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Dhirendranath Datta and the Bengali Language Movement (2)

Portrait of Biratma (Martyr) Dhirendranath Datta at Comilla Stadium Gate.

Making of the Bengali language movement.

The historic Bengali Language Movement stands out as the inauguration of our struggle for self-determination, and it is no exaggeration to say that our organized resistance for saving our mother tongue from the colonial brand of transgression of the Punjabi dominated and Karachi-anchored rulers of Pakistan is a landmark in the history of Bangladesh’s struggle for freedom and independence. Doubtless, the full-blown success of the Bengali language movement had inspired millions of struggling people of many regions of the world to continue their relentless fight against all forms of ethnic repressions and cultural transgressions. In fact, the declaration by the UNESCO for making 21st February as the International Mother Language Day is a clear recognition of such an inspiring universal message of the Bengali language movement that took place in different phases in the formative years of Pakistan.

It is widely recognized that he Bengali language movement was not the making of any single individual or a particular political party. There were many dauntless individuals and defining forces who were involved in the making of the different phases of the language movement. Yet the immortal name of Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta (1886-1971) can be singled out as one of the illustrious harbingers of the Bengali language movement. He was an ardent defender of Bengali language and culture in an era when he was being deliberately treated as a hostile alien in his own motherland. He had made history on February 25, 1948 by demanding Bengali to be recognized as one of the State languages of the new nation of Pakistan even though his amendment was actually meant to be a procedural legislative motion for adopting Bengali as one the official languages of the then Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP). As an inspiring parliamentarian, he continued to fearlessly articulate the demand for making Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan in both the central legislature (CAP) and the provincial legislature (East Bengal Legislative Assembly). The main purpose of this commentary is to appraise the significance of Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta’s role in the making of the Bengali language movement. Given the fact that the month February is a time not only for ‘mourning’ the brutal murders of our martyred language activists but it is also a time to celebrate the success of our relentless struggle for saving our mother tongue from external cultural aggression. In view of such a compelling circumstance, the 21st February is an appropriate occasion to pay homage to Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta. The serious paucity of literature on his life and political struggle makes such an appraisal of the significance of his historic role as the ardent defender of the Bengali language and culture more relevant.

The courageous speech of Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta in the then Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) on February 25 of 1948 in favor of making Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan reignited the formative phase of the Bengali language movement. It needs to be mentioned that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the then Governor General of Pakistan and the President of the then CAP, presided over the central legislative session on February 25, 1948. In a respectful yet in firm voice, Mr. Dhirendranath Dutta, a CAP member from the then East Bengal started to speak: “Sir, in moving this— the motion that stands in my name— I can assure the House that I do so not in a spirit of narrow Provincialism, but, Sir, in the spirit that this motion receives the fullest consideration at the hands of members. I know, Sir, that Bengali is a provincial language, but, so far our State is concerned, it [Bengali] is the language of the majority of the people of the state [of Pakistan]. So although it is a provincial language, but it is a language of the majority of the people of the State and it stands on a different footing therefore. Out of six crores and ninety lakhs of people inhabiting this State, 4 crores and 40 lakhs of people speak the Bengali language. So, Sir, what should be the State language of the State (of Pakistan)? The State language of the State (of Pakistan) should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the State, and for that, Sir, I consider that Bengali language is a lingua franca of our State.” Comparing Pakistan’s self-created the language problem with that of India’s language policy, he said: “…….. So we are to consider that in our State it is found that the majority of the people of the State do speak the Bengali language then Bengali should have an honoured place even in the Central Government (of Pakistan).”

Much to the chagrin of the non-Bengali as well as their anti-Bengali cohorts, Dhirendranath Dutta fearlessly underscore the ill effects of the unilateral imposition of Urdu on the Bengali speaking people of Pakistan. In his concluding remarks, he continued to emphasize:“So, Sir, I know I am voicing the sentiments of the vast millions of our State and therefore Bengali should not be treated as a Provincial language. It should be treated as the language of the State. And, therefore, Sir, I suggest that after the word ‘English, the word ‘Bengali’ be inserted in Rule 29. I do not wish to detain the House but I wish that the Members (of the Constituent Assembly) present here should give a consideration to the sentiments of the vast millions of our State, Sir, and should accept the amendment [to Rule 29] that has been moved by me.”

