The present nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh were part of undivided India during the British colonial rule. From the mid-19th century, the Urdu language had been promoted as the lingua franca of Indian Muslims by political and religious leaders, such as Sir Khwaja Salimullah, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Nawab Viqar-ul-Mulk and Maulvi Abdul Haq. Urdu is an Indo-Aryan language of the Indo-Iranian branch, belonging to the Indo-European family of languages. It developed under Persian, Arabic and Turkic influence on apabhramshas (last linguistic stage of the medieval Indian Aryan language Pali-Prakrit) in South Asia during the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal Empire. With its Perso-Arabic script, the language was considered a vital element of the Islamic culture for Indian Muslims; Hindi and the Devanagari script were seen as fundamentals of Hindu culture.
While the use of Urdu grew common with Muslims in northern India, the Muslims of Bengal (a province in the eastern part of British Indian sub-continent) primarily used the Bengali language. Bengali is an Eastern Indo-Aryan language that arose from the eastern Middle Indic languages around 1000 CE and developed considerably during the Bengal Renaissance. As early as the late 19th century, social activists such as the Muslim feminist Roquia Sakhawat Hussain were choosing to write in Bengali to reach out to the people and develop it as a modern literary language. Supporters of Bengali opposed Urdu even before the partition of India, 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. The Muslim League was a British Indian political party that became the driving force behind the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim state separate from British India.
After the partition of India in 1947, Bengali-speaking people in East Bengal, the non-contiguous eastern part of the Dominion of Pakistan, made up 44 million of the newly formed Dominion of Pakistan's 69 million people. The Dominion of Pakistan's government, civil services, and military, however, were dominated by personnel from the western wing of the Dominion of Pakistan. In 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools. Opposition and protests immediately arose. Students from Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Abul Kashem, the secretary of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bengali Islamic cultural organisation. The meeting stipulated Bengali as an official language of the Dominion of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Bengal. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. The central education minister Fazlur Rahman made extensive preparations to make Urdu the only state language of the Dominion of Pakistan. Public outrage spread, and many Bengali students met on the University of Dhaka campus on 8 December 1947 to formally demand that Bengali be made an official language. To promote their cause, Bengali students organised processions and rallies in Dhaka.
Leading Bengali scholars argued why Urdu should not be the only state language. The writer Abul Mansur Ahmed said if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Bengal would become 'illiterate' and 'ineligible' for government positions. The first Rastrabhasa Sangram Parishad (National Language Action Committee), an organisation in favour of Bengali as a state language was formed towards the end of December 1947. Professor Nurul Huq Bhuiyan of the Tamaddun Majlish convened the committee. Later, Parliament member Shamsul Huq convened a new committee to push for Bengali as a state language. Assembly member Dhirendranath Datta proposed legislation in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan to allow members to speak in Bengali and authorise its use for official purposes. Datta's proposal was supported by legislators Prem Hari Burman, Bhupendra Kumar Datta and Sris Chandra Chattaopadhyaya of East Bengal, as well as the people from the region. Prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan and the Muslim League denounced the proposal as an attempt to divide the Pakistani people, thus the legislation was defeated.
Students of the University of Dhaka and other colleges of the city organised a general strike on 11 March 1948 to protest the omission of Bengali language from official use, including coins, stamps and recruitment tests for the navy. The movement restated the demand that Bengali be declared an official language of the Dominion of Pakistan. Political leaders such as Shamsul Huq, Shawkat Ali, Kazi Golam Mahboob, Oli Ahad, Abdul Wahed and others were arrested during the rallies. Rally leader Mohammad Toaha was hospitalised after attempting to snatch a rifle from a police officer. Student leaders, including Abdul Matin and Abdul Malek Ukil took part in the procession.
