Remembering this day - February 21, 1952 - after half a century
How quick time passes by! It seems like the bloody the incident of February 21, 1952, just happened few decades earlier. A page from my memory unfolds when I was a little boy growing up in Tejkunipara, Tejgaon, Dacca -- a place just walking distance from Farmgate area of Dhaka. Our neighborhood was only 2 miles north of Dhaka Medical College gate, which was the epicenter of the day’s activity on February 21, 1952. But it was a tranquil day where I lived as far as I could tell. At the time no one thought that the day’s activity would shape up the lives of millions of people even half a century later.
Ekushey February did not happen just like that. Four and a half year before bullets was pumped into the body of some protesters who were shouting "Rashtro-Bhasha – Bangla Cai" near the gate of Dhaka Medical College a new nation was created by Mohammad Ali Jinnah and his followers belonging to The Muslim League of India. Mr. Jinnah wanted the new nation Pakistan to be a secular Muslim country and not an Islamic one. However, in the post-Jinnah days, the rulers of Pakistan in Karachi had other ideas. The new nation was being governed by a constitution essentially handed down by the British. The name of the new nation was "Republic of Pakistan." Nonetheless, some "bright folks" in Karachi had other ideas in their mind. They were working on a new constitution for this new nation. The blueprint of that constitution was worked out even before Pakistan was carved out of India on August 14, 1947. Poor Mr. Jinnah only lived 13 months after the day Pakistan came into being. To fill the Governor General’s position, the Muslim Leaguers chose Dhaka Nawab Bari’s scion Khwaja Nazimuddin while Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan who migrated from Karnal district of East Punjab remained as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan was then gun downed by a military clique on October 16, 1951, who did not like the soft approach Liaquat Ali had adopted to settle the Kashmir issue with the Indians. After the assassination of Liaquat Ali, Khawaja Nazimuddin was removed from the position of the Governor General by the work of a Muslim League clique headed by the ex-Finance Minister Mr. Ghulam Mohammad, a Punjabi accountant and an ex-bureaucrat. Mr. Ghulam Mohammad then ascended to the supreme power of the Governor General of Pakistan, which was the most powerful position according to the constitution adopted in August 1947. In just over four-years after Pakistan was formed an evil Punjabi clique took control of Pakistan. Incidentally, Khawaja Nazimuddin was sacked by Ghulam Mohammad in April 1953. There went the dream of any Bengali to be in the limelight in Pakistani politics in Karachi. There is a good reason for bringing this clouded early history of Pakistan while I discuss the incident of gunning down of students on February 21, 1952, outside the front gate of Dhaka Medical College.
When police fired on agitated but unarmed students, who were protesting against the status of Urdu being the only state language of Pakistan, the bureaucrat turn politician Ghulam Mohammad was the chief executive of Pakistan being the Governor General. Dhaka’s own Khawaja Nazimuddin was the Prime Minister and the Pakistan Muslim League was managing the nation with a stiff hand. In the province of East Bengal, which later was named East Pakistan after march 23, 1956, too, the Muslim League was in firm control. One local politician by the name Nurul Amin who represented the Mymensingh town and the neighboring area was the provincial Chief Minister of East Bengal. Therefore, the entire Muslim League organization of East Bengal and Pakistan took the blame for the police’s heavy-handedness in dealing with the striking students that lead to this bloody incidents of February 21, 1952. At the time, many Bangalee politicians belonging to Awami League and other political parties were rounded up by the government and were sent to jails everywhere in East Bengal. Incidentally, Sheikh Mujib was also locked up in Dhaka’s Central Gaol located on the road named ironically after Khwaja Nazimuddin Road.
Three key figures in 1952 Pakistani politics. Left: Cheif Minister of E. Bengal Nurul Amin (Bangalee); Middle: Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin (Bangalee); Right: Governor General Ghulam Mohammad (Punjabi)
When some Dhaka University students and some unidentified people (one being a rickshawalla) were killed by the police action, the Chief Minister Mr. Nurul Amin was immediately identified as the chief culprit. Khwaja Nazimuddin was also blamed for the incident. For some strange reason or other, Ghulam Mohammad, the all too powerful Governor General of Pakistan eluded the blame. Perhaps Khwaja Nazimuddin and Nurul Amin were the fall guys who were squarely blamed because they were both Bangalees and the protest for which the students and some innocent folks died were tied up with the language movement. The local vernacular press had an epithet for them; they were both labeled as traitor. The shrewd Punjabi Governor General Ghulam Mohammad took advantage of the chaos being generated in Dhaka. They called it a local problem. Khawaja Nazimuddin was ultimately sacked by the Governor General in April 1953 only to be replaced by another Bangalee stooge of the Karachi oligarchy Mr. Mohammad Ali of Bogra (Bogura district of East Bengal). That essentially killed the career of Mr. Nazimuddin as a politician, which was started in 1922 when he was elected as the Chairman of Dhaka municipality. This one-time favorite politician of Mr. Jinnah died in 1964.
