Published:  12:00 AM, 21 February 2017

From Language Movement to the War of Liberation

The Language Movement was a landmark in the history of Bangladesh which started as a cultural movement of the middle class as early as 1948 and quickly turned into a full-fledged political movement by 1952 with the outlook of secularism and common linguistic spirit which inspired people from all walks of life to participate in the war of liberation in 1971. This journey of national emancipation owes to the huge sacrifices of innumerable myrtyrs and we are indeed deeply indebted to them. Bangladesh is perhaps the only country in the world which was born as a logical consequence of the Language Move-ment. The Movement shaped up right after the independence of Pakistan due to deep frustration arising out of the discrimination faced by the people of East Pakistan from the Pakistani state. When the Language Movement reached its pinnacle in the form of Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971, it remained secular. People of Bangladesh of all faiths and of all ethnic groups took part in the independence movement. Surely, there was a close linkage between the two movements and the question of Bengali identity remained as a binding factor.

The Language Movement during 1948-1952 is widely known as a movement for Bengali as a state language of Pakistan. There are a number of documents on the impact of the Movement, particularly its linkage with politics and culture in that period in East Pakistan. 

It has been argued that the Language Movement flourished mainly due to the existing socio-economic discrimination in the then East Pakistan. The emerging middle class first felt the pinch of this discrimination as their aspirations, encompassing both economic and social aspects of their lives, were constrained. In fact, the leadership of the Language Movement and finally the independence movement originated from the middle class.

Language as a symbol of security

Language can play a vital role in unifying a diverse group of people. An 'ordinary' language may have an 'extra-ordinary' importance in shaping aspirations of the people for an identity which can lead to nationalism. Giddens (1983) has provided some important insights on the significance of a language. 

He believes that nationalism is mainly a psychological affair   it is related to people's desire and aspirations. People's mental state reacts in an extremely opposite direction due to economic exploitation of a society. Some habits and notions have been developed in the traditional society, classes or in the daily life. Giddens termed those as primordial sentiments. Therefore, an attack on the language is indeed an attack on the people's self-conceit and national spirit. People normally react sharply against such an attack and may even go for a mass uprising.

Language is related to production

Language is not only the medium of exchange of emotions among a group of people but also an important instrument for economic exchange. There is an intimate relationship between language and production. But people's deprivation from their medium of communication also implies isolation from the production process as well. People may think that their livelihood security has been threatened. Consequently, they start to revolt for ensuring their security. Language is therefore a medium of firm national convictions.    

Language and aspiration for a nation
Language is intimately related both to ideology and power. Language is very much a marker of the socio-economic class in a country. It is the key to the complex issues of the distribution of power between the different groups, the socio-economic classes and individuals inhabiting a country.

Community and multi-ethnic identity
Sen (2006) brings into sharp focus the illusion of a unique identity which only divides people and breeds violence.   
Be it religious or civilisational or community based, this unique identity challenges the cherished vision of "shared humanity" ignoring multiple identities around which the lives of most people are constructed and revolved. Sen observed, "We do belong to many different groups, in one way or another, and each of these collectivities can give a person a potentially important identity…. The singular affiliation view would be hard to justify … that any person belongs to one group and one group only". The easy option of understanding East Bengal population as only Muslims while ignoring their rich language-based culture and way of life   was the greatest mistake of the then West Pakistani rulers. At independence, East Pakistan's population comprised of 28 per cent Hindus, 1 per cent Christians, Buddhists and other religious groups, while the rest were Muslims. East Pakistan was therefore by its choice and necessity was compelled to construct a plural society. But from the very inception power at the centre was appropriated by an alliance of feudal elite, armed forces and bureaucracy which hardly cared about the ground reality prevailing in the eastern part.

 Pakistan, because of its geographical detachment had to play up the point of common religion as the basis of the nationhood which could bind the two parts of the country. However, soon after the creation of Pakistan, supposedly a homeland and sanctuary for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, Jinnah, its founder, downplayed the religious theme. Its primary expression was to make Urdu, the language of the Muslims of West Pakistan, the only state language of Pakistan. This certainly humiliated Bengalis in East Pakistan, as they not only had multi-ethnic identities but also a profound love for  their mother tongue, the factor cementing those identities. The movement for autonomy in the eastern part of Pakistan led to the emergence of Bengali nationalism, which underlined language rather than religion as the basis of nationhood. The failure of the ruling elites to understand multiple identities of the Bengalis resulted in overwhelming grievance in East Pakistan, which in turn led to the violent protests under the banner of the Language Movement.

