A literary history of the Language Movement | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:20 AM, February 21, 2017

A literary history of the Language Movement

There is no doubt that the “language issue” did not prominently manifest in Bengal province before, during, after the general elections of either 1936-37 or 1945-46. It is a fact that by the time when the 1946 elections were held, almost all of the 33 million Bengali Muslims were on the side of creating Pakistan as a separate Muslim nation-state. Yet the core Bengali Muslim leaders had always expressed their loyalty to the Bengali language during the Pakistan movement whenever the question of substituting Urdu for Bengali language became an issue. 

It is being increasingly recognised that there was a literary context of the Bengali language movement because a large number of leading Bengali Muslim scholars, writers, poets, singers, professionals, journalists, intellectuals, civil service employees, students, teachers, and leaders had wholeheartedly supported the movement for Pakistan. Their writings, speeches, and, of course, their presentations in the cultural and literary conferences and the annual meetings of several literary associations lent their heartfelt support for the Pakistan movement. There is no doubt that a substantial body of pro-Pakistani literature had quickly emerged in Bengal, and the main thrust of such an effort was geared toward popularising the concept of Pakistan among the Bengali-speaking people.

The plethora of pro-Pakistani Bengali literature that had promptly emerged in 1940s was heavily laden with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu jargon in an effort to Islamise the Bengali language.  This brand of writers and self-declared exponents of Islamic identity had started importing Islamic words and idioms to Bengali literature with religious zeal.  The Muslim owned Bengali dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies such as Azad, Ittehad, Millat, Muhammadi, Mahe Nau, Noor, etc., provided them readily available popular outlets to champion the cause of Pakistan movement.

In his appraisal of the literary context of the Bengali language movement, Humayun Azad characterised the “pro-Pakistani literature” that had appeared in the then East Bengal before, during, and immediately after the emergence of Pakistan as “Bishbrikha (poison tree) of reactionary literature.” According to him, the two-nation theory of 1930s and the Lahore or Pakistan Resolution of 1940 had clearly motivated the Bengali Muslims to “communalism” which had adversely affected the literary field of the then East Bengal. The communally inspired Bengali Muslim writers started producing pro-Pakistani literature since 1940 with great deal of enthusiasm that had represented more of communalism than the true expression of life experiences of common people. Humayun Azad also forcefully argued that “most of those writers who took the leading role in creating and disseminating pro-Pakistani fervour were not at all creative writers. Some of them were journalists, and many of them belonged to the category of journalists, and some were politicians or politically motivated writers, and of course, some of them were motivated essayists...” (Humayun Azad, Bhasha Andolon: Shahittik Potobhumi, Dhaka: University Press Limited, 1990, p.1).

The establishment of the “Purba Pakistan Renaissance Society” in Calcutta in 1942 and the “Purba Pakistan Shahitya Sangstha” in 1943 in Dhaka provided a new momentum to the Pakistan movement at a critical juncture of Bengal's history. The professed objective of the “Purba Pakistan Renaissance Society” was to cultivate unadulterated Bengali culture and literature through control over all aspects of Muslim Bengalis. The main goal of the “Purba Pakistan Shahitya Sangstha” was to “Pakistanise” the Bengali language and literature through large-scale replacements or substitutions of traditional Bengali words and idioms with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu vocabularies and idioms.  Characterising both of these Pro-Pakistani literary associations as “communal and reactionary,” Humayun Azad underscored in unambiguous language that “the propagation of the cause of Pakistan movement was the chief “mantra” of these two communally inspired organisations.”

However, the most relevant question in our present context is to find out whether or not these pro-Pakistani literary bodies had supported Urdu to be a substitution for Bengali language in the new nation of Pakistan. The answer is in the negative, and any objective appraisal of these pre-independence Bengali literary bodies must attest to the fact that their support for Bengali never wavered even during the pinnacle of the Pakistan movement. The most poignant point is that the champions of the pro-Pakistani literature and literary bodies had wholeheartedly endorsed and supported the demand for making Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan.

Relying on several well-documented studies, Tariq Rahman, a distinguished Pakistani linguistic scholar on language problems of Pakistan, succinctly pointed out the context and the ground of the making of the demand for adopting Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan: “By the late 1920s, other organised bodies for the promotion of Bengali also came to be formed. One such organisation was the Dacca Rationalists. It supported Bengali rather than Urdu as the language of Muslim education in the 1930s.... The threat to Urdu was noticeable enough to make its supporters form an All-Bengal Urdu Association in 1933. They condemned Bengali as a Hinduised language (a view persisted in West Pakistan till 1971), and said that Urdu alone should be taught to Muslims.... In 1937, at the Lucknow session of the All India Muslim League, a resolution recommending Urdu as the lingua franca of Muslims all over India, was opposed by the delegates from the Bengal (province).... In 1944, the East Pakistan Renaissance Society of Calcutta formed by radical intellectuals, demanded that Bengali should be the official language of East Bengal” (Tariq Rahman, Language and Politics in Pakistan, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 83-84. For details, see Chapter 6 titled “Bengali Language Movement” pp. 78-102).

Pursuant to Lord Mountbatten's declaration on June 3, 1947, the creation of Pakistan through the partition of India was imminent. The Uttar Pradesh based Urdu-speaking stalwarts of the All-India Muslim League (AIML) had already begun mobilising their support and resources in favour of establishing Urdu language as the lingua franca of Pakistan. There is no doubt that the “ethnic identity” of Bengali-speaking Muslims was not prominent during the Pakistan movement. In other words, religious fervour had played a pivotal role among the Bengali Muslims at the height of Pakistan movement. Yet the Bengali-speaking Muslim middle-class, teachers, students, intellectuals, leftist activists, and other progressive forces vehemently opposed the absurd idea of making Urdu the lingua franca of Pakistan. The saliency of linguistic identity of Bengali Muslims clearly surfaced in the formative years of Pakistan even before the euphoria of the emergence of a Muslim nation started evaporating from the eastern province of Pakistan.

Various political forces of the then East Bengal also started mobilising support for adopting "Bengali" as one of the state languages of the new nation even before the emergence of Pakistan. Once Pakistan became a reality on August 14, 1947, the unresolved language controversy continued to surface during the early months of independent Pakistan. It needs to be underscored that the Central Government of Pakistan had already started the unilateral use of "Urdu" in money order forms, postal stamps, currencies and coins, railway tickets, and official letterheads and forms even without formally declaring or adopting "Urdu" as the "only" state language of Pakistan.

The Bengali-speaking stalwarts of Pakistan movement started emerging as the ardent defenders of Bengali language in independent Pakistan. Even the common people of East Bengal started suspecting the hidden motives and ploys of the Pakistani ruling elite. Much to the chagrin of the founding father of Pakistan and the Karachi-anchored Urdu-loving Punjabi and Muhajir dominated Central Government of Pakistan, the progressive forces of the then East Pakistan demanded that Bengali should be nurtured and protected as the lingua franca of Bengali Muslims.

They also forcefully demanded that Bengali should be immediately recognised as one of the state languages of the new nation of Pakistan. Indeed, those Bengali-speaking progressive forces including the Bengali doyens of Pakistan movement were in the vanguard of the formative stage as well as the 1952 phase of the Bengali language movement.


The writer is from Clarksville, Tennessee, USA where he is Professor & Chairman of the Department of Public Management & Criminal Justice at Austin Peay State University.

E-mail: zamanw@apsu.edu.com; manikzz@hotmail.com

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