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Chapter XVII PDF Print E-mail
Written by Syed Sajjad Husain   
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds - Shakespeare

If I were writing a history of the Pakistan movement, I should record in detail the stages by which the new state disintegrated. That would involve a close examination of its politics and economics and social evolution. The bungling and delays over the framing of a Constitution, the erratic politics that led to an accentuated public misunderstanding of the motives of men at the helm of affairs, all this should find a place in a history of the decline and fall of Pakistan. Mine, however, is an attempt to explain, primarily to myself, the nature of the rot that undermined its foundations and brought about a complete reversal of the feelings of the East Pakistan population. I do not deny that mistakes were made. I do not deny that the Government showed occasionally a callousness towards the trends of public feeling which one could only describe as astonishing. But none of these factors would account satisfactorily for the happenings of 1971 without reference to a conspiracy and without presupposing that there were agents at work both within and without the state who were determined to destroy it and took clever advantage of the lapses and errors and shortcomings of those on whom the responsibility of building up Pakistan devolved.

The offensive against Pakistan took three forms: cultural, political and economic. On each front a subtle strategy was pursued. The enemy’s first task, while appearing to be vitally concerned about the survival and prosperity of the new state, was to plant suspicions, to stir up misgivings, to create issues. If the attempt succeeded, the suspicion or misgiving would be carefully nurtured, allowed to grow, made to appear real. At this stage other issues would be brought in embracing a wider spectrum of the national life. It was also noticed that lest public interest in the issues should die down, a carefully planned succession of newer diversions was created, each contributing to the effect aimed at, namely, that the people of East Pakistan. were being slowly bled white economically, enslaved politically, and subjugated culturally.

The enemy’s greatest allies in this campaign were our complacency, good faith, naiveté, stupidity, insensitiveness and failure to act decisively at the right moment. Without such allies to assist them, they would never have scored the triumph they did. We need, therefore, to recognise that we owe our misfortunes as much to the enemy’s scheming as to our own blindness in the face of danger. In the pages that follow, I shall try in my own way to analyse the enemy’s campaign, the three aspects of it separately, I would deal first with the cultural aspect.

The main cultural weakness of the present generation (or rather the last two generations) of Muslims in Bengal consists in their neglect of the classical languages, Arabic and Persian. This has tended to cut them off from the rest of the Muslim community outside Bengal, to rupture those bonds, subtle and invisible which sustain a people’s sense of spiritual cohesion. A Muslim, lacking in Arabic and Persian, even at second hand, came gradually to forfeit the feeling that he was part of larger cultural entity. He forgot Islamic history; he ceased to take pride in the achievements of Muslim peoples elsewhere. Jawaharlal Nehru notes in his Autobiography published in 1935 that one of the greatest bonds among Muslims was a shared pride in the past achievements of Muslims. Since 1935 new trends in education, de-emphasing the importance of Arabic and Persian, had considerably eroded this pride. These trends were at work all over India, but outside Bengal they did not produce the same effects.

The reason is that whereas non-Bengal Muslims had in Urdu a substitute which at least offered partial compensation for the loss caused by the decline of classical Muslim scholarship, the Bengali Muslims had nothing like it in their armoury. For one thing Urdu itself represented a Muslim achievement. The main writers were Muslims; the ambience they created was steeped in Muslim traditions; many of the renowned Arabic and Persian classics were available in Urdu translation; much of the vocabulary, as a matter of fact most of the nouns and adjectives were drawn from Arabic and Persian; the imagery Urdu poets used was borrowed directly from those two languages. Secondly, owing to these reasons, an Urdu-speaking Muslim, even when cut off from Arabic and Persian was never deprived of that sense of pride in his own heritage without which social cohesion cannot last. His Bengali counterpart, on the other hand, saw nothing around him except evidences of Hindu achievements. Though Muslims started cultivating the Bengali languages as early as the sixteenth century, and though it is also true historically that without the patronage of Muslim-rulers Bengali would never have made any progress, the fact remains that the number of outstanding Muslim writers in Bengali is comparatively small. The Muslims contributed little to the literary renaissance in Bengal which took place in the 19th century.

