Female protesters with placards, Bangladesh, 1952

Bangladesh’s Civil Resistance: The Case of 1952 Language Movement

The 1952 language movement oriented Bengali people towards nonviolent claim-making politics

Author: Md. Moynul Haque

If any country in the world can claim to have emerged against the backdrop of people power movements against dual coloniality it is Bangladesh. Immediately after breaking free from British colonial rule in 1947 what we now know as the partition of the Indian Subcontinent took place and the masses of erstwhile East Pakistan (current Bangladesh) were subjected to a new cycle of colonial type of domination introduced by new masters. A minority of political elites of West Pakistan unleashed discriminatory political projects against their fellow citizens living in a large number in the eastern part. The colonial attitude of West Pakistan towards East Pakistan was operationalized through language domination.

Bengali was the mother tongue of the people living in East Pakistan. The language represented Bengali people’s pride and a source of commonality, attachment, and belonging.  A nationalistic disposition of Bengaliness was felt strongly among the people, especially by the growing middle-class and urban-centric educated youth. Ignoring the East’s sentimental and emotional attachment with the language, the government based in West Pakistan declared Urdu to be the state language of Pakistan in 1948, which by implication was meant to sideline Bengali people from Pakistan’s mainstream politics, economy, and society. The then Dacca University-based intellectual community including teachers and students reacted against the arbitrary decision primarily through pamphlets and staging street demonstrations. Sporadic protest movements continued throughout the capital city Dhaka and other parts of the region. However, the climax of this event was in February 1952. By then, the language issue had become a priority political agenda of the people of East Pakistan and a principle catalyst of protest politics in undivided Pakistan.

Protest mobilization against the decision of introducing Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan.
Protest mobilization against the decision of introducing Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan. Source: https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/its-a-date-bhasha-andolon-dibos/cid/1807312

Arguably, Bangladesh’s history of civil resistance dates back to the black and white era of 1952, a time when civilians were under-privileged with modern means of protest technologies, skills, and knowledge. Yet, they showed utmost desire to be active in the political landscape through their expression of right-based claim-making politics. They came from different sections of the society collectively engaged in fateful protest events, representing the efficacy and potentials of Bangladeshi people to wage struggle against entrenched power holders. The language movement was the first-ever nonviolent conflict with multiple elements, dynamics, and challenges. One significant element that characterizes the movement was the leadership characterization. The movement was triggered off to streets predominantly by students and collectively attended by professors, lawyers, businessmen, the general public, rural peasants, workers, and day laborers. The different actor’s constellations eventually formed a movement coalition called All-Party Central Language Action Committee. The female participants were remarkable, testifying gender inclusivity in early protest movements in Bangladesh. The nonviolent tactics employed throughout the trajectory of the movement included sit-in, banner, poster, pamphlet, march, general strikes, homage at burial places, protest meetings, publications, vigils, administrative non-cooperation, etc. It corroborates Gene Sharp’s methods of nonviolent action that is founded on three modes of action: protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention.

Photo of 1952 Bangladeshi Civilian’s protest march
Civilian’s protest march. Photo Source: https://tinyurl.com/5ewh7pw8
Female protesters with placards, Bangladesh, 1952
Female protesters with placards. Photo Source: https://tinyurl.com/45eddszm

The 1952 Language Movement      

The nonviolent conflict of the 1952 language movement was fought between two parties: the aggrieved Bengali civilians and the aggressive power elites of West Pakistan. The movement turned out to be a bloody episode, as the peaceful protest of student-masses was seriously repressed by the security forces using a bullet and baton charge, resulting in injury and death of few students including Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, and Jabbar–who were posthumously declared the first martyrs of Bangladesh after the formation of the country.

The dynamics of the 1952 language movement can also be understood through the lens of the trifecta of civil resistance: unity, planning, and discipline. First, the Bengali people were united on the question of linguistic identity. The majority of the public in East Pakistan used Bangla as means of communication as well as official work. The decision to the expulsion of their mother tongue caused people aggrieved which eventually brought aggrieved people under one platform. Second, though the 1952 language movement did not follow any coherent planning, there was division in leadership among student organizations. Both the political elites and student activists sometimes agreed on major tactics and campaign procedures. Third, the protesters always tried to remain nonviolent. This was reflected in the way the students’  peacefully occupied the streets and paid little response to any provocation by the opponent. However, some incidence of violence was unavoidable.

As a result of the collective energy and efforts of Bengali civilians on the streets, the 1952 protest became successful. Bengali language was recognized as one of the state languages of Pakistan and approved by the new constitution in 1956.  The movement further proved to be inspirational for Bengali nationalists and is regarded as a stepping stone for Bengali civilians’ civil resistance for the independence movement in 1971.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Photo of Md. Movnul Haque

Md. Moynul Haque, a Bangladeshi by born. He holds bachelor and master’s degree in political science from the University of Dhaka. He has received prestigious German DAAD scholarships in 2013 and studied MA in Development and Governance at the Institute of Political Science, University of Duisburg-Essen. Currently, he is a doctoral researcher in Sociology at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology (BGHS), Bielefeld University, Germany. His PhD project looks into Bangladesh’s civil resistance with special attention to student protest activism. Back home he has been working as a faculty member at the Department of Political Science, Jagannath University, Dhaka since 2011.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

©2021 Centre for Social Change, Kathmandu