An uneasy calm prevailed on the Dhaka University campus in the morning as students started pouring in. Tension was palpable in the country as the citizens of East Pakistan were in no mood to accept Urdu as their official language instead of mother tongue Bangla.
A protest meeting had been convened by the action committee formed to fight for the cause of getting state language status for Bangla, and the Nurul Amin government had imposed Section 144, prohibiting processions in the capital city of Dhaka. But the students had made up their mind to defy the orders. Soon, the campus turned into a police garrison. Teargas shells were fired and several protesting students arrested. Tension mounted and more protests followed. The police opened fire, scripting the historic bloodshed over mother tongue.
Four youths died in the firing, and the names – Salaam, Barkat, Rafique and Jabbar – got etched in the psyche of the people of East Pakistan for the times to come.
People from all walks of life rushed to Dhaka after the killings and took out a procession, walking down the streets barefoot — a custom still followed in the country when people walk to the Shahid Minar, a national monument erected in memory of the language martyrs, on February 21.
The resistance to ‘Urdu-only’ policy gained momentum. Poets and writers became vocal against the idea of depriving people of their mother tongue. Dhaka saw more protests and more deaths. But with news reports censored, the exact casualty figures during the protests were never known.
Things were never the same in this part of Pakistan any more, with the military rule only worsening the situation.
The resistance that started after Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s post-Independence declaration that “Urdu, and only Urdu” could be the common state language for both parts of Pakistan finally saw a breakthrough in 1956 when Bangla was recognised as the second official language of Pakistan.
The outcome of the language movement saw the emergence of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman as a student leader first and then a statesman and later the founder of Bangladesh.
This was the movement that ultimately crystallised Bengali nationalism, and resulted in the struggle for freedom that was finally achieved in 1971.
Commemoration of February 21 as the Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day) became the greatest festival of Bangladesh. The country observes a national holiday on the day.
The impact of the Language Movement on Bengali society was not limited to Bangladesh. West Bengal too has been celebrating the day as Bhasha Divas, much before UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day, as a tribute to the Language Movement, in 1999.
Since 1971, different groups from West Bengal had been taking cycle and motorcycle rallies to “opaar Bangla (the Bengal on the other side)” to commemorate the day. The 44-year-old tradition will, however, take a break this year, even as Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is on a visit to Bangladesh, is expected to pay a tribute to the language martyrs on Friday. According to media reports, all such rallies stand cancelled or postponed due to the current political unrest that is increasingly turning violent, with anti-government protesters demanding fresh elections in Bangladesh.
The world history offers few examples of such movement undertaken and sacrifices made for mother tongue. The one incident that comes close to this was witnessed in India on May 19, 1961 when police opened fire on students who were opposing imposition of Assamese language in place of Bengali in Barak valley.