Reflections on 21st February

writes Muhammad Quamrul Islam | Published: February 20, 2016 21:09:28 | Updated: October 23, 2017 14:57:30


Prabhat ferry in 1952

We are of the generation of the early 1940s. We became imbued with the spirit of the movement for the mother tongue while at the junior level of school. We heard from classmates and seniors about the police firing in Dhaka on students and common people. They embraced martyrdom while demanding Bangla be declared a state language of the then Pakistan. The day was February 21, in the year of 1952.
We came out of our classrooms, joined a procession and paraded roads of the town raising full-throated slogans: blood of the martyrs will not go in vain. We demanded that Bangla be a state language of the country. When we came back to school, and joined classes, there was no reprimand and we went to our residences as usual. Our parents were happy to know the facts, and approved of our action. It was quite encouraging and had left an imprint on our mind.
From that day onwards, every year the day was observed as Shaheed Dibas (the Martyrs' Day) at all educational institutions of the then East Pakistan with due solemnity, by holding literary and cultural functions  under the guidance of the teachers. Shaheed Minars (memorials) were built to assemble there on the day of the 21st February to place floral wreaths. We would take out processions raising the demand for Bangla to be declared as a state language of Pakistan. Students from every institution chalked out programmes which would be participated by students and teachers.       
During our school days leading to the passing of the Matriculation examinations in 1955, we observed the Ekushey (the 21st February) with impassioned resolve. Memories of the events are still vivid.  
My father Advocate Muezzul Islam opted for the erstwhile East Pakistan, which included our home town Comilla, and returned from Kolkata in West Bengal, India, after the Partition of 1947. He was posted as Lawyer Magistrate at Kishoreganj, Gopalganj and Barisal until he resumed practice at the Comilla Bar in 1954. This profession of my father has enabled me as a student at Gopalganj SM Model High School and Barisal Zilla School to participate in the Shaheed Day programmes. It did not clash with my classroom studies. I always have expressed my deep respects to my teachers who spared no efforts to make us enlightened. The friendship with classmates and seniors knew no bounds. These ties would become stronger through extra-curricular activities, sports and cultural functions.
  At Comilla Victoria College, during 1955-57, our teachers used to tell us in the class, "You are no longer school boys but adults -- free and responsible, the future citizens and leaders of the country, for which you will have to equip yourselves with knowledge. Fix your goal of life and pursue it sincerely." The faces of Prof. Bibhu Ranjan Guha (Logic), Prof. Shudir Sen and Ali Newaz (Bengali), Prof. Abdul Momen (Islamic History-Modern World), Prof Jotsnamoy Bose and Ajit Nandi (English), Prof. Fazlul Karim and Shamsul Abedin (Civics) appear in the mind with their unique styles of lecture ringing in our ears. Principal Akhter Hamid Khan kept the academic atmosphere vibrant and ensured discipline in his own way. He once said a teacher who needed police to control students should not be in the teaching profession.  
  Under their spirited and enlightened guidance we were involved in democratic exercises. We used to organise annual college student union elections. Besides, there were cultural functions to celebrate different occasions, especially in observance of the 21st February, which featured barefooted processions on the main roads. We would brush aside the fears of police actions. Literary groups of students pasted special wall magazines on the wide college gate. Besides, there were hand-written magazines; the contributors to them became noted writers in later life in both sides of Bengal. This is the scenario that prevailed throughout this country.
 After 64 years, it is depressing to find that the newer generations of teachers and students have hardly any clear idea about this vibrant academic and cultural atmosphere, guided by dedicated teachers.
We were admitted to the SM Hall of Dhaka University for 1957-`61 under the hall provost. Different residential halls used to organise cultural sessions with zeal. The hall unions and Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) elections were held annually. Hall cabinets and the DUCSU, along with student organisations, used to observe Ekushey February through early-morning processions towards the Azimpur graveyard. The students would offer Fateha at the martyrs' graves and place flowers there in their memory. Later, they converged on the Central Shaheed Minar, paid floral respects, and then paraded the main streets to the Bahadur Shah Park braving police. The students would hold cultural programmes in the evening at their respective dormitory auditoriums, and the Curzon Hall.
 Thanks to the direct involvement with these programmes, we became aware of the necessity to uphold the cause of the mother tongue as well as the rights of the people. In effect, the students were preparing for the future democratic and nationalistic movements. The spirit of the Ekushey generated a feeling of unity among the Bangla-speaking people. Many students residing at the halls would raise the issues of the partition of Bengal in 1905, and its annulment in 1911 which had once been thought of as divisive events. Many of the politically conscious students blamed the 1947 partition of the sub-continent by the British rulers as a great blow to the dream of a united Bengal. It appeared difficult for them to accept the cultural and geographical divisions between the Bengalees in two different lands. Even in those days, we started talking about an independent Bangladesh. How far that dream was plausible was not our concern, but it was our irresistible urge. With the passage of time it became a reality in 1971. Our batchmates Kazi Zafar Ahmed, A Z M Enayetullah Khan and Bazlur Rahman joined politics and journalism after passing out of the university, while the others went to different professions. We kept in touch and remained unwavering in our resolve to reach the goals of regional autonomy and the emancipation of the people.
The development of Bangla language and Bengalee culture gained momentum after the Language Movement with the setting up of the Bangla Academy. Another institution named Kendriya Bangla Unnayan Board (Central Bangla Development Board) was also established a little later. By that time Bangla was recognised as a state language of Pakistan. The various historic student and people's uprisings in the years of the sixties against Pakistani repression led to the general election of 1970, the rulers' betrayal of the Bengalee people in East Pakistan, the genocide, and declaration of independence. All this finally reached the decisive Liberation War, and the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state.
We have passed forty-five years since independence. The successive governments organise state functions to observe the 21st February. But to what extent these rituals have contributed to reaching the expected level of use of Bangla in all spheres of our life deserves appraisal.  Let the Ministry of Culture take notice of it. It's time they made a thorough assessment of the development of Bangla as a medium of communication in our national life in the last forty-five years.
 What makes us feel really proud is the recognition of February 21 as the International Mother Language Day by the UNESCO in 1999. The International Mother Language Day is being observed from the year 2000. This was prompted by the initiatives taken by some enthusiastic young Bangladeshi expatriates in Canada. This recognition has firmly placed Bangla among the great languages of the modern times.
 The writer is an economist and socio-political activist.
mqislambd@hotmail.com

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