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Chapter XIX PDF Print E-mail
Written by Syed Sajjad Husain   
The imposition of Section 92A and the replacement of Chaudhri Khaliquzzaman by Iskander Mirza as Governor could not stop the rot. The monument remained unfinished; the masonry platform and the concrete columns which had been erected becoming in their unfinished form a symbol and reminder of the repressive attitude of the Centre. So year by year, fed secretly by the homage of the young, and the devotions of the conspirators, the language movement grew.

Finally the Central Government changed its mind, and decided that perhaps surrender to what they now considered to be sentiment universally shared, would remedy this cancer and renew people's faith in its goodwill. When General Azam Khan was appointed Governor he announced the acceptance of 21st February as a provincial holiday, and a Committee was set up to review the whole question of the language monument. Dr Mahmud Hussain, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dacca was the Chairman. A cross-section of people from different walks of life were represented on the Committee; Mr Munir Chaudhury and myself were chosen to represent the University. Among other members were Mr Ali Ahsan, Director of the Bengal Academy, Mr Zainul Abedin, Principal of the College of Fine Arts, Khwaja Khairuddin, Vice-Chairman of the Dacca Municipality and Mr Musa Sharfuddin from the government.

We considered various proposals, talked to the architects who had drawn up the plans for the monument, examined the site and inspected the murals on basement walls painted by an artist called Hamidur Rahman. Neither the architectural plan nor the murals impressed me or the majority of the members. The design seemed to me to have been pictorial--- rather than architectural or sculptural: Approximately twenty-five feet high, four columns bent about the middle at an angle of 20° and joined together by means of iron bars which would hold in place panes of stained glass: neither the symbolism nor the actual spectacle could arouse any sensation except one of disgust and horror. We were told that light reflected from the stained glass on to the masonry platform below would symbolise the blood of the martyrs. Mr Hamidur Rahman who conceived the design seemed to have been carried away by the idea of reflection. He had no experience of architecture; he thought that what appeared to him to be a good idea could be impressively translated into architectural terms. That he knew little about the arts was evident from his total unawareness of the fact that every art is conditioned by the medium in which the artist works. A musician whose medium is pure sound cannot aim at effects achievable in words only; a poet who uses words cannot rival a painter: a sculptor must suit his creations to the nature of the stone or metals he employs, and an architect has to remember that his medium is much less ethereal than sound, much less symbolical than words. The man who overlooks this is no artist.

It was suggested by Mr Musa Sharfuddin that a beautifully designed mosque or minar on the site would both be a lovely architectural landmark and transform the place into a hallowed spot. Mr Zainul Abedin speaking for the Bengali nationalists rejected the suggestion out of hand. He warned us that any alteration in the original plan would be viewed as an act of treachery and produce the most violent reaction conceivable.

The Chairman, Dr Mahmud Hossain who had expressed himself horrified by the frescoes which depicted scenes of unrelieved barbarity, now felt that in view of the warning given by Mr Zainul Abedin further discussion would be pointless; the Committee should wind itself up by recommending that the original plan be implemented.

Such was the atmosphere that we dared not object. So construction was resumed and the hideous monument built---- one of the ugliest I have seen anywhere in the world. Stained glass proved unobtainable; so the iron bars remained bare. The whole structure had a ribbed look. The reason why Mr Zainul Abedin had so strongly opposed the idea of a mosque or even a minar was because a mosque or minar would have had Muslim associations, and the Bengali nationalists did not want to be reminded that the population of East Pakistan was overwhelmingly Muslim. What was at first puzzling was why in their rejection of the architectural style called Islamic, they should have chosen a design that was aesthetically a monstrosity. After all, there were thousands of monuments in the non-Muslim world which could have served as models. The fact, as I realised soon, was that the nationalists wanted to be original, and what is more important, those responsible for the design of the monument were a set of immature, ill-educated persons who thought that passion and emotion made up for lack of knowledge and taste. They were not far wrong. For millions accepted the monument. What did it matter whether a few of us thought it ugly and hideous? It reflected, they would perhaps argue, proletarian taste, and if those brought up in an atmosphere of bourgeois values were disgusted by it, they could not care less.