Those who had scathingly criticized Dhirendranath Dutta’s motion on the House floor were as follows: Liaquat Ali Khan (the Prime Minister of Pakistan), Sardar Abdur Rab Khan Nishtar (the Central Minister for Communication), Ghaznafar Ali Khan (the Central Minister for Refugees, Relief and Rehabilitation), Khwaja Nazimuddin (the Chief Minister of East Bengal), and Alhaj Mohammed Hashim Gazder (a CAP member from Sind). Tamizuddin Khan, a distinguished member from East Bengal and the Deputy President of the CAP also spoke against the amendment on March 2, 1948, the day on which the historic amendment was formally defeated by a voice vote on the CAP floor. (For the purpose of brevity, only the relevant parts of the speeches of Liaquat Ali Khan and Khwaja Nazimuddin are being quoted in this article).

Immediately after Dhirendranath Dutta’s speech, Mr. Prem Hari Barman, a member from East Bengal spoke in favor of the amendment. Once he stopped, Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Pakistan, vociferously attacked the intent and content of Dhirendranath Dutta’s amendment. He had the audacity to say: “Mr. President, Sir, I listened to the speech of the Hon’ble the mover (Mr. Dhirendranath Dutta from East Bengal) of the amendment with very care and attention. I wish the Hon’able member had not moved his amendment and tried to create misunderstanding between the different parts of Pakistan. My Honourable friend has waxed eloquent and stated that Bengali should really be the lingua franca of Pakistan. In other words, he does not want Bengali only to be used as a medium of expression in this House, but he has raised indeed a very important question. He (Mr. Dhirendranath Dutta) should realize that Pakistan has been created because of the demand of a hundred million Muslims in this sub-continent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu and, therefore, it is wrong for him (Dhirendranath Dutta) now to try and create the situation that as the majority of the people of Pakistan belongs to one part of Pakistan, therefore, the language which is spoken there should become the State language of Pakistan. Pakistan is a Muslim State and it must have its lingua franca, the language of the Muslim nation.”

Among other maliciously designed anti-Bengali utterances, Liaquat Ali Khan, the die-hard exponent of one nation, one state and one language policy, also said that Pakistan “must have a State language—the language which would be used between the different parts of Pakistan for inter-provincial communications. Then, Sir, it is not only the population you have to take into consideration. There are so many other factors. Urdu can be the only language which can keep the people of East Bengal or Eastern Zone and the people of Western Zone jointed together. It is necessary for a nation to have one language and that language can be Urdu and no other language.” He also tried to cast aspersion on Dhirendranath Dutta’s patriotism when he said: “The object of this amendment is to create a rift between the people of Pakistan. The object of this amendment is to take away from the Mussalmans that unifying force that brings them together.” At that point, Dhirendranath Dutta protested Liaquat Ali Khan’s downright distortions by saying: “Certainly not, that is not the intention” of the proposed amendment.

After several members spoke on the language issue, Khwaja Nazimuddin, the then Chief Minister of East Bengal, took the CAP floor to oppose Dhirendranath Dutta’s amendment. A life-long partner of the anti-Bengali forces, he claimed that his support for Urdu as the “only” State language of Pakistan was shared by the views of an overwhelming majority of the people of East Bengal. It is a matter of fact that he said on the CAP floor on February 25, 1948: “Sir, I feel it my duty to let the House know what the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the people of Eastern Pakistan over this question of Bengali language is. I think, there will be no contradiction if I say that as far as inter-communication between the provinces and the Centre is concerned, they (people of East Bengal) feel that Urdu is the only language that can be adopted (as the State language of Pakistan). But there is a strong feeling that the medium of instruction should be Bengali in Educational Institutions and as far as the administration of the province is concerned. The language (to be) used in administering the province should also be Bengali. I am glad to find out that the Honourable the Leader of the House (Liaquat Ali Khan) has made it clear that there is no question of ousting Bengali from the province (of East Bengal), and I am sure that the overwhelming majority of the people (of East Bengal) are in favour of having Urdu as the State Language for the Pakistan State as a whole.”

