Fakrul Alam

DU history and its part in Bangladeshi national identity formation

September 25, 2011

385675-Aparajeyo-Bangla-at-Dhaka-University-2Dhaka University started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. If the role the university had played in the evolution of the Bangladeshi identity before the partition of India was indirect, it now became the centre of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971.

The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali. The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country.

It insisted, too, that only Urdu and English could be used in proceedings of the Constituent Assembly.  In response to this ruling Dhaka University became the centre of protests once again as students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action”.  Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 144).

When he made the same point in addressing the D. U. Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that was soon to spread across East Pakistan was going to be the occasion for the dissemination of a counter-ideology based on linguistic nationalism that would ultimately lead to the break-up of Pakistan, a state  built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

This movement to establish Bengali as a state language came to a head on February 21, 1952, when the Language Action committee decided to organise a general strike and country-wide demonstrations. Once again the catalyst was Pakistani officialdom. Prime Minister Khawja Nazimuddin’s declaration on 27 January 1952 in a Dhaka public meeting that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan made D. U. the locus of protest meets and demonstrations.

Students called a strike on 30 January. When they violated the government ban on meetings on 21 February and took to the streets in D.U., police action resulted in the death of quite a few students on campus. But of course these deaths inflamed the students even more. They rallied and declared this day one of national mourning, hitherto to be called Ekushey February. The dead, who included students as well as passers-by, were declared martyrs, and the site of the firing where blood was shed was marked by a martyr’s column soon after. The Pakistan state tried to demolish the site then and once again in 1971, but was not able to remove it permanently. Instead, on both occasions, an impressive structure, known as “Shahid Minar”, reappeared on the site after a while.

Befittingly, the D. U. administration was subsequently given charge of organising the events centring on the site which kept burgeoning year by year. The 21st February eventually became a national holiday in independent Bangladesh and the martyr’s column ended up as the most important symbol of Bangladeshi national identity, eventually to be replicated all over the country.

The events of the day soon acquired mythical status and the day itself was hitherto marked by rituals meant to stir the collective memory of the people of Bangladesh. They include a barefoot procession in the morning that stops at the martyr’s graves and comes to an end with the laying of wreaths at the Shaheed Minar. Cultural events on campus commemorate the martyrs on the occasion. Gradually, this part of D.U. and the events organized in remembrance of the martyrs became indelibly stamped in the national consciousness. Indeed, D. U.’s centrality in Bangladeshi national identity formation is reaffirmed every year when the day is celebrated with great solemnity in the university.

The walls around the Shaheed Minar are covered with extracts from Bengali literature affirming the beauty of Bangla language and the importance of loving the motherland. Nowadays the midnight moment is broadcast live on national television since national leaders inaugurate the wreath laying ceremony. Throughout the day the university is the site of a kind of secular pilgrimage.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been seen as responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards. One of the government’s major initiatives in the short time that it was in power was to set up a “Bengali Academy”, later known as Bangla Academy, at the heart of the campus.

The neighbouring Curzon Hall too now became the site of cultural events, including literary festivals and stage productions, pro-Bengali and anti-Pakistani in intent. After 1971 Bangla Academy became the site of the most important book fair of the country. This fair lasts throughout the month of February. In it new books are launched and all Bangladeshi books in print sold to ever increasing number of visitors at discounted prices. As a result, the whole of February, D. U. becomes the locus of cultural and intellectual life in Bangladesh.

But because the language movement had been largely directed by students of D. U. and the university had become synonymous with opposition to Pakistani state apparatuses, no sooner was the United Front government voted out of power in 1954 that attempts were made to control teacher and student politics in it and to throttle any bid to affirm Bengali identity in the campus The Pakistani government, for instance, prevented students from celebrating Shahid Dibash or Shahid Day on 21 February 1955. It then promulgated the repressive Dhaka University (East Bengal Amendment) Ordinance in 1956. Soon after a military government led by General Ayub Khan took over the administration of the country. In 1958 it initiated a series of moves to curb campus freedom even more completely through the Dacca University Ordinance of 1961, which aimed to negate democratic practices completely. The relative autonomy granted to the university by the colonial government in 1920 was replaced by draconian measures undertaken so that the government could assume full control of university affairs.

