In 1947, India’s independence from British rule came at a steep cost. The country was divided on the basis of religions into India and Pakistan. The latter officially became a Muslim state, while the Indian constitution laid down secular foundations for the country’s people.
Pakistan found itself in a somewhat tricky situation. The country had two provinces—West and East, which were distanced not just by geography, but also by language and culture. East Pakistanis, who formed a majority of Pakistan’s populace, spoke Bangla as opposed to the Urdu spoken by the people of West Pakistan. The country’s government declared Urdu as the official language, even though the majority of people didn’t communicate in that language. In fact, it was even proposed that Bengali documents should be written in Arabic script. Understandably East Pakistanis weren’t amused at the idea. A movement, mainly spearheaded by students and supported by other members of the intelligentsia, gathered momentum. Sensing the magnitude of the simmering unrest, the government clamped down by declaring Section 144, under which all public meetings were deemed illegal.
When defying the ban, students of Dhaka University took out a peaceful procession on February 21, 1952, the police opened fire on them. Several students were killed. This only further infuriated the Bengali population, which culminated in the cessation of East Pakistan from the territory of Pakistan. In 1971, a new country, Bangladesh, was born. Bangla became its official language.
In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day.
Can I forget Ekushey February
Soaked in my brother’s blood?
Can I forget this February
Made of a thousand son-less mothers?
Can I forget the February
Coloured in the blood of my golden country?
~ Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury
(Translated by Bhaswati Ghosh)