A blemished Nurul Amin remained as a pariah Muslim Leaguer throughout the rest of his life. First in 1954 general election, the United Front candidates defeated the Muslim League candidates in a landslide victory. One of the reason is the killing of students on February 21, 1952. The Bangalees of East Bengal never could efface that bloody incident from their mind. Moreover, the cry for "Rashtro Bhasha -- Bangla Cai" remained alive because the Karachi Administration never did come to terms with the Bangalees demand for Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan. The defamed Muslim Leaguer Mr. Nurul Amin remained loyal throughout the rest of his life to the cause of united Pakistan so much so that during 1971 when Bangalees’ call for liberation came loud and clear, Mr. Nurul Amin sided with the Pakistani military. He left for Pakistan during the crisis where he remained the rest of his life in infamy. Nurul Amin who ordered the firing of bullets on unarmed students in 1952 will be remembered as a traitor. In the aftermath of February 1952 gunning down of students this scribe as a youngster saw handmade sign "Nurul Amine’r Kolla Cai" (Bring us the head of Nurul Amin!) hanging by the neck of stray dogs near Tejgaon Thana. This brought a whole lot of chuckles among our elders who were solidly behind the ‘Rashtro Bhasha -- Bangla Cai’ movement.
The question we should all be asking is the following: Why was this shooting possible on February 21, 1952? The answer to this straight forward question is not that simple. First, there was this Muslim League government in the province of East Bengal that was headed by Nurul Amin. This government would take orders from Karachi, which was also headed by the Pakistan Muslim League. Four years before the incident of February 21st killing of Bhasha Andolon protesters, Mr. Jinnah pronounced in Curzon Hall on March 21, 1948, that "Urdu and only Urdu shall be the state language of Pakistan." He also warned the audience at Curzon Hall by uttering -- "Any one who tries to mislead you is really an enemy of Pakistan." However, a few backbenchers shot back, "No. No. Never." Whether Bangla should be one of the state languages of Pakistan or not, was a serious issue in the constituent assembly in Karachi. Every time a legislator by the name Dherendranath Dutta raised this issue to include Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan in the assembly, Nawabzada Liaquat Ali and his gang including Khwaja Nazimuddin would vote against it. Our parental and grandfather’s generation knew all about it throughout East Bengal, but what else could they do? The politicians in East Bengal were dominated by the Muslim League of Mr. Jinnah. They were not in a mood to challenge the authority of Messrs. Jinnah, Liaquat Ali, Nazimuddin, and the whole shebang. Therefore, the Bhasha Andolon became the burden of most ordinary folks in Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Khulna, and other urbane areas. The college students took the lead with the tacit approval of their professors. The movement was undeniably an homegrown one; a leaflet there, a wall poster there, and a slogan near the school yard. That is all. Therefore, when students were protesting in the Dhaka University campus and when they decided to march towards the Provincial Assembly Building locate in Ramna not to far from the DU campus the police created a roadblock near the front gate of Dhaka Medical College. The bloody incident happened because of the stepmotherly attitude of Nurul Amin’s government.
The whole sad episode of Ekushe February could have been averted if there were some sensible politicians among the Muslim Leaguers. We have to remember one thing and that is this Pakistan was created to safeguard the interest of Urdu-speaking elite of U.P. and nearby northwestern Indian states. Bengal was never part of the original Pakistan scheme as propounded by Choudhary Rahmat Ali. I recently found out that the original dreamer of Pakistan had chosen a name of East Bengal, which is Bang-i-Islam (ref: http://www.storyofpakistan.com/person.asp?perid=P008). Even though in united Pakistan a majority spoke Bangla, the ruling U.P. and Punjabi politicians chose Urdu that was spoken by only 12-15% of the total population. The reason for this stepmotherly attitude was that Bangalees did not have a strong voice in Karachi’s constituent assembly. The matter was further complicated by the fact that we had some obsequious Bangalee politicians such as Khawaja Nazimuddin, Bogra’s Mohammad Ali, etc., and sad as it may sound, even Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was not a champion for the cause of Bangla language. All these negative factors worked against us in the wee hours of Pakistan’s independence. Therefore, the bloodshed became a necessary evil. I feel sorry for those who gave their lives. They would have been in their seventies now had they been alive today. However, because of their supreme sacrifice, the Bangla language became one of the state languages of Pakistan but it took several years after the bloody incident of February 21, 1952.
In the years after 1952, the remembrance and commemoration of Bhasha Dibash used to wear a sad and pallid look. However, by the end of 1960s the Bhasha Dibash had abandoned this sad demeanor and it took a more heroic and jubilant tone. The Bangalees en masse took to the streets in 1968 and 1969 to denounce the heavy-handedness of Ayub’s regime dealing with Agartala Conspiracy case. In this constantly evolving world, the celebration of Bhasha Dibash changed it’s relevance. It is no longer a sad chapter of our early struggle against the tyranny of a few who thought they would decide our fate sitting a thousand miles away in Karachi.
I have a mixed feeling about Ekushe February. My heart fills with joy knowing that on that fateful day, in the Bangla month of Falgun, a few brave sons of the soil protested vigorously to make Bangla our Rashtro Bhasha and they took some bullets, which was the sad part. Blood was spilled in the perched and dusty soil in front of Dhaka Medical College gate. In return we got our voice back. The politicians in Karachi learned their lesson well. Come to think of it, the Bangla month of Falgun is a time when new buds sprout. Similarly, the sacrifice of a few brave sons of the soil heralded a new beginning. We broke the manacles of tyranny. No wonder, this secular celebration is one of the most cherished one in Bangladesh. You look everywhere and what you see is the reaffirmation of our victory on Ekushey February, 1952. Also, it is a small wonder that this sacrifice by the few Bangalees half a century ago smothered the nation affectionately with the name Ekushe no matter whether it is a TV station or a Book Fair.
Let the memory of that supreme sacrifice of a few brave sons of the soil linger in the minds of millions of folks living in the deltaic land of Bangladesh. Bangla Bhasha’r Joi Houk! (Long Live Bangla language).
A.H. Jaffor Ullah writes from New Orleans. His e-mail address is - Jaffor@netscape.net