Bangladesh: Bengali Language Movement



Background preceding the Movement

The Bengali language movement Bhasha Andolon

Contributors to the movement

Personal experience

Celebrating Ekushe February
(21st February)

A brief account of post-language movement

Declaration ofInternational Mother Language Day

About the Bengali language and the Bangladesh National Anthem with translation


Contact me

The Bengali language movement Bhasha Andolon

Personal stories

Celebrating Ekushe February
(21st February)

A brief account of post-language movement

Important people from the time of the movement

Photo stories

About the Bengali language

The Bangladesh National Anthem with translation

Contact me



~"Bhasha Andolon":
Mutiny for the sake of language~



The Mutiny




After the partition of India in 1947 and the establishment of the Dominion of Pakistan, East Pakistan was formed made up 44 million of the newly formed Bengali-speaking people out of Pakistan's 69 million people. Pakistan's government, civil services, and military, however, were dominated by West Pakistanis. In 1947, a key resolution at a national education summit in Karachi advocated Urdu as the sole state language, and its exclusive use in the media and in schools. Opposition and protests immediately arose. Students from Dhaka rallied under the leadership of Abul Kashem, the secretary of Tamaddun Majlish, a Bengali Islamic cultural organisation. The meeting stipulated Bengali as an official language of Pakistan and as a medium of education in East Pakistan. However, the Pakistan Public Service Commission removed Bengali from the list of approved subjects, as well as from currency notes and stamps. The central education minister Fazlur Rahman made extensive preparations to make Urdu the only state language of Pakistan. Public outrage spread, and a large number of Bengali students met on the University of Dhaka campus on 8 December 1947 to formally demand that Bengali be made an official language. To promote their cause, Bengali students organised processions and rallies in Dhaka.

A little before 1947, Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, a former Vice-Chancellor of Aligarh University of India had suggested that Urdu be the state language of the future Pakistan.  In opposition, Dr. M. Shahidullah, a noted Bengali linguist of the time from Dhaka University put forward the argument:

Urdu or Hindi instead of Bengali is used in our law courts and universities that would be tantamount to political slavery.
l,lvlkl gggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggg(Shahidullah 1947: 34-37)

Dr. Shahidullah’s comment was the beginning of the language controversy of Pakistan and the Bengali Language Movement.       

As soon as the Dominion of Pakistan came into being, Tamuddun Majlis[1], a cultural society( an organization by scholars, writers and journalists oriented towards Islamic ideology)published a booklet in Dhaka, the capital city of the province of East Bengal or East Pakistan on 15th September 1947 titled “Pakistaner Rashtro Bhasha Bangla na Urdu?” (Is Pakistan’s State Language Bengali or is it Urdu?). In it was put forward:

  1. Bengali language shall be the following:
                1. Medium of instruction in East Pakistan
                2. Medium of court communication
                3. Medium of office communication
  2. The language of the Central Government shall be both Urdu and Bengali (Mazlis 1947: 1-2)

On the 5th of December, 1947, teachers and students of Dhaka University held their first demonstration arguing for their linguistic rights as majority part of the nation of Pakistan. However, on the following day, another protest meeting was held in Dhaka University against the government-sponsored Education Conference in Karachi, West Pakistan which recommended that Urdu shall be the state language. As a consequence, the “Rashtra Bhasha Sangram Parishad”(Bengali for “the state language committee of action”). The committee aggressively protested the exclusion of Bengali from postal stamps, newly-issued money, coins, and office forms of the Government of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the West Pakistani leaders who practically controlled the Central Government of Pakistan, ignored the deep-rooted sentiments of the Bengalis and did not allot the rightful place for Bengali in the state affairs. On the second session of the Constituent  Assembly of Pakistan held on 25th of February 1948 Mr. Dhirendra Nath Dutta, a member from East Pakistan, moved an amendment on the rules of procedure of the Assembly. The resolution moved to make Bengali a language of the Constituent Assembly along with Urdu and English. Speaking on the amendment, Mr. Dutta told the house:

Bengali is a provincial language but so far as the state is concerned, it is the language of the majority of the people of the state…..out of the sixty-nine million people in Pakistan, forty-four million of the people speak the Bengali language…The state language of the state should be the language which is used by the majority of the people of the state, and for that, I consider that the Bengali language is the lingua franca of our state….I am voicing the sentiments of the vast million of our state, and therefore Bengali should not be treated as a provincial language. It should be treated as a language of the state.
(Constitutional Assembly of Pakistan Proceedings 1948: 15-16)

Strong opposition by Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister, and others led to its rejection on the first day of  its session. The Prime Minister’s argument was as follows:

Pakistan has been created on the demands of a hundred million Muslims in the sub-continent and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu…Pakistan is a Muslim state and it must have for its lingua franca, the language of the Muslim nation. [2]

