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Ekushey narrative gone missing on Urdu

Mere shahr ke rahnewalo | apni pothi, apni gita | apni apni lok kathaein | apni apni giti mala | apna apna haruf-e-tahajji | apni apni boli bhasha | patte, patthar, posht, papairas, | tambe, lohe par likh rakhna | wohi waba phir phuti hai | wohi bala phir tuti hai.

(O my fellow residents | your writings, your sacred books, your folk stories, your songs, your alphabet, your tongue, inscribe them on leaves, stones, skin, papyrus, copper and brass, for, the same calamity has taken place, and the same plague has broken out.)

THIS is how the poem ends. This is how the protest, in Urdu, begins — a protest against the resolve of the rulers from the erstwhile West Pakistan to impose Urdu as the only state language of the united Pakistan. Naushad Noori, one of the most reputed Urdu poets of Bangladesh, then still East Bengal which later in 1956 came to be known as East Pakistan until Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, had the poem, Mohenjodaro, ‘the mound of the dead’, published in the April 1952 issue of the Karachi-based magazine Afkar (Reflections), where he warned the speakers of the Bangla language to protect their tongue and their culture as the calamity and the plague that may have laid waste to Mohenjodaro, the city of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BCE, have befallen and broken out again.

This was not a one-off incident of protest by Urdu progressive writers in favour of the Bangla language movement. Urdu-speaking progressive intellectuals, not all but many of them, actively participated in the movement and some even posted bills across a great distance, in the north of what is now Bangladesh, with slogans such as ‘Zabanbandi nahin chalegi, nahin chalegi’ (Speech cannot be muted) and ‘{Zulm to phir zulm hai, badhta hai to mit jata hai, khun phir khun hai, tapkega to jam jayega}’ (Repression is still repression | Rising, it must flop | Blood is still blood | Spilling it must clot), drawing from Urdu poets such as Sahir Ludhianvi.

The Urdu Progressive Writers’ Association is reported to have issued press statements in favour of the movement. The Anjuman-e-Taraqqi-e-Urdu (Organisation for the development of Urdu) in East Pakistan broke ties with the all-Pakistan Anjuman as the all-Pakistan organisation supported the government’s repressive language policy.

This opposition to the decision of West Pakistani rulers, however, began much before, on March 21, 1948, when Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the then governor general of Pakistan, at a huge public rally in Ramna Race Course (now Suhrawardy Udyan) in Dhaka said:

There has also lately been a certain amount of excitement over the question whether Bengali or Urdu shall be the state language of this province and of Pakistan. In this latter connection, I hear that some discreditable attempts have been made by political opportunists to make a tool of students in Dacca to embarrass the administration.

But let me make it clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead [you] is merely the enemy of Pakistan. Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function. Look at the history of other countries. There[fore] so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s language should be Urdu….

The statement fuelled anger and resentment in the Bengalis of East Bengal. A far greater uproar was created when Jinnah at a special convocation of the University of Dhaka at the Curzon Hall on March 24, 1948 said;

Let me restate my views on the question of a state language for Pakistan. For official use in this province, the people of the province can choose any language they wish…. There can, however, be one lingua franca, that is, the language for inter-communication between the various provinces of the state, and that language should be Urdu and cannot be any other…. The state language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu, a language that has been nurtured by a hundred million Muslims of this subcontinent, a language understood throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan and, above all, a language which, more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition and is nearest to the languages used in other Islamic countries…. Make no mistake about it. There can be only one state language if the component parts of this state are to march forward in unison and that language, in my opinion, can only be Urdu. I have spoken at some length on this subject so as to warn you of the kind of tactics adopted by the enemies of Pakistan and certain opportunist politicians to try to disrupt this state or to discredit this government.

The statement that Jinnah made in the presence of the students of the University of Dhaka faced an immediate utterance of rejection, not by one, but by many present there. By declaring the intent to impose Urdu as the only state language on Pakistan, including East Bengal having a majority in population and mostly all speaking Bangla, Jinnah planted the seed of Bangladesh, less than a year after the partition of the Indian subcontinent into the Dominion of India and the Dominion of Pakistan, on a line of religion, in August 1947.

Rallies and protests erupted soon after Jinnah had left Dhaka and all this gaining momentum, came Ekushey, February 21, four years later in 1952, with the police firing into processions of students defying a ban on gathering and assembly, marching towards the national assembly with a memorandum. The rest is history, culminating into the birth of Bangladesh after a nine-month war in 1971.

The Bengalis of East Bengal that time rose up against the rulers’ decision of imposing Urdu, as the only state language, of Pakistan. They wanted Bangla to also be a state language, alongside Urdu or other languages. But it had never been a fight against Urdu, although a contrary notion has always somewhat ruled the minds of the Bengalis, of not all Bengalis though. The notion that the Bengalis fought against Urdu and did not want it to be a state language — which would prove equally repressive on the western wing of Pakistan choosing Urdu to be the state language and the fight of the Bengalis for their mother tongue would lose its meaning — has had a reception even among the Bengalis and even today. A similar situation exists in even today’s Pakistan where a vast majority of the population appears to believe that the Bengalis of East Bengal wanted Bangla to replace Urdu as the state language.

Pakistan’s first constitution, laid out in 1956, ultimately had Bangla as one of the two state languages, the other being Urdu. In Article 214 (1), it said: ‘The state languages of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali.’ The bilingual policy of the Pakistan government of the day continued to roll into the constitution of 1962 until the third constitution was framed in 1973.

In this political fray of West Pakistani rulers trying to come down brutally on the Bengalis by estranging them from the language that they speak and the culture that they embrace, what fell through along with the united Pakistan is the significance of Urdu, partly in East Pakistan days and mostly in Bangladesh days. All the magazines, periodicals and daily newspapers that came out in Urdu from East Bengal and then in East Pakistan in the united Pakistan days — Khawar, Nadeem, Karnaphuli, Dabistan-i-Mashriq, Jadoo, Watan, Pasban, and others — soon vanished after the birth of Bangladesh. They vanished with all that had that time been written and published about politics and society that were a history of Bangladesh.

Bangla and Urdu, both Indo-Aryan languages — one of the eastern zone and the other of the central zone — grew apart although they almost together walked down the path of distant history, linguistically, and of recent history, socially and politically. Urdu — which came to be used in this land from the Mughal time, classifying it till date as a language of the land, with speakers arguably in the ranges of 2,50,000–4,00,000, dispersed in camp-like settlements within Bangladesh — has growingly come to be neglected as the language of the other. Urdu, spoken by a large number of people, is now in use, with a strong past, a wobbly present and a declining future.

Such a poor state of not just Urdu but languages other than Bangla in Bangladesh is a narrative of Ekushey that has been entirely missing — it was a narrative of acceptance of all other languages and cultures, however minor they are and however marginalised they may be. Every language is a mother tongue and every language must be respected and allowed to flourish, more so in Bangladesh, which was born out of a demand for linguistic and cultural pluralism.


Akkas, Abu Jar M. (2017 Feb. 21) Ekushey narrative gone missing on Urdu. New Age 8


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