The world knows that Bangladesh is South Asia’s youngest nation state, but few people — and particularly those born well after the cataclysmic events surrounding its birth, who are now in their 20s, 30s and 40s — are fully aware of the torturous processes over a long period of time that led to the creation of arguably one of the few linguistic nation states through blood, sweat, toil and tears? The experience of living through the tumultuous 24 years (1947-1971), between when India attained freedom from British rule and the December day 49 years ago when Dhaka (then Dacca) became “the free capital of a free country” — in Indira Gandhi’s ringing phrase in the Lok Sabha — are hard to fathom for those who didn’t personally experience those momentous times. East Bengal, of course, had known the agony and humiliation of separation even before 1947 when undivided Bengal was partitioned into two halves, but nothing quite prepared it for the experience of those 24 years as the eastern enclave of the nation called Pakistan — and being treated as a vassal province.
The beauty and reality of history is that it is usually written, rewritten or unwritten by the victors, or deliberately distorted for the sake of the polity. When British India was split into two with the independence of two nations in 1947, it also created a geopolitical impossibility: two wings of the new nation of Pakistan separated by the mother state with a 1,000-mile crater. It was an unbridgeable disconnect making a mockery of a unified Pakistan, ostensibly founded on a common religious identity. Its two wings were a political reality, but remained a geographical and cultural disconnect since birth.
Just ask any 74-year-old (or older) Bangladeshi (born in 1946 or earlier) about his or her life journey. One is likely to hear the agonising experience he/she underwent, changing his/her nationality. Ceasing to be Indian in August 1947. Being a Pakistani for 24 years, being treated as an inferior and a second-class citizen, discriminated against, till December 1971, and then attaining his/her present identity as a free, independent Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi.
The worst humiliation for the Bengali-speaking citizens of what became East Pakistan was the insensitive linguistic policy forcibly imposed by an insolent, dictatorial governor-general, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the country’s founding father, who contemptuously treated them as inferior creatures in contrast to the full-fledged citizens of West Pakistan.
Jinnah’s toxic temper, mixed with arrogance, sowed the seeds of irreversible Bengali nationalism in the world’s most fertile soil, and ploughing their mind with confrontational ideas. Bengalis sullenly, but silently, bore this up to a point. Till Jinnah left Dhaka, on his sole (and last) visit to East Pakistan, which helped to create a “distinct Bengali nation within an indistinct and intolerant Pakistani state”.
On March 21, 1948, Jinnah met a delegation of the Scheduled Castes; and on March 22 received another delegation of upper-caste Hindu members of the East Bengal Legislative Assembly. However, what happened on March 21 at a public gathering, addressed by Jinnah, was a bombshell. “Let me make it clear to you that the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language,” he declared. “Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan… Every Mussalman should come under the banner of the Muslim League, which is the true custodian of Pakistan”. It was a warning-cum-threat to the Bengali language of “united” Pakistan. Jinnah misread the mood on the ground — and the fact that Bengali-speaking people across the world usually define themselves by their language, despite the significant role that religion may play in their lives.
Thus, while already nurturing a genuine feeling of deprivation, discrimination and humiliation, it didn’t take long for East Bengalis to fall back upon their linguistic pride. Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam were always dearer to the Bengali head and heart than the divisive, hate-filled politics of violence and murder of the rest of South Asia. Little wonder Rabindranath Tagore’s eternal rhythmic words and sonorous lyrics were wholeheartedly embraced and adopted as Bangladesh’s national anthem in 1971. It spontaneously took to the 1905 composed lines of arguably the greatest philosopher poet to have blossomed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries east of Suez.
“Amar shonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobashi; Chirodin tomar akash, tomar batash, amar prane bajay bashi” (My golden Bengal, I love you. Forever thy skies, thy air set my heart in tune as if it were a flute).
Jinnah was to face some of his worst moments in Dhaka before he returned to Karachi, which was then Pakistan’s capital. His speech at Dacca University’s convocation March 24, 1948 had a kinetic effect. “There can be only one state language… and that language in my opinion can only be Urdu”. Dhaka was instantly rocked by student agitations: the pent-up feelings and suppressed grievances of Bengalis didn’t take long to crystallise and burst. People fell back on the facts to disprove Jinnah’s views as absurd and unacceptable to Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis, who were a majority of the population.
Jinnah had ignored the fact that Urdu was the mother tongue of only four per cent of Pakistanis, while 55 per cent considered Bengali their mother tongue. Only the Muslims of northern and northwestern India, from where most of the Muslim League’s leadership came from, would benefit from Urdu as the state language, along with some Punjabis and Pashtuns working for the state. The choice of Urdu as state language also meant a total absence of Bengali-speaking Pakistanis from state affairs.
What happened later, in 1971, is of course part of the folklore of the proud new nation. History will surely judge Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as an outstanding leader of geopolitical vision who, ably supported by the Indian armed forces under General (later Field-Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, managed the shatter the myth of invincibility around Jinnah’s creation – and ensured the surrender of Pakistan’s entire military in the eastern sector to the Indian Army at Dhaka’s Ramna Maidan on December 16, 1971. What, however, remains an abiding mystery is how Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in Washington and Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in Beijing so misread the signs on the ground and tried their best – unsuccessfully – to abort the birth of an independent Bangladesh.