Meanwhile the language movement acquired among the students the proportions and status of a national festival.---(I don’t think the word is inappropriate. Those who congregated annually to mourn the dead displayed a festive sprit, and danced and sang-¬- in a manner not suggestive in the least of feelings of sorrow).--¬The Central Government adopted a policy of appeasement. First there were the Adamjee Literary Prizes which were given annually. Then came the Central Board for Development of Bengali, a centrally financed organisation charged with the duty of preparing text-books in Bengali for use in colleges and universities. The Bangla Academy, financed provincially also instituted a series of prizes designed to encourage creative writing. The Ahmad Dawoods, an industrial group, followed with the announcement of more prizes for works of a serious nature.

But these measures failed to remove the suspicion that the Central Government really aimed at the destruction of Bengali culture. The greater the investment in Bengali, the greater was the belief that a conspiracy against the language was being planned. The press chose not to publicise the patronage that Bengali writers were receiving but any action taken to check or prevent open sedition was certain to be immediately interpreted as an attack on Bengali culture. I will mention two instances.

One was the controversy over Tagore. Lately, Tagore had become in the eyes of East Pakistan’s educated youth the exclusive symbol of Bengali culture. The anniversaries of his birth and death were celebrated by them with a degree of enthusiasm far surpassing anything seen in West Bengal. The Government watched the movement taking shape and did nothing to counteract it. But the conspirators knew what they were really aiming at and nurtured the movement carefully. Two objects were pursued simultaneously. One was to convince our youth that the Pakistani theory about cultural differences between Hindus and Muslims was baseless. Didn’t Tagore appeal equally to all Bengalis alike irrespective of their religion and caste? The second object was to insinuate that the Central Government wished to cut them off from this magnificent literary inheritance because of its hatred for Hindus. This was easy to do. Young students were encouraged to overstep the bounds of propriety and decency in their pursuit of the Tagore cult. If authority frowned on the practice, this was an attack on Bengali culture. For instance, they would insist on mixed gatherings at these cultural functions carrying their freedom to lengths of which society strongly disapproved. But objections based on conservatism were interpreted as deliberate interference with Bengali culture. On the other hand, they felt baulked in the absence of such ‘interference’.

The Tagore Centenary is a case in point. No one interfered. The Chief Justice of the Dacca High Court cooperated as Chairman. I contributed an article explaining that there were numerous instances in the world of the same language being shared by more than one country. I mentioned Belgium, France, Switzerland and Canada for French; Austria and the two Germanys for German; Britain and the United States for English. I said that each of these countries possessed a distinctive national personality, yet they could enjoy a common literary inheritance without being troubled by questions of what was national literature and what was not. Why, I asked, couldn't we study and savour the poetry and prose of Tagore as an integral part of the literature written in Bengali without having to disown its distinctive culture as a part of Pakistan?

I didn't realise that the purpose of the organisers in persuading me to write on Tagore was not to exhibit the variety of opinions on him, but to extract from me, and exploit far sinister political purposes, a confession-- (they thought it was a confession, though I spoke sincerely without any ulterior motives in mind) to the effect that Tagore was a part of the common literary inheritance of the Bengalis. Their immediate purpose having been served during the Centenary Celebrations, my essay was excluded from the anthology on Tagore published subsequently by Dr Anisuzzaman of the Dacca University Bengali Department.

