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Ekushey: the shootings . . . and after

Syed Badrul Ahsan | February 21, 2022 00:00:00

Students gathering at the then Arts Building compound of Dhaka University on February 21, 1952 `— Photo: Rafiqul Islam

On February 21 in 1952, tragedy struck Dhaka, indeed the whole of East Bengal, when the police fired on the student demonstrators gathered in defence of the Bangla language on the campus of Dhaka University

The next day, 22 February, a total strike was observed in Dhaka in protest against the killings of the previous day. A particular aspect of the day was the strike resorted to by railway workers in Dhaka and Narayanganj. The shootings of February 21 caused a wave of shock all over the province, with the provincial government as well as the central authorities coming in for severe criticism from all quarters. The vice chancellor of Dhaka University was emphatic in his view that there had not been any provocation of the kind that necessitated such brutal action by the police.

A meeting of the Dhaka High Court Bar Association, presided over by Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Huq, severely criticised the police action. Devotees at mosques offered special prayers for those killed on 21 February. At the janaza of the martyrs, thousands of people, including Sher-e-Bangla and the veteran politician Abul Hashim, took part. Doctors and staff at Dhaka Medical College met in a session and roundly denounced the police action.

Angry citizens, furious at the motivated reporting of the students' movement by the Morning News newspaper, burnt its office down. The newspaper had been trying to peddle false reports that the language agitation had been the doing of Indians and communists. It even committed the outrage of reporting that a large number of dhotis had been found in the city.

The attire, generally worn by Hindus, had not been seen by anyone else, which was a clear indication of the communal colour the authorities were trying to give the movement through the Morning News. When the provincial legislative assembly met in session on the day, 22 February, Abdur Rashid Tarkabagish and Khairat Hossain moved an adjournment motion on the incidents of the previous day.

Khairat Hossain and Ali Ahmed Khan asked that the assembly adopt condolence motions on the deaths of the students in police firing. However, Chief Minister Nurul Amin resolutely opposed the motions. In any case, the motions were defeated as they were unable to obtain the necessary number of votes.

The chief minister then tabled a resolution recommending that Bangla be adopted as the state language of Pakistan. He noted that the case for Bangla was supported by the government of Pakistan. Additionally, he asserted that on February 21, the students had been wrong to violate Section 144, an act that had provoked the shootings.

The resolution which Chief Minister Nurul Amin placed before the assembly on February 22 was shockingly devoid of any expression of condolence for those killed a day earlier. Neither was there any indication in it of any planned investigation of the incidents by the government. The resolution was passed by an acquiescent assembly, quite naturally, because it was dominated by members belonging to the ruling Muslim League.

Students at various educational institutions lowered the national flag to half-mast in memory of those killed in police firing and held demonstrations at several places in Dhaka. For its part, the government, through press statements, remained intent trying to demonise the students. As a press note by the authorities reported:

'On the Nawabpur Road another unruly crowd overpowered the police officers in charge of the forces … Since it would not disperse, firing was resorted to in order to disperse it. A lathi charge was also made in the university area.'

The authorities went to every extent possible to paint the students in dark colours. They even reported, falsely, that Hasan Ali, the minister for communications, had been injured as a result of student violence.

The strike called in the province went beyond February 22 and well into 23 February. Shops stayed closed and no vehicles were seen on the streets of Dhaka. Railway workers stayed away from work, which meant that trains did not leave Dhaka or enter it. Clashes between citizens and the police were reported from various parts of the city.

Despite a heavy presence of police and soldiers on the streets, thousands of Bengalis poured out to condemn the government over the killings of February 21. Women students of Dhaka University, besides their male fellow students, came together to denounce what they called the barbaric act of the government. Overall, the students demanded the resignation of the chief minister.

As February 23 drew to a close, the Tamaddun Majlis issued a statement severely criticising the action of the government. It resolved to continue the struggle for Bangla as the language of the state. Condemnations of the police firing also came from the Alia Madrasah, Islamic Brotherhood, Dhaka Traders Association and other organisations. Interestingly, a fairly good number of organisations in West Pakistan stepped into the scene with their criticism of the government action of February 21.

On February 23, 1952, the Karachi-based newspaper Dawn, in a long editorial on the tragedy of 21 February, had this to say in substance: 'All Pakistan will grieve and our enemies will derive comfort and cheer from the tragic happenings at Dacca. First and foremost we offer homage to those who have paid the forfeit of their lives in the conflict between their convictions on the one hand, and the principle that law and order shall be maintained, on the other hand….But every dark cloud has a silver lining and out of these grievous happenings has emerged the final knowledge of how deeply our people and our kith and kin in East Pakistan feel on the language issue. . . We can assure the people of East Pakistan that the people of West Pakistan will not grudge them the equality with Urdu which Bengali has at last won.'

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and political analyst.

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