Not surprisingly, teachers and students of D. U. joined hands to protest what they dubbed “black laws”.  They also took active roles in other movements that were launched to foil the Pakistani government’s bid to Islamize Bangladesh in all sorts of ways. For instance, when it took measures to prevent Rabindranath’s songs from being broadcast in the national media, the students were the first to protest the move on campus. In response, the D. U. campus began to develop traditions that affirmed Bengali culture. Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali theatre and dance groups became active on campus. The Pakistani government’s machinations to have Bengali written in an Islamic script also met with angry protests from the students of the university. The neighbouring Ramna Park and Bangla Academy as well as the campus proper became sites of Pahela Boisakh festivities to herald the Bengali new year, developed spontaneously to affirm the Bengali side of East Pakistani Muslims.

By February 1962, the campus became restive yet again, as students mobilized to oppose Ayub Khan’s dictatorship and remove the martial law through which he was ruling the country. The university was closed sine die but students had done enough to force the dictator to withdraw martial law in March of that year, though he then replaced it with what he called “basic democracy”. Like 1952, 1962 proved to be a crucial year in the road to Bangladesh. As in the language movement, the university had once again played the key role in national identity formation, this time by leading the people of the country towards democracy and autonomy. By September, students of the university had taken to the streets again to protest the education policy formulated by the Sharif Commission, which recommended measures that would strip students of the right to maintain any connection with political parties.

As far as the history of Pakistan is concerned, the sixties was a tumultuous decade. The 1962 student protests were only a prelude to the much more strident protests launched later in the decade against Ayub Khan and in favor of the six points program of the Awami League, demanding full autonomy for East Pakistan. These six points, it must be stressed, were the result of research on the economic disparity between the two provinces undertaken by Bengali economists of D.U. The cumulative results of these movements were that Ayub Khan was forced out of office in 1969. A new martial regime took over power, promising to hold elections through which democracy would return to Pakistan.  True to form, the D.U. had become the focal point of the movement to topple the regime and restore the democratic rights of Bengalis. By the end of the decade it had become obvious that any opposition to Pakistani maneuverings to impose West Pakistani power in the province and suppress Bengali culture would have to be thwarted by Bengali politicians bolstered by D. U. student support since the students of the institution had become adept in resisting state power and asserting Bengali rights to self-determination.

Looked at in retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. In the confrontation, D. U. teachers and students played the crucial part. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatuses failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life. Unlike the first generation of Muslim Bengali students of the British period, this generation belonging to the East Pakistan phase of Bangladesh’s history was only too conscious of being Bengalis first and not last. It may be pointed out here that in the mid-sixties the martial law government tried to mobilize a group of students—known as the National Student Federation (NSF)—to thwart students opposed to it.

These students were small in number but fascist in their tendencies. The ideology that they espoused was that of the Muslim League, the party Ayub Khan favored and tried to revive when in power in such ways. But arrayed against the NSF were the teachers and students who represented a coalition that could be termed progressives and included not only the middle-of-the road Chatra League that was an outgrowth of the Awami League but also left-leaning student factions of all shades.

If they are to be considered contemporary representatives of the “Dacca Man” envisaged by Lord Lytton in his 1923 speech, one can say that at the end of the ‘60ss he and the Dhaka women—for there were hundreds of them now— on the whole were oppositional, democratic, secular and Bengali nationalists imbued with enlightenment ideals. There were also quite a few socialists among their midst.

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Dr. Fakrul Alam, is Professor of English at the University of Dhaka.

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14 Responses to “ DU history and its part in Bangladeshi national identity formation ”

  1. A. Sayem on September 30, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Dear professor,
    Thanks for writing this article. What you have written about DU are well known facts and there is no denying in that. However, being an alumni of DU, I would rather request you to focus on improving the quality of education in DU.

    With regret I want to mention some facts about DU today. Many (a very substantial number) teachers in this university are not capable of achieving what it takes to be a university teacher in the 21st century in terms of developing level of intellect, using modern teaching methodology and having suitable mindset (and this is not because of lack of fund but because lack of good intention). Except for a few, most of the teachers do not deliver anything of international standard in the class rooms. Not many of them are interested in research and most of them are busy with licking politicians’ feet to get some financial and positional rewards.

    And they are getting away with these because the earlier generation of DU did some good to the nation and the nation is grateful for that. It is shameful to see how university teachers are politicised and sometimes very corrupt.

    Please wake up and look into the future as the very reason for universities to be in place is to face the challenges of future. I am not blaming you or some noble teachers (very few though) I had during my days in the DU. The trend I have witnessed is saying to me, in future the roles of the noble teachers will be marginalised and the university will become a breeding ground for ordinary ‘certificate-holder-only’ graduates like the students of colleges under National University.

