The sad history of International Mother Tongue Day

Published: February 21, 2011
The students were shot at by the police during a protest that had been a peaceful one.

The students were shot at by the police during a protest that had been a peaceful one.

KARACHI: Most Pakistanis are unaware that International Mother Tongue Day – observed on February 21 (today) – began as a commemoration of an incident that took place in 1952 on what was then Pakistani soil: the killing of four students in Dhaka by the police.

The students were protesting attempts to impose Urdu as the sole national language of Pakistan and were demanding the equal treatment of Bangla. They were shot at by the police during a protest that had been a peaceful one.

The events of February 21, 1952, were part of a broader movement by the people of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to gain recognition for the Bangla language as one of the national languages of Pakistan. Most felt that, as the majority of Pakistan’s population at the time was ethnically Bengali, the language should be given a greater degree of importance.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first governor-general of Pakistan had emphatically backed Urdu as the only national language of Pakistan.

Bengali political representatives demurred to Jinnah’s pronouncements but were never fully comfortable with it and began to press for recognition of Bengali as a national language.

With the appointment of the ethnically Bengali Khawaja Nazimuddin as governor-general after Jinnah, there was some hope that Bengali may find an advocate at the highest levels of government. So when Nazimuddin gave a speech in January 1952 unequivocally defending the “Urdu only” policy towards national language, it was seen as a deep betrayal by many Bengali intellectuals who had hoped for an acceptance of their demands.

A committee was formed on January 31, 1952, to lead protests in support of Bengali as the national language, under the leadership of Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani. A demonstration was announced for February 21, a date which would forever be etched in infamy in the history of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The government sought to suppress the protests by banning all gatherings of more than three people in Dhaka. When the students gathered at Dhaka University anyway, the police opened fire, killing four students and wounding many others. This only served to galvanise the protesters.

While the government of Pakistan eventually recognised Bangla as a national language in 1956, it was too little, too late.  The events of February 21, 1952 have been commemorated every year in Bangladesh.

In 1999, UNESCO recognised the day as a celebration of native languages and multilingualism in recognition of the Bengali language movement. It was formally adopted as a United Nations recognised day of celebration in 2008.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2011.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Paras Vikmani
    Feb 21, 2011 - 11:12AM

    how can anyone forget the brutal killings of bangladeshis at tht timeRecommend

  • fahim
    Feb 21, 2011 - 11:35AM

    Pak should never dare to even look at bangladesh again in future. We despise you all because of the brutalities you have done for decades and looting of our wealth. We are much better today being separated from you all and we are rising fast to regain our importance in global map. Inshallah, with the help of India and other secular democratic countries around, we will regain our honour and wealth. Bangla as a country, as a culture and language will rise again to riches. Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh
    Feb 21, 2011 - 2:11PM

    Jinnah died in 1948, even though he made a trip to Dhaka to persuade the Bengali leaders to adopt Urdu as their national language, it was actually Liaquat Ali Khan who was overly insistent on keeping only Urdu as the official national language of Pakistan and denounced any legitimacy towards Bengali. Urdu was a native language to only a tiny fraction of Pakistan’ population at the time, and I am guessing Liaquat Ali Khan’s resistance towards other languages was because, Urdu was his mother tongue. Recommend

  • abdul moiz
    Feb 21, 2011 - 2:21PM

    punjabi should be added to the list of the rapidly becoming extinct languages.

    In lahore now ,urdu is the most spoken language,same case in pindi,faisalabad.
    When a people start becoming ashamed of their own mother tongue & culture then that language cant be karachi too the punjabis are the only ones who dont speak their mother tongue while everyone else proudly speak theirs.Recommend

  • shanil bukhari
    Feb 21, 2011 - 2:28PM

    punjabi language is a thing of the past.The new generation of punjabis dont speak their mother tongue & have instead adopted urdu as their mother tongue.
    Everyone in punjab knows this,they should now officially declare urdu as the mother tongue of punjab.Recommend

  • arman chaudry
    Feb 21, 2011 - 2:53PM

    @abdul moiz:

    i’ve returned to pakistan after 20 years & i’ve notice this sad state of affairs.This is especially the case in karachi & lahore where the punjabis just don’t want to speak their mother tongue.

    The parents of these children have to take the blame as they were so busy & focused on teaching them english & urdu ,they neglected to teach their children their own mother tongue!!Recommend

  • arman chaudry
    Feb 21, 2011 - 2:57PM

    This is pretty much evident in the comparison of the number of punjabi languae tv channels or newspapers as compared to the number of newspapers & tv channels of the other provincial languages.

    punjab has the highest population but the lowest number of newspapers & tv channels.
    This is only because the pujabis have stopped having pride in their mother tongue.Recommend

  • Khalid Rahim
    Feb 21, 2011 - 5:41PM

    The late Agha Khan had suggested in 1946 that Arabic should be adopted as the national language for two reasons one being religion and second it would provide greater unity between
    all the provinces. After the 1950 crises there was suggestion to adopt the latin alphabets like
    Turkey and make it easier for both wings of the country to learn each other’s language. Not only
    that Liaqat Ali Khan refused to accept Bengali on equal terms with Urdu as national language
    he persuaded those who migrated from India not to go beyond the borders of Karachi and Hyderabad in order to establish his constituency. When Qaid e Azam came to know about this
    he was not only angry but refused to meet him when he was ill at Ziarat in 1948 before his death on September 11 1948. Once again in 1960 it was suggested to President Ayub Khan
    to adopt the latin system but he ignored it.Recommend

  • Uza Syed
    Feb 21, 2011 - 5:49PM

    No, hopefully, no one has forgotten that day. Wasn’t this the day an ideology killed and the country died, a country as we all had created together. A sad day, very sad indeed. A day to remind us all that people when pushed too hard, they decide to part their ways. A point to ponder for those who can think and care.Recommend

  • Ahmed Waheed
    Feb 21, 2011 - 9:49PM

    Being a Pakistani, I am actually ashamed of what Pakistan did in the 1970s to Bangladesh, to fellow Pakistanis, to fellow muslims – to fellow human beings.

    What is worse is that sad chapter of history has actually been removed from our history books, as if it never existed, owing to Zia’s islamo-fascist regime. What is even sadder is that islamo-fascist legacy lives on till today. While most countries progress to secularism (yes PROGRESS to secularism), we let religion run scot-free in our society.Recommend

  • Jamshed Huq
    Feb 22, 2011 - 11:11AM

    Nice article, but need to point out an error. Five students were killed. There’s stories in Bangladesh that more died, but well, these are hard to back up with facts.Recommend

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