(Constitutional Assembly of Pakistan Proceedings 1948: 17)

This started an explosion of anger in the East.  Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s argument was emotional and fallacious in that the hundred millions of Muslims  in undivided India were never a mono-lingual or Urdu-speaking community. Indian Muslims were historically multi-lingual and the Bengali muslims have always outnumbered the Muslims of the other parts of (British) India,” describes member of Press Council of India and author Hiranmay Karlekar. Students of Dhaka University observed a protest on the 26th February, 1948 and an “All Party State Language Committee” was formed. The party scheduled a protest on 11th March. The government however took recourse. As a result, the police used tear gas and lathis (large sticks) and injured hundreds of people. Nearly a thousand people were imprisoned.  Jinnah later visited East Pakistan from 19 to 24 March 1948, during which he reiterated his stand that Urdu would be Pakistan’s sole state language and warned Bengalis about the activities of “subversive elements” out to destroy Pakistan. These comments fueled enormous anger and resentment in the hearts of the Bengalis of East Pakistan.

Despite police action, the protests continued unabated until Khawaja Nasimuddin, chief minister of East Bengal signed an eight-point agreement with the committee. Immediately after signing did Jinnah come to visit Dhaka and on 21st March he issued the following:

Let me make it very clear to you that the state language of Pakistan will be Urdu and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is really the enemy of Pakistan. Without one language, no nation can remain solidly tied together and function. Look at the history of other countries. Therefore, so far as the state language is concerned, Pakistan’s shall be Urdu
(Jinnah 1948: 89).

However Jinnah’s emphatic support only called upon further protests and then a memorandum was submitted by the committee demanding once more that Bengali be one of the state language, but to no avail. Khawaja Nasimuddin too, contrary to his erstwhile support for the eight-point plan he had signed with the committee, moved the following resolutions in the East Bengal legislative assembly on the 8th of April, 1948:

  1. Bengali shall be adopted as the official language for replacing English in the province of East Bengal; and it will be implemented as soon as the practical difficulties are resolved; and

  2. The medium of instruction in educational instructions in East Bengal shall, as far as possible, be Bengali, or the mother tongue of the majority of scholars in the institutions (East Bengal Legislative Assembly Proceedings 1948:165).

The resolutions, adopted by the East Bengal legislative assembly however only aggravated the situation, as the compromised version fell largely short of the normal expectations of the Bengali people. Dr. Shahidullah reacted against the resolution at the first Bengali literary conference of East Bengal held at Dhaka on December, 1948. To quote:

It is true that there are Hindus and Muslims. But what is transcending is that they are in essence Bengali. This is a reality. Nature with her own hand has stamped the indelible mark of Bengali in such a manner on our appearance and language that it is no longer possible to conceal it

(Shahidullah 1949).

Shahidullah captured the ethnic and cultural distinction of the Bengali-speaking people of Pakistan. But this fact was adamantly ignored the reality, especially the fact that Pakistan was a multi-lingual state.

Instead of taking steps to quell the anger, the Pakistani government moved to edit the style and diction of the Bengali language by publishing a report in 1950 saying that Sanskrit words from Bengali were to be strictly avoided and Urdu, Arabic or Persian words were to be replaced with them. But Bengali like other Indo-Aryan languages had assimilated large numbers of Sanskrit or old Indo-Aryan words in the course of its thousand years of evolution and it would be impossible now to undo this historical process. The East Bengal language committee also suggested drastic modifications of the Bengali writing system and issued a model chart as a guide. The most important part of the Committee’s recommendation is:

It is true that Urdu can be studied as a second language in the secondary and higher stage of our education in order that we may make the linguistic, social, political and cultural bonds between the two wings of Pakistan closer and deeper

(East Bengal Language Committee Report 1949:102-03)

Needless to add, the report was jettisoned by the linguistic scholars and Bengali intelligentsia.

The Mutiny

"The news of the killing spread like wildfire throughout the city and people rushed in thousands towards the Medical College premises."
- Talukder Maniruzzaman,
Author The Bangladesh Revolution and its Aftermath

Pakistan was burgeoned by political, ideological, economical and constitutional problems and had been worsening ever since its birth. As the year 1951 progressed, Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated on 16 October 1951 and Khawaja Nazimuddin was appointed Prime Minister, but the problems in the air only got worse. Amidst all the tension, as 1952 came, the Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Khawaja Nazimuddin again declared at the Dhaka session of the ruling Muslim League party on the 26th of January, 1952 that “Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan.” 

