souls with love and eternal gratitude. We are a very emotional nation, and the long queues of people from all walks of life, of all ages, laying down their silent floral homage, often with tears clouding their vision, speak their own story.

But it is not just a sad occasion, but also one to revel in to commemorate the victory of unconditional love and faith. Of setting a goal and moving towards it. Of not being dejected by setbacks or even death. Of unity. Of faith which does move mountains. Of jubilation. It is a celebration of the beautiful musical language that we speak as our birth-right. A golden monument stands in the Bangla Academy grounds honoring for eternity the language martyrs Rafique, Salam, Jabbar and Barkat. In commemoration of the day, Bangla Academy also holds a month-long book fair and organizes literary and cultural events throughout the month. We cry on Ekushey February. But we also laugh. We lament. But we are also grateful. And we pray for the eternal salvation of those brave souls.

In 1999, February 21 was declared the International Mother Language Day by the United Nations. The language martyrs of 1952 must have held their own party in heaven on that day to celebrate this global recognition of their sacrifice.