In the afternoon of 11 March, a meeting was held to protest police brutality and arrests. A group of students marching towards the chief minister Khawaja Nazimuddin's house was stopped in front of the Dhaka High Court. The rally changed its direction and moved in the direction of the Secretariat building. Police attacked the procession injuring several students and leaders, including A. K. Fazlul Huq. Continuing strikes were observed the following four days. Under such circumstances, the chief minister Nazimuddin signed an accord with the student leaders agreeing to some terms and conditions, without complying to the demand that Bengali be made a state language.
In the height of civic unrest, Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah arrived in Dhaka on 19 March 1948. On 21 March, at a civic reception at Racecourse Ground, he claimed that the language issue was designed by a "fifth column" to divide Pakistani Muslims. Jinnah further declared that "Urdu, and only Urdu" embodied the spirit of Muslim nations 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 24 March. At both meetings, Jinnah was interrupted by large segments of the audience. He later called a meeting of a state language committee of action, and overruled the contract that was signed by Khawaja Nazimuddin with the student leaders. Before Jinnah left Dhaka on 28 March, he delivered a speech on radio reasserting his "Urdu-only" policy.
Shortly thereafter, the East Bengal Language Committee, presided by Maulana Akram Khan, was formed by the East Bengal government to prepare a report on the language problem. The Committee completed its report on 6 December 1950, but it was not published until 1958. The government suggested that Bengali be written in Arabic script, as a potential solution to the language conflict.
The Urdu-Bengali controversy was reignited when Jinnah's successor, governor-general Khawaja Nazimuddin, staunchly defended the "Urdu-only" policy in a speech on 27 January 1952. On 31 January, the Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod (All-Party Central Language Action Committee) was formed in a meeting at the Bar Library Hall of the University of Dhaka, chaired by Maulana Bhashani. The central government's proposal of writing the Bengali language in Arabic script was vehemently opposed at the meeting. The action committee called for an all out protest on 21 February, including strikes and rallies. In an attempt to prevent the demonstration, the government imposed Section 144 in Dhaka, thereby banning any gathering.
At nine o'clock in the morning, students began gathering on the University of Dhaka premises in defiance of Section 144. The university vice-chancellor and other officials were present as armed police surrounded the campus. By a quarter past eleven, students gathered at the university gate and attempted to break the police line. Police fired tear gas shells towards the gate to warn the students. A section of students ran into the Dhaka Medical College while others rallied towards the university premises cordoned by the police. The vice-chancellor asked police to stop firing and ordered the students to leave the area. However, the police arrested several students for violating section 144 as they attempted to leave. Enraged by the arrests, the students met around the East Bengal Legislative Assembly and blocked the legislators' way, asking them to present their insistence at the assembly. When a group of students sought to storm into the building, police opened fire and killed a number of students, including Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar. As the news of the killings spread, disorder erupted across the city. Shops, offices and public transport were shut down and a general strike began. At the assembly, six legislators including Manoranjan Dhar, Boshontokumar Das, Shamsuddin Ahmed and Dhirendranath Datta requested that chief minister Nurul Amin visit wounded students in hospital and that the assembly be adjourned as a sign of mourning. This motion was supported by some treasury bench members including Maulana Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish, Shorfuddin Ahmed, Shamsuddin Ahmed Khondokar and Mosihuddin Ahmed. However, Nurul Amin refused the requests.
Disorder spread across the province as large processions ignored section 144 and condemned the actions of the police. More than 30,000 people congregated at Curzon Hall in Dhaka. During the continued protests, police actions led to the death of four more people. This prompted officers and clerks from different organisations, including colleges, banks and the radio station, to boycott offices and join the procession. Protesters burned the offices of two leading pro-government news agencies, the Jubilee Press and the Morning News. Police fired on a major janaza, or mourning rally, as it was passing through Nawabpur Road. The shooting killed several people including activist Sofiur Rahman and a nine-year-old boy named Ohiullah.