The untenable characterization of “Bengali” by Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan and his anti-Bengali cohorts were challenged on the CAP floor only by the members of Hindu community. Those who had the opportunity to speak in support of the historic pro-Bengali amendment were as follows: Prem Hari Barman, Bhupendra Kumar Dutta, and Sris Chandra Chattopadhyaya. According to Badruddin Umar (1970, p. 51), Rajkumar Chakravarty also spoke in favor of the amendment. Although only a limited number of opposition members were allowed to speak on the CAP floor in support of Bengali language on February 25, 1948, there is credible evidence to suggest that the members of the opposition party (Congress) in the CAP (all of whom were Hindu legislators) had wholeheartedly endorsed Mr. Dhirendranath Dutta’s motion for adopting Bengali as one of the “official” languages of the CAP, the central legislature of the then Pakistan. Unfortunately, no Muslim CAP member had endorsed this historic amendment in favor of Bengali language. Not even a single Bengali speaking Muslim CAP member supported his seminal amendment on February 25, 1948. It is indeed ironic that the leaders of the most maligned, abused, and persecuted minority community of the then Pakistan had volunteered to speak in a very hostile environment in defense of the mother tongue of all people of the then East Bengal at the central legislature of Pakistan.

The outright rejection of Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta’s pro-Bengali amendment had serious impact on the student community and intelligentsia of East Bengal. The ant-Bengali utterances of the top political leaders of Pakistan on the CAP floor on February 25 did not at all go unchallenged in East Bengal. The pro-Bengali people were quick to lodge objections to the virulent criticisms of the anti-Bengali coterie. On February 26, 1948, several protests took place in Dhaka under the leadership of student community. A large number of language protestors paraded through different streets of the city in a procession and gathered in a protest meeting at the Dhaka University campus. While the speakers at the meeting had condemned the anti-Bengali stand of the non-Bengali Pakistani ruling elite, they vehemently protested Khwaja Nazimuddin’s pro-Urdu stand on the State language issue. They also condemned the Muslim League members of the CAP from East Bengal for their opposition to Dhirendranath Dutta’s amendment. The speakers, on behalf of the entire student community and progressive forces of the then East Bengal, had gratefully acknowledged a deep sense of gratitude to Dhirendranath Dutta for courageously speaking out in the central legislature of Pakistan in favor of recognizing Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan. It is evident that the student community of the then East Bengal made the determination to broaden and intensify their legitimate struggle for establishing Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan.

The restive language activists also held an important meeting on 27 February 1948 at the Tamuddun Majlish office. Through open deliberations, the existing ‘Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad’ (‘State Language Committee of Action’) was reconstituted with representatives from both the Tamuddun Majlish and the East Pakistan Muslim Students League. For instance, Mr. Shamsul Alam, a resident student of Salimullah Muslim Hall and a common member of both Tamuddun Majlish and East Pakistan Muslim Students League, was made the Convener of the revamped ‘Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad.’ The Bengali language movement had gained further ferocity after the struggling student community found out that the amendment of Dhirendranath Dutta which was debated on February 25, 1948 got formally rejected through a voice vote in the CAP on March 2, 1948. In its meeting that was held on March 2, 1948 at Fazlul Huq Muslim Hall, the ‘Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad’ was further expanded through the inclusion of representatives from various socio-political organizations. Thus the ‘Shorbadolio Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad’ (‘All-Party State Language Movement Action Committee’) was born on March 2, 1948 under the leadership of the students and progressive intelligentsia of East Bengal. This action committee was much broader in scope and coverage than the first Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad. It was also the deliberation of that meeting to observe a ‘protest day’ on March 11, 1948 by staging strike, meetings, and processions all over the province. A province-wide strike was observed and pro-Bengali language demonstrations were staged on March 11, 1948.

