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Essay

The Birth of Bangladesh & the University of Dhaka

‘The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives.’

Professor Fakrul Alam takes us through the Partitions of Bengal which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh, with focus on the role of Dhaka University.

In Dhaka University: the Convocation Speeches, a volume compiled with an introduction by Serajul Islam Choudhury in 1988, we read that the university was established by the British as a “splendid imperial compensation” for the Muslims of East Bengal (Choudhury, 26). They had wanted the current rulers of India to make up through it for the loss, they felt, they had suffered because of the reunion of Bengal in 1911. Delivering his inaugural speech as the Chancellor of Dhaka University (DU) in 1923, Lord Lytton had not only made this point but had also expressed the hope that it would soon become “the chief center of Muhammadan learning” in India and would “devote special attention to higher Islamic studies” (26). However, Lytton had ended his speech by urging graduands to conceive of the institution “as an Alma Mater in whose service the Muhammadan and the Hindu can find a common bond of unity” (Choudhury, 29). The subsequent history of the university reveals that while some of its future students would viewed it as a site for cultivating Islamic values and consolidating the Islamic heritage of the part of Bengal in which it was located, others would claimed it as a space where a democratic and secular notion of being Bengalis could be disseminated.

DU started playing a decisive role in Bangladeshi national identity formation almost as soon as the Islamic state of Pakistan was born. It became the center of the movement that would lead to the creation of the country born out of the ashes of East Pakistan in 1971. The key issue here was language and the catalyst was the insistence by the central government of Pakistan that Urdu should be the lingua franca of the country, regardless of the fact that only three percent of Pakistanis actually used it in their everyday lives. For two successive days on 5 and 6 December 1947, teachers and students of the university demonstrated on campus and the streets of Dhaka against the government decision and in favour of Bengali.

The Pakistani government, however, paid no heed to the protests and went ahead with its decision to impose Urdu as the sole official language of the country. In response to this ruling DU students mobilised on 26 February, 1948 to form an “All Party Language Committee of Action.” Not daunted, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Governor General of Pakistan, and identified as the “Father of the Country” by the official media, reiterated publicly while on a visit to Dhaka on the 21st of March that “the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language” (Islam, 224). When he made the same point in addressing the DU Special Convocation on the 22nd of March, Bengali students present at the convocation protested. On March 11, 1950 the Dhaka University Language Action Committee was formed. In essence, the movement that was being spearheaded by university students and that soon spread across East Pakistan, ultimately led to the break-up of Pakistan, a state built entirely on Islamist nationalism.

A direct outcome of the language movement was that the government that had been held responsible for bruising the Bengali consciousness was voted out of power in East Pakistan in 1954. Instead, a short-lived but popular coalition government that was viewed to be pro-Bengali took over up the administration of the province. Students had played a major part in the election and the tradition of student activism in the cause of Bangladeshi nationalism became very noteworthy in national politics from this point onwards.        

In retrospect, we can see the Pakistani period was one which had witnessed a continuous tussle between successive Pakistani regimes wielding state power to curb Bengali rights and impose an Islamist state at the expense of Bengali language and culture and Bengali nationalism. DU teachers and students played a crucial part in the confrontation. It was mostly because of them that the Pakistani state apparatus failed to suppress Bengalis and prevent them from expressing themselves. The campus was at the heart of activity that promoted an awareness of secularism and brandished democracy as a goal to be achieved in national life.

It was to be expected, then, that when the Pakistani state made one last desperate attempt to suppress Bengalis clamouring for full autonomy and democracy on March 26, 1971 they would do so by targeting DU and attempting to mow down Dhaka university faculty members and students ruthlessly. When the Pakistani government decided to postpone the National Assembly meet, where the Awami League had got an absolute majority and where they were in a position to claim self-rule for East Pakistan and dominate Pakistani politics for the first time in that nation’s history, the campus broke out once again in loud protest. On the 7th of March, when the Awami League’s chief, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, gave his historic speech claiming full autonomy and threatening to launch an armed movement that would drive away the Pakistanis from East Pakistan forever, DU student leaders were at his side as he spoke in Ramna Park, which borders the university.

What happened on 26 March was nothing less than a calculated bid to blast DU to smithereens, murder student leaders and selected faculty members, and drive out all students from the campus for playing leading roles in the movement against the Pakistani state. The Pakistani Army was nothing short of murderous in attempting to neutralize dissent. Inevitably, DU bore the brunt of their initial fury. Anybody found in the university that night was mowed down and dorms, faculty residences and the DU Teacher’s Club were shot at indiscriminately. The Shaheed Minar was razed to the ground and Bangla Academy was subject to artillery fire. Even university non-teaching staff and cafeteria officials were not spared. Madhu’s canteen – the favorite haunt of student politicians throughout the sixties – was attacked and Madhu – the benign owner of the cafeteria – was murdered. The huge bot tree (banyan) which provided shade under which student leaders delivered speeches and from which they had given the declaration of independence on one of the turbulent March days – was blasted out of existence.

It was clear that the Army had decided that DU was the ultimate symbol of the unacceptable form Bangladeshi national identity formation was assuming. As Professor Serajul Islam Chowdhury observes in “Ekattor O Dhaka Visva-Bidyalaya (1971 & DU),” the university ambience encouraged people to not merely dream about freedom and equality but to create an environment where the dream seemed to come close to reality. Also, the University had been consistently a site of resistance in its efforts to impose a theocratic or monolingual state on Bengalis, as on-campus happenings from the time of Jinnah’s 1948 declaration about making Urdu the only state language and the protest movements of the fifties and sixties that culminated in the month-long protests of March 1971 demonstrated. The six-point program proposed by the Awami League for financial and political autonomy had been drafted by DU professors.

In the nine-month liberation war that followed the Pakistani army crackdown on DU and the rest of Bangladesh, the university once again became a microcosm of the country in that almost all of its entire faculty and students fled it. Academic activities came to a standstill and it became a campus bereft of students who had deserted it along with most of their teachers since they were unwilling to kowtow to the Pakistani design to create a quiescent institution run by quislings and were not inclined to impart or acquire education in line with proto-Islamist and/or totalitarian concepts of nationalism. Many students died in the course of the next nine months fighting for liberation or suspected of doing so. When the birth of Bangladesh seemed imminent at the end of the year, the Pakistani Amy and its local collaborators carried out a systematic search of faculty members on, and outside, the campus to murder the ones still around, holding them largely responsible for the breakup of the country they had not been able to prevent from cracking up.

When independence finally came to Bangladesh on December 16, it was fitting that the Pakistani Army would surrender in the open space adjacent to the university known as Ramna Park. The many teachers and students who had been murdered since March 26 as well as the resistance put up by them were later commemorated with structures erected all over the campus, the most prominent of them being the “Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture in front of Kala Bhabhan or the Arts faculty building, the martyrs plaque put up opposite the central mall, and the sculpted figures of the freedom fighters erected in front of the Teachers-Students Centre. December 14 became from then on the day when the DU Liberation War martyrs were to be ceremonially remembered and December 16 the day when DU faculty and staff joined the rest of the country in celebrating Victory Day.

Aporajeyo Bangla” or “Invincible Bengal” sculpture. Courtesy: Creative Commons

(First published in Daily Star, Bangladesh)

Fakrul Alam is an academic, translator and writer from Bangladesh. He has translated works of Jibonananda Das and Rabindranath Tagore into English and is the recipient of Bangla Academy Literary Award (2012) for translation and SAARC Literary Award (2012).

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