THERE is hardly any Bangladeshi intellectual, even in these days of the production and reproduction of the crudely classed and partisan narratives of Bangladesh’s ‘national history’, who would contest the fact that the process of acquiring political self-consciousness of the Bengali nationhood began in this country with a few middle-class Bengali intellectuals taking up pens protesting at the Muslim League plan to impose Urdu on the Bangla-speaking people of East Bengal, that it was East Bengal’s student community who organised and led the language moments in 1948 and 1952, and also that active participation of the people at large contributed to the success of the language movement in the Pakistan era. The intellectuals in question, mostly divided on the political lines of the two ruling-class political parties, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, also admit occasionally that the Bengali self-consciousness, germinated through the Bangla language movement, got politically matured up through a series of political movements for the right to self-determination during Pakistan years, such as the education movement in 1962, the autonomy movement in 1966, the movement for democracy and subsequent mass uprising against military dictatorship in 1969, massive electoral campaign in 1970 and the subsequent betrayal of the Bangla-speaking East’s electoral victory by the Urdu-speaking West, finally led to the liberation war creating Bangladesh. Then, again, no matter whether or not the ruling-class intelligentsia recognises the fact that the entire series of the political struggles, unarmed and armed, ordinary people played the decisive role, both in terms of active participation and making sacrifices, in political self-actualisation of Bangladesh in 1971, it at least seasonally admits that the Bangla language — the language of the ordinary Bengali millions — has not yet gained the fully-fledged status of the ‘state language’ in the ‘people’s republic’.
It is the people who create history, but the people do not create history without leadership guiding them to. The series of political struggles that created Bangladesh were led by politicians, different set of politicians at different phases in history, while some of the politicians played greater roles than others. It is quite possible that at some point of history a single leader could well emerge as the embodiment of the collective aspirations of an entire population, as did Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in East Bengal in 1970, but the leader alone cannot materialise the aspirations of the people without the people making sacrifices to achieve the cherished objectives.
The mainstream Bengali intellectuals of the day, having partisan allegiance to either of the ruling-class political parties, have been busy for years now fictionalising history by perpetually propagating this or that politician to be the creator of history, ahistorical claims that the leaders themselves never made in their lifetimes, ignoring completely the decisive roles that the people had played, and thus exempting the rulers from their historical responsibilities to materialise the aspirations of the people, such as making ‘Bangla the state language’ — the promise of language movements, introducing ‘universal education system’ for all the citizens — the promise of the education movement, autonomy for the major non-Bengali ethnicities — the inherent promise of the autonomy movement and ensuring ‘equality, justice and human dignity’ — the promises of the liberation war, which were the promises that drove the poor masses to make sacrifices for at different phases in the country’s history.
Greater sacrifices, greater claims
THE fact that every major successful political movement — movement for the mother tongue, education, autonomy and finally the liberation war for national independence — the cumulative result of which created Bangladesh was actively participated in by the ordinary people is hardly contradicted by the ruling-class intelligentsia, but they seldom mention the socio-economic backgrounds of the martyrs, lest, perhaps, the poor’s legitimately greater claim on the country and its material resources comes forward, affecting the interests of the rich minority irrationally enjoying the lion’s share of the resources.
