He shaped a dream for his people. He perished in upholding the dream. In death, he rose high, and higher, to light a thousand stars in our sky.
Through our silences, in our moments of sad, quiet reflections, within the broad parameters of our tempestuous history, we remember Dhirendranath Dutta.
We remember him because he was ours as much as we were his. There throbbed the soul of a thoroughly political being in him, all the way from British colonial times, when he engaged himself in the noble task of seeking independence for India, to the early 1970s, when he knew that Pakistan as a political proposition had gone dead for the people of East Bengal. Among Bengal’s tales of heroism, Dhirendranath Dutta holds a secure perch. There were in him all those traits which go into the making of a man of strong intellectual and moral character. In him came together all those hallmarks of personality which went into the shaping of a leader. Wisdom and foresight were characteristics of Dutta’s politics.
Dhirendranath Dutta was in every sense of the term a leader, one who was brave enough to comprehend the realities that would define for Bengalis their world of the future. The Language Movement we commemorate annually is but a mark of the presence of Dhirendranath Dutta in our collective life, for it was he who first instilled in us the sentiments associated with a heritage which needed to be reaffirmed in us despite our being part of Pakistan. When on 25 February 1948, he rose to inform the Constituent Assembly of the new state of Pakistan – and Mohammad Ali Jinnah was yet around – that the Bengali language had to have a place in the political and constitutional scheme of things, he was only reminding his fellow Bengalis that values shaped across the centuries could not be sacrificed on the creaky altar of communalism.
The clarity, the absence of ambivalence, the moral force in Dutta’s defence of the Bengali language on the day said it all:
“I know, Sir, that Bengali is a provincial language, but, so far as our state is concerned, it is the language of the majority of the people of the state. So although it is a provincial language… 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, four crores and forty lakhs of people speak the Bengali language. So, Sir, what should be the language of the state? The language of the state should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the state, and for that, Sir, I consider that the Bengali language is a lingua franca of our state.”
To our shame, to Bengali shame, the enormity of which we were never to free ourselves of, not a single Muslim Bengali politician could call forth the courage to support Dutta on that day. Not one Muslim politician rose in that chamber to support Dutta, to speak for their land. They remembered they were Muslims but conveniently forgot that they were Bengalis first and foremost. Their loyalty to the Muslim League proved to be deeper than their concern for their language and for their distinctive cultural heritage. In the House on that day, Dutta’s demand that the linguistic proceedings of the assembly be widened to encompass the Bengali language, to allow the poverty-driven peasant in Bengal to communicate better, in his native language, with his child pursuing education in urban circumstances, met with derision from Pakistan’s prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan and other West Pakistani politicians. Their parochialism did not allow them to probe the intellectual argument the respected Dutta was making in the assembly. They saw in Dutta’s statement the seeds of conspiracy. It was a position they and their successors would adopt down the years, one that would lead to a natural and inevitable break-up of the country less than a quarter of a century later.
And yet, in the larger perspective of history, Dhirendranath Dutta was destined to be our Moses on Mount Sinai, pointing out to us our Promised Land. He turned out, through his compelling arguments on the day, to be a seer, a trailblazer as it were, in articulating the aspirations of the Bengali segment of Pakistan. February 1952 was to be his vindication. Where in February four years earlier his was a lone voice, four years on it was an entire nation that identified with Dutta’s commitment to his ancestral land. Comilla was home for him. That the state of Pakistan could not guarantee him security of life was a dark probability he never lost sight of. That as a Hindu he was consistently in danger was not an illusion for him. By early 1970, February to be exact, he had a premonition – and this comes through in his missive to his Calcutta-based son Sanjib Dutta – that the wolves were lurking in the bushes, ready to pounce on him. But none of these worries would make him leave East Bengal, unlike so many others of his community who had made, in the aftermath of Partition, the heart-breaking trek to what had by then become West Bengal. It was the land, Bengal that was now East Bengal, half of the old Bengal, he worshipped, not the political configuration it became part of in the blood-drenched summer of 1947.
Having struggled for an end to British colonial rule, Dutta focused on the need for democracy in the improbable state of Pakistan. As part of the short-lived Jukto Front ministry in 1954, he proved, along with other men of liberal intent, that politics could return to being secular among the Bengalis, indeed that the ‘two-nation theory’ was not just an aberration but an abomination as well. The Pakistan state, vulnerable as such states always are and therefore insecure, hounded Dutta to no end. And the chance to do away with the venerable man, that charming personality whose life rested on high politics and deep intellect, came for that state in March 1971. For the marauding soldiers, it was a time when a nascent Bangladesh had to be crushed, when communalism had to be raised anew in its emaciated and ugly form. Anything Bengali was a negation of Pakistan. And every Hindu, in the eyes of the army, was a traitor to Pakistan. And so it was that the Pakistan occupation army, brutal and medieval and shameless to its fibre and bone, abducted the eighty-five year-old politician and his son Dilip Dutta. They were not to be seen or heard of again.
It is a selfless and humble man, a thinker and scholar, a politician of unswerving commitment to the high principles which make of life a majestic experience that we recall forty five years after the Islamic Republic of Pakistan kidnapped and murdered him. Dhirendranath Dutta remains a Bengali who cared about Bangladesh, about its people. His life was lived on a plank resting on courage of conviction. Because he happened to be around, because he helped shape our destiny, we could seize history and mould it into an epic story to our specifications. And in that is ingrained the greatness in Dhirendranath Dutta.
Dhirendranath Dutta gave us a dream – of a City upon a Hill, glorious in its brilliance, pregnant with poetry, suffused in dreams.
(Dhirendranath Dutta – crusader against colonialism, politician, scholar, Bengali nationalist – was born on 2 November 1886 and abducted by the Pakistan occupation army on 29 March 1971. His remains were never found)