Jinnah, Bangla and Bangladesh

As September 11 is the death anniversary of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, it is time to discuss his pivotal role in the making of Bangladesh. The seed of division of Pakistan was sown by none other than Jinnah himself on March 21, 1948 in the then Dacca (now Dhaka). Less than one year after he managed to carve out a separate nation for Muslims of India, he consciously or unconsciously divided Pakistan in the name of his flawed language policy. It took around 25 years for actual division of Pakistan though.

In the height of civic unrest in East Pakistan against the imposition of Urdu on Bengali-speaking people, Jinnah arrived in Dhaka on March 19, 1948. On March 21, at a civic reception at city’s Race Course ground, he declared that “Urdu, and only Urdu” embodied the spirit of Muslim nation and would remain as the state language, labelling those who disagreed with his views as “enemies of Pakistan”. Jinnah delivered a similar speech at Curzon Hall of the University of Dhaka on March 24.

As it was not enough, before Jinnah left Dhaka on March 28, he delivered a speech on radio reasserting his “Urdu-only” policy. Jinnah’s attitude completely shocked all those who supported his two-nation theory on the basis of religion.

 Says Dhaka based historian Sarwar Jahan Chowdhary, “ The elite of East Pakistan knew and speak Urdu even before 1947. Even Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the Chief Minister of East Bengal ( now Bangladesh) knew and speak Bangla language. However, the common people of East Pakistan were deeply attached to their mother tongue. They rejected the decision of Jinnah.”  

It is no secret that entire East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was very annoyed after Jinnah declared that Urdu would be the mother tongue of newly-created Pakistan. This was absolutely unacceptable to people of East Pakistan. While they supported the cause of Jinnah and his All-India Muslim League for separate nation, they were not ready to compromise on their culture and language. It is said that he announced Urdu as the national language of Pakistan after he was convinced by his number two in Muslim League Liaquat Ali Khan.

Widespread protests started after Jinnah made this announcement. Importantly, supporters of Bengali opposed Urdu even before the creation of Pakistan, when delegates from Bengal rejected the idea of making Urdu the lingua franca of Muslim India in the 1937 Lucknow session of the Muslim League, they were assured by both Jinnah and his deputy in the All-India Muslim League Liaquat Ali Khan that there interests would be protected as and when they attain separate nation for Muslims.

And after Jinnah’s announcement, unending protests against imposition of Urdu became part of East Pakistan life. Dhaka University campus was the bastion of pro-Bangla protestors. Like any other day, they were protesting peacefully on February 21, 1952. And then suddenly, Pakistani rangers started firing on those young guys, killing many students and political activists. They were demanding equal status to their native tongue, Bangla. The massacre occurred near Dhaka Medical College and Ramna Park. Despite very tense moments, a makeshift monument was erected on February 23, 1952 by Dhaka university students and other educational institutions.

To commemorate the die-hard lovers of Bangla, the Shaheed Minar was designed and built. The monument stood until the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971, when it was demolished completely by Pakistani forces during Operation Searchlight.

The columns were destroyed during the fighting. The Pakistani Army crushed the minar and placed over the rubble a signboard reading “Mosque”. After Bangladesh came into existence, Shaheed Minar was rebuilt.

One must remember that the overwhelming number of Muslim population in Bengal had supported the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, the central leadership of All-India Muslim League was disproportionately skewed in favour of non-Bengali leaders of different provinces. Jinnah had effectively used most of the popular leaders of Bengal for the purpose of mobilising support in favour of his “two-nation theory” and the demand for separate homeland for Muslims of India. Yet, Jinnah had preferred to promote and project the non-Bengali loyalists in his party.


In East Pakistan, A.K. Fazlul Huq was the most charismatic leader, even more than Jinnah himself. Although his support for Pakistan movement was genuine, he did not tolerate Jinnah’s unfair interference in Bengal politics. While he was one of the key movers of the 1940 Lahore Resolution for Muslim homeland, he was expelled from the All-India Muslim League in 1941. This came as a big blow to Bengalis. Instead of taking dictates from Jinnah or Liaquat Ali Khan, Fazlul Huq had resigned from the Muslim League for which he had to be in political exile for more than 10 years.Haq was Mayor of Calcutta (1935), Chief Minister of undivided Bengal (1937-1943) and East Bengal (1954).

While it is not denying the fact that the language movement epitomises the spirit of Bangladeshi nationalism, it is a fact that Jinnah’s whimsical views on the issue of Urdu as well as step-motherly treatment with Bengali leaders and people created deep sense of alienation among them, which later sowed seeds of disintegration of Pakistan.

 Of course, Indians should learn lessons from Pakistan that imposition of any language on any group of people is a very serious issue.


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