When Pakistan was created in August 1947, it was made up of two wings, East and West. In 1951, when its first census took place, the combined population of both wings was 76 million; 34 million in West and 42 million in East. The Bengalis made up the majority of the population of East and this made Bengali/Bangla the language spoken by the numerical majority of Pakistan. But Urdu was seen as the national language, while being the mother tongue of barely 5 per cent of the population then. However, it was more than a language; it was attached to the very core of the Pakistan Movement as the Quaid-i-Azam Mohd. Ali Jinnah declared in Dacca (Dhaka) in 1948. Yet, soon thereafter, the fractures and fissures between the two wings began to open up, due to the discriminatory and step-brotherly treatment of the East Pakistanis; not just in the language sphere.
By 1952, there were large-scale demonstrations and unrest centred around the University of Dhaka and on 21 February 1952, these ended in violence, in which the police clamped down on the protestors resulting in numerous casualties. Since 2000, the United Nations has observed 21 February as the International Mother Language Day. Bengali/Bangla was eventually recognised as an official language of Pakistan (alongside Urdu) in article 214(1), when the first constitution of Pakistan was enacted on 29 February 1956. Longer term though, this parity in the Constitution failed to address the underpinning problems and East Pakistan eventually became Bangladesh following the civil war of 1971.
The letter below, sent a week after these protests, from Malik Firoz Khan Noon, a prominent landowning Punjabi and future PM (1957-58) of Pakistan, then-Governor, East Bengal Governor to Sir Khwaja Nazimuddin, an aristocrat Bengali and Jinnah’s successor as Governor-General (1948-51) of Pakistan, then-PM (1951-53), shows the failure to recognise the legitimate grievances of the language movement.
Noon to Nazimuddin, 28 February 1952
The Vice-Chancellor and other members of the Executive Committee have closed the University. Some students are leaving: others will try to hang on in Dacca. Out in the districts no untoward incidents have taken place except this that students have been trying to make themselves a nuisance at railway stations and in the cities, and the papers who write explaining true facts are not allowed by the students to be distributed by the hawkers in the district headquarter towns. The Government are now planning to drop pamphlets from the air throughout the province. I do not think that the Muslim League Ministers or other leaders can go out into the province as yet for three or four weeks to explain their point of view, but our propaganda has been very weak: almost non-existent. The Government point of view has not had the chance to go before the public yet.
I feel that both in Western Pakistan and in East Pakistan our propaganda machine should be put into full force and the true situation exposed to the public, viz. that this was a conspiracy between the communists and some of the caste Hindus of Calcutta, and certain political elements in East Pakistan who wanted to replace the Ministry: the students were made the cat’s paw. Their idea was to set up a puppet Ministry here, with Fazlul Huq as the Chief Minister, and then negotiations were to start for the unification of the two Bengals. I feel that it is most important that this true position must be exposed to the public who should realise the danger that we still continue to face in this province. The language question was only a subterfuge very cleverly exploited. In this province we are doing what we can to put forth our point of view, and Mr Fazl-i-Karim – Education Secretary – who has just returned from abroad has been asked to take charge of this work.
The second point to which I should like to draw your attention is that during the coming session of the Central Legislature, this Bengali language question must be settled once for all, and I do not think that you can get out of it without accepting Bengali as one of the state languages, but it must be Bengali written in the Arabic script. The sooner this resolution is passed the sooner will this controversy be settled. I have no doubt that the Hindus will create trouble about the script, but no Muslim will be able to raise his voice against the Arabic script, because in this way we shall have all the Provincial languages written in the same Arabic script, and this is most essential from the national point of view. I am told that during the time of Shaista Khan, Bengali was written in the Arabic script: there are some books in the museum here written in that script. If Bengali were written in the Arabic script – 85 % of the words being common between Urdu and Arabic if properly pronounced soon a new and richer language will emerge which may be called ‘Pakistani’. But something has to be done in this matter. We cannot let matters adrift.
The Arabic script will be the biggest disappointment to the Hindus who have been at the bottom of it, and that is the real crux of the whole question. The Jamiat ul Ulama-i-Islam in this province under the presidency of Pir Sahib of Sarsina and Secretary-ship of Maulana Raghib Asan have already passed a resolution demanding the writing of Bengali in the Arabic script, and no Muslim M.L.A. – either in Karachi or here – will be able to oppose the Arabic script. As a matter of fact, the Muslim League Party here last year went to the extent of passing a resolution saying that Arabic should be the national language of Pakistan. The object really was to do away with Urdu, but it is certainly a point which may be used by you in your speech, if necessary. The Aga Khan has written a very good pamphlet on this subject. It was going to be published but unfortunately it has been burnt with the Jubilee Press. The Aga Khan has promised his followers to be provided with a revised copy and I will try and let you have one as soon as it becomes available.
One of the main points the Aga Khan brought out was this that Persia changed their script from the old Pehlvi script into the Arabic script and in that way their literature became richer than ever, and by changing the script the Persian language did not lose anything nor would the Bengali language. He also tried and impressed that by enforcing the Arabic script the Bengali literature will be available to all other Muslim countries who will be able to appreciate the work of the Bengali authors. Similarly, the literature of all other Muslim countries will be open to Bengali Musalmans who know the Arabic script. He also pointed out in his pamphlet that every Musalman has to learn Arabic in any case because the boys and girls must read the holy Quran, and if they are conversant with the Arabic script why should this Dev Nagri script be thrust on them unnecessarily. It will be conceded on all hands that if in the schools in East Bengal boys and parents were given the option for children to learn Bengali either in the Arabic script or in the Dev Nagri script, they would all choose the Arabic script.
Quite a large amount of money is being earned by Calcutta Hindu authors who have the monopoly of all our school text books and it is they who are spending money in support of the Bengali language and would even spend money in support of the Dev Nagri Script. It should not be forgotten that people in West Bengal themselves have not asked for Bengali language to be accepted as a State language in Bharat: they have accepted Hindi as their national language.
Rahman, Tariq. ‘Language and ethnicity in Pakistan‘ Asian Survey 37, no. 9 (1997): 833-839.
S.M. Shamsul Alam (1991) ‘Language as political articulation: East Bengal in 1952’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 21:4, 469-487, DOI: 10.1080/00472339180000311
Tarun Rahman, ‘The Bengali Story Behind International Mother Language Day‘, Medium, 11 February 2016
Salman Al-Azami, ‘The Bangla Language Movement and Ghulam Azam‘, Open Democracy, 21 February 2013