Instead of conceding to the legitimate demands of the language protestors, Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin had ordered the law enforcing authorities to take stringent measures against the demonstrators. A large demonstration was tear-gassed and stick-charged in Dhaka on March 11, 1948, and hundreds of language activists were arrested. Professional ruffians (goondas) were also let loose on the leaders and participants of the language demonstrations in Dhaka. For instance, Mohammad Toaha, one of the top organizers of the language demonstrations (the then Vice President of Fazlul Huq Muslim Hall Students’ Union), was mercilessly beaten by those hired ruffians. ‘Hoolias’ (warrants of arrest) were also issued on fictitious and fabricated charges against the top leaders and activists of the language movement. Characterizing the Bengali language movement as the handiwork of the ‘fifth columnist,’ the Muslim League Government of East Bengal also started disseminating blatant falsehoods and slanderous distortions about the nature and intent of the language activists. According to Khwaja Nazimuddin, the anti-Bengali Chief Minister of the then East Bengal, the Bengali language movement was essentially “motivated and guided by the enemies of Pakistan,”
In spite of the stringent repressive measures of the anti-Bengali Muslim League Government, the participants of the language demonstrations and rallies refused to be cowed down by brute forces. Nor were those dauntless defenders of Bengali language willing to be intimidated and blackmailed by the vilification campaign of the anti-Bengali Government of the then East Bengal. Indeed, the fearless language protestors kept on pressing for the unconditional release of those who were indiscriminately arrested on various concocted charges. They also demanded for immediate withdrawal of the cases of those who were deliberately implicated in numerous fictitious criminal cases by the collusive law-enforcement authorities.

The political situation was volatile and the pressure on the Government was so intense that the anti-Bengali Chief Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin was compelled to negotiate an agreement on the language issue with the mainstream leadership of the language movement. On March 15, 1948, a meeting was held between the leaders of the ‘All Party Language Movement Action Committee’ and Khwaja Nazimuddin. Although the Chief Minister was not yet willing to support even the most basic demands of the language protestors by recognizing Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan, he had to concede in writing that “after my discussion with the principal leadership of the All Party Language Action Committee, I am deeply convinced that the language movement for demanding Bengali to be one of the State languages of Pakistan is not instigated by the enemies of Pakistan.” Pursuant to the stipulations of this short-live agreement, most of the arrested language demonstrators were released from jails, and some of the warrants of arrests were either kept on hold or rescinded.
In view of the prevalent anti-Bengali policies, ploys, and strategies of both the Central and Provincial Governments in the early years of Pakistan, these concessions from an Urdu-speaking Chief Minister of East Pakistan were not at all insignificant. This limited success of the student protests during mid-March 1948 against the anti-Bengali policy of the then Pakistan Government also generated a feeling of unity within East Bengal.

In fact, the hopes and aspirations of the language protestors were emboldened with such limited accomplishment. However, it was expected by the ruling party that the short-lived compromise between the then Chief Minister of East Bengal and the leaders of the Bengali language movement would subside student protests and create a conducive environment in East Bengal during the tour of the province by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Founding Father and the Governor General of Pakistan.