To the generations that grew to maturity before the First Great World War the absence of Muslim achievements in Bengali did not matter much. The educated section among them were conversant with Arabic and Persian as well as Urdu. Many of them had adopted Urdu as their own. Consequently the fact that vis-à-vis the Bengali Hindus the Muslims could lay claim to no outstanding work in Bengali did not affect their amour propre. They believed honestly that it was in Urdu among the languages of the sub-continent that the expression of the Muslim genius was to be found. The 19th century renaissance in Bengal had its counterpart in the rise of the powerful school of Muslim writers in Urdu, among whom the best known for political reasons was Hali. Hali in Urdu brought the Muslims the same sort of message as Bankim Chatterjee did for the Hindus. Hali’s Musaddas, a political poem whose purport was to urge the Muslims to shake off their torpor performed the same service for the Muslim community as Bankim’s novel Ananda Math. No Muslim who knew Ghalib, or Meer or Sauda or Shibli Nomani could feel small on account of a Michael Dutt or Bankim among the Hindus.

The new generation of Muslims who knew neither Arabic and Persian nor Urdu and who depended solely upon Bengali felt however completely cut off from the Muslim heritage preserved in these languages. Had they succeeded as the Muslims of northern India had done in translating the chief Muslim classics into their own language, their sense of alienation would not have been so great. But what was available in Bengali ---apart from a body of verse narratives written in an idiom despised by the present generation---consisted solely of the works of Hindu authors expressing a civilization different from theirs and exuding a flavour, subtle, indefinable, elusive where not pronounced, which derived from Hindu mythology, epic and scripture. To have to accept it as their own meant wrenching themselves from their background. But to the majority it did not mean a wrench at all. Not having known what their own heritage was like, they did not feel that they missed anything by not being acquainted with the classics in Arabic, Persian and Urdu.

I have mentioned earlier in this account how we in the forties founded the East Pakistan Literary Society in the University of Dacca with a view to popularising the kind of idiom that Muslims used among themselves. Ours was no revolutionary demand. We were repeating in our manifesto the claims put forward earlier by such writers as Qazi Nazrul Islam himself or Abul Mansur Ahmad. Now the fact is that these people had grown up in a Muslim atmosphere. They themselves did not know much Urdu, or Persian or Arabic, but they had as children breathed the essence of Muslim culture, imbibed the rhythms of Arabic Qasidas and Persian Gazals, and assimilated unconsciously the manifold influences summed up in the word Islam. Their standards of judgement, their modes of thought were cast in an Islamic mould. Had Muslim Bengal produced a succession of powerful writers like Nazrul Islam, the problem would have solved itself. But a single Nazrul Islam as against a galaxy of Hindu luminaries was not much help. Nor was Nazrul Islam a reliable guide. A great individualist, he could not be fitted into any theory; he wrote as he pleased, said what he liked. If some aspects of his practice could be adduced to strengthen the case for a Muslim idiom in Bengali, there were other writings which lent support to the other view.

The process I am trying to describe could be a fascinating study in group psychology. Here was a society in transition, undergoing a slow change from one kind of culture to another through a process of education, being alienated from its cultural inheritance and involuntarily affiliated to an entirely different culture. The Pakistan movement on the political plane was an attempt to arrest the Muslim’s conversion to Hinduism, but in Bengal language introduced additional complications. It is not that we were not aware of them. But I doubt whether man like Mr Fazlul Huq or Mr Shaheed Suhrawardy, both of whom were thoroughly steeped in classical Muslim scholarship, were alive to the problem. Most of the prominent Muslims of their generation, Khan Bahadur Abdul Momen and Mr Abul Qasem of Burdwan, Sir Abdur Rahim, Sir Abdul Halim Ghuznavi had had a pseudo classical education, with its emphasis on Urdu and Persian. Sir Abdur Rahim, though he belonged to a Midnapur family spoke Urdu at home. The other three, while fluent in Bengali, belonged also to an Urdu-centred world. They would never have thought of regarding the Hindu writers of the nineteenth century as representing their own cultural heritage.

The attitude of Mr Abul Qasem’s son, Mr Abul Hashem, was very different. He was one of the main spokesmen of the new self-consciousness among Muslims as Bengalis. To him Tagore rather than Ghalib, Bankim rather than Hali appeared to be the true voice of his people. The non-Bengali Muslims were viewed by people like him as strangers with very little in common with the Bengali Muslims.

