The Spirit of Ekushey: Myth and Reality

Emergence of Bangladesh based on Bengali nationalism through massive liberation war has fulfilled the hardcore spirit of our language movement. This simplistic notion is popular among the common people as well as in the psyche of many of our intellectuals. The notion persists because in analysing the background of the Ekushey we have overemphasised the political and cultural aspects of our language movement. To uncover this myth centring the Ekushey and to appreciate its actual spirit which inspired the people of this region to take part in the language movement, we need to probe into the history of the creation of Pakistan in 1947 with a fresh outlook.

In British India, the Muslim League (ML) coined the Pakistan movement in 1940 through the Lahore Resolution (LR) and eventually popularised it among the Muslim majority regions of the then British India. Though the key ML Leader M A Jinnah advocated Two-Nation Theory, LR did not tarnish the very concept of ethnic and linguistic based nationality. In fact LR explicitly emphasised on region-based nationality (which implicitly supports the linguistically based nationality as in every region, people have a distinct language) over the religious nationalism as suggested in the so called Two-Nation Theory. The LR had also suggested separate independent states in the Muslim majority areas of India, perhaps with a loose confederation, following the concept of Pakistan. So, the LR did not confront with the modern theoretical framework of nation state and nationality. The two preconditions for this framework are a) a nation should have a territory and b) among the people of that region, there should be a common instrument of communication -- a language. These preconditions were fully reflected in LR.

Why the majority of the people in the then East Bengal participated in Pakistan movement is an interesting issue to be analysed. In this region, though the majority of the people are Muslims, historically they have been upholding and practising Bengali culture without any confrontation with the Islamic culture. The reason behind this lies in the way of preaching Islam which began in around the 14th century in this region. Most of the people who converted themselves into Muslims in the East Bengal were from the lower strata of the Hindu community and they were inspired by the ‘Peers’/’Aowalias’ who followed the Sufism, contrary to the orthodox view of the Islam. This Sufism stressed on a spiritual union with God and did not require its newest adherents to abandon their traditional beliefs and practice totally. So, the influence of the indigenous Bengali cultural practices is predominantly evident among the Muslim community in this region. For this, the majority of the Bengali Muslim maintain liberal outlook and traditionally believe in the principle of peaceful coexistence with other religious communities. Keeping this in the mind, we should discard the proposition that the Muslims of this country vigorously joined the Pakistan movement, being inspired by any sort of religious extremism.

If we analyse the socio-economic background of the majority population of the then East Bengal and their political affiliations objectively, we can appreciate the rationale of their involvement in Pakistan movement. During the British period, the majority of the people in this region were marginalised peasants and like other parts of India such marginalised people were oppressed by the Zaminder and business classes. But by chance, the majority members of these Zaminder and business classes were from Hindu community and they indiscriminately oppressed the peasant community and the victims of such oppression were mostly from among the Muslim community

Among the middle and lower classes of the Muslim community of this region, prior to 1937 election, ML had a little influence though it was founded in Dhaka. The ML at that time was, in fact, treated as a social club of Muslim aristocrats headed by the Nowab family of Dhaka. However, among the common people, Fazlul Huq’s Krishak Praja Party (KPP) had a special appeal as it promised to uphold the interest of the peasants and ordinary people of the society until the election of 1937. Even in the election of 1937, the popularity of the KPP was quite pronounced. In that election, though the Congress won a majority, yet it failed to win an absolute one. On the other hand, the KPP outnumbered the seats secured by the ML. However, after the election, some of the independent Muslim members along with some members, elected on the ticket of the KPP joined ML. This enabled the ML to form the Bengal Provincial government at that time.

However, as Fazlul Huq joined the Pakistan movement in 1940, the ML started to gain popularity among the common people. This got momentum before the election in 1946 when Khawaja Nazim-ud-din, a conservative and communal Muslim leader, was replaced from the central position of the Bengal ML by Abul Hashim, a progressive and pragmatic Bengali Muslim leader. Abul Hashim along with the liberal Muslim leader Shaheed Suhrawardy motivated the common Muslim people, who largely belonged to the peasant community by giving emphasis on their economic needs rather than instilling any feeling of communal conflicts. In fact, the religious ideology had no role in the 1946 electoral campaign and the subsequent Pakistan movement in the then East Bengal. In this region, the Pakistan movement indeed was aligned with the economic demands of the Bengal peasants and Abul Hashim prevented the common people from embracing communal slogans. The Muslim peasants’ immediate conflict was with traders and money lenders of whom the majority were from the Hindu community. Abul Hashim considered this issue as the economic problem and did not let it turn into a communal conflict. Due to successful campaign of Suhrawardy and Abul Hashim, the Bengal ML won a landslide victory in the provincial assembly.

Thus, in essence the common people of this region joined the Pakistan movement for their economic salvation and not for establishing any solely religion-based ideology.

However, at the advent of the partition in 1947, the powerful Dhaka Nawab family led by Khawaja Nazim-ud-din recaptured the steering position of the Bengal ML and sidelined Suhrawardy-Abul Hashim axis. Then, the vested rulers of the then Pakistan being deviated from the LR formed a single state instead of promised several sovereign states. This alienated the Bengali intelligentsia and they became vocal with a view to preserving the Bengali culture and tradition.

Immediately after the partition, the founder of Pakistan Jinnah, without realizing the consequence, declared Urdu as the state language of Pakistan. It may be noted that Urdu was not any major language of any province in the then Pakistan. But this was the common language of the Muslim feudal class and the majority of the ML leaders were from that class. Perhaps, Jinnah was biased towards these leaders and became adamant to establish Urdu as the state language. The Bengali educated class--intellectuals and students protested this initiative vehemently and took the lead role in popularising the language movement. In fact, during the 1952 language movement, not only the educated class but also the illiterate (85% of the people at that time) common people took active part in it. The reason behind participation of the educated class in the Language Movement was straightforward as they considered the imposition of Urdu on the Bengali people would be a serious blow to Bengali culture as well as the Bengali nationhood as a whole. But the large-scale participation of the illiterate people in the movement merits a careful attention in order to appreciate the real spirit of the Ekushey.

As we mentioned, at that time, the prime motivation for joining the Pakistan movement on part of the common people was to achieve economic salvation. But the newly emerged state of Pakistan utterly failed to fulfil the promises of the leaders of the ML which they pledged during the movement. After the partition, within a short time the common people became dissatisfied with the food policy, market prices of agriculture commodities, as well as the behaviour of the bureaucrats and the members of the law enforcing agencies. So, the basis of the large-scale participation of the common people in the language movement was a sort of protest to get the economic freedom which they had dreamt of during the Pakistan..movement.

The spirit of the Ekushey that grew was, thus, rooted in economics, political and cultural issues. Though these issues are interrelated, the economic aspect is the most crucial for the common people. But the prime goal of the Language Movement, as far as the common people were concerned, was their economic salvation. That is yet to be achieved.

Mohammad Anwarul Kabir.
[University academic, freelance writer and a poet.
He can be reached at kabiranwar@yahoo.com]


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