Through the night of 23 February, students of Dhaka Medical College worked on the construction of a Shaheed Smritistombho, or Monument of Martyrs. Completed at dawn on 24 February, the monument had a handwritten note attached to it with the words "Shaheed Smritistombho". Inaugurated by the father of the slain activist Sofiur Rahman, the monument was destroyed on 26 February by police. On 25 February, industrial workers in the town of Narayanganj observed a general strike. A protest followed on 29 February whose participants faced severe police beating.
The government censored news reports and withheld exact casualty figures during the protests. Most pro-government media held Hindus and communists responsible for encouraging the disorder and student unrest. The families of Abul Barkat and Rafiq Uddin Ahmed tried to charge the police with murder, but the charges were dismissed by the police. On 8 April government report on the incidents failed to show any particular justification for police firings on the students. When the constituent assembly reconvened on 14 April, proceedings were stalled by members of the Muslim League when legislators from East Bengal sought to raise the language issue.
Although the Language Movement is considered to have laid the foundations for ethnic nationalism in many of the Bengalis of East Bengal and later East Pakistan, it also heightened the cultural animosity between the authorities of the two wings of Pakistan. In the western wing of the Dominion of Pakistan, the movement was seen as a sectional uprising against Pakistani national interests. The rejection of the "Urdu-only" policy was seen as a contravention of the Perso-Arabic culture of Muslims and the founding ideology of Pakistan, the two-nation theory. Some of the most powerful politicians from the western wing of Pakistan considered Urdu a product of Indian Islamic culture, but saw Bengali as a part of "Hinduized" Bengali culture. Most stood by the "Urdu only" policy because they believed that only a single language, one that was not indigenous to Pakistan, should serve as the national language. This kind of thinking also provoked considerable opposition in the western wing, wherein there existed several linguistic groups. As late as in 1967, military dictator Ayub Khan said, "East Bengal is ... still under considerable Hindu culture and influence."
The Awami Muslim League turned over to Bengali nationalism after the Movement, and shed the word "Muslim" from its name. The Language Movement inspired similar discontent in the western wing of Pakistan and provided momentum to ethnic nationalist parties. The political unrest in East Pakistan and rivalry between the central government and the United Front-led provincial government was one of the main factors culminating in the 1958 military coup by Ayub Khan.
The Shorbodolio Kendrio Rashtrobhasha Kormi Porishod, with support from the Awami Muslim League, decided to commemorate 21 February as Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs' Day). On the first anniversary of the protests, people across East Bengal wore black badges in solidarity with the victims. Most offices, banks and educational institutions were closed to observe the occasion. Student groups made agreements with college and police officials to preserve law and order. More than 100,000 people assembled at a public meeting held in Armanitola in Dhaka, where community leaders called for the immediate release of Maulana Bhashani and other political prisoners. However, West Pakistani politicians such as Fazlur Rahman aggravated sectional tensions by declaring that anyone who wanted Bengali to become an official language would be considered an "enemy of the state". Bengali students and civilians disobeyed the restrictions to celebrate the anniversary of the protests. Demonstrations broke out on the night of 21 February 1954 with various halls of the University of Dhaka raising black flags in mourning.
Political tensions came to a head as elections to the provincial assembly of East Bengal were held in 1954. The ruling Muslim League denounced the opposition United Front coalition, which—led by A. K. Fazlul Huq and the Awami League—wanted greater provincial autonomy. Several United Front leaders and activists were arrested. A meeting of parliament's Muslim League members, chaired by prime minister Muhammad Ali Bogra, resolved to give official recognition to Bengali. This decision was followed by a major wave of unrest as other ethnic groups sought recognition of other regional languages. Proponents of Urdu such as Maulvi Abdul Haq condemned any proposal to grant official status to Bengali. He led a rally of 100,000 people to protest against the Muslim League's decision. Consequently, the implementation failed and the United Front won a vast majority of seats in the legislative assembly, while the representation of the Muslim League was reduced to a historic low.