It was this change of attitude towards their past and traditions which made the language movement of the fifties both possible and powerful. As the new generation nursed on Bengali classics exclusively came to maturity and started occupying positions of authority, the entire cultural atmosphere underwent a perceptible change.

Immediately upon the establishment of Pakistan, the conspirators stimulated subtly a public debate on the state language issue. The adoption of Urdu, they claimed, would pave the way for the cultural and economic subjugation of the Bengali Muslims. The more important jobs would go to those whose mother tongue was Urdu and gradually the Bengali Muslims would be ousted from all positions of power. Young men in the University of Dacca fell a prey to this propaganda and started worrying.

Those of us who never suspected---to our utter shame---that the controversy could really have been inspired by ulterior motives felt shocked when a handful of students--- four, it is reported---protested noisily when, addressing the Dacca University Convocation in March 1948---the Quaid-e-Azam declared that Urdu alone could be the lingua franc a of Pakistan. It was for us inconceivable that as early as March 1948 anyone in Pakistan could dare insult the Quaid-e-Azam publicly. Yet the incident did take place and its sequel practically sealed Pakistan’s fate. Although everybody felt horrified, no action at all was taken against the culprits. They were allowed to continue in the University, no reprimand was administered to them. On the contrary, the Government of East Bengal, then headed by Khwaja Nazimuddin, apparently took the view that such youthful exuberance deserved to be overlooked and pardoned. The Government should have known that misbehaviour with the Quaid-e-Azam had incensed the entire population of East Pakistan, and any punishment meted out to the miscreants would have received the approbation of an overwhelming majority. Many felt genuinely puzzled at the Government’s failure to act, realising clearly that the tolerance shown would be misconstrued and used as a springboard for further mischief in the future.

This was the time when Pakistan was locked in a grim life and death struggle with India over Kashmir. Her administration was still shaky. The stupendous refugee problem in West Pakistan was straining her resources to the utmost. India had first withheld her share of the Imperial Bank of India assets; the military stores and equipment which had fallen to her share had been misappropriated. Nehru talked almost daily of settling the problems created by Partition by force of arms. If a country needed cohesion and solidarity at any period, this was when it was needed most in Pakistan. But without the slightest reference to these national issues, the conspirators proceeded stage by stage to work up the language agitation.

The most effective weapon in their armoury was not love of Bengali among Muslims but economic fear. I know personally that a considerable section favoured Urdu for cultural reasons. But they were silenced by the arguments that Urdu would spell economic deprivation, unemployment, industrial backwardness and second-class status in general for Bengali Muslims.

The way the issue was handled by the Government was unimaginative and showed a complete lack of understanding on its part about the implications of the problem. The government relied much too heavily on patriotism, believing that all they needed to do in order to counteract the enemy’s designs was to draw attention to the dangers to Pakistan’s existence. I have myself always felt, and said on many occasions that the official statements on language policy were wholly uncalled for. English continues even today to be the language of administration in both Bangladesh and Pakistan and yet the tragedy is that those of us who advocated a realistic approach to the problem and urged the retention of English were denounced as reactionaries. I remember that I became almost as unpopular in East Pakistan as in the West. Even persons like Dr I. H. Qureshi and Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui---persons whom I respect---came to think of me as a fanatical Supporter of English who for obvious professional reasons wanted the status quo to be perpetuated. Yet how far is this from the truth, I always felt that the creation of an additional problem like the language problem---so sensitive, explosive and potentially dangerous---- at a time when Pakistan’s hands were full and before it had been consolidated betrayed an absence of statesmanship. Why could not the government have declared, specially after the Convocation incident, that there was no question of English being immediately replaced by Urdu, and that the issue would be resolved in the light of public opinion at some convenient date in the future if it was at all desired to do away with English. I have never understood why so much emotion was allowed to be generated over an issue which had little relation to the immediate facts. Even those who wanted Urdu or Bengali realised that no immediate change could he made, and that the country would have to retain English for pragmatic reasons for many years to come.