The movement for Bangla to be a ‘state language’ of Pakistan, which got momentum particularly after Governor General Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s arrogant announcement in Dhaka on March 21, 1948 that ‘Urdu will be the sole state language of Pakistan’, reached its climax on February 21, 1952, when the police fired shots at protesters killing at least four youths and injuring hundreds on the Dhaka University campus. While the language movement spread across East Bengal, with the schoolchildren as well as ordinary people of the rural areas participating actively, the martyrs in the Dhaka city on February 21 included Abdul Jabbar, a rickshaw-puller who received bullet injuries and died in Dhaka Medical College Hospital at night and Abdus Salam, a peon of the government secretariat in Dhaka, was fatally hit by a police bullet and who eventually died on April 7. (Bashir Al Helal, Bhasha Andolaner Itihas, Second print, second enlarged edition,Agami Prakashani, Dhaka, 2003, p 407) Besides, Abul Barkat, a student Dhaka University, and Rafiquddin Ahmad, a student of Manikganj College, whose father was owner of a small printing press in the Badamtali areas of the city, were killed on the spot. Shafiur Rahman, another student, was killed on February 22. (Oli Ahad, Jatiya Rajniti:1945 –‘75, Bangladesh Cooperative Book Society, Dhaka, Second edition, Undated, p 165, Bashir Al Helal, Ibid., p 371)
The education movement, again, began with the student community protesting against the anti-people recommendations of an education commission, headed by SM Sharif, on August 15, 1962 while the movement reached it climax on September 17, 1962 with the police firing shots at a huge protest procession of the students and ordinary people in the Dhaka city, instantly killing at least two poor young boy, Babul and Golam Mustafa, and injuring hundreds including Wajiullah, who died in hospital the next day. In fact, ‘the ordinary working-class people constituted some 95 per cent of the protest procession, which brought out particularly after the police firing’ while ‘even the boatmen from the other side of the river Buriganga had joined the protests processions with oars in their hands’. (Dr Mohammad Abdul Hannan, Bangladesher Chhatra Andolaner Itihas: 1830 Theke 1971, Agami Prakashani, Dhaka, 1999, p 253) However, of the three martyrs, Golam Mostafa was ‘a poor conductor of a public bus’ and Wajiuulah was a hapless ‘household services worker’. (Ibid)
The Awami League’s Six-Point-based campaign for regional autonomy within the framework of Pakistan began with the party’s adoption of the programme in Dhaka on March 1, 1966 while it reached a crucial point on June 7, 1966, when the police fired shots at the protesters during a province-wide general strike demanding the release of the political prisoners, particularly Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who was arrested on May 8, killing ‘at least 10 people’ in Dhaka, Tongi, Narayanganj and other areas of East Pakistan. Haider Akbar Khan Rono, now a leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, recollects that ‘a huge number of students and industrial workers participated in the general strike’ and that ‘according to the government admission, 10 people were killed’. (Haider Akbar Khan Rono, Shatabdi Periye, Tarafder Prakashani, Dhaka, 2005, p 105.) Notably, all the 10 martyrs, including Mono Miah, a Tejgaon-based industrial worker who became the symbol of martyrs of the autonomy movement, were ordinary people of East Bengal.
The process of East Bengal’s historic mass uprising against the Islamabad-based military regime of General Ayub Khan began with Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani’s ‘siege programme, laid by the people to the Governor’s House in Dhaka on December 6, 1968, while the first martyr of the democratic movement in question was Abdul Majid, a Class IV employee of the government’s Water and Power Development Authority, who was killed in police firing during a general strike in the Dhaka city the next day, adding fuel to fire of people’s anger against Ayub regime. Then, it was Asaduzzaman, a Dhaka University student and leader of the left wing Students’ Union, who embraced martyrdom in police firing in the Dhaka city on January 20, 1969, which transformed the people’s movement for democracy into the successful mass uprising for the ouster of General Ayub’s military regime. History records that between December 6, 1968, the day the process of the mass uprising began in East Pakistan, and March 25, 1969, the day General Ayub Khan was forced to quit power in the face of the mass uprising, at least 61 people were killed by the autocratic regime in East Pakistan alone while majority of the martyred in question came from the poor classes of the population. Of the martyred, 29 were workers, 21 students, 3 peasants, 3 ordinary employees, 2 teachers, 1 soldier, 1 housewife and the other anonymous. Again, of the 29 workers killed, 20 were industrial workers, one hotel boy, one ice-cream vendor, one tailor, one shopkeeper, one bicycle mechanic, one printing press worker, one carpenter and the other was a Class IV employee of the government. (The statistics, prepared on the basis of newspaper reports of the time, is cited in Dr Mohammad Abdul Hannan, Bangladesher Chhatra Andolaner Itihas: 1830 Theke 1971, p 380)
However, the success of this political mass uprising, which came at the cost bloods of the patriotic poor, paved the way for the first-ever general elections in Pakistan in December 1970, the mandate of which was dishonoured by Ayub’s successor, General Yahya Khan, resulting in Bangladesh’s successful liberation war in 1971.