On January 30, 1952 a secret  meeting was called by the Awami League, which was attended by a number of communist front as well as other organizations, it is agreed that the language agitation cannot be successfully carried by the students alone. To mobilize full political and student support, it was decided that the leadership of the movement should be assumed by the Awami League under  Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani [3]. Bhashani supervised over an all-party convention in Dhaka. The convention was attended by prominent leaders like Abul Hashim and Hamidul Haq Choudhury. A broad-based All-Party Committee of Action (APCA) was constituted with Kazi Golam Mahboob as Convener and Maulana Bhashani as its Chairman, and with two representatives from the Awami League, Students League, Youth League, Khilafate-Rabbani Party, and the Dhaka University State Language Committee of Action.

Throughout February the committee held protest meetings. However on February 20th, an order under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code prohibiting processions and meetings in Dhaka city was promulgated. As a result an enormous strike erupted on February 21st. At noon, a meeting was held in the campus of Dhaka University. Students unified to defy the official ban imposed by the administration hence processions were taken out to stage a demonstration in front of the Provincial Assembly.  What followed was a reign of terror but the language movement did not stop. The police and para-military forces started wide-spread tear gas shelling , clubbing then finally shooting the students as they retaliated by batting bricks. The ensuing riot spread to the nearby campuses of the Medical and Engineering colleges. Hundreds were injured, thousands were arrested.  At around 4p.m. the police opened fire in front of the Medical College hostel. Five people- Mohammad Salauddin, Abdul Jabbar, Abul Barkat, Rafiquddin Ahmed and Abdus Salam- were killed, the first three being students of Dhaka University.
Inside the assembly which was holding a meeting then, six opposition members pressed for the adjournment of the House and demanded an inquiry into the incidents. But Chief Minister Nurul Amin urged the House to proceed with the planned agenda for the day. At this, all the opposition members of the Assembly simply walked out in protest.  A martyr’s column was immediately raised and the Shaheed Minar  (martyr’s monument) was built on the spot where the first student was slain each student killed were declared martyrs as they had laid down their lives for their beloved mother tongue.

After continued unrest and widespread protests, eventually on 7th May 1954, the constituent assembly resolved with the Muslim League's support to grant official status to Bengali. Thus Bengali came to be recognized as the second official language of Pakistan on 29 February 1956, and article 214(1) of the constitution of Pakistan was reworded to "The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali."On December 3, 1955, a national language-research institute- The Bangla Academy, was established. When the Awami League government came to power in 1956, Chief Minister of East Pakistan Ataur Rahman Khan requested Chief Engineer Jabbar and Zainul Abedin to ask famous architect Hamidur Rahman to prepare a plan for a Shaheed Minar. Hamidur Rahman's design provided for stained glass to be used in the columns on which a pattern of hundreds of eyes were to be incorporated through which the sunlight would glow. The floor was to be of marble, so as to show up, or reflect, the moving shadows of the columns as the sun crossed the sky, thus creating a mobile drama of geometric lines and colour from the stained glass. He had thought of inclusion of blood-stained footsteps of the "Shaheeds" (Martyrs) and outsize foot­prints in black of the aggressor, on the marble. He had kept provision for a clock tower and a well-stocked research library. In the basement gallery of the Minar, he had designed 1,500 sq. ft. of fresco depicting the scenes of the Language Movement, which was in fact one of his masterpieces.

However, the military government formed by Ayub Khan made attempts to re-establish Urdu as the sole national language. On 6 January 1959, the military regime issued an official statement and reinstated the official stance of supporting the 1956 constitution's policy of two state languages
“Ekushe February” or “21st February” became the red letter day to the Bengalis all over the world. From 1952 onwards the Bengalis of Pakistan drew their inspiration from the sacrifices of the 21st February in all their subsequent struggles. It is interesting that 21st February had in fact, shaped the destiny of East Pakistan and is now considered that the freedom movement of Bangladesh owed its origins from that date.

Today Bengali is the national and official language of Bangladesh .






[1]The Secretary of the Majlis, at that time a Professor of Physics in Dhaka University, [Abul Kashem] was the first person to convene a literary meeting to discuss the State Language issue in the Fazlul Huq Muslim Hall, a student residence of Dhaka University. Supporters and sympathizers soon afterwards formed a political party, the Khilafate-Rabbani Party with Abul Hasim as the Chairman.

[2]A language reform movement initiated by Muslim poets (Hatim, Mirza Mazhar, Nasikh’s students etc) threw out certain words from the corpus of the language. Among them were words like chinta (worry), prem (love), sundar (beautiful) etc. The movement was actually an attempt to create a linguistic marker for the cultural elite which was mostly Muslim. However, instead of being merely a class movement it became a religious one. Thus, Urdu was imbued with distinctive Perso-Arabic cultural content and served as an identity symbol for the Muslims of India.
                -Dr Tariq Rahman (National Professor & Director National Institute of Pakistan Studies ,Quaid-i-Aza, University, Islamabad, Pakistan)   

A popular political leader in the Pakistan. He was one of the founding members and President of the Pakistan Awami Muslim League which later became Awami League (AL).