To me the whole controversy had an air of un-reality. To ruin the present for the sake of a future not even dimly discernible seemed to me neither practical wisdom nor sound idealism. The problem before us was how to consolidate the disparate national groups which constituted Pakistan into a psychologically united single national entity. Seeing that English, a foreign language, had fortuitously acquired a position which helped preserve the facade of national unity, should we have disturbed it? Urdu or Bengali outside the context of Pakistan was meaningless. If Pakistan survived, then alone the question of Urdu or Bengali as the State language would have significance. All our efforts initially should have been directed towards the avoidance of centrifugal, and divisive issues and the strengthening of all those elements--­whatever their origin---which made for unity. Instead we went madly ahead, in both wings of Pakistan, to create, sometimes to resurrect, the deadliest impediments to national unity. Political leaders as well as educators alike began a self-defeating campaign against English. Each step they took, each declaration they made, weakened the forces of national cohesion and strengthened the enemy.

The thoughtlessness of non- Bengali officials in the East Pakistan Secretariat served to lend colour to the enemy’s propaganda. The thoughtlessness was a compound of arrogance and naiveté: arrogance bred by the conviction that Urdu alone was and could be a true vehicle of Muslim culture; naiveté arising from their eagerness to share what they considered valuable with the Muslims of Bengal. The backwardness of the local population came to be viewed as a sign of their ethnic inferiority. Hitches between Bengali and non-Bengali Muslims--- often the result of business or professional rivalry----were seized upon by the enemy as proof of the sinister designs of the Urdu-speaking classes, and fanned and magnified into serious clashes. Such hitches occurred everywhere in India; they are inevitable whenever people belonging to different linguistic groups mix in a city. But nowhere outside East Pakistan were they given the same importance. It was the attitude of the Urdu-speaking officials which rendered the enemy’s mischievous interpretations of minor incidents plausible and credible. Mr Fazl-e-Karim Fazli, the provincial Education Secretary, alienated considerable body of public opinion by aggressively advocating the adoption of the Arabic script of Bengali. The fact is that apart from the enemies, many people, who, left to themselves, might have favoured such a change, resented the idea of having to be told how to write Bengali by one who did not know the language himself. Mr Fazli’s intentions were patriotic; he wanted a single script for the country, believing that unity of script would make for greater cultural unity. But his suggestion came at a time when the conspirators were busy stirring up suspicions about the non-Bengalis, and it proved additional grist to their mill.

I am intentionally and deliberately using the term conspirators repeatedly, and, as I have said earlier, I have no doubt in my mind that there was conspiracy on foot. How else does one explain the proceedings of the Literary Conference held in 1949 at the Curzon Hall, Dacca where the Chairman, Dr Muhammad Shahidullah propounded his theory of Bengali nationalism? The Joint Secretaries were Mr Ajit Guha and Syed Ali Ashraf, Mr All Ahsan’s younger brother, then a lecturer in the Department of English, Dacca University, I was at the Conference myself, having only a few months earlier in September 1948, resigned from the Sylhet M. C. College and joined the University. What I heard pained and disappointed me. I took a serious view of Dr Shahidullah’s remarks and replied to him in a signed article published in the Azad. I said that Dr Muhammad Shahidullah’s views clearly marked a departure from the two-nation theory, and were aimed at undermining the basis of Pakistan. If, I argued, we were to regard ourselves as Bengalis first, how could we accept the basis of Pakistan? It seemed strange to me that so soon after the establishment of the new state through a process involving a great deal of sacrifice and bloodshed, a person like Dr Shahidullah should begin openly, publicly, questioning its basis. What, I asked, was the motive behind this revival of the controversies which had preceeded the creation of Pakistan?

Dr Shahidullah, politically always a simple-minded man, who had uttered those remarks without fully realising that they could be interpreted as a frontal attack on Pakistan’s basic ideology got scared when my protest appeared in the Azad. He thought I had intentionally exposed him to the risk of arrest by drawing attention to the implications of his speech. For nearly two years afterwards he refused to talk to me directly eyeing me with suspicion as a sworn personal enemy.

One of the delegates from Calcutta to the Curzon Hall Conference was Kazi Abdul Wadud. He had always been opposed to Pakistan and had chosen after 14th August 1947 to stay in Calcutta rather than move to Dacca like other Muslims. I had great respect for him. He was not a hypocrite; he made no secret of his views, and practised what he professed. When we met him, he said he was delighted that a conference of this kind was being held so soon after the establishment of Pakistan. He felt that this showed that the Muslims were having second thoughts about it and were beginning to realise that they were culturally affiliated to the other part of Bengal.

