The Bangla Language Movement and Ghulam Azam

As the world celebrates International Mother Language Day in memory of the Bangla Language Movement, Bangladeshis at Shabagh would do well to understand one of its forgotten language soldiers.

The historic Bangla language movement  of the mid-twentieth century is an inspirational part of Bangladeshi heritage. The heroics, sacrifices, passion for the mother tongue, and patriotism to the motherland made the powerful rulers of the then Pakistan yield to public demand and accept Bangla as one of the official languages of the country. It is a tragic tale with a happy ending: Bangla eventually achieved the status it deserved, albeit at the cost of valuable lives. Now, 21st February, the day some brave Bengalis laid down their lives for their mother tongue sixty-one years ago, has been recognized and celebrated around the world after UNESCO declared it as International Mother Language Day.

This year the Bangladesh that celebrates the Bangla language is more divided than ever before. The current Awami League led government and its leftist allies have encouraged and supported a protest initiated by a few so-called ‘online activists’, clearly following the government agenda through their demands. Begun in the capital Dhaka, the protest has successfully mobilized a significant number of urban youths to call for death sentences to be handed out to top leaders of the opposition party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. They accuse the party and its leaders of having collaborated with Pakistani soldiers in committing crimes against humanity during the liberation war of 1971 including murder, rape and arson. The party and its leaders strongly deny these allegations and insist that they are all baseless propaganda, fueled over many years by partisan political and media rhetoric in Bangladesh. The government has set up an International Crimes Tribunal and arrested almost the entire leadership of the party including its retired former president Professor Ghulam Azam. Azam was one of the leading figures of the language movement, but has never been officially recognized for his contribution.

A brief history of the Language Movement

Pakistan and India became independent from British rule in 1947 based on a two-nations theory with the Muslim majority areas falling under Pakistan and the Hindu majority areas under India. The Muslim majority region of Bengal, which following Partition was to form East Pakistan, showed overwhelming support to be with the new nation of Pakistan though the Bengalis were geographically, linguistically and culturally many miles apart from their West Pakistani compatriots.

The ruling elites, almost entirely based in West Pakistan, single-handedly decided to make Urdu the only official language of the new country, whereas majority of the population living in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) could not speak Urdu as Bangla was their main language. Urdu was, and still is, a minority language in Pakistan; less than 8% speak it as their mother tongue today. But the ruling class refused to acknowledge East Pakistan’s linguistic right. On 21st March 1948, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah infamously declared in Dhaka, “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan.”

Jinnah’s announcement sparked huge outcry among the already agitated Bengali population of the East who continued their struggle for their language. Demonstrations and processions were organized on 21st February 1952 throughout East Pakistan. The people defied a ban on demonstrations imposed by the government and police fired upon them, killing several. More were killed the following day. These activists would come to be known as the ‘martyrs’ of the language movement and a monument, the Shaheed Minar, would later be erected in their memory. Four years later, on 16th February 1956, the struggle for language rights succeeded: the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the legislation and declared both Urdu and Bangla as state languages.

Bangladeshis take immense pride in the language movement and have been observing 21st February as the National Martyrs’ Day long before UNESCO declared it the International Mother Language Day in 1999. The linguistic identity of Bangla speakers is an intrinsic part of their national identity.

A misunderstood leader

Ghulam Azam was a popular leader during his student life. He became an Assistant Secretary of East Pakistan Cultural Union for the term 1945-1946. He was elected General Secretary of the Hall Union of Fazlul Haque Muslim Hall of Dhaka University for the term 1946-47. He was subsequently elected General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students Union for both the 1947-48 and 1948-49 terms. On 27 November 1948, as the then General Secretary of Dhaka University Students’ Union, he presented a memorandum to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liakat Ali Khan at Gymnasium Ground, Dhaka University, demanding Bangla to be the state language of Pakistan.

Azam was actively involved with Tamaddun Majlish, an organisation that played a key role in the language movement, and founded a branch of it in Rangpur. Due to his role in the language movement he was arrested three times, in 1948, 1952 and 1954. In 1955 he  lost his job as a faculty member at Rangpur Carmichael College for his leadership role in the movement. Although his job was reinstated after a strong student protest, he declined as he had decided to join Jamaat-e-Islami by then and leave his academic career.

Ghulam Azam 's contribution to the language movement has been completely ignored and his role as a student leader has been struck from history. The record of the two years he was the General Secretary of Dhaka University Central Students’ Union is missing in its official board.

Deeply passionate about his land of birth, Azam was actively involved in democratic movements along with leaders like Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He opposed the 1971 liberation war, because he believed it would not solve the problems of the Bengali people but rather transfer power from Rawalpindi to New Delhi. He has asserted that he tried his best to save innocent Bengalis from the Pakistani army’s abuse when the other national leaders taking part in the Liberation War fled to India.

Despite politically opposing the secession from Pakistan, Azam embraced Bangladesh as his country when it became independent and strove to serve it. His opponents claim that he lobbied against independent Bangladesh while in exile after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman cancelled his citizenship. In fact he lobbied for Saudi Arabia to recognise Bangladesh after former President Ziaur Rahman removed secularism and socialism from Bangladesh’s constitution. He came back to Bangladesh as soon as he was allowed to despite offers of a comfortable life abroad and remained without official citizenship until the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored his citizenship in an historic judgment in 1994.

He conceived the Caretaker Government Formula – the process through which a neutral non-partisan government oversees the parliamentary election, which the current regime controversially abolished. He was also instrumental in forming the Four-party Alliance, which made a landslide victory in the 2001 parliamentary elections.  In spite of his contributions, he never held any public office and led a very simple life.

Shahbagh: a sham struggle

Very few Bangladeshi politicians have contributed so much with so little official recognition. In contrast, Azam has been subject to nonstop propaganda, slander and character assassination. History has been distorted for political convenience. The youth of Bangladesh now flocking to Shahbagh have never met him, nor have they any idea who the actual Ghulam Azam is. All they have witnessed is partisan and unethical media reporting.

The Bangladeshi people have previously successfully striven against powerful oppressive establishments. From 1948 to 1952 they struggled against an oppressive regime; in 1969 they spontaneously took part in the uprising against autocratic rule; in 1971 they fought and laid down their lives against a powerful army; and in 1990 they took to the streets to free the country from a corrupt dictator. When some call the current Shahbagh ‘festival’ as a movement, they insult the glorious history of previous movements. Bangladeshis are known for their emotions, which had been positively used in the past. However, this time the emotions have been cleverly exploited by the ruling regime, and it has done nothing but divide the country.

When an oppressive regime is providing free food, drinks, wifi and police/CCTV protection to one demonstration while brutally killing their opponents for practicing their democratic right to protest, then any sensible person can understand the reality of what is happening. A corrupt government is running a political show trial to summarily execute their political enemies. This is an insult to the families of the 1971 war victims who deserve a fair trial so that the real perpetrators are punished.

Lives are at stake in Bangladesh, but despite outcries by countless major international human rights organizations innocent people are being witch hunted for lynching. If the international community fails to ensure proper judicial process in the War Crimes Tribunal and judicial murder takes place, then we will all witness the death of democracy and fundamental human rights in Bangladesh.

On the occasion of the 61st anniversary of the great language movement it is time that Bangladeshis acknowledge their true patriots and use their emotions in the right direction. It is time that everyone realises what is the best way to repay the sacrifices of the martyrs of the language movement and the liberation war: to unite the country and build its future rather than divide it and lead it towards a propaganda-fed civil war.

About the author

Dr Salman Al-Azami is the youngest son of Professor Ghulam Azam.