We all read the history of the Bangla Language Movement of 1952 in our textbooks. As a child I learned that Shaheed (martyred) Salam, Jabbar, Shafiur and many other people were martyred during the Feb 21 protest. But one thing is unclear – how many people were killed?

We often hear the names of five martyrs: Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar and Shafiur. To find the names of other victims we have to turn to books written on the Language Movement. But, even after so many years, there is no complete list of martyrs. According to available information from Feb 21 and Feb 22, 1952, many people were killed in indiscriminate firing by government forces, but not all of them have been recognised.

On Feb 21, 1952, a meeting was held on the Dhaka University campus where students protested the ‘Urdu-only’ policy of the Pakistan government. The police opened fire in front of the medical college hostel where the students staged their demonstration. Some were killed. The next day, thousands of men and women thronged the university, medical college and engineering college areas to offer prayers for the victims of the police firing. After prayers, the people began to protest and the police opened fire again. More people were killed the next day.

Since then, Feb 21 is observed as ‘Shaheed Dibosh’ (Martyrs Day or Language Movement Day). In 1999, UNESCO declared it “International Mother Language Day”.

The first memorandum of the language movement in 1952 was published in March, 1953. Its publisher was Mohammad Sultan, the first president of the East Pakistan Student Union. The editor was Hasan Hafizur Rahman. In that book, Kabir Uddin Ahmed wrote in an article titled ‘Ekusheyr Khatanpunji’:

“The bodies of the martyrs were taken away from the medical college hospital after the conspiracy…. (the next day) in the morning, a large part of the public burnt the morning news office and kept going towards the news office. The military recklessly fired on the procession in front of the press office. There were many casualties.”

On Saturday, Feb 23, 1952, the ‘Sainik’ publication of the Language Movement was published. In the news section it was stated that police fired on students gathering at the medical college hostel on Thursday, killing seven people and injuring 300. But, according to the report published in the Daily Azad, nine people were killed in firing on Feb 21 and Feb 22.

Many bodies were removed.

Calcutta-based newspaper Daily Anandabazar published an article on Feb 23 titled “The Total Death Toll from Thursday and Friday is 9”.

Pakistan’s exiled writer Lal Khan wrote in his book “Pakistan’s Other Story: The Revolution in 1968-69” that 26 people were killed and 400 injured in police firing. The book was published in Lahore in 2008.

According to information provided by Oli Ahad, organiser of  Language Movement, no one knows the exact number of people killed on Feb 22 in Victoria Park (now Bahadur Shah Park), Nawabpur Road and Bangshal Road. Ahmad Rafiq mentioned the names of Abdul Awal, Kishore Ahilyaullah and Sirajuddin among the dead in his book “Ekush Theke Ekattor”.

Hassan Hafizur Rahman edited the “Ekushey February” compilation. In this compilation, Kabir Uddin Ahmed wrote an article on “Ekushey History”.

“The death of eight is undoubtedly confirmed,” he wrote.

Accordingly, MR Akhtar Mukul has made a list of eight language martyrs. Those killed on Feb 21 were identified as Rafiquddin Ahmad, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Abdus Salam, Shafiqur Rahman, Abdul Awal, Ahualullah and an unidentified boy. But only five people were officially recognised as Language Martyrs – Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Rafiquddin Ahmad, Abdus Salam and Shafiur Rahman. They received the Ekushey Padak in 2000.

Barkat and Jabbar were students of Dhaka University. Rafiq was the son of the owner of  Badamtali Commercial Press. They were killed on Feb 21, 1952. The next day, on Feb 22, rickshaw puller Salam and High Court employee Shafiur died in police firing. Two more names are found on the list of deaths on Feb 22, 1952 – Ahualullah and Abdul Awal. On the website of the International Mother Language Institute, these two are mentioned as Language Martyrs. Salahuddin’s name has also been recognised as a Feb 21 martyr in many other places. But they are not officially recognised.

The actual number of Language Martyrs will be unknown to our next generation if the government does not publish the proper information. The current generation is eager to know the truth of a pivotal moment in the history of our country and our culture.

Hasan Hamidis a researcher at the National Archives of Bangladesh.

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