The student protests continued during and after Jinnah’s weeklong visit to East Bengal in later part of March 1948. In fact, the language issue got rekindled right after Jinnah had declared that “the State language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” in a mammoth public meeting at the Race Course Maidan on March 21, 1948. Pakistan’s Founding Father left no doubt about his State language policy in favor of Urdu when he had also repeated almost the similar anti-Bengali message in his infamous Convocation Address at the University of Dhaka on March 24, 1948. Among many other demeaning comments and insulting sermons, the then authoritarian Governor General of Pakistan said: “Make no mistake about it. There can be only One State language, if the component parts of the State are to march forward in unison, and that language, in my opinion, can only be Urdu.” Such categorical assertion in favor of Urdu was instantly protested by some of the students in attendance of the Convocation ceremony. Fresh student rallies and protests erupted immediately after the end of Jinnah’s a weeklong visit.
The East Bengal Government was once again goaded to enter into an agreement with the leaders of Rashtra Bhasha Shangram Parishad even though the Chief Minister was known for breaking most of his earlier promises. Mainly aimed at bluffing and pacifying the restive student community on the language issue, Khwaja Nazimuddin brought a proposal in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly (EBLA) on April 6, 1948 for making Bengali as the official language and medium of instruction in East Bengal. However, a series of amendments (at least 27) to his proposal were introduced by the members of both the treasury bench (by that time, some of the Muslim Leaguers in the EBLA were willing to speak in support of making Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan) and the opposition. Of those proposed amendments, Dhirendranath Dutta’s ones were of great significance because he had carefully designed his amendments with an objective of having a resolution from EBLA to the CAP for adopting Bengali as one of the “State languages of Pakistan.” However, Khwaja Nazimuddin refused to render assistance in the passage of such a fair resolution in favor of Bengali. The majority of the Muslim Leaguers in the EBLA rejected Dhirendranath Dutta’s multiple amendments on April 6, 1948. Finally, the Chief Minister’s face-saving proposal with minor modification was adopted by the EBLA.

The controversy over the State language issue had remained dormant during the interlude years between mid-1948 and 1951 due to the fact that the ruling elite of Pakistan was pre-occupied with other burning issues. Certain changes in the political leadership of the Central Government also had an impact on the language issue. For instance, the death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah on September 11, 1948 had delayed the full implementation of Urdu language policy throughout Pakistan.

After Jinnah died, Khwaja Nazimuddin, the Urdu speaking Chief Minister of East Bengal, became the Governor General of Pakistan. His elevation to such a coveted position in power structure of Pakistan could be treated as the ultimate price for his long collaboration with the non-Bengali and anti-Bengali coterie of the Muslim League. However, Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, saw to it that the real executive power of the country was retained and exercised only by him. Obviously, Khwaja Nazimuddin’s tenure as the Governor General of Pakistan was characterized by dismal failures, dwarf-ness, timidity, and vacillation. As a life-long conserver, his sole motto was to survive in the power structure of Pakistani politics at any cost. Having dealt with the volatile and committed pro-Bengali language activists and demonstrators as the Chief Minister of East Bengal, he was too weak either to revisit or deal with the State language issue. Therefore, he was in favor of maintaining a status quo, and instead of revisiting the language issue, he was waiting for the right moment to declare Urdu as the “only’ State language Pakistan. In collaboration and collusion with the anti-Bengali leaders of Pakistan, he stepped down from the position of Governor General to become the Prime Minister after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in October 1951. Such elevations to the highest positions in the political leadership of the Punjabi dominated Central Government Pakistan were made possible for him chiefly because he was a resident of East Bengal. Unfortunately, it was Khwaja Nazimuddin’s unprovoked declaration for Urdu to be the only State language of Pakistan which reignited the 1952-phase of the Bengali language movement.

Although the ferocity of the Bengali language movement had relatively waned during the interlude years between mid-1948 and 1951, the relentlessness of the language activists in their pursuits for establishing Bengali as one of the State languages had never completely stopped. The progressive forces of East Bengal had remained vigilant about the anti-Bengali policies and ploys of the Pakistani ruling coterie. There was a chorus of condemnation from the pro-Bengali language activists when the so-called Basic Principles Committee Report (BPC) of 1950 “deliberately omitted” Bengali, the mother tongue of the majority of the people of Pakistan, as one of the State languages of Pakistan. The Central Government sponsored proposal for Arabization of the Bengali script was resisted by the patriotic forces of East Bengal including Dhirendranath Dutta.