The sinister design behind the Tagore Celebrations became clearer in 1967 in the course of a controversy sparked off by Khwaja Shahabuddin who then held the portfolio of Information and Broadcasting. The India-Pakistan war of 1965 had added to tension between the two countries, and the Government, quite naturally, was anxious not to encourage sentiments of friendship towards an enemy state. The minister was reported to have said--¬(I haven't seen the exact text of his speech)--- that Radio Pakistan would not broadcast any songs, whatever their authorship, which offended against the national ideology of Pakistan. No one at first paid any attention to the statement; such utterances formed the staple of speeches from Government benches. But the Pakistan Observer selected the item for special display and gave it a headline which was calculated to infuriate the Tagore fans. The headline said: ‘Tagore banned from Radio Pakistan’. No indications of this sort had actually been issued, but the news had the effect of touching off a veritable conflagration. Protests followed, loud and vociferous; youth organisations all over East Pakistan were alerted against what was termed a massive assault on Bengali culture; meetings were held daily, resolutions adopted calling for a retraction. Khwaja Shahabuddin whose knowledge of Bengali is limited, appears to have been unnerved by this reaction, and proceeded to give a clarification on the floor of the National Assembly which actually made matters much worse. Instead of firmly sticking to a pronouncement to which only subversive elements could really object, he offered a sort of apology for the misunderstanding he had created. His clarification amounted to an abject surrender to the conspirators, whose jubilation now knew no bounds.

Those in East Pakistan who had dared deplore the unseemly outburst of fanaticism from the Bengali nationalists felt betrayed and humiliated. A group of forty writers and University teachers had issued a statement claiming that Tagore was an “integral part of Bengali culture”. There were other things in the statement clearly announcing their repudiation of Pakistani culture and Pakistani nationhood. I felt that such a declaration ought not to be allowed to go unchallenged. Five of us, myself, Mr K. M. A. Munim of the Department of English, Dr Mohar Ali of the Department of History, Professor Shahabuddin, Deen of the Faculty of Law, and Mr A. F. M. Abdur Rahman, Reader in Mathematics warned the public in a three-sentence statement that the words used by our friends were capable of being construed to mean that they did not believe in any difference between Pakistani and 6Indian culture. We felt that such sentiments were liable to be used in propaganda against our national state. The reaction against us was as violent as it had been against the minister. We were denounced as Ayub’s agents. The full text of our statement was published in Morning News alone; other newspapers merely said that we had backed the Government in the controversy. This was considered an unpardonable offence.

This controversy led to a further polarisation between the two groups in the University--- the group that had ceased to be loyal to Pakistan and the group which firmly adhered to the two-nation theory.

From this time forward, the language movement as a separate cultural movement in defence of the Bengali language ceased to have any significance. Its protagonists openly came forward to espouse straightforward separatism. To our surprise and agony, the Press, radio, TV and other mass communication media mounted a direct offensive against the ideology of Pakistan which left us breathless. The Government seemed powerless to intervene, or to care. Day by day the situation grew worse. The group which dominated the radio, TV and press, ---- consisting of such persons as Munir Chowdhury, Rafiqul Islam, Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Neelima Ibrahim---- who all belonged to Dacca University---- constituted themselves into the guardians of Bengali culture assuming the responsibility of unearthing conspiracies against it and exposing the foes.

One of the curious manifestations of this development were the reaction to the work of a Committee on Spelling Reform set up Dacca University in 1967 at the instance of the late Dr Shahidullah. Now it was difficult to characterise Dr Shahidullah as an enemy of the Bengali Language but the seemingly impossible feat was accomplished by strategy which was as unethical as it was novel.

The Committee was a large one consisting, if I remember aright, of over fifteen members including Mr M.A. Hai, Professor of Bengali in the University of Dacca, Mr Munir Chowdhury, Dr Enamul Huq, Mr. Ibrahim Khan, Mr Abul Qasem and myself. Mr Hai, Mr Munir Chowdhury and Dr Enamul Huq constituted themselves into a group apart and openly declared that they would not cooperate. Their reasoning was peculiar. They were not prepared, they said, to consider any proposal of reform whatsoever. The time was not propitious. They were reminded that, all three of them had served on the Bangla Academy Spelling Reform Committee some years ago and were signatories to the proposal circulated on its behalf. They replied quite unabashedly that the situation had changed and they did not feel that they could support those proposals now. We were taken aback. The extent of their intellectual dishonesty was difficult to measure and even more difficult to comprehend. But none of the three---and Dr Enamul Huq was a man in his sixties--- had the slightest scruple in going back upon what they had themselves suggested as member of the Bangla Academy Committee.