  2. Syed Imtiaz Ali on September 29, 2011 at 11:48 am

    Very good account, down the memory lane, and history pages. A lot of new generation will benefit from the vivid ‘writing’.

    Yes, DU had the glory of making teachers, administrators, scientists, and so on. But I am afraid it’s not the case any more! It is alarming indeed.

    If we are really and sincerely looking ahead, then we have to spruce up EDUCATION right from primary stage and BAN student politics.

    There should be no student wing of different political parties. Many would dislike as myopic thinker but it will do a world of good to return to ACADEMICS. When would the students study, use library, submit assignments if they are busy with political activities and tender winning, etc?

    For once, the authorities must think where we are heading. Ms Kalpana’s facts and data are correct and relevant. We must draw inspiration, conclusion to plan accordingly. India can serve as a good model for us. We have to be ambitious and leave the past to grab the future.

    Again, please BAN STUDENT politics and see the difference. DU can and must return to glory in 10-15 years. DU will produce more toppers in the world stage. Emphasis on English has to make a come back for understanding, competition and making us heard. We are miserably poor in education for today’s world!

  3. Rahman on September 26, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Nobody had enough courage to protest against Quaid’s Convocation Speech. His speech was exactly right and if we could stick to his words we (Bengali) would be a powerful nation as well. If the western wing people can accept Urdu as the national language of the country, what was the problem for our Bengali people? Actually, we are morally and characteristically corrupt. We never held any ideology for a long time that is why misfortune befalls on us times and again.

    Our leaders are weak morally and they don’t hesitate to lie for their selfish interest.
    We, the new generation don’t want to hear your story of how Bangladesh came into being!

    It’s the weakest nation on earth!

    • Syed Imtiaz Ali on September 29, 2011 at 12:23 pm

      Powerful is a relative word. Is today’s Pakistan an inspiration for Mr. Rahman (hiding behind a surname)? He seems to have no clue how rich Bangla is. Our leaders are steering through some rough storm to reach a steady state.

      Again, weakness also is a relative word. Please do not defeat yourself, Mr Rahman. You must thank the creator for being able to be Bangladeshi today.

      • Ali on September 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm

        If student politics is ABOLISHED, we can hope for going back to our glorious days of DU and raise our standard.

        Please let us get back to ACADEMICS. Even the teachers are mum, as they are also POLITICISED, unlike anywhere else in the world! Every other teacher wants to get special favours while divorcing conscience and wisdom.

    • russel on October 1, 2011 at 2:37 pm

      “If the western wing people can accept Urdu as the national language of the country, what was the problem for our Bengali people?”-excerpts from your comments Mr.Rahman

      I would like to ask you: What powerful nation has Pakistan over the years? We became independent from them and wasn’t it most expected by overwhelming majority of Bengali people? What do you mean by “we don’t have ideology”? What ideology do you have? Aren’t we thriving day by day?

    • adnan on March 1, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      I am glad some people can still see through so much smoke. How Urdu was accepted in the former two wings is indeed interesting. I am a Bangladeshi and I think this issue was the starting point for the two wings becoming more and more separated. I agree if you meant to say both BD and Pak are much weaker than they would be if old Pakistan was an unbroken confederation. We would have been so strong in commerce, defence, film industry (try to watch pre-1971 Pakistani movies). Our older generation have been brainwashed by lies from politicians. The new generation is stronger with more sources of information, and so in a better position to form rational opinions.

  4. Golam Arshad on September 26, 2011 at 7:14 am

    A stream of truth underpinning; the historic role of students of the Dhaka University. Still today, Dhaka University, is the citadel of protest of misgivings and trite of unruly governance. It will remain so in generations to come.

    • Yamuna Jamal on September 29, 2011 at 8:15 am

      Mr. Arshad;

      You are over blowing the role of “The Dhaka University” a.k.a “Goat Factory” during 1972….. Please look deep through your soul, believe your biological eyes and evaluate what you exactly see today in Dhaka University & in all universities. Thank you.

  5. Yamuna Jamal on September 26, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Professor;

    What do you mean by “the Islamic State of Pakistan was born”? Was it a “Legal fact” or “Language in the Charter” during August 1947? Was there any “Hindu State of India” too satisfying the complete equation? Also, when you say “Bengali Identity”, do you mean “Bangladeshi identity” instead?

    I wonder if you have anything to say differently among the “missions” of Muslim League (Student Wing) and those of Awami League & BNP (student wings?

