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Kamala Bhattacharya: World’s first female language martyr

9 March, 2022 11:53:16
Kamala Bhattacharya: World’s first female language martyr

This 2-part series is a vivid account of how Bengali Language stood up against various atrocities and survived the test of time

TWe have not forgotten the language martyrs of February 21, 1952, when Dhaka University students launched a nationwide protest against Pakistan government’s decision to impose Urdu as the nation’s official language. What started off as a peaceful protest eventually turned violent, leading to mass killing by the police and later by the Pakistan military forces. The streets of Dhaka turned crimson with the blood of Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Rafiquddin Ahmad, Abdus Salam, Shafiur Rahman, and millions of Bengali-speaking students and youths who gave their lives for their mother language.

February 21, 1952 was a defining moment in the annals of history when brave young Bengalis sacrificed their lives for their mother language. But while we commemorate their invaluable contribution, Bengalis in other regions -- India's Barak valley and Manbhum -- have also lost their lives protesting assaults on their language.

Language, it is a known fact, is the Achilles' Hill wherever the process of building sub-nationality has veered around language apart from ethnicity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Bengalis have been at the forefront of anti-government revolutionary activities. The British government faced the most vigorous dissent from the erstwhile Bengal Presidency. As a result, the colonizers were wary of Bengalis and viewed them with suspicion. They masterminded the nefarious plan to sow the seeds of anti-Bengali sentiments in the rest of the Indian subcontinent. That is why West Pakistan was suspicious of the Bengali-speaking citizens of East Pakistan and wanted to curb their rights forcefully. 

Bengalis on both sides of the newly-formed nations were smarting under the painful nightmare of ‘Ekushey’ (February 21, 1952) and trying to eke out a living with the raw, gnawing sore still palpable when a similar incident occurred in Assam’s Barak Valley, forcing Bengalis to come out and demand the recognition of their mother tongue. 

Since the beginning of the 20th century, there was a surge of Assamese nationalism, and the Bengali-speaking community was viewed with paranoia. Anti-Bengali sentiments ran high among the Assamese middle class fuelled by economic factors. The persecution complex of   Bengali domination over Assam took a stronghold over the political rulers of the state and they took drastic steps on numerous occasions to curb participation of Bengalis in the socio-political and cultural sphere of the state. Anti-Bengali resentment was strongly witnessed soon after the Partition when a large number of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan fled their motherland and took shelter in bordering Assam. ‘Banga Kheda’ (Drive away Bengalis) campaign was initiated in the state and Bengali refugees were persecuted mercilessly, forcing many to flee to Barak Valley in Assam or West Bengal in search of safe refuge. 

Amid this turmoil, the then-Assam Chief Minister, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, and his Cabinet passed the Assam Official Language Act, 1960, which made the Assamese language the sole official language of the state. The atrocious Official Language Act was opposed widely by Bengali-speaking citizens of the state. The people of Cachar district went all out in protest against this Act since the provisions of the law would deprive them of their legitimate linguistic right. It was a mass upsurge and the sectarian Assam Government came down heavily on the democratic movement. The situation went to a grave pass when on 19 May 1961, police resorted to firing on unarmed Satyagrahis in Silchar Railway Station that left 11 people dead.

To be continued

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