Why was there a battle of Urdu-Bangla?

by Kaniz Fathema | Published: 00:19, Feb 21,2019 | Updated: 23:02, Mar 28,2021


SOON after the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan, especially after India had taken Hindi as the official language, central leaders of Pakistan wanted Urdu to be the sole state language of entire Pakistan. This is a decision which had been strongly opposed by the people of East Pakistan. And why not? With the utmost surprise of the history of the language movement, Urdu itself has never been the most widely spoken language of Pakistan till now. During the movement, it was the language of only 7 per cent of the total population of Pakistan while Bangla accounted for 54 per cent.The mother tongue of most of the West Pakistanis were Panjabi, Pashtu, Sindhi, Balochi and so on.
Even the governor general of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the champion of establishing Urdu in Pakistan, spoke Gujarati at home, having Kuchi as his second language. He could speak Urdu but his skills in Urdu were not as prolific they were in English.
Jinnah, through his declaration on his only visit to East Pakistan in 1948, confirmed his Urdu-only policy by completely blowing up a instant protest of the audience. His most widely used saying ‘Urdu and Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan’ is completely a misquote.
Rather on one occasion, he tactfully used the phrase lingua franca for Urdu but if one goes through the speech, one will find no doubt that he spoke only in support of the misquoted saying ‘Urdu and Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.’
‘Let me make it very 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 really 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. Therefore, so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s shall be Urdu.’
— Jinnah in Race course, Dhaka (1948)
Urdu could be a lingua franca for West Pakistan where so many different languages were in use but not a very good idea for East Pakistan where only one language was spoken. Lingua franca was nothing but a sugar-coated term he used perhaps to delude the audience of Dhaka.
Throughout his visit, protests were going on although he hardly heeded them. He even dismissed the treaty held between Khwaja Nazimuddin and the protesters before his visit on the demand of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan by labelling it as a threat to the unity of Pakistan. To him, the demand for Bangla as a state language was nothing more than a conspiracy of disgruntled leaders of the Muslim League, the Hindus, the communists and anti-Pakistan elements, as Badruddin Umar said.
Within a week, Jinnah became a villain in the eyes of East Pakistanis from the cult of being the founding father of Pakistan, a completely new experience for him although he seemed quite like an obdurate to care least to his own downfall.

Why Urdu then?
FOR instance, James Heitzman and Robert Worden in their book Bangladesh: A Country Study, published in 1989, tried to find out the influences on Jinnah’s strong stand for Urdu. To them, ‘One of the most divisive issues confronting Pakistan in its infancy was the question of what the official language of the new state was to be. Jinnah yielded to the demands of refugees from the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who insisted that Urdu be Pakistan’s official language. Speakers of the languages of West Pakistan — Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushtu, and Baluchi — were upset that their languages were given second-class status. In East Pakistan, the dissatisfaction quickly turned to violence.’
The influence of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is an interesting finding here.
Urdu as a language evolved during the last days of the Mughal rule in India. Persian (Farsi) was the official language of the Mughal emperors along with Turkic and Arabic. At that time, the northern part of India was the centre of rule and knowledge, particularly Delhi and its surrounding areas, including today’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Due to the interaction of local population and the ruling Persian-Turkic-speaking Muslim elite, a new language evolved and was known as Hindustani. Its Persianised form was called Urdu. So, Urdu became one of the signs of era of prosperity and power of the Muslims in this sub-continent.
Since North India was the base of Muslim rulers and British empires, Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims from the north had an environmental advantage in getting better education and jobs as compared with other areas. This benefit brought domination of Urdu-speaking Indian Muslims of the north in South Asia and they availed the opportunity and succeeded in bringing some other non-Urdu-speaking Muslims towards Urdu, who sought better education and status.
On the other hand, Bangla has its own rich and distinctive history of thousand years from the time of Charyapada of the Buddhist Pal dynasty. It had also been taken as an official language by many Muslim rulers of Benal in different eras. But it was never been the state language under the long rule of the Mughal and British empire. The impact of Mughal and the British rule on West Pakistan was greater than that of East Pakistan as geologically East Pakistan was in the farthest corner than that of the centre of power. So Muslims leaders, after having a state of their own, automatically chose Urdu for the state language as their first choice. Even the University of Aligarah, the centre of Muslim intellectuals, declared Urdu to be the suitable language for the Muslims of Pakistan. That is the reason West Pakistanis had no problem with accepting Urdu as their state language as they already had been in a tradition of accepting Urdu as a language of a higher status than the different languages they spoke.
Moreover, most of the decision-makers of West Pakistanis had huge class concerns something like the caste system of the Hindus. They used to categorise Muslims in two classes like ashraf and ajraf or atraf. Usually, the pagan upper class converted to Islam or foreign blood to this land from Afghanistan, Turkey, Persia and Arab were considered ashraf and Urdu was widely used by them. The elite of West Pakistan had the similar pride of considering themselves to the part of the ashraf family beside considering the Sanskrit-associated Bangla-speaking people, a lot of whom were converted from Hinduism, lower class (ajraf). To their distaste, Bangla celebrates so many Hindu literary figures like Rabindranath Tagore, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, etc keeping the celebrations of Hafiz or Iqbal aside. The central government even went far to replace the Bangla script with Perso-Arabic script as part of its plan to remove the Sanskrit essence from Bangla.
This pride of being the Urdu-speaking upper class was also noticed in some of the influential Muslim leaders of East Pakistan. For example, Bengali successor of the governor general of Pakistan Jinnah, Khwaja Nazimuddin was also a strong supporter of Urdu. Not only him, despite the instant protest during Jinnah’s declaretion in Dhaka in 1948, Jinnah was also highly acclaimed by a lot of Bangalis present there. So, the language movement was held not only between East and West Pakistanis rather between the two sections of Muslims.
With geopolitical closeness to India, they were also firm believers in a conspiracy theory that whatever East Pakistan would demand would be fuelled by India and to see every demand as a threat to the unity of Pakistan without considering the justification of the demands.
Language has always been considered a major symbol of a land, race, country and culture, an effective thread to bind a nation with unity.
Bangla used to represent the uniqueness and differences of East Pakistan than that of the rest of Pakistan and thus Bangla started to be seen as a barrier for the greater unity of Pakistan by leaders of West Pakistan. So they tried with their full vigour to demolish this distinctive feature of East Pakistan either by negotiations or, if negotiations would not work, by exercising power. Later, they chose the second one.
Thus, the reasons that Bangla became the subject of humiliation was threefold — the evolution and status of Urdu in the course of Muslim history in this sub-continent, disbelief of West Pakistanis to East and their pride on their class in an imaginary Muslim caste system.
The result was obvious: Bengali resistance against West Pakistan’s efforts to suppress Bangla, which would, in the course of history, be resolved through the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state through a bloodied war of national independence.

Kaniz Fathema is a teacher of an English-medium school.

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