I do not remember who else from Calcutta attended. But the significance of the Conference lay in the fact that its organisers had succeeded by a combination of hypocrisy and an appeal to the linguistic feelings of a section of the Bengali Muslims, in firing the first salvo in the campaign against Pakistan. Nothing was said openly against the ideology of Pakistan. References to politics were carefully avoided. The Conference was treated as a “literary” affair, and those who spoke laid stress on language and literature. A great many, who would have denounced the organisers had they suspected the conference’s real purpose, were taken in by the subterfuge. They saw nothing in a discussion on Bengali literature. But it was clear to me and to other members of the old Azad group that the offensive against Pakistan had been opened.

Unfortunately, in spite of my article and editorial comment in the Azad, which exposed the real motives of the organisers, the government chose to treat Curzon Hall affair as a minor incident which deserved to be ignored. And this, not withstanding the fact that the East Pakistan Secretariat at the highest level was manned about this time almost exclusively by non-Bengali officials. There could be two explanations. Either the Nurul Amin Cabinet did not realise what was happening and was opposed to action against those conspirators. Or the Secretaries, who knew no Bengali did not care who said what in Bengali as long as they continued to hold the reins of power.

Seen in retrospect this Conference had far-reaching effects. Had the organisers been properly snubbed; had they been made to understand that their real designs had been uncovered, they would. I believe, have retreated. But having found that an offensive against Pakistan, carefully camouflaged, could be mounted and sustained with impunity, they grew bolder and planned a more open strategy. They however knew that they had to proceed cautiously, preparing the public mind first for any step they took, and they fully exploited the advantages that the problems of a new country struggling for survival afforded.

Nothing spectacular, however, happened in 1949 or 1950. I myself left for the United Kingdom for higher studies in September 1950 and have no personal knowledge of events during the next two years. In February 1952, I read in the Times a brief report on the riots which culminated in the incidents of February 21. I felt worried, but frankly did not realise the magnitude of the developments. Later on my return home in October of the same year I heard some details. To this day, however, I have not been able to understand the logic of the events that led to police firing on a student crowd on February 21. Why did Khwaja Nazimuddin, the Prime Minister, have to make a public declaration in favour of Urdu? There had been no clamour for a declaration either for or against Urdu; it was not an urgent issue. Yet the Prime Minister’s adviser had thought that a plain, unequivocal pronouncement would resolve the doubts and end the disputes on the state language question. The result was exactly the opposite. There now flared up an agitation marked by the worst of feelings towards West Pakistan, and the Press in East Pakistan, not excepting the English language newspaper, The Pakistan Observer, (owned by Mr Hamidul Huq Chowdhury) in chorus denounced the champions of Urdu as exploiters and tyrants.

I am writing on the basis of what I heard and read on my return home in October 1952, by which time the excitement of February had considerably subsided. But the incidents of the 21st February in which several young men lost their lives left behind a legacy which for the conspirators against Pakistan proved a rich and inexhaustible mine. The slogan which spread from town to town and from village to village was: ‘We demand Nurul Amin’s; blood’. Mr Nurul Amin, the provincial Chief Minister whose administration had been responsible for the firing became in the students’ eyes a symbol of evil, tyranny and hatred. Students have been killed before in this subcontinent. Hundreds of them were arrested during the Civil Disobedience Movement of the thirties led by Mr Gandhi. Terrorism in the twenties claimed many victims. The Quit India movement of 1942 also led to violent deaths. But never before had any political deaths been exploited as the deaths of three of our students at Dacca in 1952 were exploited. The reason is of course not far to seek: the incident of 1952 had been a godsend to our enemies who now could embroider it, exaggerate it, magnify its significance and hold it up as often as they liked as an instance of Pakistani bad faith towards the Bengali language and the Bengali people.

The Government for its part did not care to weigh the incident’s importance, and took no steps to bring the real facts to light. What I learnt from unimpeachable sources indicates that the incident of 21st February was a plain case of defiance against law and order by an unruly mob, and had nothing directly to do with the Bengali Language. It is true that the mob had collected with a view to staging a demonstration in front of the provincial Assembly building in favour of Bengali but they were fired upon not because the Government was determined to suppress the Bengali language but because they were threatening to defy traffic rules and create a violent disturbance. Whatever the reasons, the firing assumed the semblance of the frontal and brutal assault on a cultural group, and provided endless ammunition for those who aimed at working up people’s feelings against Pakistan.


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