TWO dates 22 years apart are linked by a common history and a personality. In 1949, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was leading a movement of unity for Class IV employees of Dhaka University and was expelled for ‘instigating’ the strike. In 1971, the Pakistan army cracked down to destroy the nationalist movement led by him that is rooted in that seminal days of history.
Conventional narratives limit the search for the roots of 1971 to the Ekushey phase. But evidence shows that between 1947 and 1954, young politicians like Sheikh Mujib were active on a number of fronts and not limited to the language issue. It points to the broader nature of political issues at the forefront and not dominated by the culture driven narrative.
The politics of marginals
POLITICS was almost the same when Purba Bangla transitioned from British to the Pakistan rule. One fails to see how the birth of a new state made any difference to the people. It was a state controlled by the minority and Purbao Bangla was once again marginalised. However, it is the muhajir-led ruling class of Pakistan which struck first by trying to limit access to employment of the East Bengali middle class by using language restrictions.
Soon, it had become a state language issue. But while the language issue began in 1948, immediately drawing attention of the activists, the period from 1948 to 1954 was also one of several socio-economic movements. A key one was which centred on the rights of the workers of Dhaka University.
On March 3, 1949, Class IV employees of Dhaka University called a strike to realise their demands after discussions with the authorities had broken down. Dhaka University students boycotted classes in support of the strike. The East Pakistan Muslim Chhatra League also called a student strike for March 5 and held a rally declaring their intent to continue the strike until demands were met. In retaliation, the university authorities took measures against students and threatened to expel four of them.
The university authorities gave certain conditions for withdrawing the expulsion order such as paying a fine of Rs 15 each and a guarantee of good conduct from the student’s guardians by April 17, 1949. Four students —Kalyanchandra Dasgupta, Naimuddin Ahmed, Nadera Begum and Muhammad Abdul Wadud — complied but Sheikh Mujib refused and was duly expelled.
But events were fast moving as on June 23, 1949, the Awami Muslim League, the Pakistani version of the Bengal Muslim League, was formed which later became the Awami League that took the movement towards 1971.
Language movement and workers movement
THE first post-1947 strike was held in Dhaka on March 11, 1948 by young political activists, including Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was arrested and released on March 15. Another strike was called on March 17, 1948 and on 19 March, DU employees strike was held. Sheikh Mujib was again arrested on September 11, 1948.
On January 21, 1949, Sheikh Mujib was released and he immediately rejoined the workers’ movement. After his expulsion on March 26, 1949, he held a hunger strike in April and was later arrested again. Meanwhile, on June 23, 1949, the Awami Muslim League was established and the new edition of the earlier movement began. He was elected joint general secretary of the party while he was still in jail.
By 1950, the Awami Muslim League had also become active with the anti-food shortage and policy movement which had wider echoes than the urban-based language agitation. But what seems obvious is that the party and the activists, including Shiekh Mujib, were dealing with a cluster of causes from food to language rights through rallies, strikes and other protests of peaceful means. The formation of the Awami Muslim League had created the platform of continued political tradition stretching back before 1947.
SHEIKH Mujib was the leader of the marginalised identities and the support to the Class IV employee strike shows that his loyalty lay to a wider audience, including the working class. Very few histories deal with the nationalist movement’s working class linkages which showed up as early as 1949.
This aspect was not about the ethno-linguistic markers which are often pressed upon by establishmentarian historians but once encompassing a socio-economic identity. The Bengal that Sheikh Mujib was defending was not the cultural territory of a previous history but one that was constant which almost immediately coalesced into a political reality after 1947.
In 1956, when East Bengal became ‘East Pakistan’, Sheikh Mujib had said, ‘They want to place the word “East Pakistan” instead of “East Bengal.” We had demanded so many times that you should use Bengal instead of Pakistan. The word “Bengal” has a history, has a tradition of its own. You can change it only after the people have been consulted. So I appeal to allow the people to give their verdict in any way, in the form of referendum or in the form of plebiscite.’
It is not an accident that on March 7, 1971, he mentioned Purba Bangla as the historically continuous reality as it was the main reality for him. It is also a fact that the 1954 United Front government was cancelled by the Pakistan centre on the ground that its leader Sher-e-Bangla had mentioned about an ‘independent country’ in an interview, an East Bengal reality that was never far away from any political minds, whether Bangladeshi or Pakistani.
Pakistan legally lasted for 24 years but essentially both sides knew that it was never one country.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher.
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