The United Front ministry ordered the creation of the Bangla Academy to promote, develop, and preserve Bengali language, literature, and heritage. However, the United Front rule was temporary, as Governor General Ghulam Muhammad cancelled the government and started Governor's rule on 30 May 1954. the United Front again formed the ministry on 6 June 1955 after the governor's regime ended. The Awami League did not participate in this ministry though.
Following the return of the United Front to power, the anniversary on 21 February 1956 was observed for the first time in a peaceful atmosphere. The Government supported a major project to construct a new Shaheed Minar. The session of the constituent assembly was stopped for five minutes to express condolence for the students slain in the police shootings. Major rallies were organised by Bengali leaders and all public offices and businesses remained closed.
On 7 May 1954, the constituent assembly resolved, with the Muslim League's support, to grant official status to Bengali. Bengali was recognised as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956, and article 214(1) of the constitution of Pakistan was reworded to "The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali."
However, the military government formed by Ayub Khan made attempts to re-establish Urdu as the sole national language. On 6 January 1959, the military regime issued an official statement and reinstated the official stance of supporting the 1956 constitution's policy of two state languages.
Although the question of official languages was settled by 1956, the military regime of Ayub Khan promoted the interests of West Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan. Despite forming the majority of the national population, the East Pakistani population continued to be under-represented in the civil and military services, and received a minority of state funding and other government help. This was mainly due to lack of representative government in the fledgling state. Mainly due to regional economic imbalances sectional divisions grew, and support for the Bengali ethnic nationalist Awami League, which invoked the 6-point movement for greater provincial autonomy. One demand was that East Pakistan be called Bangladesh (Land/Country of Bengal), which subsequently led to the Bangladesh Liberation War.
The Language Movement had a major cultural impact on Bengali society. It has inspired the development and celebration of the Bengali language, literature and culture. 21 February, celebrated as Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs' Day), is a major national holiday in Bangladesh. A month-long event called the Ekushey Book Fair is held every year to commemorate the movement. Ekushey Padak, one of the highest civilian awards in Bangladesh, is awarded annually in memory of the sacrifices of the movement. Songs such as Abdul Gaffar Choudhury's Ekusher Gaan, set to music by Shaheed Altaf Mahmud, as well as plays, works of art and poetry played a considerable role in rousing the people's emotions during the movement. Since the events of February 1952, poems, songs, novels, plays, films, cartoons and paintings were created to capture the movement from varied point of views. Notable artistic depictions include the poems Bornomala, Amar Dukhini Bornomala and February 1969 by Shamsur Rahman, the film Jibon Theke Neya by Zahir Raihan, the stage play Kobor by Munier Chowdhury and the novels Ekushey February by Raihan and Artonaad by Shawkat Osman.
Two years after the first monument was destroyed by the police, a new Shaheed Minar (Monument of Martyrs) was constructed in 1954 to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives. Work on a larger monument designed by the architect Hamidur Rahman began in 1957 with the support of the United Front ministry. Hamidur Rahman's model consisted of a large complex in the yard of the Dhaka Medical College Hostel. The design included a half-circular column symbolizing a mother with her martyred sons standing at the dais in the center of the monument. Although the imposition of martial law in 1958 interrupted the work, the monument was completed and inaugurated on 21 February 1963 by Abul Barkat's mother, Hasina Begum. Pakistani forces demolished the monument during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, but the Bangladeshi government reconstructed it in 1973. Ekushey Television, the first private terrestrial TV channel of Bangladesh was named after the Event of 21 February.
Bangladesh officially sent a proposal to UNESCO to declare 21 February as "International Mother Language Day". The proposal was supported unanimously at the 30th General Conference of UNESCO held on 17 November 1999.
Outside East Bengal, movement for equal status of Bengali also took place in the Indian state of Assam. On 19 May 1961, 11 Bengalis were killed in Police firing in Silchar Railway Station, Assam, while demanding state recognition of Bengali language. Subsequently, Bengali was given co-official status in the three Bengali-majority districts of Assam.