Then, again, it was mostly the poor classes of the people who fought the liberation war in the battlefields, risking their lives and embracing martyrdom, and thus creating Bangladesh. SR Mirza, an organiser of the liberation war who was involved in recruiting volunteers for being freedom fighters, admits that ‘the 70 per cent of the members of the Muktibahini came from different [poor] classes of the people, particularly the peasantry’. (SR Mirza, in Muktijudhher Purbapar, Conversation between AK Khandaker, Moeedul Hasaan and SR Mirza, Prathama Prakashan, Dhaka, 2009, p 120) Air Vice-Marshal AK Khandaker, deputy chief of staff of the Bangladesh Armed Forces during the liberation war in 1971, says that number of the poor’s participation was more than what Mirza has mentioned. Khandaker notes that “the youths from the peasant families contributed most to the liberation war’ and that ‘they constituted 80 per cent of the Mukti Bahini.” (Interview of AK Khandaker in Dr MA Hasan, Ekatturer Meghe Dhaka Itihas, Tamralipi, Dhaka, 2010, p 296)
Given the history, it is important to note and perpetually remind society of the day, for the sake of justice to history, that Bangladesh was independent not out of negotiations across the table as the other South Asian countries did; Instead, painful ‘political struggle’ remains the key phrase in the history of Bangladesh’s political self-actualisation from the beginning to the end, while it finally took a bloodied people’s war against a well-organised and well-equipped professional army and the poor classes of the people made the supreme sacrifices in the series of political struggles and war of liberation that brought Bangladesh to existence. Hence, Bangladesh primarily belongs to the poor majority — not to the rich minority, and, therefore, the country’s people at large deserve the greater right than the rich to determine as to which principles and policies would be followed in running the affairs of the state. By the same token, the language of the vast majority of the people, Bangla in the present case, should have genuinely been introduced and established at all levels in transacting the affairs of the state, internally, without any hindrance — indeed, without imposing it on the national minority communities having different mother tongues.
Masses politically defeated with their language
THE political class, the rising Bengali bourgeoisie of the time which had succeeded to consolidate itself as the ruling class in the post-independence Bangladesh, officially recognised Bangla to be the ‘state language’, but it have by and large retained English as the ‘official language’ of the republic, claiming that English is an ‘international language’ and that no country can do without this language in the present-day world. The English language, in the first place, is very much a national language, national language of the English, like any other globally influential national language like French of the French or Spanish of the Spaniards, which has become globally powerful due to its stronger political and economic backing, ensured by the English ruling classes to spread ‘linguistic imperialism’ across the world. The successive governments of the ruling class that have been managing the affairs of the state under different banners, civilian or military, is the integral part of the imperialism in question while they have modelled the state machine in the post-independence Bangladesh in a way which would protect their own political, economic and cultural interests vis-à-vis those of the poor masses. The poor masses, who had played the decisive role in creating Bangladesh, had been politically defeated immediately after the creation of Bangladesh, and, thus, the real ‘owners’ of the country have gradually been degraded to the status of the ‘subjects’. The language of the poor ‘subjects’ can never be the language of the ‘state’ shaped by the rich. Hence, English, a foreign language, a language of the past colonial rulers, still remains the dominant language in running the affairs of the state in Bangladesh. The wall of the English language, after all, help the politically powerful and economically rich English educated ruling classes maintain a safe distance from the politically weak Bangla-speaking ordinary millions and, thus, continue to enjoy extraordinary privileges without any democratic accountability to the people at large.
Fresh political struggle is the answer
UNDERSTANDABLY, for the Bangla language to genuinely become the ‘state language’ of Bangladesh, the Bangla-speaking poor millions, who had created Bangladesh by enormous sacrifices, would require to politically consolidate their power and transform themselves into the ruling class of the country. For that to happen, the poor majority would require launching new political struggles with politically conscious fresh objectives to ensure decisive victory over the ruling classes of the day. The section of the English educated people having sense of history and commitment to the cause of genuine actualisation of Bangladesh, which is intellectually capable to understand that the ‘actualisation’ is possible only by the inclusion of the people at large in the process of actualization, would definitely join the proposed new struggles.
Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.