Cultural and socio-economic deprivations
There were two streams of thoughts of Language Movement. First, the Movement was a cultural incidence of a limited space. This stream wanted to make Bengali as Pakistan's one of the state languages. Therefore, it was limited within the students and intellectual community. Second, the Movement was a struggle for national emancipation. The language was also a protest against the exploitation and discrimination against the Bengalis perpetrated by the Pakistani state. The second argument is mostly accepted by the researchers. The history of the Movement would not be comprehended fully if we perceive it only within the parameter of a cultural movement. We should look at the Movement from a wider angle covering social, political and economic perspectives.

Demographic origins of the Movement

The Language Movement started as a cultural protest and soon became rooted in the socio-economic and political ground as the Bengalis began to realise that the West Pakistani ruling class would not allow them to flourish economically and socially as they dreamt earlier. A socio-economic survey among 123 Bhasha Soinik (Language Fighters) reveals that among the 123 respondents, fathers of 35.77 per cent Language Fighters were farmers.
39.33 per cent fathers were service holders. Business was the occupation of the 17.07 per cent fathers. The rest were lawyers, physicians or other independent occupants. The participants as a whole were the offspring of educated fathers.
In 1952, about 9 per cent of these 81 families had land below 2.50 acres and about 62 per cent families had cultivable land ranging from around 2.50-25 acres. More than one-quarter (about 26 per cent) were the owners of land ranging from 2.50-100 acres. Only two families were landowners of more than 100 acres. Modern irrigation was not widely practiced at that time. High yielding crops had not started by then. Most of the land was uni-cropped. Upper-middle peasants were those with lard ranging from 10-25 acres. Rich peasants were those with land ranging from 25-100 acres. And finally, those having land of more than 100 acres belonged to jotetdar class. The representatives of the jotedar and the landless were quite insignificant among the participants. The significant representation came from the middle and rich peasant categories, as high as 87.64.

The above findings show that the participants of the Language Movement belonged to an emerging middle-class. Most of the participants came from a middle class background with strong rural linkages. Fathers of a significant number of the participants were farmers. The majority were students, politically active and settled in urban areas. The urban families where they came from also had strong links with agriculture. The participants, mostly from the emerging middle class had secular outlook. However, they were also aware of the deprivation of their parents by the earlier socio-economic domination of the Hindu ruling class. Despite the leadership originating from the educated middle class, the support for the Language Movement came from ordinary people including farmers and workers. This was indeed a broad-based movement.6  
War of liberation
The Bengali middle class visualised themselves as a distinctive nation after the episode of 21 February 1952, and events afterwards including the demand for recognition of Bengali as one of the state languages of Pakistan, by ascertaining their belongingness in a unique Bengali culture. The Movement thus started as a cultural movement of the conscious middle class, and quickly turned into a political matter with the outlook of secularism and common linguistic spirit. Bengali nationalism and its construction based on language remained integrated, secular and humanistic in nature that shaped nationalism of the Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan. The participants of the Language Movement graduated into secular, democratic and effective leaders of the Bengali nationalist movement who indeed led the war of liberation in 1971 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In other words, not only was there was an organic link between the participants of the Language Movement and the war of liberation, but their aspiration for freedom was also similar in content and form. The nationalistic movement of Bengalis which gained strong ground in the sixties culminated into the war of liberation in 1971 when the occupying forces were defeated by the Bengali freedom fighters with the support of the friendly Indian forces. This Movement was indeed secularist in nature and drew vigour from a strong cultural heritage created by Bengali literary and cultural leaders including Rabrinath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam.


The disintegration of united Pakistan through the creation of Bangladesh, which was broadly inspired by the Language Movement, was unsurprising. However, the way in which Bangladesh was born is unique to South Asia. The Pakistan army had to be defeated physically in 1971 to establish the new state. The birth of Bangladesh resolved the dichotomy between religion and habitat, and between extra-territorial and territorial loyalties by recognising both aspects as a reality in the life of the new nation. Today's Bangladesh, despite facing many political problems, continues to draw inspiration from its strong cultural heritage and the Language Movement always emerges as a central platform from which other subsequent socio-political and cultural movements originated. These aspirations for freedom of all kinds make us optimistic about a more inclusive and vibrant Bangladesh which is destined to become a developed country by the middle of this country. For this to happen we ought to remain faithful to the dreams of our valient freedom fighters who also drew inspiration from the spirit of Language Movement.

The writer is Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank

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