    Also, please do not suppress Tagore’s historical opposition against “THE DACCA UNIVERSITY” along with his “friend” Ashutosh Mukherjee, V.C of Calcutta University.

    • kalpana on September 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm

      Fact 1: Only 7 percent people of Pakistan were Urdu speaking in 1947. Urdu imposition was the black-lash against the Hindi proponents of undivided India.

      Fact 2: Rabindranath Tagore unhesitatingly supported Hindi as the language of people for inter-provincial communications of whole of the undivided India (when asked for his opinion by Mahatma Ghandi in a letter in 1918). Dr. Mohammed Shaidullah protested and advocated Bengali instead.

      When faced with the Urdu language protesters in North India and violent Tamil Language protesters in the south, Tagore realised the problem. In 1937, he opined that the future leaders of India must very carefully consider about the language problem. The English language still reigns supreme. (Although Hindi is the national and official language of union of India).

      Fact 3: Muslim League leaders of undivided Bengal Shaheed Suharwardy and Abul Hashem, etc. along with the Forward Block leader Sharat Basu struggled hard to keep the Bengal united. But upper class Hindu led by Asutosh Mukherjee’s son Shyma Prashad Mukherjee, a Hidu Moha-Shova leader forced the division of Bengal. In the voting in Bengal(Undivided) Legislative Assembly all the Hindu MLA (92) voted for division of Bengal(except five low cast Hindu and one Christian Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Whereas 127 Muslim MLA voted for undivided Bengal. However Lord Mountbatten was forced to divide Bengal and Punjab.

      When taunted by prime minister Nehru in Indian Parliament on the recent division (second Banga Bhanga) forced by Bengali Hindu upper caste against their earlier fight against the division of Bengal in 1905-11(first Banga-Bhanga); Mukhherjee replied ‘You have divided India, I have divided Pakistan.’(cf. Nehru and Patel’s announcement of refusal of Cabinet Mission Plan without the consent and knowledge of senor Congress leaders like Mahatma and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad).

  6. kalpana on September 26, 2011 at 1:37 am

    Thanks for the nice recapitulation of the contribution of DU in the formation of Bangladeshi national identity. I myself passed through those days since my school days. Have been present during opening of the 2nd Shaheed Minar. Used to go to Azimpur graveyard in bare foot with few floral wreaths made of collected flower from personal gardens of Dhaka citizens (no floral shop or business had developed back then). Later we were in thick of the “Choy Dafa” which culminated into armed struggle and independence. Our guardians, although in the Pakistan government service, indirectly encouraged us.

    The student leaders of those days were brilliant students. They were our idols. Most of them became the bastion of government administration -members of Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP). Our present finance minister was one of them. Being the inside people, these capable and competent men opened our eyes as to how the West Pakistan was depriving the East Pakistan.

    In those days, DU did not only fight in national political struggle, they also produced intellectuals, scientists and teachers who guided the nations to lofty ideals. We thought of surpassing the Europe, India and West Pakistan in knowledge and intellectual capability.

    But Alas! Now nothing is there to be proud of DU. Only remembering and ruminating on the past glory!!

    When 100% of Indian universities are teaching science subjects and 85% in arts subjects in English language; what are we doing? Most of the college and university education in India are done in English. At the moment 120 million students in colleges and universities in India read their subjects in English.

    A Bachelor or a Masters degree holder is supposed to be highly conversant in his subject and give us input from the worldwide knowledge. To bring in a Chinese writer’s words: these degree holders of ours are without English knowledge (spoken and written) are “Deaf”, “Dumb” and “Lame” in the wider world of business, job and knowledge.

    Only 2.5% of Bangladeshi is capable to converse in English compared to 23.5% and 13.5% in India and Pakistan respectively.

    So our degree holders will not get expected benefits from their studies and degrees (most of whom belong to middle and lower middle class group).

    British and Pakistanis have done many adverse things for us but now we are doing the greatest disservice to our education sector which will ultimately lead our nation towards downfall.

    • kalpana on September 28, 2011 at 10:24 am

      To the esteemed moderator,
      Moderation should not take so much time that the article and comments become dated.

    • Ali on September 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      Thanks a lot for your informed opinion.

      But unfortunately, you have cast pearls before the swine. I am sorry!

      We are not making any competitive good human beings any more (in good numbers I mean). Teachers’ selection, recruitment, current salary, political allurement, et all are to be blamed.

      Will there be a deeper, thorough and sincere policy made to get over all that are paralysing the nation?

      Only the govt. can ensure this.
      Many thanks. Please keep on enlightening us.

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