The ruling coterie of Pakistan did push for substituting Arabic script for Bengali once again by re-introducing the same proposal in the CAP on March 27, 1951. Among a few other legislators from East Bengal, Dhirendranath Dutta scathingly criticized the nefarious design of transforming the people of East Bengal into an inferior class of illiterate citizens by introducing an alien script for writing Bengali. He vehemently opposed the most demeaning proposal of substituting Arabic script for Bengali alphabets. As the ardent defender of Bengali language and culture, he forcefully spoke in favor of Bengali when the same absurd proposal for the adoption of Arabic script for writing Bengali was formally discussed at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) in April 1950. Specifically, he demanded the outright rejection of the decision of introducing Arabic script in lieu of Bengali alphabets. He also urged the Government for immediately adopting Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan. He also underscored that he was ventilating the voices of all “Bangalees” when he articulates the rightful place of Bengali in the state affairs of the new nation of Pakistan. Dhirendranath Dutta dauntlessly emphasized on the CAP floor: “I represent not only Hindus but also the Mussalmans. I can tell you that the ordinary people will not understand the language (i.e. Arabic) that is sought to be introduced in Eastern Bengal. That policy shall have to be changed. I do not know whether the Government is aware of this fact that amongst the large sections of the people and especially among younger generation there is a demand made in a certain conference that the Bengali language should be made one of the State languages of Pakistan.”

By the time when the 1952 phase of the Bengali language movement started, the demand for establishing Bengali as a State language had gained widespread mass support throughout East Bengal. The organized opposition parties and groups to the Muslim League Government were also garnering mass support. Yet Pakistan’s Central Government lost no time to deliberately create a false impression in the public mind that the Bengali language movement “had been inspired by the hostile Hindu leaders of India.” Given the fact that the demand for making Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan was usually articulated in the legislatures (both inside the CAP and EBLA) by the Hindu legislators, the ruling party in East Bengal under Nurul Amin’s leadership started employing various forms of diversionary tactics to characterize all phases of the Bengali language movement as a hostile attack on the integrity of Pakistan by the Hindu leaders. Yet Dhirendranth Dutta remained vocal in the legislatures with his demand for making Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan.

Voicing the legitimate demands of the language activists, he was one the distinguished MLAs who made pro-Bengali fiery speeches on the EBLA floor. He demanded an outright explanation from the Chief Minister of East Bengal about the police firing on the students on 21st February, 1952. On April 10, 1952, Dhirendranath Dutta also strongly supported the motion which moved by Nur Ahmed on the CAP floor, for making Bengali along with Urdu as one the State languages of Pakistan.

In conclusion, it is fair to suggest that there were many language activists who were in the vanguard of the formative phase of the language movement, and among those, however, Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta’s role was seminal by any measure in the process of jumpstarting our resistance against those anti-Bengali forces. He remained committed to fight those forces who were engaged in repudiating the rudiments of the distinctive features of Bengali language and culture through the imposition of Urdu.

Doubtless, Dhirendranath Dutta spoke for all Bangalees of the then East Bengal when he forcefully yet respectfully demanded at the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan (CAP) on February 25, 1948 that Bengali should be accorded the status of a Sate language of Pakistan. His demand also exposed the hidden anti-Bengali design of the non-Bengali ruling coterie of Pakistan. It is evident that he took an active part in favor of the Bengali language both inside and outside the EBLA and CAP immediately before, during and after the pro-Bengali language protestors were shot dead on February 21, 1952. His role was pivotal in building up an organized resistance movement against the imposition of Urdu as the only “official” language of the nascent State of Pakistan. Notwithstanding the fact that the communally inspired and anchored ruling coterie of Pakistan had started disseminating blatant falsehoods and slanderous distortions about the legislators from the minority community, Shaheed Dhirendranath Dutta continued to be a dauntless voice for making Bengali as one of the State languages of Pakistan.

M. Waheeduzzaman Manik
The writer is Professor and Chair, Department of Public Management and Criminal Justice, Austin Peay State University. E-mail:



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