The Shahidullah Committee Ultimately came up with proposals identical with those of the Bangla Academy and urged that they should be implemented at an early date. When presented to the Academic Council, they were, apart from the votes of Mr Abdul Hai and Mr Kabir Chowdhury, Munir Chowdhury’s elder brother, unanimously approved. The following day I wrote for the University a press statement explaining the aim the Shahidullah Committee had in view. Dr Shahidullah had unfortunately been stricken with paralysis before the Committee could complete its work and could not take part in the controversy which now developed. But the proposals which the Committee approved were his. Of the members, he was the best fitted, by reason of his knowledge of oriental philology and the history of Bengali orthography what lines spelling reform should follow, and we thought it best to acquiesce in his ideas. I myself played a minor role in all this, and did not attend more than the first two of the committee’s meetings. I had no intention of being embroiled in a controversy, and although spelling reform was an idea after my heart, I did not wish the whole scheme to be wrecked by openly championing it. I knew that because of the manner in which my part in the earlier Tagore controversy had been misunderstood, I was liable to be singled out for attacks.

In the event, despite all this precaution I took to avoid open involvement, I could not escape the inevitable reaction. Mr M. A. Hai and his henchmen organised a demonstration against me within a week of the Academy Council’s meeting. One day between 12-30 and 1, while at lunch in my room in the Arts Building, I heard a group of students about 20 to 30 strong marching down the corridors shouting slogans against me. I stepped out of the room and demanded to know what it was all about. The demonstration, an assortment of students drawn from departments other than my own, would not look me in the face and passed on. I felt amused.

Now it must be made clear in the most unmistakable terms that all this passion and excitement over Bengali and the imaginary threat to its future was confined to the student community. They had the support of a section of the educated classes, mainly teachers, lawyers and civil servants. But as far as the peasantry and industrial workers were concerned, there was not the least interest in the issues. How could they possibly understand all this talk about the Bengali language being in danger? They perceived no change in its status in so far as it affected them; it continued to be used in the courts and post offices; their children who attended primary schools learnt it, no one saying that Bengali wasn’t to be taught. However much the students tried, they could not get anyone from this section of the community interested in the language movement. The peasants, in particular, watched with complete unconcern the construction of language monuments in village schools, and I feel sure that if the government had taken steps to explain to the peasantry how a new pagan cult was being nursed into life by our rebellious youth, they would have risen as one man against them and destroyed the monuments. But the policy of the Central and Provincial governments was to retreat continually allowing the outside world to form the impression that in this matter the students alone represented public opinion. I venture to say that had a referendum been held on the language issue even as late as 1958, an overwhelming majority would have voted for Urdu as the only state language of Pakistan. But those at the helm of affairs were afraid of going to the people with a problem of this kind. They were so completely out of touch with them that they dared not speak boldly to them in opposition to the students whom they dreaded. Mr Nurul Amin became utterly demoralised after the 1952 firing and spent the subsequent period up to 1970 trying to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of youth, disowning his part in the firing. Mr Fazlur Rahman, the Central Education Minister who held strong views on the language issue, was not a popular politician. One could not imagine him swaying the public by emotional speeches. He throve best in sequestered political lobbies where his talents for personal contacts on a limited scale, for outwitting rivals by setting one group against another, could have free play. Khwaja Nazimuddin did not know Bengali very well and was incapable of handling intellectual issues. The other men in the provincial or Central Cabinet were mentally negligible. The early death of Mr Habibullah Bahar, the only writer included in the first East Pakistan Cabinet was a real loss from this point of view. He alone could perhaps have beaten the students on their own ground, combining as he did a fervent faith in the ideology of Pakistan with a good record as a successful writer in Bengali.

Call them what you will, bad luck, wrong judgement, lack of foresight, alienation from the public, failure to gauge the trends of popular feeling,--- these factors combinedly helped transform a minor incident into a major event in Pakistan’s national life, adding daily to the conspirator’s strength, and paving the way for the upheaval of 1971.


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